From his early career as a printer and journalist, to his scientific work and his role as a founder of a new republic, Benjamin Franklin has always seemed the inevitable embodiment of American ingenuity. But in his youth he had to make his way through a harsh colonial world where he fought many battles: with his rivals, but also with his wayward emotions. Taking Franklin to the age of forty-one, when he made his first electrical discoveries, Bunker goes behind the legend to reveal the sources of his passion for knowledge. Always trying to balance virtue against ambition, Franklin emerges as a brilliant but flawed human being, made from the conflicts of an age of slavery as well as reason. With archival material from both sides of the Atlantic, we see Franklin in Boston, London, and Philadelphia, as he develops his formula for greatness. A tale of science, politics, war, and religion, this is also a story about Franklin's forebears: the talented family of English craftsmen who produced America's favorite genius.
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The Enigmatic Seer
Behold, all alive, one of the ancestors of modern America!
- Auguste Rodin, 1910 on the bust of Franklin by Jean-Antoine Houdon
Before we share the story of his origins and early years, we begin with a glance at the man as he was late in life: Benjamin Franklin, the affable sage, in the Paris where he played the role of diplomat. With his long hair, his paunch, and his spectacles, he delighted his hosts in France with a manner that conveyed serenity as well as charm. Some of us can do gravitas, and some of us can do joie de vivre, but the Franklin of 1780 could do both. It was a rare combination, and all the more exceptional because it seemed to come so easily.
As America’s envoy to the court of Versailles, Franklin could hush the chatter in a salon merely by pausing for a long while before he replied to a question. An oracle at peace with himself, or so it seemed, Franklin was always friendly and polite but also rather distant and reserved. Here was a sage who could be funny when he chose, but somehow never lose his aura of gentility.
Partly the secret lay in his build, stricken though he was by arthritis and the gout. In his prime, Franklin had been broad-shouldered and muscular, an inch or two under six feet tall. Even now at seventy, leaning on a cane, he struck one French observer as “a very big man with an excellent figure.” Although Franklin would lounge for hours over breakfast, reading the news from the war with the British, the long legs that stretched out across the floor were still firm and shapely: “a very handsome leg,” one visitor recalled.
Besides the long pauses, which made the big American seem so august and sublime, Franklin had another way to be inscrutable. Unlike most public men of advancing years, he rarely bored his listeners with tales of past achievements, and least of all did he speak about his boyhood and his youth. This was true of his correspondence as well as his conversation. When we turn to his letters, surviving in the thousands, we meet a Franklin who took the utmost pride in his grammar, his spelling, and the rhythm of his prose, but we will mostly search in vain for intimate details of his early years. Instead they show us a practical, up-to-date Franklin, for whom history—including his own—always seemed to matter far less than the future.
And so besides the dignity and the gravitas, Franklin also had a touch of mystery. By saying so little about his past, he maintained his aura of reserve, and he did it so well that it has endured until the present day. After a lifetime’s study of the man, scholars sometimes come away feeling that Franklin will always slip through our fingers. “He kept a kind of inner core of himself intact and unapproachable,” wrote Edmund Morgan, the historian from Yale, in one of the finest books about him. In Franklin’s own era, those who tried to grapple with the sage often found him even more elusive. Whether they loved or hated Dr. Franklin, they could simply never pin him down.
Where had he come from? That they knew—first Boston, and then Philadelphia—but it was hardly much to go on. What were his origins? Who were his family? How had he become the genius he was? Today when we look for answers to these questions we simply open his autobiography, written in fits and starts over the space of twenty years. There we find a very different Franklin, a man who loved to delve into his roots; but in his lifetime he chose to keep the book from the public eye. Not until 1791, the year after his death, did the first edition of his memoirs appear in print. Even then it was only a French translation and it was incomplete.
As far as the outside world was concerned, his career had begun with a flash and a bang in 1751, when—at the age of forty-five—he published the first edition of his scientific papers, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, with his startling theory that electricity and lightning were identical. After that Franklin was rarely out of the news, as he played his many parts as scientist, politician, ambassador, and rebel. His earlier life was something else entirely: provincial, obscure, and all but impossible to reach.
In the Philadelphia of the Revolution, there were aging citizens who remembered Franklin the printer, bent over the proofs of The Pennsylvania Gazette, but that was a very long time ago and the details were hard to recover. Three decades had gone by since he ceased to be the paper’s editor. Although everyone knew Franklin as the author of The Way to Wealth, with its maxims and its jokes culled from his annual, Poor Richard’s Almanack, even that was something whose origins were lost from view. In its heyday in the 1740s, the almanac had a circulation of ten thousand, but it was a product people kept for a few years and then discarded: how could they know that one day the author would be famous? As for his early journalism, written when he was a teenager in Boston, it had been forgotten long ago. Bylines had yet to be invented, and so his youthful columns disappeared into the archives, dusty and anonymous, to be rediscovered only in the nineteenth century.
