Thoughts on Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is, to me at least, the most interesting and colorful of all the cast of characters we have looked at so far. I cannot decide if he was an opportunistic cynic, or if he had legitimate reasons for changing his outlook toward England and its relationship with the colonies. At the very least, if Franklin was running for political office today, he would certainly be labeled a “flip-flopper” by his opponents. Franklin in any case did not appear to have been a man of extraordinarily high principles, at least during most of the inter-war period. Tuchman pointed out, for example, the possibility that Franklin helped temper colonial anger over the Sugar Act because he owed his position as Deputy Postmaster General to King George III.[1] Ferling was fairly clear about it when he noted that Franklin “seemed desperate to avoid ever having to face the choice between loyalty to Great Britain or to America, but should that terrible eventuality occur, he tried to hedge his bets by keeping one foot planted in each camp.”[2] Indeed, it appears that Franklin was not overtly anti-British until after the humiliating scolding he received in the Cockpit over the Hutchinson letters. Even then, however, he remained a short while longer in London “for one last roll of the dice to rehabilitate himself…and to help prevent a war fraught with difficult personal choices.”[3]

This sort of mundane politicking on Franklin’s part simply does not jibe with my (admittedly limited) knowledge of our nation’s founders. I had assumed—naively, I suppose, and in accordance with our national mythology—that the Founding Fathers were men of high-minded principles and somehow immune to the vagaries of human nature. It is simultaneously comforting and disappointing to discover that they were, in fact, not gods. I have an unread copy of Gordon S. Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin on my shelf; I suppose it is high time I read it.

[1] Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 147.

[2] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 125.

[3] Ibid., 126.


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