Franklin’s optimism about the American experiment is reflected in an essay he wrote about our first Thanksgiving. The early settlers, “their minds gloomy and discontented,” frequently fasted to seek relief from their distress, he recounted. Just when they were about to declare another day of fasting, “a farmer of plain sense” pointed out that “the inconveniences they suffered, and concerning which they had so often wearied heaven with their complaints, were not so great.” Instead of another fast, the farmer argued, they should have a feast to give thanks. Writing a century later — in 1785, a period when both the economy and political system looked fragile, rather like the present — Franklin assured his fellow citizens that thanksgiving was still warranted. “Let us take a cool view of the general state of our affairs, and perhaps the prospect will appear less gloomy than has been imagined,” he wrote.
One of the glories of America is that there are two strands in its national character. One is that of the liberty-loving individualist who flies a flag proclaiming, Don’t tread on me. The other is that of the civic-minded citizen who sees our nation’s progress as a common endeavor. Tocqueville wrote that these strands were often in conflict, as they seemed to be in many of this year’s elections. But Franklin realized that these strands were interwoven and related, part of the warp and woof of the tightly knit American fabric.
Franklin was the first great embodiment of that American archetype: the spunky, self-made Horatio Alger who rises from rags to riches by aspiration and grit, and then dedicates himself to creating a society where others can do the same. He believed that the business of America was not merely to celebrate success but also to ensure that each new generation had the opportunity to achieve it.
These Rotarian instincts were nurtured in a civic-improvement club that Franklin founded as a young printer in Philadelphia. The Leather Apron Club was composed of enterprising tradesmen, artisans and shopkeepers, what he proudly called “we the middling people.” Instead of replicating the rigid hereditary class system of England, America should have as its backbone, Franklin believed, a middle class whose success came from hard work.
The Leather Apron Club discussed civic and political issues, devised schemes for self-improvement and formed a network dedicated to “doing well by doing good.” Its members helped launch a flotilla of civic associations, including militia and street-sweeping corps, volunteer firefighters, tax-supported neighborhood constables, health and life insurance groups, a library, a hospital, an academy for educating youth, a society for sharing scientific information and a postal system to help connect everyone.