HE Was, said Phillips Russell half a century ago, "the first civilized American"--an exaggeration, but a pardonable one.
With Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin is now so enmeshed in national legend that we forget his standing in the civilized world of his time. No other American save Woodrow Wilson, and he but briefly, has been so venerated abroad. It was a remarkable life for a self-taught colonial printer.
Among the founders of the Republic, only Jefferson, much his junior, rivaled him in intellectual scope, but Jefferson was not an experimental scientist (or "philosopher," as they said in the 18th century).
But Franklin, in conventional understanding, concealed the scope of his intellect in the cracker-barrel wiseacre of his Poor Richard's Almanack--"only a fool makes his doctor his heir," and the like. It was as if a Nobel laureate in physics chose to talk like Will Rogers.
Many, over the years, have consequently misread him. D.H. Lawrence, for instance, growled that Franklin "made himself a list of virtues, which he trotted inside like a grey nag in a paddock." More legwork (at which Lawrence did not excell) would have shown that the grey nag often jumped the fence. Sage Franklin was, but neither the prude nor the miser he seemed to enjoin others to be.
The challenge to any biographer of Franklin, to Ronald Clark as to others, is that he left us what is, with Thoreau's Walden and Henry Adams' Education, easily the most popular and entertaining American autobiography. So his life and adventures, at least up to the Revolution, are familiar with that deceptive familiarity that smooths odd angles and edges.
Consider: the young prodigy in his brother's Boston printshop, already at 16 an accomplished satirist; the Franklin who three years later appears broke and hungry in Philadelphia, buying two loaves of bread with his last coins and tucking them under his arms; still later, the first English-speaking statesman to envision what would become, when other imaginations caught up, the British Commonwealth; the canny experimentalist and trickster with electricity, inventor of bifocals, Fellow of the Royal Academy, founder of the University of Pennsylvania and of the American Philosophical Society; military strategist, frontiersman, publisher of the first novel printed in America (Richardson's Pamela), architect and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And so on and on and on--till the mind reels with considering it all.
He is rightly recalled, too, as the most effective of the American colonial agents in London, a man who cherished the filial tie with England and reluctantly resigned himself to breaking it only after he was deliberately humiliated before the Privy Council by the tart Scottish lawyer Wedderburn. He had condemned the Boston Tea Party, and supported restitution. We may suspect that when his (illegitimate) son William, royal governor of New Jersey, chose the Loyalist side after 1776 it bespoke an attachment that had to be painfully suppressed by his father in the cause of American liberty.
This is the familiar Franklin.
The unfamiliar Franklin, to which Ronald Clark devotes some attention but not enough, perhaps, to justify a new biography of such length, was more curious. It is Franklin the absconded husband, who spent most of the last 18 years of his marriage abroad, abandoning (is it too harsh a word?) a loyal wife who would not cross the Atlantic. It is the ladies' man--the two are obviously not unconnected--who made sly amorous approaches to his many adoring friends in Paris, Madame Brillon and others.
It is Franklin the American minister in Paris, resourcefully tapping the French arsenal and treasury to support the war of rebellion, a cult figure, his busy and harem-scarem establishment at Passy penetrated by at least one British spy posing as a friend.
Crusty John Adams, dispatched to assist Franklin in allied diplomacy, found himself sore vexed by the chronic disorderliness of Dr. Franklin's almost sybaritic life (though one suspects that to the great puritan, most enjoyment seemed excessive). It was, he wrote, "a scene of continual discipation (sic). I could never obtain the favour of his company in a morning . . . It was late when he breakfasted, and as soon as breakfast was over, a crowd of carriages came to his levee . . . by far the greater part . . . women and children, come to have . . . the pleasure of telling stories about his simplicity, his bald head and scattering strait hairs among their acquaintances. These visitors occupied all the time." (The whole letter, which Clark quotes at length, should be read; it is the most vivid contemporary capsule of Franklin we have.)
Today, no doubt, Franklin would have the run of all the gossip columns, social and political, a colonial Dr. Kissinger. But Clark wisely resists any anachronistic dilation on Franklin's anomalies of character and behavior. The 18th century, with its equanimity and ideal of "good sense," the balanced amateur life of affairs, letters and science, encouraged a remarkable integration of character. And this was strikingly true of Franklin.
Far from being confused or daunted by the widening boundaries of the universe--Franklin, among other signs of his genius, anticipated Lyell by a century in his geological speculations--"Tis certainly the wreck of a world we live on," he wrote to a Connecticut friend in 1747--Franklin's generation looked serenely to centuries of unbroken human improvement and benevolence. He laughed heartily at canting clerics who denounced his lightning rod as impious: "Surely the thunder of heaven is no more supernatural than the rain, hail or sunshine of heaven, against the inconveniences of which we guard by roofs & shades without scruple."
It was an enviable age to live in, and in it Franklin lived enviably well.
Ronald Clark, whose specialty is scientific biography, adds considerably to one's appreciation of Franklin's contributions to experimental and speculative science. For the rest, his portrait is a bit bland and routine--informative but sometimes humdrum.
But after all there was something deeply tranquil-- and tranquillizing--about Franklin's age, even with all its political upheavals. Perhaps its very equanimity is bound to rub off, occasionally, on a biographer!