Lecture on Benjamin Franklin
Of all the great historic men of America Benjamin Franklin was doubtless the greatest specific American. Washington has been said to have much of the English gentleman; Jefferson of the French philosopher — but Franklin in all his ways of thinking and doing was the genuine characteristic product of the New World. He was the universal Yankee in ideal development; the very apostle of restless, inquiring, independent, courageous, prolific, versatile and genial common-sense; the self-made man in the greatest proportions — self-made in business, in morals, religion, science and statesmanship. His has been one of the useful lives in history in two respects: he not only did many things that were highly beneficial to his generation, but no human being, high or low, learned or ignorant, old or young, rich or poor, can study that life without drawing some valuable lesson from it, not only general, but specific. Few men, if any, have ever more effectually taught by precept and example the true science of life; that is, the science of virtue, of usefulness and of enjoyment. And among the great men of history there is scarcely one who, of the successes he achieved, owed more to himself and less to the favor of circumstances.
He was born in Boston in 1706. His father was a soap boiler and tallow chandler, respectable, but rich only in the number of his children, of whom there were seventeen. Little Ben got very scanty schooling, was apprenticed to his brother as a printer, sold ballads on the streets composed by himself, wrote newspaper essays anonymously, quarreled with his brother and ran off to Philadelphia to seek his fortune when seventeen years old. At an early age he had become a voracious reader, one of those knights of the nocturnal tallow dip who surreptitiously wrest knowledge from poverty and hard work, to astonish the world in later life. He made his entry into Philadelphia, a shabby-looking lad with two large rolls of bread under his arm, and munching a third, — the young girl who was destined to become his wife standing in a doorway and smiling at the doleful apparition. He soon found employment as a journeyman printer.
He was an uncommonly bright young man, but not at all a perfect one. On the contrary, there was a decided streak of badness in him. And here is one of the most striking peculiarities of his career: a struggle of a strong intellect with strong passions and faults, the intellect winning the battle by systematic effort. At first his principles, or what he called so, hung rather loosely about him. As a boy he had adopted vegetarianism, sincerely believing in it. He got rid of it in this way: a few months after his arrival in Philadelphia he had occasion to go to Boston for the purpose of seeing his father. On his way back the sloop on which he travelled was becalmed off Block Island and the seamen caught some cod. Young Franklin had formerly been very fond of fried fish; and when the cod came hot out of the frying pan “I balanced some time between principle and inclination,” he frankly says in his autobiography, “till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then I thought: If you eat one another, I do not see why I may not eat you. So I dined upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet.” “So convenient it is,” he adds, “to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
This was quite witty. But it is upon reasoning of just this kind that smart men yield to temptations which smell well enough to excite an appetite, and then, thus getting rid of their principles, gradually become bad men. Young Franklin was upon a slippery path. A friend of his brother's at Newport entrusted him with a sum of money to be collected from a debtor at Philadelphia, and to be transmitted on demand. Franklin collected the money and used a large part of it for himself and his friends, thus virtually embezzling it a thing which subsequently caused him much trouble. But still worse: Governor Keith of Pennsylvania induced Franklin to undertake a voyage to London, to purchase an outfit for a new printing-office. Before leaving Philadelphia, Franklin exchanged promises of marriage with Miss Read, the young lady who had watched him eating his rolls on his first arrival. At London, where he remained about eighteen months, young Franklin got into all sorts of intrigues with low women, at one time even trying to seduce the mistress of a friend. To Miss Read he wrote only once, to tell her that it would be a long time before he would get back — which was meant and understood to be a breach of the engagement.
On the other hand, he worked industriously, saved some money, read many books, made some valuable acquaintances, wrote some ingenious things and then returned to Philadelphia with a merchant who befriended him. On the voyage he pondered very seriously over the disreputable things he had done. His failings alarmed him, and he looked round for a staff on which to lean. First he became suspicious of his religious views. He had abandoned revealed religion when he was a mere boy. While in London he had written a pamphlet entitled a “Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain,” a very ingenious production, designed to prove that if God is the Maker of the Universe and is all-good and all-wise, whatsoever he does must be good and wise; and if he is all-powerful, there can be nothing existing or acting against or without his consent; that, therefore, all that human creatures do, must be done according to the will of the all-powerful God, and must be good and wise; that, therefore, no freedom of will nor distinction between good and evil — indeed, no evil can exist, and that all creatures must be equally esteemed by the Creator. This acute piece of logic now appeared unsatisfactory to him, — not as if he had detected any flaw in the reasoning, but because he began to suspect, while his doctrine might be correct, it did not work well morally, and was, therefore, as he said, “not very useful.”
It struck him that, not a certain specific religion, but a religion of some sort was necessary to mankind, and that the important part of the office of that religion was not to make men believe certain things, but to make men do certain things. He wanted a religion; and as he had given up the Revelation and could not bring himself back to it, he — if I may use that expression — proceeded to reveal a religion of his own to himself. He put down a creed and a liturgy in writing for his own use. His creed consisted in a profession of belief in the existence of one Supreme and most perfect Being, author and father of the gods themselves. These gods he conceived to be intermediate between the Supreme Being and man, each of them controlling a solar system. And to this ruler of our solar system, our particular God, he addressed his worship. His scheme of worship or liturgy consisted mainly of an “adoration,” praising God as the Creator, the all-wise and all-good, — and then a “petition” resembling the litanies of the Episcopalian prayer book, praying God to aid him in being good and in doing good to others. All this he wrote down in a neat little prayer book for his own use, which is said to be still in existence.
This creed, except the fantastic conception of the intermediate gods, he adhered to substantially through life. As an old man he wrote in his autobiography:
I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of a Deity; that He made the world and governed it by His Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal, and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and to be found in all the religions we had in this country. I respected them all, though with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mixed with other articles which, without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, served principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induced me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion.
This liturgy he seems to have practiced for twenty years, while at the same time he held a pew in the Presbyterian church. The pretension of one church to be exclusively right and others wrong, he used to liken to “man travelling in foggy weather; those at some distance before him were wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side; but near him all appears clear, though in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them.”
This was his self-made religion, which satisfied him so much that he ceased disquieting himself with doubts and metaphysical speculations. Meanwhile at the age of twenty- two he had established a printing-office and worked industriously. But his self-made religion did not at once have the moral effect he desired it to produce. His intercourse with low women continued, and about a year after he had written his creed and liturgy an illegitimate son was born to him. As he became settled in business, he looked round for a wife — this, too, in a somewhat businesslike way. He became engaged to a Miss Godfrey, but the matter fell through because the girl could not bring any money with her. He looked further round, but to no purpose. Finally he returned to his first attachment, Deborah Read, the young woman who had watched him munching his roll, with whom at a later period he had exchanged promises, and whom he had then abandoned. Franklin met her again, the old affection revived, and he married her, thus making good, as far as possible, the wrong he had done her. He tells the whole story in his autobiography in a candid, matter-of-fact way, without the least affectation of romance, or even sentiment. But on the whole it must be admitted that, while the final marriage was creditable enough, his conduct at this period of life does not appear like that of a high-minded man. It was painfully apparent what tendencies in his nature he had to overcome in order to rise to a high level.
