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Not Your Usual Founding Father

Not Your Usual Founding Father: Selected Readings from Benjamin Franklin

Edited by Edmund S. Morgan
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Not Your Usual Founding Father
    Book Description:

    This engaging book reveals Benjamin Franklin's human side-his tastes and habits, his enthusiasms, and his devotion to democracy and the people of the United States. Three hundred years after his birth, we may remember Franklin's famousAutobiography, or his status as framer of the Declaration of Independence and the peace with Great Britain, or his experiments in electricity, or perhaps his sage advice on diligence and thrift. But historian Edmund S. Morgan invites us to meet the man himself, a sociable, good-natured, and extraordinary human being with boundless curiosity about the natural world and a vision of what America could be.Drawing on lifelong research in the vast Franklin archives, Morgan assembles both famous and lesser-known writings that offer insights into this founding father's thinking. The book is organized around four major themes, each with an introduction. The first section includes journal excerpts and letters revealing Franklin's personal tastes and habits. The second is devoted to Franklin's inexhaustible intellectual energy and his scientific discoveries. The third and fourth chronicle his devotion to serving the people who became the United States both before and after the Revolution and to advancing his democratic vision of their future. Franklin's humanity and genius have never seemed more real than in the pages of this appealing anthology.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13501-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface.
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. PART I The man.

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 1-4)

      In theAutobiographyFranklin told his son and the world what he wanted them to think about him. Some years before he wrote it, he said in one of the almanacs he published in Philadelphia, “Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly.” I think he followed that injunction in theAutobiography.In his other writings, he seldom talks about himself at all, but we can catch him unawares. We can discover him in what he did talk about, in what he said and how he said it on whatever was engaging him at the moment—what...

    • 1 The young man and the old man.
      (pp. 5-24)

      We begin with some passages from the journal Franklin kept for a few weeks on a long sea voyage when he was just twenty years old. It is almost the only thing we have, from all his surviving papers, in which he talks to himself about himself. A lot of it, like most of the personal journals of the time, is about wind and weather, and I have included some of those entries just to give a sense of the whole. But other entries include thoughts about a variety of matters that are echoed in his later life. It is...

    • 2 Friendship and flirtation.
      (pp. 25-44)

      Most of Franklin’s correspondence was with other men and had to do with his business interests or his political and intellectual pursuits. There are, unfortunately, few letters as chatty as the one he wrote George Whately, whose conversational style gives a sense of what it would have been like to spend time with Franklin. It also suggests in the first paragraph what he deliberately tried to avoid in himself and in the company he kept. He had a lifelong aversion to babblers, people who talked too much with too little to say, and he always strove to avoid babbling himself....

    • 3 The uses of laughter.
      (pp. 45-57)

      Flirtation, like flattery, is a mode of exaggeration. In Franklin exaggeration spoke to a special talent of his for imaginative and humorous inflation resulting in deflation. It comes out so often in his writing that we have to count it as part of his character or personality, something that he used to make people smile, to laugh away disagreements, and to make light of the pretensions of human beings, himself included. We have seen it in his “Rules for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion.” He could employ humor, as we shall see, for more serious purposes, but he could also...

    • 4 Religion.
      (pp. 58-66)

      We have been approaching our subject somewhat obliquely, letting the reader infer the man from what he said and how he said it to other people (in letters and in print), and in what he said to himself in the journal of his transatlantic crossing. We have been trying to take him unawares, to catch him in unguarded moments, as well as in his attempts to make people laugh with him at human follies. Before turning to the extraordinary things he did as a scientist and statesman, we should let him speak directly to a profound question he had to...

  5. PART II Nature Observed.

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 67-70)

      Curiosity has always been the engine of scientific discovery, as of all intellectual progress. When Franklin was born, in 1706, the world as we know it had scarcely begun to reveal its secrets to curious eyes. It had been established that the world was a globe and that it revolved, like other planets, around the sun. The great Isaac Newton had formulated the laws of motion that governed its movements. But people still commonly thought in terms of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, that the ancients had identified as what the world was made of. It was...

