They rip them, historian Gordon Wood comments, “out of their historical context, tear them out of their time and place, In order to make them part of our presenters circumstances. “l Americans believe the Founders are their neighbors, friends, and contemporaries, even if they lived more than two centuries ago. Almost seventy sixty years ago, a French Journalist wrote that “America is the only country … Which pretends to listen to the teaching of its founders as if they were still alive” and “could be called up on the phone for advice. 2 They ignore their flaws: Jefferson racism and slaveholders, Franklins love of young women, John Dam’s defense of the rich, Hamiltonians support for an American monarchy, and Washington’s war (the Whiskey Rebellion) against his own tenants in Pennsylvania. Popular biographers follow public taste. David McCullough paints Adams as the man next door. Yet Adams, a lawyer who represented rich men and defended British officers accused in the Boston Massacre, loathed the poor. Ron Cheroot turns Hamilton Into a poster boy for the “American Dream,” recounting his Illegitimate birth, his thirst for knowledge. ND his rise to prominence, but plays down the patronage he received from rich men that led to his entry into college, a privilege enjoyed by less than a half percent of colonial free, white men. Walter Occasions emphasizes Franklins middle class identity, his appeal to workers, and his egalitarian democracy, at best a partial picture of Franklin. 3 Skillful, Franklin and the American Dream 2 Both historians and the American public consider understanding the Revolutionary era essential.
Historians view it as the harbinger of later social and political development; the public deems knowledge of the era necessary for good citizenship. Yet for almost a century, historians have decried Americans’ adherence to myths bout the nation’s founding, while failing to delve into the role these myths play in American politics and culture. Such an examination is essential before historians can guide Americans toward a clearer understanding of the country’s past. 4 Americans have little interest in the politics or philosophy of the Founders, much less of the society in which they lived.
Rather, as a 1998 poll revealed, they expect high school graduates “to understand the common history and Ideas that tie all Americans They draw moral principles from the lives of the Founders and view them as symbols f their most cherished values. Jefferson represents democracy and equality; Hamilton, capitalism and economic growth; Washington, courage under fire and integrity; Madison, the rule of law and constitutional liberty; and Franklin, inventiveness and upward mobility.
This essay will contrast the historical Franklin with popular images of his life by examining his class identity and its relationship to the “American Dream” of upward mobility. Franklin created a bourgeois persona in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Americans have taken the identity Franklin constructed, defined it as middle lass, presumed it an accurate portrayal, and used his life story as emblematic of the “American Dream. ” Recently, both Franklin and the American Dream have received renewed attention. Popular interest in Franklin surged in the lead-up to the 2006 tercentenary of his birth.
New biographies have proliferated (two reached the best-seller lists) and a multi-part, three-and-a-half-hour documentary aired on America’s Public Broadcasting System. Even as great fortunes have grown and economic Skillful, Franklin and the American Dream 3 inequality increased, making a mockery of the American Dream, most Americans still adhere to it call on Franklin as a prime example of its success. 6 Benjamin Franklin, the Atlantic bourgeois Was Benjamin Franklin the exemplar of middle-class America, the self-made man who rose from poverty to riches by practicing virtue and seeking improvement? His Autobiography suggests as much.
Was he a “leather-apron” man, a member of the middle class, as Walter Occasions suggests? Or was he a gentleman, a would-be aristocrat who hobnobbed with English scientists and French aristocrats? Readers of Franklins Autobiography know how often he reinvented himself. One can make a ease for Franklin the improving artisan, Franklin the politico and lobbyist, Franklin the gentleman, Franklin the intellectual, Franklin the inventor and scientist, Franklin the moralist, Franklin the apostle of middle-class morality, Franklin the astute diplomat, Franklin the bon Vivian. None of these identities, nor any combination of them, captures Franklin.
