Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Article

Allen C. Guelzo


Capitalist Tool

The real Ben Franklin.

At the outbreak of the Revolution, no American name was better known than Benjamin Franklin's. The remarkable thing is that, three hundred years after Franklin's birth, this is still very close to being true. Although George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have, since 1776, nudged Franklin to the side of America's 18th-century pedestal, they have not pushed him off. Not by any means. Washington is still respected, but respected only in the studied way one acknowledges the noblest of the noble Romans; Jefferson is still the wizard of revolutionary words, but his gangly nerdiness and gigantic moral lapses have also reduced our affection for him to politeness. Franklin, however, is loved in the bubbly and uninhibited manner one loves a rascally and doting favorite uncle. In my own city of Philadelphia, Franklin easily eclipses the city's earnest and pious founder, William Penn (to the point where the statue of Penn atop City Hall is frequently mis-identified as Franklin), even though Franklin was born in Boston, had precious little in the way of piety, and actually spent most of his life after 1764 in London and Paris rather than Philadelphia.

Not that this is undeserved. Franklin arrived in Philadelphia in 1723 as a penniless printer's apprentice—or, more accurately, as a fugitive from an apprenticeship agreement with his older brother—and rose to an unprecedented level of wealth and celebrity when rising beyond one's class was still considered an abnormality in nature. He established what became the best-read newspaper in British North America (the Pennsylvania Gazette), dominated the almanac market (which was no small market in an overwhelmingly agricultural society) with his hilariously irreverent Poor Richard's Almanac, and by 1748 was able to retire from active management of his printing business and turn his attention to the two subjects which most interested him: establishing his social credentials as an English gentleman, and gaining a foothold in the world of Enlightenment science through an ingenious series of experiments with electricity. He could afford it, too. In the 1750s, Franklin's annual income from the print-shop partnership, rental properties, patronage appointments and sales brokering (including the sale of slaves) amounted to nearly $2,000 a year, when George Washington's per annum income from Mt. Vernon was only $300 and the governor of Pennsylvania had to go cap-in-hand to the provincial Assembly for his annual salary of $1000.1 Anyone who can imagine Rupert Murdoch with a Nobel laureate's passion for nuclear physics has a fair idea of Franklin's profile in the mid-18th century.

√ā¬†Electricity was no humdrum subject in the 18th century. The scientific revolution of the 1600s had begun by locating the movement of objects in forces exerted on objects, rather than in the moral qualities of the objects themselves, and it proceeded from there to itemize whatever such forces could be identified and harnessed for human enjoyment and profit. But electricity remained one of the most baffling and random of these forces until the mid-18th century, when controlled experiments with Leyden jars and conducting materials made the production of electricity less of a mystery. Franklin's great contribution, in his Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751), was to demonstrate that lightning is, in effect, simply a gigantic electrical spark, and it made him famous and honored (he was awarded an M.A. from Harvard and Yale and an L.L.D. from St. Andrew's). "Nothing," wrote Joseph Priestley, "was ever written upon the subject of electricity which was more generally read, and admired in all parts of Europe."2

Franklin was inevitably pulled into colonial Pennsylvania politics, and then into the administrative apparatus of the British empire through his appointment as deputy postmaster-general for the North American colonies, before finally moving to London as agent for the interests of Pennsylvania (and, in time, three other colonies) before Parliament. In 1771, he began composing an autobiography which, with its rollicking, pragmatic account of how the son of a tallow chandler had out-foxed the colonial stuffed-shirts and laughed his way to success and personal triumph, became the premier document of American individualism. In October, 1776, he was sent by the American revolutionary government to France to secure French support. Shrewdly setting aside his reputation as the premier American scientist, he cast himself instead as a charming practical philosopher in homespun and a coonskin cap rather than a periwig. The French court, far from being put off by this refreshing display of American simplicity, swooned over Franklin in delight, and an alliance with the Americans was soon in the offing. He lived long enough to sit in the Constitutional Convention, and, only a few months before he died in 1790, submitted a petition on behalf of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to Congress, calling for the abolition of slavery. He could hardly have lived a more charmed life than if he had written the script himself.

