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In My Good Books

Between Principle and Inclination

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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Franklin was born in Boston 300 years ago next week (January 17, 1706) and died in 1790, leaving incomplete and unpublished what would become his most famous work, his memoirs.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.

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