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Ben Franklin

"The Man of Sense"

By Alan Houston | HUMANITIES, January/February 2006 | Volume 27, Number 1

Benjamin Franklin's conduct as commissioner to France often dismayed his younger colleagues. John Adams--who considered himself "a stern and haughty republican"--was particularly troubled. Adams rose at five, Franklin not until ten. Adams disapproved of lax French manners and morals; Franklin relished in them. Adams favored candor; Franklin sedulously avoided direct conflict. As Adams noted in his diary, Franklin "loves his ease, hates to offend, and seldom gives any opinion till obliged to do it. . . . Although he has as determined a soul as any man, yet it is his constant policy never to say yes or no decidedly but when he cannot avoid it."

To Adams, Franklin's personal habits were political liabilities. As Adams saw it, they prevented him from forcefully advocating the American cause. Franklin had failed to extract key political and economic concessions from the French. Matters called for explicit and unambiguous negotiation. The French--who warmed to Franklin--were not amused; the comte de Vergennes considered Adams an inflexible and arrogant pedant, and promised that "the great powers . . . assuredly will not yield either to the tone or to the logic of Mr. Adams." By the summer of 1780 the French refused further communication with Adams; henceforth they would deal only with Franklin.

The easy charm that offended Adams and pleased the French had been honed during five decades of public life. It reflected ideals of politeness and moderation that Franklin embraced as a youth, as a result of his immersion in the controversial literatures of late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century Europe. Franklin's homespun wit, practical intelligence and commitment to thrift and industry have led many to identify him with distinctively American traits and values. But Franklin's complaisance is a powerful reminder of the cosmopolitan roots of his character.

Franklin's formal education was limited to two brief years, between the ages of eight and ten. But he learned to read at a very early age--so early that he could not recall a time when he could not read-and as a child "all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books." We often think of Franklin doing: printing newspapers, founding libraries, experimenting with electricity, negotiating with foreign countries. But before Franklin became a doer, he was a reader.

In his Autobiography Franklin identified two books as having had special influence on his later life: Daniel Defoe's An Essay Upon Projects and Cotton Mather's An Essay Upon the Good. Defoe outlined a number of schemes for improving England, ranging from paving the roads to providing insurance for widows; Mather emphasized the importance of "doing good" in one's life. Both books used the word "essay" in their title. To modern ears, an essay is a formal composition of moderate length, but to Defoe and Mather an essay was also an attempt, a trial, and an experiment. In this sense, Franklin essayed as he read: he put the books he read to the proof.

Encountering the humane vegetarianism of Thomas Tryon--for whom a purified diet was a means to enlightenment--Franklin determined to forgo eating meat. Having read the earl of Shaftesbury's Characteristics and Anthony Collins's Discourse of Free Thinking, Franklin became "a real Doubter in many Points of our Religious Doctrine," so much so that the "good people" of Boston pointed at him with horror as "an Infidel or Atheist." Delighted by the prose style of Addison and Steele's Spectator, Franklin taught himself to write by systematically reconstructing it: he wrote individual papers from memory; he turned them into verse, then back again into prose; he jumbled the order of sentences, then reassembled the original.

Sometimes, in his enthusiasm for new ideas and vigorous arguments, Franklin sounds like a teenage intellectual: brash, aggressive and self-satisfied. From reading his father's collection of books in "polemic Divinity," he developed "disputacious" habits. When a friend argued that the education of women was improper, Franklin "took the contrary Side, perhaps a little for Dispute sake." As luck would have it, while reading Charles Gildon's Grammar of the English Tongue he encountered an essay on the Socratic method. Charmed by what he read, he dropped his habit of "abrupt Contradiction, and positive Argumentation, and put on the humble Enquirer and Doubter." Especially in debating religious topics he grew expert at "drawing People even of superior Knowledge into Concessions the Consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in Difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves."

Franklin found that his victims--like Socrates'--were angered by his strategems and ended as his enemies rather than as his friends. As a consequence, he gradually set aside his "positive dogmatical Manner" and retained only the habit of expressing himself "in terms of modest Diffidence. . . . This Habit I believe has been of great Advantage to me, when I have had occasion to inculcate my Opinions and persuade Men into Measures that I have been from time to time engag'd in promoting." And "I wish well meaning sensible Men would not lessen their Power of doing Good by a Positive assuming Manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create Opposition, and to defeat every one of those Purposes for which Speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving Information, or Pleasure."