In one sense, he did write the script, since his posthumously-published Autobiography is the means by which successive generations of Americans have most often come into contact with Franklin. But alongside the bubbling stream of the Autobiography, there has long run a darker current of unease with the Franklin which Franklin portrayed there. Max Weber and D. H. Lawrence turned on Franklin as the original Babbitt: a shallow, self-promoting bourgeois merchant with an eye forever cocked for the main chance, "a wonderful little snuff-colored figure, so admirable, so clever, a little pathetic, and somewhere, ridiculous and detestable." The late Francis Jennings, as acerbic a historian of early America as any who ever wrote, dismissed the Autobiography for being "about as valid as a campaign speech." In 1975, Melvin Buxbaum published a study of Franklin's relationships with the churches of the Pennsylvania colony, and found, not the beaming, tolerant Deist of the Autobiography, but a partisan heretic with a sharp knife for "injuring the Calvinist Establishment" of the middle colonies. And in 1987, a special issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography offered a "re-assessment" of Franklin which emphasized his "dark side"—his pessimism about human nature, his ethnic intolerance, and his Hobbesian notion of society.3

And yet, whatever the damage revelations like these have done to Washington and Jefferson, Franklin seems impervious. John Adams, who cordially hated Franklin, wailed that "The History of our Revolution" would soon become "one continued Lye from one end to the other" in which "Dr. Franklins electrical rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington … and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War." And so it was, to Adams' unrequited fury. Adoring biographies— by H.W. Brands, Walter Isaacson, Edmund S. Morgan, and Gordon Wood, to which may be added Leo Lemay's two-volume The Life of Benjamin Franklin (2005) and Joyce Chaplin's The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (2006), to mention only the most recent—are but the tip of the celebratory iceberg. Franklin has become part of the dual personae of our culture, the secular, rational alter ego to Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan soul of America. Bruce Kuklick once remarked that Franklin was important to studies of the American mind, not so much for his intellectual value, as for the opportunity he affords modern scholars, possessed by the spirit of pragmatism and by a "presentist bias" toward "thought that foreshadows the non-religious values" of the professoriate, to ignore the larger currents of religious and speculative thought in early America.4 No wonder the Benjamin Franklin tercentary website asks "Do You See Yourself in Franklin?" It is the dream of every secularist that we will.

Curiously, what few people have bothered to ask is how Franklin climbed his way up to the niche he occupied in British North America in the first place. The answer is simple and straightforward: Franklin had a good head for business. For a long time, our knowledge of Franklin's printing business was picked up in incidental pieces from larger biographies, as the authors hurried to get to the excitement of the electricity experiments or Franklin's role in the Revolution. In so doing, they neglected to notice how very revolutionary Franklin's entrepreneurial innovations were. There was at least a glimmering of recognition of Franklin-as-entrepreneur a decade ago in Frank Lambert's "Pedlar in Divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, in which Lambert accounted for the success of Whitefield as a revivalist in terms of Whitefield's use of Franklin's printing network up-and-down the colonial seaboard to provide advance publicity of the Grand Itinerant.5 Ralph Frasca, however, has undertaken a detailed analysis of Franklin's business strategy as a printer, and the result is a marvel, both of diligent research and of Franklin's fertile and opportunistic imagination.

As a trade, printing in colonial America was a shop affair, in which a master printer, together with his journeymen and apprentices, published and sold (under one roof) a variety of printed fare: newspapers, books, sermons, pamphlets, broadsides, circulars, almanacs. It was back-breaking, eye-straining, dirty work. But it put printers at the nexus of every intellectual wind that blew in the 18th century, as printers competed with each other to print material that would sell. It was also a constricted sort of trade—until 1695, a licensing law, regulating printers, imposed both censorship and economic controls on printing, and even after the law was allowed to expire, colonial governors and legislatures frequently shut down printers who annoyed them. Even colonial governments which kept a looser rein on printers could still shut down an offending press, since government printing contracts were often the principal source of a printer's income, and what the colonial governments gave, they could take away.