With his memoirs still hidden away so discreetly, Franklin’s public image was very different from the picture we now have of him. For us he will always be the teenage runaway made good, a whimsical fellow with his gadgets and his jokes. In his lifetime, when they encountered the elderly Franklin what most people saw was a mountain of a man, whose sense of humor took a distant second place to his weighty achievements in science and public affairs. It was as if they had beheld another Moses: a prophet from Sinai, bearing his tablets of stone, wrapped in a cloud that concealed the sources of his energy.
From time to time, however, Franklin would meet a shrewd observer who could see behind the mask of serenity. Among the many portraits that survive, perhaps the best is the marble bust made in Paris in 1779 by a French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, whose powers of insight were superb. With that unflinching realism for which the French are famous, he shows us a hero with a hinterland: a patriarch whose wisdom is the product of hard labor.
At first sight the bust gives us a classical figure, a philosopher king of the kind that Plato hoped to see ruling his ideal city. The dignity is there and so is the reserve. In the firmness of his gaze, we see the Franklin who had been an athlete in his youth: an excellent swimmer and a fine boxer who knew how to fell an opponent with an upper cut to the jaw. But if we walk around the bust, and peer at it closely, the image becomes as subtle and complex as the man it sought to portray.
Houdon did not mean to flatter or to be a toady. Instead the artist gives us what he found before his eyes: an old man with a sagging chin. The long hair is an old man’s hair, falling over Franklin’s collar like a clump of dry seaweed on a rock. Although his jowls are heavy with flesh, in places the cheeks have sunk into hollows to reveal the skull beneath, as if to signify the imminence of death. Most skillfully of all, Houdon has shown the mouth tightly set, with pursed lips and a sense of strain. Perhaps the oracle is deep in thought; or perhaps he is trying to suppress a fit of anger.
While Franklin hoped to be seen as the affable sage, a hero who bore his grandeur with ease, the artist gives us someone else entirely: a Franklin who has achieved his gravitas only by way of a long campaign for self-control. More than a hundred years later, another French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, hailed the bust as a masterpiece in which Houdon captured aspects of Franklin that the sage preferred to conceal. In what he called Franklin’s “long apostolic hair,” Rodin found the homespun wisdom of Poor Richard; in the “large, obstinate forehead,” the sculptor had shown courage and self-reliance, but in the eyes, the mouth, and the sheer bulk of Franklin’s mighty head, Rodin also saw “the hard common-sense of the calculator.” With his jowls and his furrowed brow, this is the Franklin who had been a tradesman.
In a century when to count as a dignitary you were supposed to be born to grandeur, and to show no signs of strain, Franklin was an oddity: a man who had risen to fame after an early career filled with the daily grind of business. The successes of his life required long years of effort: with his science, with his books or in the printing shop, always on a deadline, where the work was exhausting and repetitive and subject to the foibles of the market. Many printers went bankrupt, and most of those whom Franklin knew died young. For businesspeople in the 1700s, an age without a safety net, life could be more precarious than we can readily imagine. A storm in the Atlantic, a crisis in the markets in London, a war in the West Indies, or a failed harvest of tobacco—any one of these could spell commercial disaster. If you were in business in colonial America, calamity lay just around the corner.
In the bust that Houdon made, we see a survivor of adversity who always knew how close he had come to failure. In his years of stardom, when people told him what a genius he was, Franklin would enjoy the compliments but remain aloof: partly because he had diplomacy to do, but also because he knew that his career might easily have ended in oblivion. Time and again in his early life Franklin had seen the sorry fate of other young men, his friends or his rivals, who had fallen by the wayside, victims of smallpox, alcohol, or promiscuity: or simply destroyed by bad luck when the market turned against them.
Why had he gone on to be a success, while so many others dropped down into ruin? This became the central theme of Franklin’s memoirs, but he did not wish to have it explored by his readers until he was safely in the grave. Witty he might be, but Franklin was also a deeply serious man, conscious of the task he had to fulfill in building a new American republic. It would not have been helpful to give his rivals or his enemies, and not only the British, too many clues to the secrets of his past.
In his youth he had made embarrassing mistakes. Franklin listed in his memoirs those he was willing to confess. His life had also contained long detours and delays, so that he had to wait far too long to find his true vocation as a scientist. In his century, a man or woman of forty was already far advanced in middle age, but not until Franklin was turning forty-one could he begin his sustained experiments with physics.
With his pioneering work with electricity, Franklin became the Amer-ican heir of Sir Isaac Newton, helping to engineer another scientific revolution, not quite as profound as Sir Isaac’s but close enough and still immensely fruitful. In the process, Franklin gave birth to the systematic study of science in America, as a program of disciplined research by a team and not a mere hobby for clergymen or lawyers working alone in their spare time. But as Franklin also knew, the pursuit of science placed severe demands on its practitioners.
First he had to master the technical literature. Next he had to find the apparatus, or build it for himself; and then, as he made his observations, Franklin had to devise a new scientific language to make sense of what he saw. After four years of trial and error, and thousands of hours of concentrated thought, Franklin produced his masterpiece, his electrical essays: but how many people truly understood the scale of his achievement?