He might be better seen as part of an Atlantic bourgeoisie. Historians are familiar with other eighteenth-century transatlantic classes: the proletariat of sailors and workers (from the colonies, Britain, Europe, and Africa); the killed workers (like Tom Paine) whose radicalism spanned the ocean; the intellectuals and religious leaders who created new corresponding societies; the immigrants with one foot in Scotland or Germany and the other in America; the Africans forced from their homes to suffer slavery. American historians are less familiar with the bourgeoisie, a term they identify with middle class. Who were the bourgeoisie as a class? The words “class” and “bourgeoisie” have long critically related to a person’s conception of a good society, can never be conclusively defined. 8 Sociologists studying stratification divide people by occupation, education, wealth, and income and call those divisions classes. Patterns of consumption permeate contemporary analyses. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about bourgeois bohemians, who he defines in terms of the college they attended, the coffee they drink, and the car they drive.
Similarly, left-leaning French sociologist Pierre Broodier views class through the prism of taste and lifestyle. Their emphasis on consumption contrasts sharply with Max Weeper’s connection of class to markets, social status, and rower or Karl Mar’s insistence that class is a social relationship, structured by production. 9 “Bourgeois” and “bourgeoisie” are similarly contested. Bourgeois originally meant city citizens, usually merchants, and by extension middle-class city inhabitants. Early twentieth-century writers used it contemptuously: it meant conventional, small minded money-grubbers.
Among Marxist historians the term refers to the capitalist ruling class and its ideology, not a middle class standing between the rich and the poor. The English bourgeoisie, they argue, emerged out of agrarian ferment in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when improving androids confiscated peasant land and forced them into waged labor, turning themselves into a capitalist ruling class in the process. Forced into manufacturing, exploited families fueled rapid industrialization. The bourgeoisie thus opposed the feudal aristocracy (who they wished to replace) and the poor (who they wished to control). 0 Bourgeois philosophers and political economists Cohn Locke and Adam Smith foremost among them) obscured the aspirations for class rule and economic dominance of their class by espousing an ethic of systematic individualism, pecuniary accumulation, education, sober living, and scientific inquiry. Property and the protection of property stood at the center of their ethic. Ever seeking to aggrandize their power, they presumed that their ethic was universal, appropriate for all timers places, and people rather than a tool of class rule. 1 1 5 In viewing Franklin, each of these definitions has merit.
Franklins tale of arriving in Philadelphia with only puffy rolls to his name but rising to hobnob with aristocrats evokes ideas of social mobility at the heart of social stratification theory. His concern with social status is legendary, but he had a conflicted view of consumption, moieties reviling it as luxury, other times spending wildly on luxuries, thus marked him as a burgher and a member of Philadelphia middle class. Marxist definitions nonetheless serves our purposes best, for they encompass elements of all the definitions while insisting that class is a social relationship.
Viewing class through the prism of productive relations?the conflicts and agreements between classes? gives historical actors agency, the ability to make and remake their worlds within the constraints of capital. They reveal the class conflicts that permeated the eighteenth- entry capitalist Atlantic world in which Franklin lived (and in which he occasionally participated). 12 In what way or ways can we call Franklin bourgeois? We can consider him bourgeois in terms of his relation to the idle rich, farmers, and the poor.
Franklin ridiculed colonial gentlemen, whether Harvard students or opponents of George Whitefish’s revival. His friends, the London bourgeoisie, invested in commerce and industry and had wealth, education, and leisure, but the English nobility shunned them (and rich colonists) as newly-rich men with neither status nor authority to rule. In the sass, he agitated with French aristocrats?but knew he was not one of them. 13 Adverse to an idle, hereditary aristocracy, Franklin sought political support from the middling sort to help replace the gentlemen, great planters, and reenters who ruled the colonies with men like himself.
The militia he proposed in 1747 would have elected its officers. At the Constitutional Convention, he favored direct elections, opposed the presidential veto, urged creation 6 of a unicameral legislature, and supported Judicial election?democratic positions that incorporated all free, male property holders into the body politic. Such derogate, he hoped, would lead to bourgeois rule. 14 Franklin, however, could not be identified with the “middling sort,” even if (as Carl Van Doreen wrote in his classic Franklin biography) he was “born of middling people. ” Yet was he?
His father Josiah struggled to pay his debts but worked as a Boston tallow- chandler and soap-maker for over a half-century, an extraordinary success in an era when most poor and middling families moved repeatedly. Even with seventeen children, he managed to buy a house, borrow money on good terms, provide dowries for his daughters, set up his son James as a printer, send Benjamin to the Latin School for a term, and buy books like Prince’s History of New England. Franklins family thus stood, precariously, between poverty and the upper reaches of the middling sort.