Three things made Franklin a success in Philadelphia. The first was his effervescent writing, punctuated with hoaxes and satires as well as news. The second was his determination to elevate printing to the level of moral instruction, as a vehicle for promoting "virtue." Franklin's rule for contributors was that "no Piece can properly be called good, and well written, which is void of any Tendency to benefit the Reader, either by improving his Virtue or his Knowledge," and in his last years, he bitterly criticized his grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, for turning Bache's newspaper, the Philadelphia Aurora, into a engine of anti-Federalist "Rancour, malice, and Hatred." The third key to success was, virtue notwithstanding, the patronage he secured from the colonial assembly. And tenuous as patronage was, it was actually another assembly with another patronage contract, which opened the way for Franklin to out-flank his dependence on the Pennsylvania Assembly, and all the other legislatures in the colonies.

In 1731, the South Carolina assembly, lacking a reliable printer in the colony to print its official records, invited Franklin to take up the South Carolina printing contract. Franklin was disinclined to leave Philadelphia. But it occurred to him that he might just as easily send his journeyman compositor, Thomas Whitmarsh, to South Carolina in his stead, complete with a press and type fonts. Effectively, this meant that Franklin would underwrite the start-up costs for a print shop in Charleston; in return, he would become Whitmarsh's silent partner and receive one-third of the profits. Whitmarsh arrived in Charleston, only to find that two rival printers, newly arrived from England, had snatched the contract from him. But Franklin's sponsorship turned out to be better patronage than the colony's. Whitmarsh quickly set up a flourishing print-shop, selling and binding almanacs and sheets sent to him from Franklin, and commencing a sister publication to Franklin's newspaper, the South-Carolina Gazette. When Whitmarsh suddenly died in 1733, Franklin rushed a new journeyman to Charleston, Lewis Timothy. For the next three decades, Timothy, his wife, and his son Peter ran the Charleston shop as the jewel in Franklin's entrepreneurial crown. Franchise marketing had arrived in America.

From there, Franklin expanded his franchising operations to New York in 1742, to Newport, New Haven, and even Antigua in 1748. (In fact, by the 1750s, eight of the fifteen colonial newspapers came from shops part-owned by Franklin.) The pattern for these partnerships remained the same in each case: Franklin provided the up-front money and equipment; the on-site partner did the work, published a local Gazette, and sent a percentage of the profits to Franklin. Not all of these experiments turned out well. Franklin tried to start a German-language newspaper in Philadelphia and in Lancaster, but his paper was beaten out of the market by the "Palatine" immigrant, Christopher Sauer. In a moment of weakness, he put his nephew, Benjamin Mecom, in charge of the Antigua operation, only to discover that Mecom was an erratic and disturbed young man, and a flop as a businessman. Despite renewed efforts to set up print shops in New York, New Haven, and Boston—all of them funded by loans from Franklin—Mecom slowly spiraled downward toward a mental crack-up, and was eventually locked up in a New Jersey asylum, from which he disappeared in 1776.

On the other hand, having spread his business eggs into a number of different baskets, Franklin insured himself against the calamity which would otherwise have been involved when one or another of the franchises failed. Moreover, his influence over the franchise shops came to his political rescue in 1760s. Franklin, enjoying the good imperial life in London as a colonial agent, failed utterly to notice the explosive potential of the Stamp Act. Indeed, not only did he assure Parliament that the tax would meet with little discontent, he secured appointments as stamp agents for a number of friends. The frenzied outcry in the colonies against the Stamp Act caught Franklin with one foot in some very hot water; but he was able to extricate it, and repair the damage to his reputation in the colonies, by rallying his franchisees to his cause and publishing defensive essays in their newspapers.

