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A Man of Appearances
by Edmund S. Morgan
Yale Univ. Press, 2002
368 pp.; $24.95
Edmund Morgan is arguably the finest living American historian, an adornment to the tradition that includes Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, Charles Beard, and Perry Miller. Published when Morgan was 86, Benjamin Franklin is his latest attempt to interpret the early history of the country, and it has received the accolades that one would expect—but that do not, it seems to me, critically attend to what Morgan has done.
Morgan has always liked the moderates in the North American colonies. The Puritan Dilemma (1958), his account of John Winthrop, defends an ethic of responsibility over one of ultimate ends. The Gentle Puritan, a Life of Ezra Stiles (1962) raised an authoritative voice in favor of Stiles over one of his adversaries, Jonathan Edwards, in an era dominated by those who favored high Calvinism. Among his many scholarly talents, Morgan is a compelling biographer. He has mastered clear expository prose that conveys complex matters in an intelligible form. In this book the greatest moderate, Franklin, gets his greatest advocate.
The biography passes over Franklin's early life, about which we know almost nothing except what he tells us in his Autobiography, moving quickly to that later period for which we have an extensive record: Franklin's own writings and the civic experience of Philadelphia, the colonies, and the Empire. Morgan focuses on the range of Franklin's interests and his curiosity about the world. He has substantial accounts of Franklin's satirical writings, which evidence his interest—always perceptive, often Swiftian, occasionally moralizing—in the cultures around him. While Morgan also lucidly describes the scientific ideas that brought Franklin renown in the Western world, he observes that in Franklin's own hierarchy of interests, usefulness was the chief criterion of merit. And because the greatest usefulness came about through involvement in a polity, politics—and, indeed, ...