Josiah willingness to finance James’ printing business provides a key to his aspirations. Printing was an elite trade, identified with politics, government contracts, and intellectual pursuits. No wonder the Boston News-Letter printed his obituary, rare for the middling sort, praising him for his temperance, piety, virtue, and honestly 5 Occasions claims that Franklins use of the term “we the middling people” twice in his 747 pamphlet, Plain Truth, demonstrates his membership in the middle class. 16 But twentieth-century “middle class,” the middle-income, mostly professional, employees of corporate or governmental America.
Rather, they were small-scale property owners who worked independently, farmers, artisans, and laborers who owned a bit of land and the tools of their trade. By 1747 Franklin had accumulated great wealth and would retire from printing the following year. He misleadingly signed Plain Truth “tradesman of Philadelphia” (much as rich lawyer John 7 Dickinson later called himself a Pennsylvania farmer) and used the phrase “we the diddling people” to gain support from craftsmen and farmers for a private militia to defend the colony. He filled the pamphlet with intimations of war and impending doom.
He predicted the impoverishment of artisans and farmers alike, the plunder and burning of Philadelphia, and the terror of” wanton and unbridled Rage, Rapine and Lust, of Negroes, Mulattoes, and others” unless the colony united to defend itself. 17 Franklin introduced the phrase “we the middling people” in the second half of the pamphlet. The rich, who refused to defend the colony, could readily flee the city, he argued. But “most unhappily circumstanced indeed are we, the middling People, the Tradesmen, Shopkeepers, and Farmers of this Province and City.
We cannot all fly with our Families; and if we could, how shall we subsist? ” We “must bear the Brunt” of the enemy’s extortion and risk losing “what little we have gained by hard Labor and Industry. ” His second use of the phrase comes two long paragraphs later; after lambasting Quakers and their rich opponents for leaving the colony unprotected, he repeated the predicament of the middling sort: “thus unfortunately are we circumstanced .. , my dear Countrymen and Fellow-citizens; we, I mean, the middling People, the Farmers, Shopkeepers and Tradesmen of this City and Country. Richard Peters, secretary to the Pennsylvania Proprietors, dismissed the pamphlet as politics. Franklin, who feared war with the French, “thought he coded by some well wrote Papers… Take an advantage of their [Philadelphia’] Fears and spirit them up to an Association for their Defense. ” He assumed “the Character of a Tradesman, to fall foul of the Quakers and their opposes equally, as People from whom no good coded be expected, and by this Artifice to animate all the middling Persons to undertake their own Defense. He fomented this plan with like-minded men and offered to print his pamphlet “gratis in his Gazette. ” His conspiratorial language notwithstanding, Peters 8 identify with yeoman farmers, a majority of the colonial middling sort. He lived in London or Paris for two-fifths of his adult life, associating with intellectuals, diplomats, and aristocrats. No middling farmer traveled to distant cities, and poor emigrants to America enjoyed none of his advantages. His vast appetite for luxuries demonstrates that he hardly shared farmers’ desire to be satisfied with a sufficiency.
He disliked Pennsylvania Germans and reviled the Buxton Boys, farmers who massacred peaceful Indians. Franklin, Occasions tells us, “cringed at class warfare,” but most colonial farmers shared their hatred of Indians and overbearing rulers, as rebellions in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Carolinas demonstrate. 19 At the same time, he denied that poverty existed in America, for those with any desire to accumulate property. Like later capitalists, he railed against plebeian drinking that reduced productivity and cost public money to support dependents of drunks.
His occasional identification of himself as a printer and his support for decent wages for printers notwithstanding, he saw capital and labor as unified, not in conflict and opposed the urban Revolutionary-era mobs mechanics dominated. Although the identity that Franklin constructed belies any simple story, he was foremost among those who devised a bourgeois ethic that championed education, industry, improvement, frugality, and temperance. Not only did he popularize pithy moral sayings (as Poor Richard and in The Way to Wealth), but in the sass, he devised a table of virtues to attain “moral perfection”(Figure 1).
