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Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

by Alan Houston

This fascinating book explores Benjamin Franklin’s social and political thought. Although Franklin is often considered “the first American,” his intellectual world was cosmopolitan. An active participant in eighteenth-century Atlantic debates over the modern commercial republic, Franklin combined abstract analyses with practical proposals. Houston


This fascinating book explores Benjamin Franklin’s social and political thought. Although Franklin is often considered “the first American,” his intellectual world was cosmopolitan. An active participant in eighteenth-century Atlantic debates over the modern commercial republic, Franklin combined abstract analyses with practical proposals. Houston treats Franklin as shrewd, creative, and engaged—a lively thinker who joined both learned controversies and political conflicts at home and abroad.

Drawing on meticulous archival research, Houston examines such tantalizing themes as trade and commerce, voluntary associations and civic militias, population growth and immigration policy, political union and electoral institutions, freedom and slavery. In each case, he shows how Franklin urged the improvement of self and society.

Engagingly written and richly illustrated, this book provides a compelling portrait of Franklin, a fresh perspective on American identity, and a vital account of what it means to be practical.

Editorial Reviews

Carla Mulford
"Houston's placement of Franklin in the milieu of the social and political theorists with whom he circulated is unmatched."—Carla Mulford, Pennsylvania State University

J. A. Leo Lemay
“An important, well-written, and consistently interesting interpretation of Franklin.”—J. A. Leo Lemay, University of Delaware
Don Herzog
“I can think of no work that comes close to giving such a rich account of this polymath, and none that opens such politically provocative vantage points from Franklin’s work onto eighteenth-century America, commercial society, the history of demography, and more.”—Don Herzog, University of Michigan
T.H. Breen
"In this wonderfully creative study, Alan Houston recaptures the extraordinary complexity of Franklin's thought. The book not only is a pleasure to read, but also provides a compelling new methodology for analyzing political ideas in a commercial society."—T.H. Breen, author of The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence
Shannon Stimson
“Houston succeeds admirably in contextualizing and skillfully presenting the politics and political economy informing Franklin’s understanding of colonial America’s increasingly independent strength within the larger British empire. It is essential reading for the study of Franklin’s political thought.”—Shannon Stimson, University of California-Berkeley
Stephen Holmes
“A dazzlingly written and deliciously detailed portrait of Franklin’s unique place in the politics and culture of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.”—Stephen Holmes, New York University School of Law

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

By Alan Houston


Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12447-7

Chapter One


The Use of Money is all the Advantage there is in having Money. - Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac (1737)

"'Tis hard for an empty Bag to stand upright"

Benjamin Franklin had a money problem. In the spring of 1726, after eighteen eventful months, he had "grown tired of London." Having reached the age of twenty, he longed to return to Pennsylvania. He had a career waiting for him, as clerk to the Philadelphia merchant Thomas Denham. The starting salary was modest, just u50 a year, but colonial trade was on the upswing, and his prospects for improvement were excellent. There was just one problem: he did not have enough money to pay for his passage home.

"A penny saved is a penny got," but Franklin was having difficulty saving his pennies. He had traveled to London at the behest of Pennsylvania's governor, Sir William Keith. Keith considered Franklin "a young Man of promising Parts" and had offered to set him up in the printing business. Franklin sailed in expectation of letters of recommendation and instruments of credit that would enable him to obtain the supplies needed to set up a colonial print shop. To his horror and dismay,on reaching England he discovered that Keith had provided neither. Just three years earlier Franklin had run away from the Boston print shop of his brother and master, James. When he arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of 1723, he was penniless and friendless, possessing little more than the clothes on his back. Now, once again, he was on his own. A fellow passenger advised that he make the best of it; "among the Printers here ... you will improve yourself; and when you return to America, you will set up to greater Advantage."

Franklin immediately found employment at Samuel Palmer's print shop and set about exploring the city. He was not alone; he had been accompanied on the voyage by James Ralph, a Philadelphia friend who aspired to become an actor. Or a writer. Or a copyist. (Eventually he settled on teaching.) Ralph had no money, so he borrowed from Franklin. Together they went to the theater, listened to speeches and sermons, and visited clubs, coffeehouses, and taverns. Both were charmed by the women of London. Ralph took up with a "sensible and lively" young milliner. When Ralph left London to seek employment, she turned to Franklin for comfort and financial support. He "grew fond of her Company," but the only thing his "attempted Familiarities" brought was a firm rebuff from the milliner and a "Breach" in his friendship with Ralph.