    • 5 Sickness and health.
      (pp. 71-78)

      We begin with some of Franklin’s experiences with his own body, a strong, athletic one in his youth, an overweight one by middle age, and troubled with psoriasis, gout, and painful, crippling kidney or bladder stones in old age. He never conquered these afflictions, but in an age that had not yet discovered the germ theory of disease, his experience of the common cold led him to discard the folk wisdom about it that still prevails. At the same time he discarded his contemporaries’ strange aversion to fresh air. In 1773 he was considering writing a pamphlet on the causes...

    • 6 Wind, weather, and air.
      (pp. 79-95)

      Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. And nobody can, but Franklin did what he could to make sense of it. The letter to his friend Jared Eliot, a learned Connecticut farmer who shared his curiosity about the world, is my favorite example of the way Franklin discovered things that people had had before their eyes for centuries without asking questions about them. Northeast storms were a familiar thing to Americans living near the Atlantic coast, but Franklin was probably the first to determine that, contrary to commonsense assumptions, they did not originate in the northeast....

    • 7 Ships and the sea.
      (pp. 96-111)

      During his lifetime Franklin made eight transatlantic voyages. On the last one, returning from France to Philadelphia in 1785, he evidently spent much of his time writing at a desk in his cabin. In Paris he had begun a letter to a friend, Julien-David LeRoy, about possible improvements in the rigging of ships, a subject that the two had discussed. At sea Franklin continued the letter until it turned into a lengthy discursive treatise on everything that had occurred to him over the years about ships and the sea. Sailors, he knew, “have a little repugnance to the advice of...

    • 8 Electric fire.
      (pp. 112-131)

      Franklin became famous in his own time for his experiments in electricity, a subject that had excited the curiosity of many learned Europeans in the early eighteenth century. The only form of electricity then recognized was static electricity, the kind that produces a spark when a person shuffles across a rug on a winter’s day and touches somebody else. Experimenters had already found a way of generating this kind of electricity by rubbing a glass tube or bottle with a dry cloth; and a Dutch scientist had invented a way of storing the charge in a foil-lined bottle, the so-called...

    • 9 Geology and cosmology.
      (pp. 132-140)

      Although Franklin never placed a high value on suppositions that could not be verified by empirical observation or experiment, his thoughts were irresistibly prompted by things thatcouldbe observed. One of the puzzles for eighteenth-century naturalists was the presence of sea shells on mountains and the bones of tropical animals in northern climes. Franklin recorded his speculations prompted by these phenomena in a letter to the abbé Soulavie. Jean-Louis Giraud Soulavie was a learned French cleric whose specialty was natural history. In the letter Franklin apologized for speculations that could not be based on actual observation, and the apology,...

  6. PART III A Continental Vision.

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 141-142)

      As Franklin told Joseph Huey (see chapter 4), he did not expect doing good to win him eternal salvation; and he had learned not to expect many earthly rewards from those he did good to. Virtue had to be its own reward. In the early years he found satisfaction in creating associations of his friends and neighbors for purposes that brought them all tangible benefits. As we have seen, he was not much of a talker. He liked working behind the scenes, getting other people to take the lead, and the credit, for doing things that he proposed anonymously in...

    • 10 The colonies and the empire.
      (pp. 143-157)

      Franklin is often described as a reluctant revolutionary because he tried for so long to keep the American colonies in the empire. But his attachment to the empire did not arise from any satisfaction with the status that British statesmen and politicians assigned the colonies. He spent the prime of his life—he was seventy in 1776—trying to persuade the British that the way to preserve the empire was to give the Americans their proper place in it. Before he explained what that place was, in the selections we will examine in the other chapters in this section, he...

    • 11 Ethnic pride and prejudice.
      (pp. 158-169)

      Pennsylvania was the most ethnically diverse of England’s colonies. It had taken on that character in Franklin’s lifetime, and, as is evident in the “Observations,” he was not happy about it. It would be fair to say, and he admits it, that he would have preferred an American continent peopled entirely by his own kind, Englishmen and their children. Before following the development of his later plans for the continent, we should consider the extent and limits of his early ethnocentrism, and look at whom he thought should be included in his great political structure. In a letter to Peter...

    • 12 Join or die.
      (pp. 170-184)

      At the time when Franklin began to envision a future British American empire as “the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet created,” he could not have had any details of the structure in mind. But he knew that there was already a structure in place. It had come into existence haphazardly in the preceding century and a half and now contained the population whose exponential growth he had described in the “Observations.” The old structure would have to be adapted, if not replaced, if it was to exhibit the greatness he confidently anticipated. Most obvious, its institutions would have...

