Benjamin Franklin, Man of Means

 

ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 6: Benjamin Franklin, Man of Means
Sept. 23-27, 2002

Objectives

By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of Benjamin Franklin and Annis Stockton.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Franklin’s autobiography.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.
  • Create, post, and maintain an electronic portfolio.

Assignments

Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:

 

Read “Benjamin Franklin” and all excerpts from The Autobiography.

 

Activities

Our class activities this week include the following:

 

Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), discuss the ways in which Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography reflects principles of the Enlightenment.

Presentation: Benjamin Franklin, Man of Means (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning

Selection: Choose two incidents from Franklin’s autobiography and speculate on why Franklin chose to include them in his narrative.  Comment on material he did not include and suggest possible reasons for omitting this material.

Style: Describe Franklin’s style.  What makes it effective or ineffective?  How does it contribute to the meaning of his work, especially the humor in it?

Audience: Who were Franklin’s audiences?  Discuss how these audiences may have helped to shape his narratives.

Self-help: Can Franklin’s autobiography be read as a self-help manual? If so, what are his major pieces of advice?  Do you accept them?  Explain.

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: In a brief essay (200-300 words), take the side of Jonathan Edwards or Benjamin Franklin.  Which writer’s perspective on the world do you find more valid or useful?  Defend your response.

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • aphorism
  • autobiography
  • Enlightenment
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Annis Stockton
  • style
  • tone

Chronology

Make sure you are familiar with the following key date in early American history:

 

1775-1783: Colonists fight American Revolution

1776: Americans sign Declaration of Independence

Resources

You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:

 

All American: Benjamin Franklin features a chronology, along with lists of Franklin’s major works, family members, homes, and occupations. 

The Dictionary of Literary Biography, a multivolume subject encyclopedia, contains entries on Benjamin Franklin. 

Be Your Best: The Easy Way to a Web Site offers step-by-step instructions for creating and posting a World Wide Web page.

Updated September 16, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002
mark.canada@uncp.edu
 

Introduction

In this lesson, we will visit one of the most famous men in American history.  Known largely for his contributions to science and politics, Benjamin Franklin was also one of the most important writers of his age.  As you read his autobiography, you will learn a great deal about his fascinating life, as well as his fascinating way of recounting it.  On Wednesday, Myranda will introduce us to another writer of this period, Annis Stockton.  Finally, on Friday, we will meet in Dial 149, where I will show you how to set up your online portfolios.  Please bring a diskette containing any work you have done on your author project or other components of your course portfolio.

Discussion

Background

The eighteenth century was a period of exciting developments in Europe and America.  In the field of science, Sir Isaac Newton had already laid the groundwork for understanding the laws of physics with his work on gravity and light in the previous century and was still at work in the early part of the eighteenth century.  Later, Joseph Priestley and Edward Jenner made important advancements in chemistry and medicine respectively.  It was during this century, furthermore, that the world saw a number of important inventions, including the mercury thermometer (1714), steam engine (1769), hot-air balloon (1783), gas lighting (1792), and cotton gin (1793).  In the realm of politics, the American Revolution (1775-1783) separated the English colonies in North America from the Mother Country, and leaders such as Thomas Jefferson adapted the ideas of the English philosopher John Locke to a style of government that would prove influential in other parts of the world.  Later, the French Revolution (1789) destroyed the monarchy of France.  In the world of the arts and humanities, the eighteenth century was the age of musicians Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1758-1793), writers Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), and philosophers Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778).  Indeed, it is no wonder that the period has been dubbed “the Enlightenment,” a term that refers to the tremendous illumination of the workings of nature and humanity.  Many of the leading intellectuals of the time emphasized the extent to which humans could understand and control their surroundings and their lives.  Control was also important in the artistic realm, where musicians and writers produced highly polished works marked by attention to order and balance.

Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1793

At the heart of the Enlightenment in America was Benjamin Franklin, who managed to make significant contributions to the worlds of science, technology, politics, literature, and even music.  Indeed, in the words of biographer Carl Van Doren, Franklin was a "harmonious human multitude." As Van Doren's assessment suggests, Franklin's life and work are at once difficult and simple to summarize.  On the one hand, his multitude of contributions defy brief summary.  On the other hand, these many accomplishments were in harmony with one another in that they share some a common theme of human progress through human initiative. 

Life

Born the 15th child of a tallow chandler and soap boiler, Franklin perhaps had little reason to think that he would become famous and wealthy.  He was, however, a man of means.  Throughout his early experiences in journalism, printing, and businesses, he was a diligent student of human nature and developed the means for success.  Long before Dale Carnegie, Franklin was a master of winning friends and influencing people.  In his autobiography, he describes many of his strategies for success.  When, for example, he refused to pay a shop fee he found unfair--and consequently found his work sabotaged--he changed his mind and paid the fee, "convinc'd of the Folly of being on ill Terms with those one is to live with continually" (Writings 1349).  He learned to state his opinions diffidently, to work hard, and to make sure people knew he was working hard.  In short, Franklin was a model of practicality, a theme nicely summed up in his evaluation of deism: ". . . I began to suspect that this Doctrine tho' it might be true, was not very useful" (Writings 1359).