But he was equal to the task. When he had become a married man he conceived, as he tells us, “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He “wished to live without committing any fault at any time.” He undertook to supplement his self-made religion by a self-made scheme of moral improvement, and a quaint, thoroughly Franklinian scheme it was. He tried to practice self-discipline and to cultivate virtue by means of bookkeeping. This is the way he did it. He wrote the names of the virtues he resolved to practice, in a little book, allotting one page to each. They were thirteen: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity and Humility. Each page he divided into little squares, and each day he marked there every offense committed against any of the virtues. At first the result discouraged him somewhat, for he did not find himself quite as good as he expected. Then it struck him that he might make better progress if he paid special attention to one virtue at a time, so as to acquire the habit of it, letting the others meanwhile take their chance. This system of methodical watchfulness by bookkeeping he carried on for a long period, and repeated it from time to time throughout his long life with remarkable success. He tells us himself that he saw his faults constantly diminish, and when a very old man he wrote: “It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor owed much of the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year.”
Thus the great Franklin, as history knows him, began to take shape. He prospered in his business of course, working early and late, setting type and printing; making lampblack and ink; dealing in rags and soap and live-geese-feathers, and when he had bought a new supply of paper carting it home himself on a wheelbarrow. He got the bulk of the jobs, and soon he had a newspaper going, the Pennsylvania Gazette, which he presently made the best and most successful in the colonies. Having disciplined himself, he now began to educate the people.
It may be doubted whether any publication in this country ever made so large an impression upon the public mind as Franklin's famous almanac, the Poor Richard. It was a comic almanac, full of fun, not always quite decent; but it achieved its phenomenal success and celebrity by those quaint bits of proverbial philosophy which were inserted in the little spaces between the remarkable days in the calendar. Almost all of them became household words at once, and many have remained so ever since. Here are some of our old acquaintances: “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.” “He that has a trade, has an estate.” “There are no gains without pains.” “He that by the plow would thrive, himself must either hold or drive.” “Little strokes fell great oaks.” “He that goes a-borrowing, goes a-sorrowing.” “Vessels large may venture more, but little boats should keep near shore.” “Three removes are as bad as a fire.” “What maintains one vice would bring up two children.” “Forewarned, forearmed.” “Fish and visitors smell in three days.” “It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.” “Let thy maid-servant be faithful, strong and homely.” “Necessity never made a good bargain.” “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.” “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage; half shut afterwards.” — And so on.
Many of these sentiments, of course, were not entirely new with Poor Richard. “Not a tenth part of the wisdom,” says Franklin himself, “was my own, but rather the gleanings that I had made of the sense of all ages and nations.” But what was his own was the selection and the quaint, pregnant form which gave that wisdom currency. Of many sayings now in everybody's mouth it is scarcely remembered that Franklin was their author, such as “Time is money,” “Knowledge is power,” and that well-known definition: “Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is your doxy,” of which John Adams said that it was the brightest epigram he had ever heard.
It has frequently been said of most of Poor Richard's proverbial philosophy that it does not address itself to the highest instincts and aspirations of human nature. This is true. The same may be said of the Franklinian maxim “Honesty is the best policy.” It implies that honesty is only one of several different policies, but that of these it is the safest and the best. This maxim does indeed not rise to the loftier plane of the sentiment that right is right, and must be maintained as right, no matter whether it appear as the best policy or not. But Franklin recognized the fact that while this sentiment is professed by many, it is the controlling motive only with few. And he easily concluded that, while right, indeed, should be maintained for its own sake, it would help the cause of right and honesty amazingly, with the common run of mankind, if honesty were at the same time recognized as the best policy and the safest investment. In fact, he had in this respect gone through some instructive experiences with himself. Possessing a full share of the evil passions and dangerous frailties of human nature, he had found himself obliged to call upon his understanding to quicken and support his moral sense. His moral nature was originally not at all of the ideal stamp. His was essentially an intellectual morality. He had to try hard to become a good man by becoming a prudent and a wise man; he had to reason himself up to the highest standard of moral sense, and the measure of success he achieved in this, is largely the measure of his greatness. Many men have to reason themselves up to a high morality — only they do not succeed. Moreover, he had to appeal to a population still in a raw social state, poor, and in their struggles with the necessities of the day naturally disposed to understand the coarse voice of interest more easily than the whispers of the finer feelings. Poor Richard's homely lessons of thrift and general worldly wisdom, in showing them the way of prosperity through honesty and justice, pushed them forward at the same time in the way of moral elevation. The American people were after all much the better for Poor Richard's teachings.
The success of Poor Richard was prodigious. It gained a yearly circulation of 10,000 copies. It was translated into French, Spanish and modern Greek, and thus gave Franklin his first celebrity in Europe. Meantime he had also begun to make Philadelphia a literary and philosophical center. Philadelphia was then a town of from 9000 to 10,000 inhabitants, a stretched-out and shady place, every house having its garden and every family its cow. Pretty much everybody had enough to live on, but few people more than enough. Life was slow and dull; tolerant as to religion; few books to read except religious works; no mental activity except about trade and theology. And of this Franklin made intellectual and literary center — a strange undertaking. The way in which he did it was thoroughly characteristic.
