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, international politics—took precedence over one's personal life, over one's duties as a private citizen or a writerly public intellectual, or over the work of the scientist. Thus, Morgan concentrates on Franklin's career in making the Revolution and the peace that followed. Here, the importance of these events for Franklin, and Morgan's gifts as an elucidator of political ideas and practical policies, contribute most to the substantial value of the book.
Perhaps because of his age, Morgan has limited himself to using an advance copy of the CD-ROM on which all of Franklin's writings appear. This electronic production will soon be available under the auspices of Yale University Press, its Papers of Benjamin Franklin, and the Packard Humanities Institute. Morgan says that in writing this biography he has not read "much else, and therefore [the book is] pretty one-sided."
There is some unnecessary modesty here. No one knows the 18th-century sources better than Morgan, and the fact that he does not cite them does not mean that he is unaware of the interpretative disputes in the secondary literature on which he touches, or the documents on which they are based. What is important is that Morgan does intend mainly to tell us what Franklin seems like to him, and to have this appraisal pass as critical history. It does not fully pass.
Let me begin with a small example and generalize from it. Morgan tells us that Franklin's marriage was "loving and happy" and that his "affection for his family" was much like that "of any good father or husband"; he was "an averagely good family man." Morgan also relates the facts of Franklin's family life. His son William was born in 1729 or 1730, but we do not know who William's mother was, and Franklin tells us nothing about her. (His "lechery" was later used against him in a political campaign.) In 1730, he married Deborah Rogers, and made a family with the boy and two children born to the second union. In 1757 he left for London on his first diplomatic mission as a colonial agent; Deborah was unwilling to make the trip, and Benjamin could never persuade her to join him. She was a "plain Joan" and might have felt ill at ease in the circles in which Franklin was traveling— and, Morgan adds, would perhaps have made him feel ill at ease as well. Franklin was away for four years, sailing back to Philadelphia in 1762. Then he left again in 1764, and lingered in London even after the settlement of his work in 1767-1768. Benjamin and Deborah continued to exchange affectionate letters; there is no evidence of infidelity but, Morgan adds, Franklin's taste for female companionship must make us wonder. (Morgan's concern for infidelity is exclusively with the husband and not the wife.) Benjamin did not return for his daughter's wedding in 1767. In 1774, Deborah died, and having not seen her in ten years, he did not go back at her death. Franklin "endure[d]" it, but what was more painful to him, allows Morgan, was the destruction of the imperial community. A few months after learning of her death he journeyed from London to Philadelphia, but the conflicting loyalties of the Revolution were such that "his beloved son" suffered "ultimate rejection" because he remained a Tory. In his old age in the United States Franklin enjoyed the remains of his family and grandchildren.
Morgan and I may have different standards of what constitutes an "average" family man or "good" father and husband. But this is a minor issue. The real nub of the problem is that Morgan chooses not to see that he is dealing with someone whose familial connections are peripheral to his life, trivial. He likes Franklin and, as a friend would, overlooks certain aspects of Franklin's personality, gives them short shrift. Friends are allowed to do this; when historians do it, they miss an opportunity to further their explanations. Historians have to be crueler than friends.
We can best see the limits of Morgan's approach in his more general treatment of Franklin's sense of himself, especially Franklin's own famous discussion in his Autobiography of his youthful scheme to obtain moral perfection by adhering to the actions demanded in a check list of virtues. Commentators have scoured this passage for clues to Franklin's character, and some have argued, persuasively if not compellingly, that the passage is so peculiar as to intimate that Franklin is writing with an only semi-serious didactic purpose, or even putting us on. Morgan does not take up this issue, but rather stresses that Franklin's virtues are centered around utility; they are designed to make an individual happy and, indirectly, to make him useful to others. As I have said, the author finds this latter characteristic almost definitive of Franklin, and argues that it finally makes plain why public service was more important to him than family, the printing and publishing business, and scientific experimentation.
Franklin's "arduous project" to achieve perfection is uncommon because it is concerned with behavior; there is no inner life or structure of intent that morality is about. Indeed, in acknowledging that his plan to become perfect failed, Franklin notes that his scheme was flawed because he made many errors. He confesses that he was at best able to achieve the appearance of living up to his behavioristic ideals, again implying that the moral life consists solely in external arrangements.
Over and over scholars have stressed this aspect of Franklin's persona. In laying his writings before us, Morgan rightly points out the many brilliant lengthy jokes that his subject published throughout his writing career. In making points Franklin often printed hoaxes under a pseudonym —many of which were taken seriously—or anonymously penned some of his serious proposals. Morgan reminds us that in 1773 Franklin even anonymously commended one of his own recent pamphlets in the literary battles over Parliament's actions that preceded the Revolution. Finally, Morgan recalls that the man was no orator, but preferred to influence individuals and let others do the talking to assembled politicians or in meetings of the populous.
From this evidence many have concluded that Franklin wanted to hide his self from others and to convince people that the publicly visible was all that counted. In fact, this evaluation is consistent with Morgan's appreciation of public affairs as being essential to grasping Franklin, and this dimension of Franklin's character makes Morgan assert in a couple of places that he can only "guess" about what is going on inside Franklin, whatever affection he has for what Franklin does. We see in Franklin a personality type that has been one of the glories of American statesmen from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt. But he does not have the virtues of a John Adams, a Washington, or a Madison, or those private virtues of those who elevate family. Franklin emphasized the situational, the calculating. The idea is to negotiate the shoals of the life of a polity in the manner of a captain intent on keeping a ship afloat, and not to worry much about whether one is following a book of navigational rules.
In a laudatory review of Morgan's book, Gordon Wood writes that the biography describes Franklin much as he would like to have been described. But if this is true, something has gone wrong, for everyone estimates himself more highly than others do. Morgan tells us repeatedly of his regret at being born too late to have missed Franklin's "radiant presence" and "personal magnetism." This biography, Morgan says, displays "the pleasures of getting to know Franklin" and is designed to show that he is worth spending time with. It is "a letter of introduction to a man worth knowing."
The wise historical theorist, R.G. Collingwood, tells us that the historian must put his sources "to the torture." For Morgan, Franklin's writings are rather a simulacrum for having a long talk with a friend; in his search for understanding, he does not subject Franklin to the scrutiny that a historian should. We need not judge Franklin badly on that account, nor should we so judge his 21st-century friend. But we should recognize that Benjamin Franklin is not quite critical history.
Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author most recently of A History of Philosophy in America: 1720-2000 (Oxford Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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