Together with his brilliant mind and creative energy, Franklin's mastery of means led him to succeed in a variety of fields.  After beginning his printing career as merely an apprentice to his brother James, he eventually became one of the most successful printers in the colonies. As Esmond Wright notes in Franklin of Philadelphia, he sold 10,000 copies of his Poor Richard's Almanack a year, a best-seller second only to the Bible at this time (55). Thanks to his financial successes in printing, he had the leisure to pursue his interests in science and politics.  In the former arena, he established a connection between lightning and electricity, made important observations about the Gulf Stream, and invented bifocals, the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and a musical instrument called the armonica.  In the realm of politics, Franklin earned his reputation as one of the Founding Fathers by making numerous contributions to the formation of the United States of America.  He was one of the first persons to suggest a colonial union; in 1754, he called for the formation of a federal council to organize defense of the colonies and to create policies regarding the Native Americans.  In 1776, he served on the five-person committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and made a number of revisions in Thomas Jefferson's document.  Between 1750 and his death in 1790, he wrote several political essays, including Causes of American Discontents before 1768, as well as speech calling for adoption of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1789. Perhaps his greatest contribution, Esmund Wright suggests in Franklin of Philadelphia, is his work to solicit assistance from France during the American Revolution: "All the financial aid from 1776 to 1781 came by and through France; 90 percent of the power used by Americans in the first two and a half years of war came from France. And most of the credit for this French assistance must go to Franklin" (336).

Despite their number and diversity, Franklin's accomplishments were harmonious.  At their core was an unshakable pragmatism, a concern with the means by which humans can improve themselves and their environments. In this respect, he was a major American voice of the Enlightenment. In his invention of the Franklin stove, the maxims of Poor Richard, his establishment of the Junto and a circulating library, and the "bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection" he describes in his autobiography, we can see a commitment to human progress through human initiative. For instance, Franklin had infinite hope for the potential of science to improve human life. In a letter he wrote to Joseph Priestley in February 1780, he celebrated the growing "Power of Man over Matter," seeing in it great potential for improving transportation, agriculture, and human health (Writings 1017).  Franklin even recognized the value of knowledge with no immediately obvious practical applications. Asked of what use the hot-air balloon could be, Franklin responded: "What good is a new-born baby?" (Wright 324). 

Indeed, so practical was Franklin that some observers, particularly other writers, have accused him of being shallow. The most vocal of these detractors, D.H. Lawrence, complained that Franklin oversimplified human psychology. "Why, the soul of man is a vast forest," Lawrence famously declares in Classic American Literature, "and all Benjamin intended was a neat back garden" (52). A half-century earlier, Herman Melville included Franklin among those "keen observers of the main chance; prudent courtiers; practical magicians in linsey-woolsey" (Wright 2). What seems to vex these and other writers is Franklin's fascination with the practical and neglect of the spiritual, as well as his belief in humans' control over their lives and environment. Reacting to such confidence, Lawrence argues: "We are only the actors, we are never wholly the authors of our own deeds or works" (59).

It may be, however, that Franklin's celebration of free will was a matter of focus, rather than ignorance. In their worthy pursuits of life's mysteries, many writers--Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, and Eugene O'Neill, to name a few--have run the risk of losing sight of humans' capacity to control at least a portion of their lives. It was this portion--which he believed to be large--that interested Franklin. Wright characterizes Franklin as practical problem-solver rather than a theorist: "He had little time for metaphysics or the life of the imagination. His interest was not that of the radical (or of the true philosopher) in doctrine, or even in constitutions, but that of the businessman, the man of affairs, and the politician, in getting things done and in getting problems--specific and immediate problems--solved. For him, problems were for solving by reason and compromise, not raw material for crusades" (351). Instead of merely being ignorant of Lawrence's "vast forest," Franklin perhaps chose to focus his energies elsewhere. Wright puts it this way: "He worked in the light" (4).

Franklin’s Literature

On top of all of these accomplishments, Franklin is among America's greatest writers.  In the realm of literature, his autobiography is one of the finest and widely read in the genre, and essays such as "The Speech of Miss Polly Baker" and "The Sale of the Hessians" are frequently anthologized.  The maxims he included in his Poor Richard's Almanack, furthermore, have made him one of the most frequently quoted Americans in history.  Truly a belles lettrist in the tradition of the eighteenth century, Franklin also wrote, edited, and published the leading newspaper of his time, The Pennsylvania Gazette.  As such, he was one of America's first and most prominent literary journalists. 

Some of his first known compositions were essays he contributed to the New England Courant, edited by his brother James.  Published in 1722 under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood," these essays and others Franklin wrote for the Courant resemble much other journalistic writing of the time, particularly that of The Spectator, an English publication edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.  Rather than report on current events, Franklin generally shared his views on various general subjects in the vein of a modern newspaper column.  In the fourth of these essays, for example, he satirizes Harvard College; in the eighth, he parodies maudlin poetry; in the tenth, he proposes insurance for widows.

Years later, after a split with James and additional work in printing, Franklin took over The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729.  While he edited and published the newspaper over the ensuing decades, he continued to publish essays, including "Lying Shopkeepers" and "On Simplicity."  He also acted as a reporter, however, and composed a number of straight news stories on crimes, law, acts of nature, and odd incidents.  It is in the work that he produced for The Pennsylvania Gazette that Franklin demonstrated his outstanding talent for journalism, even anticipating later trends in news gathering and reporting.  In an age when more than half of newspaper starts failed within two years, Franklin's Gazette not only survived, but succeeded brilliantly.  Calling it "the best newspaper in the American colonies" (44) journalism historians Edwin and Michael Emery note that the Pennsylvania Gazette "had the largest circulation, most pages, highest advertising revenue, most literate columns, and liveliest comment of any paper in the area" (44). 

Works Cited

  • Franklin, Benjamin.  Writings.  Ed. Leo Lemay.  New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987.
  • Lawrence, D.H. "Benjamin Franklin." Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking Press, 1961. Reprinted in Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin
  • Wright, Esmund. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Conclusion

In this lesson, we have looked at Benjamin Franklin, one of the most notable belles-lettrists of the eighteenth century.  In our next lesson, we will turn to another writer of elegant and satiric prose, William Byrd.