While he was still a young journeyman printer he founded a club for debate and mutual improvement, called the Junto. Did he have any doctors and professors to draw upon? No, he got together such bright young men as he could find. There were among them four printers, one surveyor, one shoemaker, one carpenter, one engrosser of deeds, one self-taught mathematician, one merchant's clerk and one young gentleman of some fortune with literary tastes. A majority of them being mechanics, the club was dubbed the “Leathern Apron Club.” Any person to be admitted had to declare that he loved mankind in general and truth for truth's sake. At each weekly meeting each member had first to answer a number of questions: What remarkable thing he had read or heard of; what had been the reason of the success or failure of any one within his knowledge; what effects of vice or virtue he had observed; what defect in the laws of the colony had come to his notice; whether he thought of anything in which the Junto might be serviceable to mankind or to the country, or to any one of its members; whether any deserving stranger had arrived in town, and how he could be obliged and encouraged, — and so on. Then discussion followed. Thus the “Leathern Aprons” were stimulated to observe and to think, and to formulate and express their thoughts. Then the young men began, under Franklin's leadership, to investigate and discuss all sorts of philosophical, religious and political questions, somewhat crudely perhaps at first, but earnestly, ingeniously and perseveringly, and always with an eye to public or private usefulness. Neither were their debates idle talk. They boldly undertook to reform things in their town and the colony. Some subject of public complaint was mentioned in the Junto, an essay was read about it and a discussion followed; the essay, amended after debate, was printed in Franklin's Gazette; the impulse for a public movement was given and in many cases the improvement carried out. Thus Franklin's leathern-apron philosophers became practical reformers and public benefactors in more than one way. They wanted to enlarge their reading, and that was the origin of the great Philadelphia Library. They wanted to systematize inquiry, and out of it grew the American Philosophical Society. The Junto lasted nearly forty years. That same “Leathern Apron Club” became the best school of philosophy, morals and politics then existing in the colonies. It organized that intelligence, inquiry and public spirit which are the making of new countries. Of course, most of its thinking was done by the young man who had at one time threatened to become a pretty bad boy himself. And he did most of the studying too, for at the age of twenty-seven he began learning French, Italian, Spanish and Latin, and he practiced music on the harp, the guitar, the violin, the violoncello and later on a glass-harmonica invented by himself.
At the same time he kept himself virtuous with the aid of bookkeeping, reformed the night watch, organized the first volunteer fire-company in the city (the second in the colonies), wrote pamphlets about finance and currency, about the defense of the colonies against the French, organized a volunteer militia, built a battery and got cannon for it, started street cleaning, introduced the broom corn, the yellow willow for basket-making and the use of plaster of Paris to improve meadows, caused a ship to be sent to the Polar seas for the discovery of the Northwest passage, invented the famous open fireplace called the Franklin stove — a good many things for a young man — and then he made ready to become one of the first scientific men of the age. This happened in this wise.
Here was a man absolutely without any scientific education. Scientific methods and apparatus were unknown to him. But what he did have was a pair of open and remarkably active eyes, a restlessly inquiring mind and an exquisite faculty of putting two and two together. In one word, he was a keen observer and a keen reasoner at the same time. He became a great light of science by simply applying his penetrating common-sense to the things he saw. One of his first achievements was his famous theory about the movement of storms. The way he made his discovery was thoroughly characteristic. One evening, in 1743, Franklin wanted to observe an eclipse of the moon which was to occur at nine o'clock. Before that hour a violent northeast storm arose, and the eclipse could not be seen. Some time afterward he read in a Boston paper that the storm had begun there only an hour after the eclipse was over. Now, Boston is situated northeast of Philadelphia. And here was a storm blowing from the northeast, coming therefore from Boston, and arriving in Philadelphia a good deal earlier than it had occurred at the place it apparently started from. “There must be a mistake somewhere,” most people would have said, and dismissed the matter. “Very curious,” said Franklin, “let us look into it.” He wrote to Boston and heard that the facts were actually so. He inquired further and found that it was usually so with these northeast storms. Now he looked round for analogies, and then settled upon the following explanation:
Suppose a great tract of country, land and sea, to wit, Florida and the Bay of Mexico, to have clear weather for several days, and to be heated by the sun, and its air thereby exceedingly rarefied. Suppose the country Northeastward, as Pennsylvania, New England, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, to be at the same time covered with clouds, and its air chilled and condensed. The rarefied air, being lighter, must rise, and the denser air next to it will press into its place. That will be followed by the next denser air, that by the next, and so on. So the water in a long sluice or mill race, being stopped by a gate, is at rest like the air in a calm; but as soon as you open the gate at one end to let it out, the water which is next to the gate begins first to move, that which is next to it follows, and so, though the water proceeds forward to the gate, the motion which began there, runs backward, if one may so speak, to the upper end of the race, where the water is last in motion.
That was all. How simple it was!
In a similar way he started valuable theories about the noxious character of the air exhaled from the lungs, and he may be said to have originated the science of ventilation. The manner in which he tested the effect of heat upon different colors was remarkably characteristic of his simple common-sense way of scientific experiment. He describes it himself, thus:
I took a number of little square pieces of broadcloth from a tailor's pattern card, of various colors. There were black, deep blue, lighter blue, green, purple, red, yellow, white and other colors or shades of colors. I laid them all out upon the snow in a bright sunshiny morning. In a few hours the black, being warmed most by the sun, was sunk so low as to be below the stroke of the sun's rays; the dark blue almost as low, the lighter blue not quite so much as the dark, the other colors less as they were lighter; and the white remained on the surface of the snow, not having entered it at all. (What signifies philosophy that does not apply to home use!) May we not learn from hence, that black clothes are not so fit to wear in a hot, sunny climate as white ones?
The thing was indeed so simple that it appears astonishing, not how anybody should have thought of it, but how anybody could have failed to think of it.
In exactly the same way Franklin achieved his greatest success, which at one bound placed him in the front rank of the scientific men of his century. On a visit to Boston he witnessed some experiments in electricity made by Dr. Spence, a scientific lecturer from England. They excited his curiosity. The recent invention of the Leyden jar had much advanced the knowledge of the subject and made it a matter of fashionable interest and entertainment. But to Franklin it was entirely new. On his return to Philadelphia he received an electrical tube with directions for using it. This was in 1746. Franklin repeated the experiments he had seen at Boston, became fascinated with the study, interested some friends in it, and then went on making experiments of his own, which nobody had ever witnessed before.
Soon he outstripped all the scientific lights of his time by the brilliancy of his achievements on a field on which the best minds of the period were competing. His was the theory of plus and minus, or positive and negative electricity; and then it struck him that lightning and electricity must be essentially the same thing. The way in which he formed his conclusion was exceedingly simple again. He observed that the electrical fluid strikingly agreed with lightning in several essential particulars. This he knew from seeing and experimenting. From this he concluded that they were probably the same thing. “But,” said he, “the electric fluid is attracted by points. We do not know whether this property is in lightning. But since they agree in all the particulars wherein we can already compare them, is it not likely they agree likewise in this? Let the experiment be made.” And he made it, again in a very simple way. He caught the lightning in a snare as it were, and then interrogated it.
Everybody has heard the story of the kite, and seen the picture. He stretched a large silk handkerchief on two sticks fastened together crosswise and put a sharpened iron wire on the top of the perpendicular stick. To this kite he tied a long hempen string, and to the lower end of this a silken cord, and where the two joined he fastened an iron key. On a summer afternoon when a thundercloud was coming on, he went out with his son to fly the kite. As the thundercloud passed over it, the fibers of the hempen string rose and bristled up, and the iron key gave forth electric sparks. The lightning was caught and answered the question addressed to it. The simple experiment conclusively proved that Franklin's reasoning was correct, that electricity and lightning were the same thing, and that lightning could be caught and conducted by the piece of metal with a sharp point.