One reason why Franklin's entrepreneurship has remained so little-appreciated is that Franklin himself whited it out of the story of his life in the Autobiography. Franklin was born in an age when, as John Locke put it, "trade" was considered "wholly inconsistent with a gentleman's calling," and much as he enjoyed having trumped the manor-born, Franklin remained apprehensive of drawing too much attention to how dramatically he had stepped out of place. Certainly, in England, he was never allowed to forget that everything he was had been built on "trade"—his first letters on electricity to the Royal Society were ignored and then plagiarized by one of the Society's officers, largely because Franklin had no aristocratic standing or influential relatives to punish the Society for its neglect. In 1774, as a further reminder that he would never be anything better than a provincial in the eyes of the Crown, Solicitor-General Alexander Wedderburn publicly humiliated Franklin in Whitehall as an "ungrateful, cunning upstart thing," and had him fired from his postmaster's job. (This event, more than any other, convinced Franklin to turn his back on George III's government, a mistake for which they would pay handsomely.)

There was less penalty for jumping the social boundaries between classes in America, and after the Revolution, no penalty whatsoever. There was also less penalty for social climbing in the intellectual world of the Enlightenment. The scientific revolution inaugurated by Newton and Galileo and matured by Priestley and Lavoisier was dedicated to the abolition of artificial hierarchies, starting with the Great Chain of Being. All movement, without exception or privileged exemption, obeyed Nature and Nature's laws. Starting from that premise, it was not at all difficult for the Enlightenment to develop a corresponding hostility to the artificial hierarchies of society and politics with which European aristocracies had paralyzed their economies. The Enlightenment's riposte to aristocracy in politics was Lockean liberalism; in economics, it was Adam Smith's capitalism; and both are the warp and woof of Franklin's life.

Commercial capitalism has been so routinely disparaged for so long by American intellectuals that we have some difficulty crediting how very happily the Enlightenment embraced commercial capitalism as Nature's own system of merit over against unearned aristocratic title. Gary Nash's recent attempt to re-cast the American Revolution as a proletarian uprising, more concerned with "elementary political rights and social justice, rather than the protection of property and constitutional liberties," misses utterly how genuinely revolutionary the protection of property and constitutional liberty was in a world of absolute autocrats and talentless courtiers.6 Precisely because the self-made man of commerce appeared to the philosophes as a manifestation of the operation of reason and nature, Voltaire sang an unashamed song of admiration for the calculating, dispassionate self-promotion of the bourgeoisie:

I don't know which is the more useful to the state, a well-powdered lord who knows precisely what time the king gets up in the morning and what time he goes to bed, and who gives himself airs of grandeur while playing the role of slave in a minister's antechamber, or a great merchant who enriches his country, sends orders from his office to Surat and to Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world.

No one in revolutionary America lived up to this reputation more than Franklin. It represents a fatal inversion of Franklin's own expectations that no reputation today has lesser standing among the Revolution's scholars than that of the "great merchant." And none plays a smaller role in the modern-day marketing of Benjamin Franklin.

Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College. He is at work on a book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

1. Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Knopf, 2004), p. 54.

2. Tom Tucker, Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax (Public Affairs, 2003), p. 106.

3. Lawrence, "Benjamin Franklin," English Review, Vol. 27 (December 1918), p. 405; Jennings, Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man (Norton, 1996), p. 18; Ronald A. Bosco, " 'He That Best Understands the World, Least Likes It': The Dark Side of Benjamin Franklin," PHMB, Vol. 111 (October 1987), pp. 525-554; Buxbaum, Benjamin Franklin and the Zealous Presbyterians (Penn State Press, 1975), pp. 112-113.

4. Kuklick, Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey (Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. xix-xx.

5. Lambert, "Pedlar in Divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 118-129.

6. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (Viking, 2005), p. 94.


Most ReadMost Shared