Franklin's invocation of "sensible Men" suggests that more than practical wisdom and seat-of-the-pants learning was occurring. In the early eighteenth century the ideal of "the man of sense" emerged in the context of European debates over the bases of social order. Virtually everyone agreed that humans were capable of improvement, and that the weaknesses of individuals were to be overcome through combination with others. But what enabled humans to cooperate?

Christian moralists invoked love and the bonds of an inclusive church. Shared values were the cement of social order.

Machiavellians appealed to the power of the state. Sumptuary laws, compulsory military service, and a strong civic religion would overcome the divisive effects of private interests.

A third group, concerned with the emergence of commercial societies, sought to explain cooperative social relations in terms of the power of needs and interests. Humans joined together because they were useful to each other. Through the reciprocal exchange of goods and services men acquired the skills needed to sustain the social order.

Cooperation in a commercial society was not spontaneous, however; it required negotiation and compromise, persuasion, and tact. Success in life depended on catching the ears of men of many different persuasions. The settings within which information was exchanged and bonds of trust were forged--clubs and coffeehouses, theaters and assemblies, public lectures and scientific societies, as well as the rapidly expanding (and increasingly uncensored) world of newspapers, journals, and books--were bewilderingly complex. The "man of sense" was embraced for his ability to navigate this world. According to Addison--author of Franklin's beloved Spectator--the man of sense was moderate, cultivated, sociable, and self-disciplined. In a word, he was polite, and the ideal of politeness linked personal and political, philosophical and worldly: "It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men, and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of the Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and Coffee-Houses."

The man of sense was an effective participant in the world. But how could a man become sensible? Answers varied, but many of the books Franklin read in his youth began with the Lockean insight that human nature is malleable. Identity and understanding are the fruit of experience. And according to Addison, custom and habit have the power "to form the Man anew." We grow fond of things we are accustomed to, as when we overcome an initial aversion to the bitter taste of coffee, and, through regular consumption, develop a taste for it. In this spirit, Addison recommended a precept of Pythagoras: "Pitch upon that Course of Life which is the most Excellent, and Custom will render it the most Delightful." And in this spirit Franklin set himself on the road to improvement.

From his reading he extracted a list of thirteen "necessary" virtues, ranging from temperance and resolution to moderation and humility. To each virtue he attached a short "Precept" explaining its meaning. Temperance required that a man eat not to "Dulness" nor drink to "Elevation"; silence called on him to "avoid trifling Conversation"; sincerity mandated that he "use no hurtful Deceit."

To make these virtues habitual, Franklin devised a form of moral bookkeeping. In a small book he drew a table with a row for every virtue and a column for every day of the week. Each time he committed a fault, he made a black mark in the appropriate square. Each week he focused his attention on one of the virtues. Over time, through repetition, he hoped to experience the pleasure of "viewing a clean Book."

Franklin readily admitted that this did not happen. He found order an especially difficult virtue to acquire: having an "exceeding good Memory" he had never learned the importance of putting things in their proper places! But what at first did "violence" to his "natural Inclination" at length became easy and habitual. Franklin was especially proud of his ability to appear humble. "I made it a Rule to forbear all direct Contradiction to the Sentiments of others, and all positive Assertion of my own." This modest way of speaking made conversation more pleasant. And "to this Habit. . . I think it principally owing, that I had early so much Weight with my Fellow Citizens, when I proposed new Institutions, or Alterations in the old; and so much Influence in public Councils when I became a Member."

Working alongside Franklin in France, John Adams disputed this claim. To Adams, Franklin's "whole life" was "one continued Insult to good Manners and Decency." Had Franklin comported himself with greater candor, Adams implied, he would have been a more effective ambassador.

Thomas Jefferson--who replaced Franklin as ambassador to France in 1785--saw things differently. Writing to his grandson, Jefferson called Franklin "the most amiable of men in society." Why? Because he made it a rule "never to contradict any body. If he was urged to announce an opinion, he did it rather by asking questions, as if for information, or by suggesting doubts." As Jefferson warned, "I never yet saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument." On the other hand, "I have seen many on their getting warm, becoming rude, and shooting one another." Blunt confrontations were divisive and potentially deadly. Cooperation required compromise, negotiation, and persuasion.

Jefferson did not identify the origin of Franklin's complaisance. He may not have known. But instinctively he reached for the right word to describe it: politeness. Politeness was the virtue of a sensible man. Franklin's extraordinary success in politics can be attributed, in no small measure, to his embodiment of this early-eighteenth century ideal. And this, in turn, can be traced to his youthful engagement with some of the most vibrant currents of early-modern political thought.

Alan Houston received $40,000 in NEH funding to do research on Benjamin Franklin. Houston is an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.