He wrote about these virtues in a 1784 letter, soon published in his Autobiography. The table listed fourteen virtues, each a component of bourgeois morality, good business practice, or Christian ethics. The most significant bourgeois morals and business practices 9 he sought to emulate included temperance (“Eat not to Dullness; Drink not to Elevation”), silence (“Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself”), order (“Let all Things have their Places”), frugality (“Make no Expense but to make good to others or yourself), and industry (“Lose no Time?Be always employed in something
Franklins list of virtues, and the tale of self-improvement it suggests, is emblematic of the way he constructed his identity. His early life, as he told it in his Autobiography, is the quintessential tale of upward mobility and success. From his earliest writings, he emphasized virtuous living, honesty, and industry?a calculus of utility to guarantee success. He only intermittently practiced these virtues, but his behavior hardly undermines the bourgeois ethic they encapsulate. He consistently urged others to practice them, wrote about them in political pamphlets as well as Poor Richards
Almanac and in The Way to Wealth, and exchanged letters with his friends on their importance. Even as he lived in splendor in France in the late sass, he urged his daughter to practice frugality. She had complained about rising prices but still strove Figure 10 1 (left): Franklins chart (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, Justice, moderation, c lea n I I n sees , tranquility, chastity, humility). Source: http://www. Negligent. Deed. AC. UK/studying/undergo/Scottish_lit_2/Handouts/ at_Franklin. HTML. Figure 2: (right) Mason Chamberlain, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1762.
Source: http://www. Peg. Is. Deed/ex./Franklin/chamber. HTML; But Franklin wrote than the war had made “our frugality necessary, and as I am always preaching that doctrine, I cannot … Encourage the contrary’ by “furnishing my children with foolish modes and luxuries. ” He would sent only “useful and necessary [articles], and omit the rest. ” As for feathers, they ” may be had in America from every socks tail. “21 Many Americans first came upon Franklin the moralist in his Autobiography or in the Way to Wealth?and they knew little else about him.
By 1860, the autobiography went through around 120 editions, published in cities all over the entry; publishers reprinted The Way to Wealth at least twenty-one times between 1760 and 1790 and forty-one more times during the next three decades, more than eighty times in total by 1850. Reading these texts, acquiring simplified versions of them, or listening to speeches about them persuaded youths to leave the farm and aspire to greatness. Printers, who had special reasons to admire Franklin, paid heed to his writings and made him their patron saint. 2 Mason Locke Hems , the most popular nineteenth-centrifugally popularize, reprinted the Way to Wealth (1796) and wrote a fictionally biography (1815) that elaborated Franklins virtues. He emphasized Franklins temperance (the “golden opportunity lost” by drinking, the money saved by temperance), industry, and hard work; his “passion for learning;” his practical Christianity; his overcoming adversity; his inventiveness, and his rise to riches and prominence as exemplars for young men. The stories Hems made up about Franklins life illustrated the virtues he stressed.
He struck a chord: other writers repeated his stories and rendition of Franklins virtues, and his fictionally biography was reprinted at least sixteen times during the nineteenth century. 3 The virtues Hems celebrated remain crucial to the American Dream, repeated by pundits and ordinary folk alike. Perhaps for that reason, intellectuals sometimes treated Franklins virtues with disdain. Novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne, D. H. Lawrence, and Sinclair Lewis took Franklin literally, and made him a soulless money grubber.
Sociologist Max Weber also took him at face value, making him into the exemplar of a secularists this-world asceticism, the symbol of the spirit of capitalism. In contrast, Franklin biographer Walter Occasions celebrates Franklin, seeing him as exemplifying he virtues of “hard work, thrift, shopkeepers values, and the role of an industrious middle class that resisted rather than emulated the pretensions of the well-born elite” and the Autobiography as a “self-help manual for America’s ambitious middle class. 24 Franklin had copied, borrowed, and shaped Poor Richards proverbs, amusing readers with puns, metaphors, and personification of virtues. Reinterpreted to encourage wise investing , they have great staying power today, for they exemplify the American’s vision of the American Dream. Philadelphia Franklin Institute posts went-six proverbs on its web site and invites visitors to email “what you think Ben meant. ” Children?prominent among those who responded ?interpret Franklins metaphors and puns literally, to support bourgeois virtues of punctuality, honesty, and industry. 5 Franklin, the Bourgeois Gentlewomen? Hems, Weber, and Lawrence are strange bedfellows, but each read Franklin literally. They missed the ambiguity and humor, the satires of a trickster, the playfulness and seriousness that permeates Franklins writings on virtue. 26 In a strange way, Franklin resembled Molder’s bourgeois gentlewomen. He lived before at the birth of industrial capitalism, which reified the virtues he heralded. Pious capitalists had barely started to impose sobriety, punctuality, and industry on their workers.
