STEALING GOD'S THUNDER
Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the
Invention of America
By Philip Dray
Random House. 279 pp. $25.95
The concept of degeneration in American political history is so broadly accepted as to be almost unchallengeable. In the days of the Founding, giants walked the earth; Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and the others seized independence from Britain and placed the new nation on its republican path. Since then it's all been downhill; no subsequent generation, and certainly not ours, could have accomplished what those demigods wrought.
This conclusion is correct, but the cause typically adduced is wrong. What separates us from the Founders is not a talent gap but a temperament gap; what we lack is not intellectual power but collective confidence. Philip Dray's succinct recounting of the role of science in Franklin's life and thought affords a useful reminder of how thoroughly America's republican experiment was a product of the mindset of the Enlightenment: a belief that all things are possible to self-confident human reason.
Dray, the author of the prize-winning At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, points out that while later generations looked on Franklin as a statesman and diplomat who dabbled in science, his own generation deemed him a scientist who moonlighted in politics. Dray covers all the high points of Franklin's scientific career: his apprenticeship as a journalist during a violent debate over inoculation for smallpox (literally violent: Cotton Mather escaped death when a homemade bomb tossed by an opponent in the debate failed to explode); his observations of the Gulf Stream and other marine and atmospheric currents (which finally convinced stubborn British sea captains to heed the advice American whalers had been giving them for decades); his prescient studies of demography (which forecast with uncanny accuracy the growth of the American population); and, of course, his investigations into electricity (which won him world fame and might have brought him a fortune had he not eschewed a patent on the lightning rod). Dray relates these parts of the Franklin story with energy and economy. His treatment of the electrical investigations, especially of the development of the lightning rod, is the fullest currently available. Other authors have noted the skepticism that naturally greeted the concept of the lightning rod -- who of sound mind would want to crown his house with something that seemed to attract lightning? -- but none has pursued the battle over lightning rod design -- one point or several? sharp or blunt? -- with such thoroughness.
Dray devotes less attention to the subject of the second half of his subtitle: the "invention of America." He walks Franklin through the seminal political events of the Revolutionary era -- the Declaration of Independence, which Franklin helped draft; the Revolutionary War, which Franklin helped win by his diplomacy in France; the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which Franklin helped guide to its successful conclusion. But Dray's real interest lies elsewhere, and his preference shows.
Yet what he does say about the intersection of Franklin's science and politics is, if not original, timely. Dray makes clear that Franklin brought to his political work the same rationalism that informed his science. Franklin wasn't irreligious; he believed in a Creator who paid some attention to what His creatures were up to. But he had no patience with theology; he considered sectarianism a blight and judged reason the appropriate measure of faith rather than vice versa. His parents, solid Puritans, lamented his lapse from orthodoxy; he responded with his own statement of faith: "At the last Day, we shall not be examined [by] what we thought but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord, but that we did GOOD to our Fellow Creatures." One of Franklin's revisions to Jefferson's draft Declaration replaced "sacred and undeniable," in reference to the truths the Americans were defending, with "self-evident." The difference was crucial: "sacred" summoned the authority of God, "self-evident" the authority of human reason.
At a critical moment of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin uncharacteristically -- or so it seemed to most of those present -- moved that each morning's session begin with a prayer to the Almighty for guidance. Dray reads this as suggesting an eleventh-hour reversion to Franklin's parents' belief in divine intervention; more likely Franklin simply wished to remind his opinionated colleagues that they didn't have all the answers. Significantly, the convention rejected the motion; Alexander Hamilton reportedly declared that this was no time to seek "foreign aid." Franklin would no more have looked to Heaven for political guidance than he would have consulted the Bible in fashioning his lightning rod. God gave man reason, he believed, and expected man to use it. Franklin did so with confidence, as did his colleagues.
That was their genius, and it's what separates Franklin's generation from ours. Religion hasn't driven reason from the public square, but it has gained political leverage it never enjoyed in the days of the Founding. Biblical literalism (currently cloaked as "intelligent design") has fought the science of evolution to a standstill in many schools. The very idea of the Enlightenment evokes derisive sneers. Orthodoxy of some Judeo-Christian sort has become a de facto requirement for American elective office; deists in the mold of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson need not apply. Franklin's partners weren't all as scientifically minded as Dray reveals Franklin to be, but they all believed that reason was a surer guide to political progress than religion. And in this belief they accomplished the great things they did.
As Franklin left the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, he was asked what he and his colleagues had produced. "A republic," he replied, "if you can keep it." We've kept it, after our fashion. But we couldn't reproduce it. Franklin would be disappointed. *
H.W. Brands is the author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin." His biography of Andrew Jackson will be published in October.