In the Autobiography Franklin tells us that he left Palmer's for Watts's, near Lincoln's Inn Fields, so that he could begin saving money. He "spent but little" upon himself; his poverty was due to Ralph, who refused to repay the u27 he had borrowed. A story passed down by the descendents of Zabdiel Boylston, a Boston physician who visited London in 1725, suggests otherwise. Boylston would have been well known to Franklin-he had been James Franklin's doctor-and Franklin is reported to have appeared before him in "extreme distress," "without money, friends or counsel," asking for help. Boylston is said to have given him 20 guineas. The Franklin scholar J. A. Leo Lemay dismisses this as "apocryphal." After all, Franklin was gainfully employed almost from the moment he set foot in London. But Thomas Denham's account book gives credence to Boylston family memories. In April 1726 Denham lent Franklin u10 for passage to Philadelphia. But over the previous six months-before his offer of employment-Denham appears to have lent Franklin over u6 for "cash" and "sundries." Later, Poor Richard would warn, "Rather go to bed supperless, than run in debt for a Breakfast." These were lessons learned in the breach. Even without Ralph's help, Franklin lived beyond his means.

From start to finish, Franklin's sojourn in London was defined by relationships of credit and debt, trust and betrayal. The lending and collecting of money was only one facet of these bonds. Keith offered Franklin financial assistance but also the power of personal recommendation. He reneged on both. Ralph sponged Franklin's money, shared his louche life, and then, when seeking employment outside London as a tutor, borrowed Franklin's name as well. Denham offered Franklin small loans to help tide him over. More important, he offered to bring Franklin into his Philadelphia home, where he would teach him business skills and treat him as a future partner.

The Franklin visible in London contrasts sharply with the man of lore and legend. Joseph Dennie, a Federalist appalled by the rise of Jeffersonian democracy, denigrated Franklin as a small-minded man, the kind of person "who has the pence table by heart and knows all the squares of multiplication." Nathaniel Hawthorne thought that Poor Richard's proverbs were "all about getting money, or saving it." The most inspired of these attacks-and the only one that matches Franklin's wit-came from Mark Twain: "His simplest acts" were "contrived with a view to their being held up for the emulation of boys forever-boys who might otherwise have been happy..... Franklin once said in one of his inspired flights of malignity, 'Early to bed and early to rise/Make a man healthy and wealthy and wise.' As if it were any object to a boy to be healthy and wealthy and wise on such terms. The sorrow that that maxim has cost me through my parents' experimenting on me with it, tongue cannot tell." Finally, there is the influential argument of Max Weber, the German sociologist who suggested that Franklin exhibited the "spirit of capitalism" with "almost classical purity." Weber's analysis was free of moralizing cant, but he agreed with Hawthorne: Franklin's whole life was subordinated to the task of making more and more money. (Weber's depiction of Franklin is explored in detail in the appendix.)

Finding passages in Franklin's writings to support these views is not difficult. For example, Franklin famously advised young tradesmen to "remember that Time is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, though he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expense; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides." That certainly sounds like the way to wealth. But is it? And is it expressive of Franklin's deepest insights into work and labor? Franklin retired from business at the age of forty-two, with the expectation that the "moderate Fortune" he had acquired as printer and bookseller would secure him "Leisure to read, study, make Experiments, and converse" with friends. In comparison, the character described by Dennie, Hawthorne, Twain, and Weber seems wooden and one-dimensional, like a prop on a stage or a mannequin in a store window. But what of Franklin's pithy phrases? Don't they reveal something distinctive about his economic ethos? Perhaps. But recall that Franklin was a voracious reader. The vast majority of Poor Richard's proverbs were the "Gleanings" of his studies. "A penny saved is a penny got"? "No gains without pains"? "Haste makes waste"? "Rather go to bed supperless, than run in debt for a Breakfast"? "'Tis hard for an empty Bag to stand upright"? These were already well known in seventeenth-century Britain. And what of Twain's nemesis, that deepest and most distinctive expression of Franklin's priorities, "Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise"? With only slight variation-"Early to go to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise"-it, too, was familiar decades before Franklin was born. Franklin was a brilliant writer and a creative thinker, but he was not autochthonous. He lived and wrote in relationship to others, in an intellectual context as vast as the Atlantic.

If we are to grasp the sophistication and originality of Franklin's thoughts on work and labor, then we cannot restrict our attention to the words of Poor Richard or the facts of Franklin's life. We must also explore Franklin's participation in eighteenth-century Atlantic debates over the theory and practice of commercial society. In Franklin's day, the word commerce carried the familiar meaning of truck and barter, "the Exchange of one Commodity or Manufacture for another." This was its core. But circulating around it were other meanings, many of which have been lost or forgotten in the intervening centuries. Commerce referred to association with others, as in "the free and easy commerce of social life." Some of these associations were illicit ("the illegal commerce of the sexes"), others were exemplary (Jesus's "commerce with his disciples"). Commerce also referred to the exchange of thoughts and ideas, as in "a constant commerce of letters." Franklin invoked several senses of the word in 1753, when he offered, as postmaster, to use his franking privileges to facilitate the trade of ideas between two philosophically minded friends. "Let me be the Medium of your literary Commerce," he suggested. "It behooves us all to join Hands for the Honor" of "American Philosophy."