Lacking other models, new men of wealth like Franklin emulated the rich leisured 12 aristocracy, living well, building ostentatious houses, buying new baubles?Just like the bourgeois gentlemen. 27 The ambiguity of Franklins social origins heightened this contradiction. Punctuality, industry, and frugality, along with luck and patronage, had made him rich. He satirized bourgeois virtues?but wanted to practice them. He attacked the nobility for their indolence? but luxury enticed him and he emulated their lifestyle.
In London, he aped the richest aristocrats: he rented a four-story house; hired a carriage; bought wigs, expensive linen, swords, and silver buckles; and sent home silk cloth, English china, and a harpsichord. Like other would-be aristocrats, he had his portrait painted (Figures 2-4), sitting repeatedly for painters and sculptors, so much so that he became “perfectly sick of it,” tired of the tedium of “sitting hours in one fixed Posture. “28 In London, the paintings show, he puts on aristocratic airs, wearing the r apron) appear in them.
In 1762, Mason Chamberlain portrayed a be-wigged Franklin, sitting at his desk during a thunderstorm, quill pen in hand, a manuscript nearby, working on a scientific experiment (Figure 2). Outside his his window, a storm destroys a house and a steeple. Franklins chimney sports a lightening rod; he listens to hear the two bells (near his chair in the top left corner) attached to the rod ring when lightening strikes. A year later, he made a replica of the painting for William Franklin, Benjamin son; the painting later served as the 13
Figure 3 (left) David Martin, 1767 (Franklins copy), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia . Source: http://www. GNP. Is. Deed/ex./Franklin/martin. HTML; Figure 4 (right): David Martin, portrait of Franklin, original version, National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: http://presence. Virgin. Net/menstruate. Collection/photos/pages/ Franklin_GIF. HTML basis for a medal. This image of the scientist at work was so popular that Edward Fisher turned it into a black and white mezzanine engraving, brighter than the original. Hundreds circulated, in both England and America; new prints appeared room throughout 1781.
In 1773, a reproduction appeared as the frontispiece to the third French edition of Franklins works. Beneath the image, the editor explained that Franklin had “torn fire from the heavens” and “made the arts flourish in the wilderness,” making Franklin the natural man of America, rather than a cosmopolitan intellectual. 29 David Martin’s 1767 London oil painting shows Franklin in a more aristocratic pose. Wearing an elaborate blue suit, with gold braids and sports the “physical” wig of intellectuals, Franklin reads a manuscript (Figures 3-4). A bust of
Isaac Newton, recently completed by Louis François Republican, stands next to the desk. The painting thus represents him as a great scientist, perhaps the equal of Newton. The original painting (Figure 4) portrays Franklin sitting in a carved and gilded chair, a touch that symbolized holding high office and thereby accentuates his aristocratic identity. But Franklin, who held no major office at the time , disliked this ostentatious touch; when he ordered a 14 replica, he asked Martin to cover the chair with an elegant but simple red cloth (Figure 3). Far a quarter century, Martin and other artists often copied this version.
Publishers released black-nonwhite engraved prints in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which further softened the portrait’s aristocratic demeanor and that engraved image appeared on tavern signs as well. 30 While in Paris, seeking American. During his November 1776 Atlantic voyage, he had worn a formless fur cap to ward off the cold and kept it on in chilly France. When he saw that it captured the French publics imagination, he wore the cap, his “badge of homespun purity and virtue” in Paris, both outdoors and indoors, becoming in Walter Caisson’s phrase, a noble frontier philosopher and simple backwoods sage. He did take it off when granted an audience with Louis WI, but he kept in character, wearing his own hair, his bifocals, a simple brown suit and carrying a white hat. Without either wig or sword, he looked like a prosperous French farmer, not a diplomat. Franklin knew he was putting on a show. He didn’t wear the fur hat at home; and he wrote Emma Thompson, imagine me, “very plainly dressed, wearing my thin grey strait Hair that peeps out under my only Coiffure, a fine Fur Cap, which comes down to my Forehead almost to my Spectacles.
