Franklin the Fabulous Founder Rescued From Recent Neglect

Benjamin Franklin , by Edmund S. Morgan. Yale University Press, 339 pages, $24.95.

Have the Founding Fathers ever had so much attention? In the mid- to late 90’s, you could hardly open a newspaper without reading a lurid story about Thomas Jefferson, the Great Miscegenator.Acouple years ago, Alexander Hamilton enjoyed a brief vogue. Then, in 2001, John Adams was lovingly rehabilitated by the most powerful instrument known to the history profession: David McCullough’s deep baritone, speaking slowly into a tape recorder about homespun American virtues.

As Ray Davies sang, “Who’s going to be the next in line?” The answer appears to be Benjamin Franklin, and a fine choice it is. There’s never been an F.F. more complex, more supple, more elusive to the plodding archivist. Smarter than Jefferson, more famous than Washington, more fun by far than Adams-there was nothing this über -American couldn’t or didn’t do. And yet he’s languished over the past few decades, relatively neglected by historians and general readers-like Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy , a victim of his recognizability. To visit his grave in Philadelphia-a bare stone in a lonely churchyard, near a busy road flooded with tour buses on their way to the Liberty Bell-is to receive a lesson in fame and forgetfulness.

Franklin’s facial is being applied by the eminent and emeritus Yale University historian, Edmund S. Morgan. Mr. Morgan is well-positioned to do justice to the great man. He has been writing brilliantly about the 18th century for five decades now. His works, too numerous to list here, include American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) and a number of excellent smaller books. He’s the chairman of the administrative board of the Franklin Papers at Yale, a vast publishing project encompassing tens of thousands of documents, stretching back to the first volume’s publication in 1959, and still trying to catch up with Franklin’s long life of writing. Now Mr. Morgan turns to the difficult challenge of summarizing our least easily digested founder in a short, accessible format.

Franklin’s got a lot going for him. He’s the only founder we call by his nickname-Ben. He loved bawdy jokes, and wrote essays about sex and farting that might still have trouble clearing the censors. He loved the ladies, and they, mysteriously, loved him back-all the more as he settled into elderly lechery. He was a brilliant satirist, and his gnomic utterances in Poor Richard’s Almanack still reward the reader who searches them out (from 1737: “the greatest monarch on the proudest throne, is oblig’d to sit upon his own arse”). He was a great inventor, a tinkerer with systems, including the Anglo-American empire. As a scientist, he discovered new forces that he unleashed into the ether, including not only electricity but, just as significantly, democracy. As much as any founder, he can claim to have invented America-and he’s the only one who signed all of our founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the treaty of alliance with France, and the treaty with England that ended the war.

Yet, for all that, the “universal smoke doctor” (he dabbled in chimney design) is maddeningly elusive. John Adams called him “the old conjuror”-and this was not intended as a compliment. In one of his many cranky moments, Adams wrote, “the life of Dr. Franklin was a Scene of continual Discipation.” Many others hated him, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his elusiveness is still reflected in the way we read about him. H.W. Brands wrote a decent biography a couple years back, and it more or less sank like a stone. Joe Ellis included Franklin in Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation , but Ben didn’t really fit; he was older, more continental, more of a self-made man than any of the others. To go back to the last serious biography of Franklin that sold well, you have to go a long way indeed-to Catherine Drinker Bowen’s The Most Dangerous Man in America (1974), or maybe even to Carl Van Doren’s Benjamin Franklin (1938).

Mr. Morgan jumps right into the void, reminding us efficiently why we owe so much to this man. He resurrects facts that will appeal to new readers, including Franklin’s great prowess at swimming and his invention of a musical instrument called the glass armonica-an instrument that might have succeeded better if he’d spelled the name with an “h.” He manages to convey one of Franklin’s best qualities, the limitless curiosity and scientific wonderment that allowed him to see more deeply into the world around him than anyone else alive in America.

Mr. Morgan is particularly good at surveying the political scene, and he sketches cleanly for us some of the intractable problems of the 1750’s and 1760’s. This is quite helpful, since we tend to treat the American Revolution as a unique event achieved by heroic Americans, their every act ordained by God. In Mr. Morgan’s hands, it’s a bureaucratic tangle, the result of several generations of boneheaded English administrators of the empire. He skillfully conveys Franklin’s deep reluctance to push for independence at first (he called the empire “the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected”), and his disgust for the petty government functionaries who eventually turned him into a firebrand. Throughout the book, you can almost hear the sound of a quill pen frantically scratching out arguments on parchment, and Mr. Morgan’s great strength is that he has read every one of the thousands of letters that passed to and from Franklin.

But for all his command of the facts, Mr. Morgan falters in his depiction of the man himself. There’s precious little of the sexual electricity that Franklin also spent his life discovering. There’s not much on his emotional life-the alternating currents of modesty and rage that seem to have flowed through him from childhood on. Throughout the book, Franklin is eminently, relentlessly “useful,” to use a word that Franklin himself loved and D.H. Lawrence hated (his hilarious riposte to “Old Daddy Franklin” should be read by anyone weary of our ancestor-worship). Franklin is a stalwart of the community, a diligent conciliator, a doting grandfather. But where’s the young boy who sold out his older brother by running away from his apprenticeship? The cur who fathered a child out of wedlock? The dandy whose early portrait reveals a social climber very different from the self-effacing, beaver-hatted patriarch we have come to love?

Usually, writers of accessible biographies give us too much personal information; here we get too little. Why, for instance, did the man who wrote “Early to bed, early to rise … ” sleep so late and party so late? What was going on with his wife, almost invisible in this book? Or his bastard son Billy, who became a prominent Tory even as his father was leading the country toward independence?

It’s perhaps beneath Mr. Morgan to ask those questions, but lay readers want to know, and that’s why David McCullough’s books-love ‘em or hate ‘em-sell so well. (The Adams book is still going strong and presumably will be translated into many languages- Juan Adams ?) In fact, Franklin is far more fertile terrain for a blockbuster narrative.

But despite that quibble, this is an important book-as Gordon S. Wood says in his blurb, “the best short biography of Franklin ever written.” Its spare prose and effortless command of 18th-century context go far to illuminate the political situation out of which the United States emerged. By clearing out the underbrush obscuring one of the truly great American lives, Mr. Morgan helps us to see again the many ways in which Ben Franklin’s life still shapes our own.

Ted Widmer is the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.