At the same time great news came from Europe. His letters about his theories and experiments had attracted wide attention in England and on the Continent. His suggestions concerning the identity of electricity and lightning and the conducting of the latter by iron rods had been practically tested in France with complete success, at the same time that Franklin caught the lightning with his kite. Then honors began to shower upon the modest Philadelphia printer. The Royal Society unanimously elected him one of its members. Yale and Harvard gave him the honorary degree of master of arts. His doctor's title he received not many years afterwards in England. He suddenly found himself one of the most famous men of his time in the world of science.
At the same time he had put himself on the high road of becoming one of the first statesmen of his country. He began humbly. His rule was never to seek a public office and never to decline one. In 1736, at the age of thirty, he was chosen clerk of the general assembly, which he remained, by reëlection, for several years. In 1737 he was made postmaster of Philadelphia; a few years later a member of the assembly, also an alderman and a justice of the peace. And then he was appointed Postmaster-General of the colonies. He quickened the snail pace of the mails, straightened the bridle paths, shortened the time it took a letter to go from Philadelphia to Boston and vice versa from three weeks to one week and a half, and made the postal service yield an annual revenue. He served as a peace commissioner in making Indian treaties. And then he invented the American Union. The war between France and England had begun, the most memorable and dramatic incidents of which were Braddock's defeat and the capture of Quebec. Delegates of the colonies north of the Potomac met at Albany to consider what should be done for defense. Franklin's common-sense spoke: Let the colonies unite and they will be strong. He laid before the convention a plan for a union foreshadowing in its principal features the Constitution of the United States adopted thirty-five years later, — in fact substantially the same plan adopted by the British government one hundred years later as the sum of wisdom in the organization of the Dominion of Canada. It was, however, rejected at the time, but the idea of union remained alive. Indeed, it had been suggested before Franklin, by William Penn in 1697, and by Coxe in 1722 — but only theoretically. Franklin applied it first to a given state of things as a remedy for pressing evils. And when his plan was rejected and another substituted by the British government which involved the taxing of the colonies by act of Parliament, it was Franklin who, with prophetic utterance, pronounced that axiom: “No taxation without representation,” which repelled the stamp act, and which became the first watchword of American patriotism in its struggle for final independence. There was the American statesman of common-sense, fully developed.
Franklin aided the government zealously in the French war. He slyly extorted appropriations for military purposes from the Quakers in the Pennsylvania assembly. He helped General Braddock to get wagons from the Pennsylvania farmers upon Poor Richard's bond. After Braddock's defeat he himself took the field against hostile Indians and came near being made a general with an independent command.
But his destiny sent him to other fields of usefulness. The Pennsylvanians were constantly wrangling with their proprietaries, William Penn's sons. One of these was a miser, the other a spendthrift; both were blockheads and both bent upon squeezing as much money out of the colony as possible. To represent the interests of the colony near the home government Franklin was sent to England as the agent of Pennsylvania. Thus began his illustrious diplomatic career.
He was then fifty-one years old. Look at his past life. He had been a journeyman printer, a merchant's clerk, a boss printer, a journalist and an almanac maker, a fireman, the inventor of a stove, clerk of the general assembly, member of the same, alderman, justice of the peace, postmaster, militia colonel in active service, Postmaster-General, member and trustee of various boards and institutions, experimenter and discoverer in electricity, and inventor of the lightning-rod. He had achieved a great name in the world of science; he had in the meantime by industry and prudent management accumulated an independent fortune. Now he was a diplomat. A truly American career, and such it remained to the end.
Franklin had no training as a diplomat, just as he had no training as a man of science; but, as he had the scientific instinct, so he had the diplomatic instinct to perfection. True diplomacy is not, as some have said, the art of lying. It is the art of making truth pleasant; of combining interests; of yielding a little to accomplish much; of knowing how to persuade, how to push and how to wait. All these things Franklin instinctively knew how to do, and he even perfected himself in the diplomatic art of dining. He rather liked it, too. He loved, as he said, “good company, a chat, a laugh, a glass and even a song as well as ever,” and at the same time he relished more than ever the grave observations and wise sentences of old men's conversation. His great diplomatic achievement during the first five-year period of his service consisted in making a compromise on a disputed question in which the colony had all the advantages and the proprietaries an empty nothing.
He had also his ups and downs. In 1762 he returned to Philadelphia, desiring to give himself entirely to scientific pursuits. An Indian broil made him the staunch friend and defender of the poor savage, and a new quarrel with the proprietaries sent him back to England. Now his diplomatic business grew more serious. The stamp act was passed. At the request of the government the colonial agents, although protesting against the measure, had given the names of men fitted to be stamp-tax collectors. When the news reached America, a storm broke loose. Philadelphia, like other cities, was in a blaze of excitement. Franklin's enemies spread the story that he had not only approved of the stamp act but tried at once to get under it a fat office for a friend. Popular feeling against him ran so high that his house was said to be in danger of being mobbed. Franklin, when he heard of this, bore it calmly. The true Franklin was soon to appear again.
The business world in England grew alarmed at the outburst in America and began to clamor for the repeal of the stamp act. Parliament instituted an inquiry. At the bar of the House of Commons English business men spoke for their pockets; Franklin was summoned to speak for America. This was one of the greatest moments in Franklin's life. He set forth the condition of things in America with such clearness, defended the rights of his countrymen with such force and declared their determination to resist arbitrary taxation with such courage that his hearers were equally astonished at the range of his knowledge and at the defiant firmness of his attitude. If the calm philosopher was so fierce, what could be expected of the sturdy and excitable rustics he represented? The impression he produced was profound. When reports of this scene became known in America, Franklin was again the hero of the day. His very enemies confessed themselves proud of their representative. The stamp act was repealed. America was once more in a blaze of excitement, this time joyous. And at every one of the numberless carousals that followed, Franklin's health was drunk as that of the great champion and benefactor of the American people.
But once more he had to pass through one of those strange contrasts of contumely and honor so characteristic of public life. George III. stubbornly insisted on having his own way. New methods of taxing the colonies were devised. New excitement in America. Resolutions were adopted all over the colonies to buy no more English goods. Now the English shopkeeper grew ugly too. Irritation followed irritation. Franklin strove in vain to enlighten and propitiate public opinion by clever newspaper publications. The adverse current was irresistible. The ministerial party began to look on him as the chief promoter of American resistance. Soon they found an opportunity to humiliate him. In December, 1772, some letters fell into his hands written by Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts to persons of influence in England suggesting measures of force against the disaffected in the colony. These letters Franklin sent to the Massachusetts committee of correspondence to warn the patriots of the treachery of the colonial officers. They created a profound excitement. The assembly petitioned the King for the removal of the governor. Then Franklin's enemies in England thought their time had come. Franklin was summoned to appear before the Privy Council where the petition was to be considered. He was summoned only to be publicly outraged. Wedderburn, the King's solicitor, appeared as Governor Hutchinson's counsel, and in an elaborate speech he poured a torrent of abuse upon Franklin's head, denouncing him as a thief who had stolen Governor Hutchinson's letters, and as the most mischievous enemy of the country. Franklin stood under the pelting storm with unmoved face, in silent and defenseless dignity. The next day he found himself dismissed from the office of Postmaster-General of the colonies.