Think how this must appear to the powered heads of pans. “31 The image of Franklin and his fur cap became a sensation, in part because it fit an intellectual fashion toward simpler headgear. In Antes, ladies wore wigs dubbed ” la Franklin” that resembled the cap. It appeared on prints, paintings, and engravings, medallions,
Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography may mark the creation of the American Dream, understanding America as a place where—free from the rigid class construction and generational prejudices of European history—any person could attain wealth and distinction simply by working hard enough. The tale that Franklin creates for himself is the prototypical rags-to-riches story of a young man without a penny to his name rising to become a distinguished statesman and wealthy inventor. Inherent within Franklin’s attentiveness to portraying this theme is the underlying critique that such a story would be the exception rather than the rule if America ever moved toward a more European system of government and economics.
Another key theme to be found in Franklin’s recollection is his unqualified suspicion of religion and rejection of adherence to a Biblical set of ethical guidelines over devotion to common-sense principles. Franklin routinely criticizes religion for clouding judgments regarding principled decision-making. By tossing divinity out of the decision-making process the system becomes streamlined by placing ethical value on the situation at hand rather than configuring to fit some comprehensive moral code.
Franklin takes great care to imprint a literary motif to the timeline of his life as a means of paralleling his personal story with that of the creation of America. The autobiography presents the actual achievement of the American Dream as a revolution of independence over living a life of dependence. Franklin portrays his rise to statesman, ambassador, and Founding Father as a thematic transformation from slave-to-fate to sovereign of his own destiny.
Franklin engages the use of a word from his printing industry days to creatively examine the mistakes he made in life. The term errata is printer jargon for errors made in one edition which could be corrected before printing the next edition. The thematic symbolism is clear: mistakes are only mistakes when no attempt is made to correct them or, if that’s not possible, to learn from them so they aren’t repeated.
Throughout the text Franklin balances these two characteristics with varying degrees of success. He certainly does evince a great deal of pride, stating right from the beginning that he does not see many problems with vanity. His pride manifests itself in his dealings with others, his confidence in his abilities, his willingness to pursue his self-interest, and the transparent tone he takes when discussing his accomplishments. He does, however, say that he knows he needs to be more humble, and adds it to his list of virtues. It is not one that he feels that he masters, but he is pleased (proud?) that he does what he can. Indeed, Franklin's use of understatement and his avoidance of outright bragging is rather impressive given the magnitude of the man's accomplishments and accolades. A man ought to be aware of his errata, seek to perfect himself morally, and be cognizant of his gifts, ambitions, and achievements.
Franklin seems to value work above all else. People are identified by their trades, and the young Franklin earnestly endeavors to find his. He labors as hard as he can to succeed on his own, not letting any obstacles get in his way. After he achieves success and wealth he does not rest or sink into idleness; rather, his work continues in the form of civic projects, scientific exploration, and philosophical musing. He thinks that men must be employed at some task, no matter how mundane, to truly feel a sense of worth. Note that he does think that love, religion, and family bring about this sort of peace; it is indeed assiduous work that gives a man's life meaning. It is also work that, of course, brings wealth and reputation. Franklin's hard work is more important than his humble origins, allowing him to ascend to the pantheon of great Americans.
From the moment Franklin details how he laboriously wrote out passages from the Spectator in order to pursue being a better writer, it is clear that writing is central to the text. There is a clear connection between writing and living. Franklin begins his text by saying writing it out is like living his life again. Instead of God writing Franklin's life story, Franklin takes the reins himself. He is in control of what is said and how it is said, what readers glean about him, and what they glean about themselves. He can elide certain details of his past (like his intrigues with women and his illegitimate children), emphasize certain contributions over others, soften his hard edges, and offer up his own errata as universal examples of what not to do and, if the deed is done, what to do to correct it. Franklin gets to control his narrative not once, but twice, as he both lives and writes writes it.