    • 13 The vision challenged.
      (pp. 185-198)

      When Franklin wrote the Canada Pamphlet in 1760 he had been in England for three years as agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He returned to Philadelphia in 1762 but was back in England by the end of 1764 and remained there until 1775. During these years Franklin never lost sight of his larger vision, but he had to occupy himself more and more in trying simply to hold the empire together until it could be reorganized to fulfill its promise. His purpose in crossing the ocean had been to reduce and ultimately remove the authority of the Penn family over...

    • 14 The empire at risk.
      (pp. 199-218)

      With the Stamp Act repealed, Franklin had high hopes for the future of the empire. For the next nine years he clung to them even as they gradually eroded. These were some of the most active years of his public life, as he tried to persuade three different sets of people to do what was best; the Americans, the British people, and the British Parliament, each seemingly impervious to the views of the other two. After repeal, his first message to his countrymen was that they should recognize that Parliament had shown good sense in the end. Be patient and...

  7. Part IV War, Peace, and Humanity.

    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 219-220)

      When Franklin left England for the last time, in 1775, he had fifteen of the busiest years of his life ahead of him: organizing the war that had already started, getting help from France to sustain a country that could not yet sustain itself, negotiating the treaty that put an end to British interference. Interference was what he had been resisting since 1764, interference with Americans in the exercise of the autonomy within the empire that they had previously enjoyed. Until 1775 he would have been willing to settle for the same degree of autonomy, but he had long been...

    • 15 Independence.
      (pp. 221-231)

      Franklin came ashore in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775. Sixteen days earlier, while he was still at sea, war with England had begun at Lexington and Concord. On his arrival the Pennsylvania Assembly immediately elected him to the Second Continental Congress, which met on May 10. For the next eighteen months, until Congress sent him to France, he was immersed in its activities. It would be more than a year before his colleagues were ready to vote for independence; Franklin himself was probably ready for it by the time he left England. He continued to hope for reconciliation, but only...

    • 16 Poor richard’s diplomacy.
      (pp. 232-241)

      Franklin arrived in France to discover himself a celebrity of greater renown than he had ever experienced at home or in England. In 1772 he had been named to the Académie royale des sciences, an honor rarely conferred on anyone outside France. Intellectual distinction probably counted for more in eighteenth-century France than in England, but Franklin could scarcely have been prepared for the public adulation that greeted him. His image soon stared at him from such a multitude of prints, medallions, and busts that, as he told his sister Jane Mecom, “my Face is now almost as well known as...

    • 17 A huckstered peace.
      (pp. 242-253)

      Franklin had thought from the beginning that the war was needless; he blamed it entirely on the British and could have forgiven them for it only if they had demonstrated repentance by offering reparations of a kind they were never likely to make. He was not empowered by Congress to engage in peace negotiations until 1781, but he was so fully identified with the American cause that would-be peacemakers in England began approaching him almost as soon as he arrived in France. One was James Hutton, a friend from his London days, who happened to be the leader of the...

    • 18 The pretensions of wealth.
      (pp. 254-270)

      We have been following Franklin in his pursuit of the vision he first articulated in 1751. For thirty-odd years after that he had engaged himself in removing obstacles to what he saw as America’s destiny, obstacles placed there first by British political folly and then by British military might. With the obstacles overcome, he had to think more directly about what, besides strength in numbers and resources, would make America great.

      It went without saying that the existing dispersion of power among the several states had to give way to a more effective central government. He had first witnessed the...

    • 19 America.
      (pp. 271-288)

      We noticed earlier that Franklin wanted America to go it alone in its bid for independence, without soliciting help from abroad. His confidence in the country’s growth and strength persuaded him that there was no way the Revolution could fail. But even he was surprised by how quickly it showed its strength, as he noted in a conversation with his fellow commissioner to France, Arthur Lee.

      After the war, when the officers of the Continental Army formed a society, designed to be hereditary, he mocked them for indulging in this European style of perpetuating empty titles. The Society of the...

  8. Chronology.
    (pp. 289-290)
  9. Credits.
    (pp. 291-296)
  10. Index
    (pp. 297-303)