Self-Made American

Patrick J. Garrity

October 1, 2002

In 1785, Benjamin Franklin was notified by the Confederation Congress that, at his request, he had been relieved of his duties as United States Minister to France. He considered what to do next. “The French are an amiable People to live with,” Franklin wrote to a friend. “Yet I do not feel my self at home, and I wish to die in my own Country.”

This was not a simple or obvious decision. Ocean travel was difficult and dangerous. Franklin was an old man (aged 79 years) and in poor health. Franklin left behind in France and Europe many friends and a comfortable life. Further, he had scarcely been in America since 1757. He had returned from England to Philadelphia briefly in the mid-1770s, where he served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence, before accepting the diplomatic assignment in Paris.

Why did Franklin choose to die in America? More to the point, why did he choose to become an American? Why did he decide to risk his “Life, Fortune, and Sacred Honor” in 1776 for a cause whose success, as he well knew, was so problematic; and when there were so many reasons to sit out the fight?

By working through this question, we can learn something about Franklin and, more to the point, what it meant (and means) to be American. The new biography, Benjamin Franklin, written by the distinguished historian Edmund S. Morgan, provides a good guide to such an exploration of the American Founding and citizenship.

Franklin did not choose to die in America simply because of the accident of birth. For many, perhaps most people throughout history, civic allegiance was predetermined by fate or the will of the gods (or God). Nature or religion was also thought to dictate distinctions between rulers and subjects, between master and servant and slave. That was not Franklin’s way. He was born in Boston, where he became legally apprenticed to his older brother, a printer. Young Ben cared not much for the established order of things, his brother or the theocratic oligarchy that ruled Boston. So he ran away to New York and then Philadelphia, with scarcely a few shillings in his pocket and some knowledge about how to work a printing press.

Franklin, of course, was hardly the first to rebel against his family and seek his own fortune elsewhere. But he did so with immense purpose and accomplishment. Franklin wrote of his rise to independence, fame and fortune in his charming and complex autobiography, itself one of the great landmarks of American literature. Franklin was the quintessential self-made man.

Franklin could have chosen to remain merely a self-made man, privately comfortable in the reputation and wealth he created for himself. But his sense of individual accomplishment was tied to the need to promote the common good. This did not mean public office (although Franklin would hold such), but public service. Franklin’s social imperative was to become useful. He was a great believer in the sort of voluntary, private associations that Alexis de Tocqueville would later celebrate—indeed Franklin practically invented some (e.g., the subscription library, the voluntary fire company, and free hospitals for the poor). He organized a military association to defend Pennsylvania against the French when the Governor and Assembly failed to do so. His world-famous experiments with electricity had a strongly practical bent, to find the best way to protect buildings from lightning strikes (thus the lightning rod).

In the late 1750s, Franklin chose to live in England. This did not signal his rejection of America, because there was no America as such, only the various and varied British colonies in the New World. His original purpose there was to bring about a change in the dysfunctional and unrepresentative proprietary government of Pennsylvania, believing (of all things for the later Revolutionary) that British Parliament and the Crown could put matters right. But his larger purpose was to support the development of what Morgan terms “an Anglo-American empire of equals” that would replace the patchwork colonial system that had evolved between Britain and its possessions since the early 17th century.

Under this new arrangement, Franklin wrote, “Britain and her Colonies should be considered as one Whole, not as different States with separate interests,” thus constituting an Empire that would become “the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected.” Franklin decided that the union of the colonies, as proposed in his Albany Plan of 1754, would provide a single American pillar, which he believed would eventually become the center of the empire. Morgan writes: “He was preparing, probably without quite admitting it to himself, to become the architect of that empire.”

The British government rejected Franklin’s vision and his advocacy of the colonial cause, in the most personal and offensive way, short of imprisonment or execution. He was hauled before the Privy Council in January 1774. Meeting in the “cockpit,” the councilors cheered the solicitor general, Alexander Wedderburn, who heaped abuse on Franklin in language that was judged too coarse for newspaper publication. Franklin stood before them, erect and silent, enduring nearly an hour of personal invective. Within two days he was stripped of his position as deputy postmaster general for America.

The simplest explanation for Franklin’s choice of America, then, is that he was so deeply offended at his treatment by British officials that he came to support independence as a form of revenge. To be sure, Franklin had had his share of personal antagonists during his career, above all the Penn family, but this was more than that. The British government’s treatment of Franklin was worse than a crime, it was stupid, because it finally revealed to him the imbecility of the political establishment in London.

Still, Franklin could have left it at that, perhaps written a letter or two, published a pamphlet, contributed some money, and lived out his life at ease. By signing the Declaration of Independence, Franklin put his own life on the line (as did the other Founders). But Franklin was an old man and death was not his greatest fear. There were things at stake that he valued even more. America—the United States—now became the sole repository of Franklin’s vision of collective political and material greatness, which also provided the greatest possible scope for individual, self-made excellence. He chose America because he had been ostracized from his ideal, imagined Anglo-American Union.

Franklin also risked banishment from another ideal community he cherished, that of the Republic of Letters. He was by far the most famous American, with an international reputation for scientific and humanitarian accomplishments. Unlike the other Founders, Franklin already had a claim to fame. Yet he chose to put his status as one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment to work on behalf of the United States, especially in the cause of gaining political and economic support in France. If the Revolution failed, through bad luck or bad leadership, he would have become a figure of pity, a discredited utopian, as well as a hunted man.

There was an even more private cost. Franklin had an illegitimate son, William, whom he had raised in his own household and treated with the utmost affection. He supported the young man’s rise in the British colonial establishment, which culminated in William’s appointment as Royal Governor of New Jersey. When the final break with London came, William chose to remain loyal—to Britain. Franklin never forgave him. Political illegitimacy turned out to be the far graver offense.

Franklin’s choice to die in America led to one final great contribution, his participation in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Franklin’s active role in that assembly was limited. But again his reputation, along with that of George Washington, helped guarantee the legitimacy of the Constitution, at home and abroad. And Franklin provided a fitting conclusion to the enterprise. As legend has it, when asked by a woman as the Convention adjourned what the delegates had created, Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

In deference to Franklin’s age and status, we should perhaps grant him a special title—say, Founding Grandfather. This title also implies that there is a somewhat greater distance between Franklin and ourselves, than between us and the Founding Fathers. Morgan’s biography shows that Franklin’s political judgment—especially during the imperial crises of the 1750s through the early 1770s—was far from flawless. And in his insightful concluding chapter, Morgan stresses that Franklin’s ideal American is not exactly what finally emerged.

Franklin, Morgan explains, had a utilitarian view of politics and morality: what is useful is good, and what is good is useful. He preferred to emphasize right, not rights, in the clash with Britain; and his notion of right was bounded by his sense of the limits and imperatives of public opinion. A strong man like Franklin, who had a gentleman’s sense of right and utility, made the hard choice of becoming American, despite the immense risk that choice involved. He also chose, at the end of his life, to oppose slavery, having once been a slaveholder himself. But most of us, in times of real crisis, need a stronger sense of morality to do the right thing. Utility too often points to the easy way out. That is why, although we admire greatly our Founding Grandfather, we look first to those Revolutionaries who spoke to a permanent, fixed moral order.

Patrick Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.