Friday, April 13, 2012

Franklin’s Foibles and Other Closing Thoughts

Having just finished his Completed Autobiography, I have no doubt that Ben Franklin was in many ways an exceptional man.  Following his successful career as a printer, inventor and scientist, he spent his thirty-odd years of retirement as a civil servant.  During the Revolution he secured vital aid from France, which would become the United States’ closest ally in its struggle for independence.  Later, he played a role in setting up the new nation, fighting his chronically painful gout and kidney stones to help draft the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights before he succumbed to the ailments of age.  Socially, he was far ahead of his time, advocating for the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery altogether some eighty years before the Emancipation Proclamation.  In his last will and testament, he forgave the debt of his son-in-law Richard Bache on condition that he free his slave, Bob.

Still, it’s a bit reassuring to learn that even a legend like Franklin had his foibles, at least when viewed through the lens of history from our present vantage point.  In his discussion of Native Americans, he was uncommonly sympathetic, particularly in cases where European settlers at the frontiers maliciously murdered innocent Natives without provocation.  He clearly viewed them as equals to the Europeans from a human rights standpoint.   However, he also possessed much of his contemporaries’ cultural and religious chauvinism, which he used to justify the expansion of Europeans deeper into America, as is evidenced in passages like the following:
I often wish’d that I were employ’d by the Crown to settle a colony in Ohio, that we could do it effectually and without putting the nation to much expense.  What a glorious thing it would have been to settle in that fine country a large strong body of religious and industrious people!  What a security to the other colonies, and advantage to Britain by increasing her people, territory, strength and commerce.  Might it not have greatly facilitated the introduction of pure religion among the heathen, if we could, by such a colony, show them a better sample of Christians than they commonly saw in our Indian traders, the most vicious and abandoned wretches of our nation?  In such an enterprise I could have spent the remainder of my life with pleasure.
In other writings, he often referred to Native Americans as “the savages.”  My knowledge of 18th century English is limited, so I’m not sure how derogatory “savage” was at the time.  Furthermore, elsewhere Franklin advocated the honest purchase of their territory rather than forcible seizure by war.  However, it’s clear that he had no compunction about encroaching on Native lands for the sake of promulgating his own people’s culture and religion, which he clearly implied to be superior.  It's hard to fault him too gravely for this, considering the cultural milieu in which he was raised; even the sight of giants has its horizons.

On the topic of religion, he was more tolerant than many of his time.  For instance, he referred to his rationalist friend Joseph Priestly as an “honest heretic,” opining that “…’tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic” and “…I think all heretics I have known have been virtuous men.”  He continually advocated the importance of virtue and maintenance of good, honest character.  On the other hand, he was not above using religious language in pursuit of his carnal fulfillment.  Here is one excerpt from one of his many letters to an object of his affection and lust, Madame Brillon, a married woman who was young enough to be his daughter:
And now as I am consulting you upon a case of conscience, I will mention the opinion of a certain father of the church, which I find myself willing to adopt, tho’ I am not sure it is orthodox.  It is this, that the most effectual way to get rid of a certain temptation is, as often as it returns, to comply with and satisfy it.  Pray instruct me how far I may venture to practice upon this principle?
This series of exchanges happened after his own wife’s death, and there’s no clear evidence from this autobiography that he had any sexual affairs during his marriage.  However, considering the fact that Franklin spent most of the last 20 years of his marriage overseas, as well as his rumored reputation as a philanderer, it’s conceivable.  Some have accused Franklin of neglecting his wife by traveling so much, though Skousen suggests in the epilogue that Benjamin and Deborah had both drifted apart from one another in their later years (she repeatedly refused his many offers to take her to England with him in the years prior to the revolution).  In any case, it would be interesting to hear what Mrs. Franklin had to say about their relationship.

I imagine Franklin’s political enemies and other acquaintances had other negative things to say about him, but his writings convince me that he possessed an advanced moral compass for his time and on the whole earnestly strived to do the right thing, while cognizant of his own limitations to determine the best course of action.  Sounds like a decent guy to me.

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