Another picture. Lord Chatham, who had consulted Franklin as to the policy by which America might be pacified, took him upon the floor of the House of Lords to listen to a debate on Lord Chatham's plan of pacification. Lord Sandwich, opposing it, referred to Franklin as “one of the bitterest and most mischievous enemies the country had ever known.” Whereupon Lord Chatham, with all the magnificence of his utterance, declared that
if he were the first minister of this country and had the care of settling this momentous business, he should not be ashamed of publicly calling to his assistance a person so perfectly acquainted with the whole of American affairs as the gentleman so injuriously reflected on; one, he was pleased to say, whom all Europe held in high estimation for his knowledge and wisdom and ranked with our Boyles and Newtons; who was an honor, not to the English nation only, but to human nature.
When Franklin heard this, his countenance was as placid and unmoved as it had been under the hailstorm of Wedderburn's vituperation.
In March, 1775, Franklin left England for America to confer with the Continental Congress. During his ten years sojourn in England, he had by no means been entirely absorbed by public affairs. The versatility of this model Yankee had been as wonderful as ever. While zealously advocating the cause of the colonies he had at the same time thought and written on such things as the introduction of silk culture in America; he had worked to promote Captain Cook's philanthropic expedition to the Pacific islands; he had drawn up a plan for a new system of spelling; made valuable studies and experiments in ventilation; inquired largely and ingeniously into the cause of colds; discussed in his letters such things as the average fall of rain; chimneys; fireproof stairs; metallic roofs; the Northwest passage; spots on the sun; the glass-harmonica; improved carriage wheels; glass blowing; the torpedo; the Aurora Borealis; inflammatory gases; Prince Rupert's drops; the effects of vegetation on air and water; smoke-consuming stoves; the effect of oil on the sea in storms; the relative force required to pull boats over shallow and over deep water; pointed or blunt lightning-rods; and points of political economy discussed with Adam Smith. If anything had escaped his observation, it must have been far out of his way.
When he arrived at Philadelphia, he found his country in open revolt against Great Britain. His keen eye had, much earlier than others, foreseen that a separation of the colonies from the mother country was likely to come. Still he had worked to avert it, faithfully, though without much hope. When it came it was to him neither unexpected nor unwelcome. Now the struggle had begun. The Continental Congress governed the United Colonies. The battle of Lexington had been fought, and the peaceable Philosophical Society was eagerly studying methods of making saltpeter. Franklin found himself greeted as a revolutionary leader, and he had slept only one night on dry land when the general assembly of Pennsylvania appointed him a member of the Continental Congress. The old philosopher — for he was then sixty-nine — was kept prodigiously busy. He had to plan a new postal system and was made Postmaster-General, at a salary of $1000 a year. He was put at the head of the Commissioners of Indian Affairs, and made a member of several of the busiest committees. While doing all these things in Congress, he was put at the head of the committee of safety of Pennsylvania, which had to make the militia ready for war and fortify the river — a committee which met at six o'clock every morning. But more. He was hurried off to General Washington's headquarters to devise a system of army organization — and, a little too late, to Canada to attach the Canadians to the American cause. A busy time for the old philosopher, then seventy. And then, scarcely returned, he was made a member of the Committee to draft the Declaration of Independence — he the only member from Pennsylvania who was stoutly for independence the year before. The Declaration of Independence being adopted and signed, he made his famous historic joke. “We must be unanimous,” said John Hancock, “there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.” “Yes,” said Franklin dryly, “we must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
And then he took an important part in framing the plan of confederation, insisting, against the judgment of his associates, that it would not do to give the small states the same power in Congress as the large and populous ones, and that, if they had an equal vote without bearing equal burdens, a confederation upon such iniquitous principles would never last long. Indeed, it did not last long. Ten years later every sensible man knew that the old philosopher was right, and the Constitution of the United States did justice to his foresight.
In the same debate he threw a flashing ray of intelligence upon the future with regard to slavery. A Southern man spoke of slaves and sheep as equally liable to taxation. “Slaves,” said Franklin, “rather weaken than strengthen the state. There is some difference between slaves and sheep; sheep will never make any insurrection.”
But as if all this had not been occupation enough, he was in addition made president of the convention called for giving Pennsylvania a new constitution; and finally, after having served on a committee of Congress in a last attempt at negotiation with the British Admiral Howe, he was sent once more abroad to invoke aid for the struggling young republic. This was his famous embassy to France. He arrived at Paris in December, 1776. France was then surreptitiously aiding the American cause. The government did it to weaken and humiliate England. French society favored it from an impulse of sentiment. Society was then in that strange intellectual and moral ferment which foreshadowed the great revolution. The ostentatious and exhausting despotism of Louis XIV., the scandals of the Regency and the putrid corruption of Louis XV.'s reign had left behind them among all classes of men a vague presentiment that some great change was coming. All the traditional beliefs and ideas of the past had been shaken. Montesquieu in his Persian Letters had riddled all social, political and clerical institutions with caustic criticism, and preached in his Spirit of the Laws the gospel of constitutional government. The Encyclopedists under the lead of Diderot and d'Alembert had exhausted the armory of wit and science to destroy the power of traditional authority. Voltaire had pelted all religious fanaticism and political tyranny with the tremendous hailstorm of his sarcasm. Rousseau's dreamy philosophy had moved the sentimental with the beauties of his restored state of nature, and inflamed the imagination of the young with the picture of an ideal republic. Everybody had become a philosopher, and every philosopher thought it his office to deny some of the things which formerly had been taken for granted, and to smile at some of the beliefs he himself had formerly respected. Society was fairly ringing with ironical laughter at itself. Witty negation was the most spicy amusement of members of the Church, and the salons of the highest aristocracy resounded with discussions of philosophical republicanism. Society danced upon a volcano, knowing the crust to be thin, and eagerly knocking holes into it. The very persons who constituted the traditional order of things played gayly with the fire that was to consume them.