Commerce concerned the circulation of raw materials and finished goods, rough ideas and refined sentiments. It involved much more than simply buying and selling. (Or, perhaps better, commerce is much more complicated than we often allow.) Traders associate for exchange. They haggle and bargain, threaten and seduce. Sometimes they gain from their interactions; sometimes they go home empty-handed, or worse. All but the simplest exchanges involve credit and debt, hence uncertainty and risk. Even correspondence can be measured in these terms. Who has not begun a letter, as Franklin once did, with the confession that although "it is a long time since I have had the Pleasure of a Line from you ... I have not deserved it; for I am Debtor on Account of several of your Favors that remain unanswered"?

Commerce provided a model for cooperative social relations based on the power of needs and interests: humans join together because they are useful to each other. The theory of commercial society provided a vibrant alternative to accounts of cooperation based on moral virtue (we cooperate because we hold specific other-regarding beliefs and values) or mortal fear (we cooperate because we dread the coercive sanctions imposed by governments). During the eighteenth century theories of commercial society played an increasingly important role in public debates. Throughout the Atlantic world philosophers and politicians, playwrights and pamphleteers, pursued a number of questions with vigor and sophistication. Why do individuals engage in commerce? How are relationships of credit and debt sustained? Why should those engaged in trade, often separated by vast distances, trust each other? How strong are the bonds of cooperation forged by commerce? Does trade give rise to enduring or hazardous forms of conflict? These questions had moral and psychological, as well as political and economic, dimensions. As Franklin learned from Keith's false promises and Denham's generous support, trustworthiness resided in an individual's character as well as in the policies governing his or her actions. Tracing Franklin's contributions to the manifold debates concerning commercial society will provide important first clues to the nature and purpose of the politics of improvement.


Franklin's interest in trade and commerce dated to his youth. One of the books that captured his attention as a boy, for example, was Daniel Defoe 's An Essay upon Projects. Defoe proposed a number of measures for the "Improvement of Trade," from creating a network of local banks to publicly maintaining England's roads and highways. One of his projects concerned the fate of widows, who often fell into poverty when their husbands died. Why not make provision for this predictable event? A system of "friendly societies" would allow couples to make small regular contributions to a collective fund, against which widows could draw after their partners' deaths. Franklin thought highly of this idea and reprinted it in his tenth "Silence Dogood" essay. ("Silence" was the pseudonym Franklin chose for his contributions to James Franklin's The New-England Courant. Silence had a sharp wit and a satiric tongue as well as a "natural Inclination to observe and reprove the Faults of others." She was also a widow. Was her decision to call attention to Defoe 's proposal self-interested? Should it matter? What of the fact that, unknown to the Courant's readers, she was a he, and a sixteen-year-old boy at that? Determining the trustworthiness of an informant can be treacherous.)

Eighteenth-century reflections on trade and commerce do not look like the writings of contemporary economists. "Economy" was originally the art or science of managing a household; an "economist" was a person who practiced that art. Closely related was the use of the word economy to refer to thrift or the careful management of resources. It was not until 1767 that an English-language book appeared with the phrase "political economy" in its title; another forty years passed before writers referred to individuals concerned with managing the material resources of a nation as "economists." To be sure, systematic concern for national wealth predated these usages by at least two centuries. And many of the questions asked in the eighteenth century-Do gains in the wealth of one country augment or diminish the wealth of other countries? Is agricultural production or market exchange the key to growth and development? Do high wages make an economy grow or contract?-continue to be asked. But early investigations of economic phenomena were not conducted within a distinct intellectual or professional discipline. Adam Smith was undoubtedly the greatest political economist of the eighteenth century, but his arguments are spread across books with titles like The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Lectures on Jurisprudence as well as An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Economic thinking encompassed ideas and arguments that are now treated separately by economists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists, lawyers, and philosophers.

One set of questions that preoccupied early political economists was essentially moral and psychological. Improvement-constructing roads, building hospitals, funding "friendly societies"-was impossible without economic growth and development. As Poor Richard quipped, "Necessity has no Law; Why? Because 'tis not to be had without Money." Even the simplest of governmental tasks had a price tag. But what of the men and women who made growth possible? What did they think about work and labor? Inherited moral traditions held that the pursuit of wealth was morally suspect. Greed-an inordinate or excessive desire for gain-was a vice. It corrupted the soul and created social conflict. In medieval theology avarice was considered a deadly sin; its antonym was charity, the unselfish love of others. Could the pursuit of profit be morally rehabilitated? If so, could it also be made psychologically attractive? Everyday observation suggested that many workers preferred a little more leisure to a little extra income. Laborers often responded to increased wages by cutting back on the number of hours or days they worked. How might they be motivated to become more industrious? And finally, how would the spread of trade-an increase in the number and diversity of things bought and sold-affect social order? Would it provide new bases for cooperation? Or would the experience of economic competition lead to fragmentation and conflict? Indeed, what were the traits and habits, beliefs and practices, that enabled humans to cooperate?


Excerpted from Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement by Alan Houston Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Alan Houston is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. He lives in San Diego.

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