|Between Principle and Inclination
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
14 January 2006
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston 300 years
ago next week (January 17, 1706) and died in 1790, leaving incomplete
and unpublished what would become his most famous work, his
memoirs. The word autobiography was not yet in use, and the
thing itself was something of a novelty in America, although
not unknown. Jonathan Edwards, the great hell-fire preacher,
had written a short "personal narrative" of his spiritual
life: "My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared
to me perfectly ineffable, and swallowing up all thought and
imagination; like an infinite deluge, or mountains over my head."
Franklin's autobiography, according to the
editors of the best edition (the Norton Critical Edition, edited
by JA Leo Lemay and PM Zall), has two striking distinctions:
"It is the only enduring best-seller written in America
before the 19th century. It is the most popular autobiography
ever written." It began, in the way such documents often
did, as a letter to Franklin's son, written at Twyford in Hampshire
in 1771, in a period of personal frustration and political defeat.
Franklin, remembered as the father of the American
revolution, was for most of his life a devoted royalist. His
idea was that the American colonies owed their allegiance to
the king, but not to the British parliament (unless that parliament
admitted representatives from America). The colonies should
govern themselves, and cooperate for their own self-defence,
but remain loyal to the crown.
But this position exposed him to virulent criticism
from America and in London, where he lived for a long time (in
Craven Street by Charing Cross). So, although he was given credit
for the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, he was also thought
to have been responsible for the act in the first place. He
was a wealthy and celebrated public figure, internationally
renowned for experiments on electricity that had made him the
best-known scientist of his day. He was not yet, when he began
his autobiography, a revolutionary.
Some people can't stand this book. DH Lawrence
speaks for many of them: "The Perfectibility of Man! Ah
heaven, what a dreary theme! The perfectibility of the Ford
car! The perfectibility of which man? I am many men. Which of
them are you going to perfect? I am not a mechanical contrivance."
But even Lawrence admired Franklin's courage, his sagacity,
his commonsense humour.
And he could well have admired his rebelliousness,
since Franklin's story is not a pious one. He leaves home in
Boston, walking out on his apprenticeship to his "harsh
and tyrannical" brother. The world of colonial New England
is indeed one where self-help and prudence gain their reward,
but it is also one in which (quite apart from the question of
slavery, which is glossed over) people are indentured or bound
apprentice to unjust masters. So a part of self-help is to revolt.
It's good to read books, but it can also be good to sell your
little library and leave town.
Temperance and vegetarianism suit Franklin's
character well, but only up to a point. Franklin is perfectly
happy to suggest to an army chaplain that he could increase
his congregation by distributing the rum ration after prayers
(the advice works well). During his flight from Boston, at a
time when he still considers "the taking of every fish
as a kind of unprovok'd Murder", his ship is becalmed and
those on board begin catching cod. "It smelt admirably
well. I balanced some time between Principle and Inclination:
till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller
Fish taken out of their stomachs: --- Then, thought I, if you
eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you. So I din'd
upon Cod very heartily . . . So convenient a thing it is to
be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make
a Reason for every thing one has in mind to do."
Franklin's world is one in which things are
being invented or thought out again from first principles. The
streets of the city get to be paved, the houses protected from
fire, the children inoculated. People rise in the world, or
they try to rise and fail. They form clubs. They form enmities.
The story has a universal appeal because the man who tells it
is accustomed to thinking in universal terms. And it has a specific
local appeal, because Franklin loves to give specific information
(even if he occasionally seems to invent some of the specifics).
Read by itself, it tells only half the Franklin
story. I've been reading it with a book that looks critically
at the Franklin myth, Gordon S Wood's excellent The Americanization
of Benjamin Franklin (Penguin, 2004): the perfect accompaniment
to the Norton edition.