To this society the American Revolution, a people far away in the Western wilds fighting for their liberty, appeared like a theatrical performance illustrating their own vague dreams. They became enthusiastic over the piece, were eager to applaud the heroes of the drama and willing to pay for the spectacle — aye, some, moved by genuine feeling, to take part in the performance as actors themselves.
But things went badly at the beginning on the American theater of war, and the interest in France began to flag. The French government was not unselfish. While it desired to cripple and humiliate England, it had taken care not to compromise itself so far as to be obliged to see the revolted colonies through at any cost. It still might without disgracing or endangering itself have abandoned them, if they showed no self-sustaining power. And, no doubt, the mishaps at the beginning of the war had produced a discouraging impression. Society, too, began to be a little sobered in its sympathies by the monotonous reports of defeat. The republican spectacle did not come up to its expectations. Then Franklin arrived in Paris. Here was a new sensation. He was the revelation of America to Europe. And more. He was the picturesque embodiment of the philosophical republicanism dreamed of in French society. He was the familiar character of Poor Richard, “Bon homme Richard,” alive. He was the renowned sage who had tamed the lightning of heaven. He was the courageous patriot who had pleaded the cause of his country at the bar of the British Parliament, defied the power of the court and made the Declaration of Independence — for, indeed, in their opinion, he had done it all alone. His very appearance seemed to tell the whole story. No artistic imagination could have shaped a finer embodiment of that which everybody wished the representative New-World republican to be. He was then seventy years old, the very picture of robust old age; his face benignant, shrewd, self-possessed, placid and serene; his bearing one of natural ease and dignity. He did not, as some traditions have it, affect a rustic appearance. The woolen stockings, the heavy shoes tied with leather strings and the broad-brimmed hat are a myth. His attire was simple and modest, but gentlemanly according to the taste of the time. On public occasions or in society he appeared in black velvet, white stockings and silver-buckled shoes. But he threw aside the fashionable wig, wearing only his natural hair, thin on the top of the head, but falling in ample gray locks upon his shoulders. His conversation was quiet, straightforward and instructive; full of wise sayings, quaintly original, witty and good-natured, always within the rules of good taste, showing that he knew the ways of the world.
Such was Benjamin Franklin, printer, of Philadelphia, when he appeared in France as a representative of the young American republic. To say that he was received with respect and affection, would be saying nothing. He was idolized, adored.
Men imagined [says Lacretelle] they saw in Franklin a sage of antiquity, come back to give austere lessons and generous examples to the moderns. They personified in him the republic of which he was the representative and the legislator. They regarded his virtues as those of his countrymen, and even judged of their physiognomy by the imposing and severe traits of his own. Happy was he who could gain admittance to see him in the house he occupied.
He was the lion of the street no less than of the salon. A correspondent of an American paper wrote:
When Dr. Franklin appears abroad, it is more like a public than a private gentleman, and the curiosity of the people is so great, that he may be said to be followed by a genteel mob. A friend of mine paid something for a place at a two-pair-of-stairs window to see him pass in his coach, but the crowd was so great that he could but barely say he saw him.
Innumerable pictures and prints, busts, medals and medallions of him were made, some so small as to be set in the lids of snuffboxes, or to be worn in rings. Courtier and shopkeeper, duchess and chambermaid, talked of Franklin with equal interest and reverence as the friend of humankind who looked as if he had come to restore the golden age.
A wonderful popularity was his — but more wonderful still, he maintained it the nine long years he was in France. And, indeed, the young American republic needed such a spokesman. He appeared at a critical time and his mere appearance revived the flagging interest and waning confidence. What Franklin represented must not only be necessarily good, but also it could not be doomed to failure. What he predicted could not but come true. At the gloomiest moments his face remained serene. When he was told that Lord Howe had taken Philadelphia, he jocosely replied: “No, Philadelphia has taken Lord Howe.” When the Revolutionary cause seemed to be breathing its last, he caused the new American state constitutions to be translated into French, which were to the political philosophers of French society a new and inspiring revelation of their own theories. He lost no opportunity to represent the cause of America as the cause of progressive mankind; and having French mankind devotedly on his side, he got over all the miseries of the begging diplomat, and obtained from the French government all America wanted.
After Burgoyne's surrender the French government dropped its disguise. It formally recognized the independence of the Colonies and made treaties of alliance and of commerce with the United States. The American commissioners were, as the envoys of a friendly power, solemnly received by Louis XVI. on the 20th of March, 1778. In preparing for the great occasion Franklin thought for the first and last time of accommodating his appearance to the court ceremonial of a European monarchy. There was an unbending rule that no man should appear before the King of France except with a wig on his head and a light court sword at his side. As the great hour approached, Franklin ordered a wig. When the peruquier brought it and tried it on Franklin's head, it would not fit. “It is too small,” said Franklin. “No, monsieur,” answered the wigmaker, “your head is too big.” Franklin then resolved to do the unheard-of thing: to stand before the Majesty of France in his own hair and also without a sword. The chamberlain stood aghast, but all France applauded, and Europe echoed. Thus the first recognized envoy of the American republic appeared in the diplomacy of the world in the simple garb of an American gentleman.
Soon afterward there was another presentation, of less practical significance, but no less picturesque. Voltaire, eighty-four years old, visited Paris once more, to receive the last homage of his country and age, and then to die. The American envoys waited upon him. Voltaire, feeble and emaciated, raised himself from his couch and spoke to them in English. “I beg your pardon,” he said to a French lady present, “I have for a moment yielded to the vanity of showing that I can speak in the language of a Franklin.” A short time afterward they met again at a session of the Academy of Sciences in the presence of a large concourse of scientific and literary men. The vast audience called upon them to rise and would not be satisfied until they had embraced and kissed. The cry went forth: “How charming to see Solon and Sophocles embrace!” A thoroughly French comparison.
Franklin and Voltaire had indeed something in common, and yet we can scarcely imagine two human beings in their mental and moral natures more different. Both enemies of superstition, bigotry and despotism; both champions of enlightenment and progress. But Voltaire the outgrowth of those fanaticisms and tyrannies, those systems of oppression, mental, moral and physical, which had enthralled Europe for centuries; he the soul of an avenger, filled with the spirit of destruction; pouncing upon wrongs and abuses, upon traditions and authorities, to slay them with his fierce wit and to hold up their mangled remains to universal hatred, contempt and ridicule; the intellectual precursor of the great revolution, that terrible upheaving which buried the past in blood and ruins and evolved a new social order from the agonies of universal overthrow. And there stood, in his embrace, Franklin, the calm, serene, benignant apostle of common-sense — the child of a society in itself unembarrassed and unhampered by the oppressions and tyrannies of the past; a society of equals all engaged in productive work to better their fortunes; no traditional social structure in their way to be destroyed; their welfare dependent only upon a wise development of existing conditions; he himself the philosopher of utility; his mind constantly at work to make the life of his fellow-beings more comfortable and happy, in small things as well as great; his ideal of revolution and liberty not “that the last King should be strangled with the guts of the last priest,” but that his people should not be taxed without their own consent; that they should shake off the yoke of a distant power seeking so to tax them, and then be free quietly to regulate their own affairs, — his whole being toleration, benevolence and light.