Only Franklin knew the obstacles that he had overcome, and they were not a subject for casual talk around the dinner table. Like a veteran who comes back from a war but does not wish to speak about it, because he fears that the civilians will never understand what combat means, he did not wish to dwell in conversation on the rigors of his early life. Another thing was this: Franklin also knew how old he was and that the world of his youth bore little likeness to the civilized America in which his fellow rebels had come to maturity.
George Washington, the Adamses, John Hancock, and the rest: they were all far younger. Whatever they had seen by way of wars and politics and hardship, they had never known the world he had experienced as a boy. When Franklin was born in 1706, the last of the Stuarts still occupied the throne of England, and the colonies were only a few generations old, often raw and uncouth, with traces of barbarism. In the Boston of his childhood, every day in the street he would see men still in the prime of life who had helped to hang the Salem witches. As for Philadelphia, in his youth it was not far away from being a frontier post. When Franklin first entered the city, at just seventeen, people could still remember a time when settlers lived in caves by the Delaware.
If the world of Franklin’s boyhood seems remote, the England that his family inhabited feels more like something lost forever in a mist. Fascinated though he was by his ancestry, Franklin gives us in his memoirs only a brief account of his father, Josiah, and the rest of his forebears. This would not pose a problem if the Franklins had been just another poor, downtrodden family from some quaint little hamlet where nothing much happened from year to year. If that were so, the tale of the English Franklins would tell us very little about the sources of Franklin’s genius.
In fact, when we investigate his origins, we find that long before he was born the Franklins were already talented people on the move. Excellent craftsmen, and highly ambitious, they emerged from a part of rural England where, even in the seventeenth century, there were clusters of science and technology, and local people of learning with whom they came to be friends. There and in London, where they went to work, the Franklins laid the foundations for Benjamin’s career in America. Reading books and hearing preachers, plying their trade and acquiring the skills they needed, as time went by the Franklins built a family endowment: not a trust fund consisting of cash or stocks and bonds but instead a repertoire of ideas and expertise. In 1683, when Josiah Franklin arrived in Boston, he was a refugee, political and religious, in search of asylum at a time of crisis in the mother country. With him on the boat, Josiah carried a cultural legacy that he would bequeath to his children: a legacy defined by the word “ingenuity.”
If Franklin had a favorite noun, it was this one, a term that conveyed in the eighteenth century a far richer meaning than it carries today. In one form or another, the words “ingenious” and “ingenuity” appear seventeen times in his memoirs, used by Franklin to describe his father, his uncles, and all the other people he respected. When Franklin spoke of ingenuity, he had in mind a quality of being with as many facets as he had himself.
It was a hybrid virtue, a blend of many different ingredients: intellect, of course, but also imagination and skills with the hand and with the eye as well as with the brain. Ingenuity required not only diligence and learning but also an element of playfulness and sociability. Once achieved, it could be a source of happiness as well as a way to make money. Everyone would want to meet ingenious people, because they were fascinating, fun to be with, and filled with curiosity. Their ingenuity might also take them up the social ladder, because the qualities they had, of wit, variety, and flair, were those that a gentleman was meant to possess: and a lady, too, if only she were given the opportunity to shine.
Adopted from the Latin, the word had been current in English for centuries, but suddenly, in the 1650s and the 1660s, a moment arrived when ingenuity became the height of fashion. When Josiah was a boy, at the time when Newton was making his earliest discoveries, it seemed that an age of ingenuity was dawning, an era of progress and invention, with the English poised to take the lead—or so it seemed to them—as the world’s most ingenious people. And so the word was endlessly repeated, in books and pamphlets and in poetry. Josiah brought it with him to the colonies, where the pursuit of ingenuity became the guiding principle of Benjamin Franklin’s career.
None of this came easily in an era when, however brilliant they were, people from the social rank of the Franklins had the odds stacked against them by a culture of deference, on both sides of the Atlantic, that only the most determined men and women could surmount. The Franklins always strove to be ingenious. For a while they were so successful that they briefly won acceptance as members of the gentry. Even so, in England their luck ran out, so that their quest for advancement ended in frustration. In America Josiah Franklin had to work still harder to secure his family’s future. On arrival he was treated as a nobody. In Boston it took Josiah more than twenty years to win the esteem his brothers had fleetingly enjoyed at home.
All of this left its mark on his son. In Benjamin Franklin’s early life, his principal emotions were ambition and the fear of failure. He wanted to be ingenious and he wanted to be a gentleman: in his eyes the two things went together. Desperate to be successful, Franklin pushed himself hard, waging long battles against the temptations that ruined so many young people. By the time he came to Paris, Franklin knew how to pretend that he was always serene. But as Houdon the sculptor saw so well, behind the charm of the affable sage there lay a life with many layers: an odyssey complete with episodes of guilt and phases of anxiety.
This portrait of the scientist as a young man begins with an incident of strife that occurred a hundred years before his birth. It took place in the heart of Shakespeare’s England, where the Franklins were a family of upstarts.