Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

Alan Houston
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement
    Book Description:

    This fascinating book explores Benjamin Franklin's social and political thought. Although Franklin is often considered "the first American," his intellectual world was cosmopolitan. An active participant in eighteenth-century Atlantic debates over the modern commercial republic, Franklin combined abstract analyses with practical proposals. Houston treats Franklin as shrewd, creative, and engaged-a lively thinker who joined both learned controversies and political conflicts at home and abroad.

    Drawing on meticulous archival research, Houston examines such tantalizing themes as trade and commerce, voluntary associations and civic militias, population growth and immigration policy, political union and electoral institutions, freedom and slavery. In each case, he shows how Franklin urged the improvement of self and society.

    Engagingly written and richly illustrated, this book provides a compelling portrait of Franklin, a fresh perspective on American identity, and a vital account of what it means to be practical.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15239-5
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Author’s Note
    (pp. ix-xi)
  5. Map of Philadelphia by Nicholas Scull and George Heap, 1752
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Map of British North America, c. 1750
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  7. Map of the British Atlantic World, c. 1763
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 1-21)

    Who was Benjamin Franklin? There were so many facets to his life that even his contemporaries could not agree. To Europeans he was a dazzling scientist and brilliant statesman, the man who “snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.” To political opponents in Pennsylvania he was a “demagogue” with an “almost insatiable ambition.” To fellow revolutionary John Adams, by contrast, he was a man who “loves his ease” and “hates to offend.” Was Franklin a modern Prometheus? A Machiavellian schemer? Or a cagy operator whose life was “a scene of continual dissipation”?¹

    The bare facts are well...

  9. 1. Commerce
    (pp. 22-59)

    Benjamin Franklin had a money problem. In the spring of 1726, after eighteen eventful months, he had “grown tired of London.” Having reached the age of twenty, he longed to return to Pennsylvania. He had a career waiting for him, as clerk to the Philadelphia merchant Thomas Denham. The starting salary was modest, just £50 a year, but colonial trade was on the upswing, and his prospects for improvement were excellent. There was just one problem: he did not have enough money to pay for his passage home.¹

    “A penny saved is a penny got,” but Franklin was having difficulty...

  10. 2. Association
    (pp. 60-105)

    In the summer of 1747 privateers entered Delaware Bay. No one was certain whether they were Spanish or French. But their “boldness” was indisputable, and it was only a matter of time before they reached Philadelphia.¹ Anxious colonists appealed to the Assembly for protection. But the Assembly was dominated by Quakers, and as a matter of principle Quakers refused to mobilize for war. The colony was without defense. By fall the situation seemed desperate. After consulting key friends, Franklin took the initiative. “Protection is as truly due from the Government to the People, as Obedience from the People to the...

  11. 3. Population
    (pp. 106-146)

    Miss Polly Baker was slightly flustered, and more than a little indignant. For the fifth time she had been “dragged” before a Connecticut court “for having a Bastard Child.” Twice, in accordance with the law, she had been fined; twice more, she had been punished. But the law itself was unreasonable. How could having children be a crime? “Abstracted from the Law, I cannot conceive (may it please your Honors) what the Nature of my Offence is. I have brought Five fine Children into the World, at the Risk of my Life; I have maintained them well by my own...

  12. 4. Union
    (pp. 147-199)

    On 12 September 1787 the Committee of Style submitted a “revised and arranged” draft of the U.S. Constitution to the Philadelphia convention. Three arduous months of compromise and negotiation were coming to a close. All that remained was to review the draft, line by line, to ensure that it accurately reflected decisions taken over the course of the summer. Members were eager to finish, impatient of delay. But they recognized the importance of the task before them. As draftsmen, they knew that seemingly small matters—the choice of a word, the placement of a semicolon—could alter the meaning of...

  13. 5. Slavery
    (pp. 200-216)

    Benjamin Franklin enacted the paradox of American slavery in his own life. In June 1776 the Continental Congress took up a resolution stating that the “United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Final vote was scheduled for early July; in the meantime, a committee was appointed to write a declaration justifying this momentous step. Thomas Jefferson composed the first draft. On 21 June he asked Franklin if he would “be so good as to peruse it and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate.” Franklin’s most memorable change...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 217-224)

    In February 1787 Franklin presided over the creation of the Society for Political Enquiries. He was eighty-one years old; it was to be his final act of association. War with England had been won, and new governments had been formed. But the nation had achieved only “partial independence.” The “fetters of foreign power” had been broken, but “the influence of foreign prejudices” remained, embedded in laws, opinions, and manners that originated in the “ancient and corrupted monarchies” of Europe. New “maxims of policy” were needed for a “situation” itself quite new. To date, however, the “associated labors of learned and...

  15. Appendix: Franklin and Weber
    (pp. 225-230)
  16. Chronology
    (pp. 231-234)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 235-306)
  18. Glossary of Names
    (pp. 307-312)
  19. Index
    (pp. 313-321)