It is certain that Voltaire never could have been Voltaire had he grown up in America; and it is equally certain that Franklin, while he highly respected Voltaire as a “Literary Patriarch” and all that, had no conception at all of the revolutionary significance of Voltaire's work. It is remarkable that in Franklin's large correspondence not a single utterance is to be found indicating that he saw in the French people and in the movement of ideas any symptoms of an approaching political and social earthquake. It was not Solon and Sophocles that embraced, but the genius of American self-government and the genius of the French revolution, utterly incapable of understanding and appreciating one another.
The phenomenal popularity of the philosopher was, of course, a great aid to the diplomat. But Franklin possessed in the highest degree that invaluable diplomatic quality which is called tact. He has been charged with obsequiousness to the French government. Those who make that charge leave out of sight the difficulties of his position. He had much to ask for and little to offer. He begged gracefully, accepted with dignity and showed his gratitude without stint, knowing that he would soon have to beg for more. He has been accused of being toward the last a little too easy and even indolent. In one respect this is true. He did not keep order in his accounts and correspondence. But in other respects he was wiser than those diplomats who always want to be doing something. He understood to perfection the great art of doing what was necessary and not trying too much, and of doing what he had to do in the most agreeable form. Thus he effected what he was sent for: to get from France all the aid that was needed for the accomplishment of American independence. In 1781, feeling the burden of his years, — he was then seventy-five, — he offered his resignation to Congress; but instead of accepting it, Congress added to his embassy the additional office of a member of the commission to conclude peace with England. He was associated with Jay and John Adams, whose services cannot be estimated too highly. In making the treaty of peace he vainly strove to realize one of his favorite ideas. He had long advocated the doctrine that free ships should make free goods, that is, that an enemy's goods carried in neutral ships should be exempt from seizure. He went even farther than that. “I wish,” he wrote to Robert Morris, “the powers would ordain that unarmed trading ships, as well as fishermen and farmers, should be respected as working for the common benefit of mankind, and never be interrupted in their operations even by national enemies; but let those only fight with one another whose trade it is and who are armed and paid for the purpose.” Privateering he condemned as little better than robbing or piracy. But these ideas were far ahead of the time then; they are somewhat ahead of the time now; but we are evidently moving in their direction. In another hundred years mankind may not stand advanced fully to the point where Benjamin Franklin stood a hundred years ago. Indeed, he had the satisfaction of embodying some of his humane principles in his last diplomatic achievement, a treaty with Prussia, which Washington praised as “marking a new era in negotiation.”
At last, in July, 1785, Franklin, seventy-nine years old, was relieved of his duties and returned home. Thomas Jefferson had been appointed in his place.
There appeared to me [Jefferson wrote at a later day] more respect and veneration attached to the character of Dr. Franklin in France, than to that of any other person in the same country, foreign or native. The succession to Dr. Franklin at the court of France was an excellent school of humility. On being presented to any one as the minister of America, the commonplace question used in such cases was: “C'est vous, Monsieur, qui remplace le docteur Franklin?” (Is it you, sir, who replace Dr. Franklin?) I generally answered: “Nobody can replace him, sir; I am only his successor.”
Such a popularity undoubtedly had not been without its martyrdom; but on the whole he had enjoyed it, and these nine years in France had, perhaps, until then been the happiest of his life.
Now the old philosopher returned home, loaded with years and with honors. During the seven weeks of a not very comfortable sea voyage he still wrote three of his most useful essays, one on navigation, another on the cause and cure of smoky chimneys and another on smoke-consuming stoves. The passion of usefulness ruled him to the last.
He hoped to have rest for the remaining days of his life in his quiet home at Philadelphia among his books and friends. But he had scarcely arrived when he was made a member of the supreme executive council, and then president (or governor) of the State of Pennsylvania, an office he held for three consecutive years, elected unanimously each time except the first, when one vote was cast against him. But in the meantime he was also a member of the convention which framed the Constitution of the United States. The principles he professed and acted upon there were of the democratic kind. He did not believe in a strong and splendid government. He was opposed to every restriction of the suffrage. He would not consent to anything that would “depress the virtue and public spirit of our common people.” He was opposed to the requirement of a fourteen-years residence before admitting foreigners to citizenship. He would not consent to the absolute veto power of the president. He did favor the power of Congress to impeach public officers, the president included. When the convention found itself in an apparently hopeless tangle about the equal representation of the states, large and small, in Congress, and seemed on the point of breaking up, Franklin first proposed that every day's session should be opened with prayer, which, however, was not accepted, as one member said, because the convention had no money to pay the clergyman. And finally, Franklin, as a member of a special committee, to which that question was referred, suggested, as a compromise, the simple solution that every state should have an equal representation in the Senate, while in the lower house the people should be represented according to numbers, and that house should have the power to originate the revenue bills. Unquestionably, this arrangement has proved the conservative balance-wheel of our Constitutional system for nearly a century.
It was one of Franklin's favorite hobbies that the high officers of the government should serve without salaries. But this was a point he could not carry. His efforts only proved that even the strongest common-sense is sometimes not without its crotchets. In the compromise of the Constitution concerning slavery he acquiesced, but before he closed his eyes forever his venerable name and benignant countenance appeared foremost among the champions of the anti-slavery cause. The first memorial against slavery presented to the Congress of the United States at its first session was signed by Benjamin Franklin as president of the Abolition Society. It was an eloquent document.
From a persuasion [it says] that equal liberty was originally the portion and is still the birthright of all men, your memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavors to loosen the bonds of slavery, and promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom. Under these impressions, we earnestly entreat your serious attention to the subject of slavery; that you will be pleased to countenance the restoration to liberty of these unhappy men who alone, in this land of freedom, are degraded into perpetual bondage, and that you will step to the very verge of the power vested in you for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men.
A long debate arose in the House as to whether the petition should be referred to a committee for consideration. By a large majority it was so referred in spite of the heated opposition led by Mr. Jackson of Georgia, who was the first to formulate the pro-slavery argument which at a later day became the staple of the discussion on that side of the question. In this cause Franklin's genius flashed out once more in all its originality. Twenty-four days before his death, at the age of eighty-four, he wrote for the newspapers a humorous piece describing a debate in the Divan of Algiers on the petition of a religious sect to deliver the Christian slaves, putting all the arguments of a champion of American slavery in the mouth of an advocate of the Algerian pirates who argued in favor of keeping the Christian dogs in bondage. Here was once more, as fresh as in his youthful days, the old quaintness of conceit, the old delicate irony, the old kindly wit and humor, illustrating the old strength of argument in a cause sacred to his heart, a cause fit to inspire the last effort of a great man. He died on the 17th of April, 1790.
His last years since his return from France were less active than had been his wont. He began to feel that the responsibility for what then happened belonged to a generation younger than his. While he freely contributed his wisdom to the movements of opinion then going on, he felt also that he was somewhat entitled to rest and might take his ease without any sense of neglected duty. He expressed this in his own quaint manner when in a letter he described his home life with his daughter and grandchildren, saying:
Cards we sometimes play here, in long winter evenings; but it is as they play at chess, not for money, but for honor, or the pleasure of beating one another. I have, indeed, now and then a little compunction in reflecting that I spend time so idly; but another reflection comes to relieve me, whispering: “You know that the soul is immortal; why then should you be such a niggard of a little time, when you have all eternity before you?” So, being easily convinced, and, like other reasonable creatures, satisfied with a small reason when it is in favor of doing what I have a mind to, I shuffle the cards again, and begin another game.
And well might he, without much compunction of conscience, think of ease in his high old age, for few men ever lived who made throughout their lives a more arduous and valuable use of their time. I know of no man in history whose mind was more incessantly active and more inexhaustibly fertile — not in abstract ideas and creations of fancy — for his imagination was not remarkable — but in observing things and phenomena and men and affairs and in drawing rapid conclusions from what he observed, and in making those conclusions practically useful. His was a wonderfully originating mind, not dependent upon suggestions or impulse from others, but seemingly always knowing what to do and doing it or seeing it done. And almost all he thought or said or did was calculated to do somebody some good.
I began by saying that no human being can study Benjamin Franklin's life without drawing some valuable lesson from it. There is a characteristic reason for this. With all his greatness — we may look upon him as one of the greatest men that ever lived — yet we find him so essentially, sympathetically, lovably human, that every human being feels near to him. There is in his greatness nothing that repels, or even in the least discourages approach.
He was full of human passion and frailty, like many other people. He overcame them, not by working himself up to lofty ethical abstractions, above the reach of the common run of men, but by common-sense reflections, which the most ordinary minds can understand and which even natures of a coarse moral fiber can follow; and by exertions of will, which everybody should be capable of. He set out, not as a self-conscious, wonderful genius to do great things, but as a clear, observing and active mind to do useful things; and doing many useful things in a manner intelligible to all, he became great.
The manner in which he conveyed his wisdom to the ordinary mind also brought him near to common human nature and ingratiated him with it. He not only knew what human ignorance and weakness were; he not only never looked haughtily and superciliously down on them; but he respected them and addressed them with sympathy. His scientific writings were wonders of clearness and simplicity. There was in them nothing of that affectation of scientific mysteriousness indulged in by many who try to appear profound by being unintelligible. He made philosophy and science the plain, sensible, familiar friend and fireside companion of everybody's life. The initiated reader of his scientific writings is constantly astonished and delighted to find how simple it all is. He never thought of oppressing any one with demonstrations of mental superiority. On the contrary, it was his constant endeavor so to infuse his thoughts into his hearers, as to make them feel that those thoughts were really their own.
This was with him not only a matter of instinct but a well cultivated habit.
I made it a rule [he says in his autobiography] to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself the use of every word or expression that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted instead of them I conceive, I apprehend or I imagine a thing to be so and so. When another asserted anything that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly; and in answering I began by observing that in certain circumstances his opinion might be right, but in the present case there appeared to be some difference, etc. The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction. To this habit (after my character for integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils for I was but a sad speaker. Never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.
It was the wonderful persuasiveness of the superior mind which sympathetically identified itself with the inferior understanding.
As a politician, a popular leader, a statesman, too, he exercised his consummate faculty of identifying himself in intellect and standpoint with those upon and through whom he had to work. He never quarreled about trifles. He avoided quarreling even about important things. He never hated anybody except George III.
He was a successful man in his private affairs (and showed by his example how one who began wretchedly poor may accumulate enough to sustain a great and conspicuous position in life), not by streaks of good luck or any uncommon business enterprise or effort, but by observing certain very ordinary rules of thrift, industry and prudence, intelligible to all and, it might be said, within the opportunities of almost all. It has been said by some that his wisdom had been, after all, nothing but the picayunish wisdom of the narrow-minded penny saver and somewhat out of date now. Those who say so forget that Franklin also taught how a fortune penuriously won may be generously risked or spent for great ends; for the same Franklin unhesitatingly put his whole fortune in jeopardy to help General Braddock in his expedition; what to him was an enormous sum, he lent to the Continental Congress, when the chances of the American Revolution looked extremely uncertain. He offered to make himself liable for the tea thrown into Boston harbor, if thereby a just policy toward America could be secured; thus repeatedly placing his hard-earned fortune at the service of his country.
He became a singularly happy man, so happy indeed that he could say near the close of his life, — if he could live it over again with some few changes he would like it, — not by the mere favor of fortune, nor by a lofty philosophy lifting him above the reach of disappointment and sorrow, but by controlling those evil passions he had in common with most others; by turning his faculties to the best account for himself and his fellow-men; by never losing sight of his wise maxim that “human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day”; and by simply enjoying the pleasant things of this world, freely and heartily, as other good people enjoyed them, getting the fullest possible measure of them he could.
He was a virtuous man, earnestly, methodically so; but his was not that straitlaced and forbidding kind of virtue which looks with a stern and sour eye upon human weakness and at every worldly enjoyment and pleasure. His was a thoroughly human, sympathetic, merry, lovable virtue — a virtue that nobody would be afraid of and that everybody would not only understand and esteem but enjoy.
In one word, the manner in which he became good, useful, great and happy is so much within the reach of common intelligence as well as common opportunities that, studying it, scarcely any human being can fail to see in it a great many suggestions which pointedly apply to his own actual condition, and to feel the impulse of trying something like this too, although perhaps in a much smaller sphere and with much more modest mental resources. And the mere attempt, if made with some degree of earnestness, will be almost sure to produce some good.
It was at the time thought to be the highest praise that could be conferred upon a man when Turgot, in his celebrated epigram, said of Franklin: “Eripuit cœlo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis” (“He snatched the lightning from the heavens, and the scepter from the hand of the tyrants”). In one respect this poetic compliment, however great, was not large enough. For it might well be added that Franklin also stripped science of its mystery and virtue of its terrors.
He was the greatest of Americans; one of the great men in history, and, with all his greatness, a most genuine man of the people.