Impertinent Questions

Impertinent Questions with Alan Houston

On the cosmopolitan Benjamin Franklin.

HUMANITIES, July/August 2009, Volume 30, Number 4

As a political theorist, UC–San Diego professor Alan Houston has dug through the thicket of politics, philosophy, and personalities that shaped early modern England and colonial America. His latest book, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement, tackles the Founding Father who has confounded generations with his varied opinions and multiple careers. The book, written with the help of an NEH fellowship, explores Franklin’s cosmopolitan, practical approaches to issues such as commerce, immigration, and governance, bringing alive the colonial era in the process. IQ asked Houston to share his thoughts on Franklin and the thrill of scholarly discovery.

How did you become interested in Benjamin Franklin?

Jefferson was taken. Literally. A decade ago I was invited to edit an American contribution to the series Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. I proposed Jefferson, to which the response was ‘Sorry, we’ve already committed Jefferson. What about Franklin?’ I reflected for a second or two, recalled how much I enjoyed the Autobiography, and said yes. What marvelous good fortune! Franklin has been the focus of my research for nearly ten years, and I never tire of his company.

Franklin was always seeking to improve himself. Where did that drive come from?

It seems to have been woven into his nature. More stunning than his attempts at self-improvement, however, was his ability to accept inconsistency, conflict, and failure with ironic good humor.

Franklin was a man of many interests. Which of his interests surprised you the most?

His love of reading. Franklin had only two years of formal education. But he learned to read at a very early age, and as a child “all the little Money” that came into his hands was “laid out in Books.” We often think of Franklin doing: printing newspapers, experimenting with electricity, founding fire companies. But Franklin’s doing was always accompanied by reading. Action and reflection were two sides of the same coin.

While doing research for your book, you discovered some previously unknown letters. What did you find?

Copies of forty-seven letters from the spring and summer of 1755. All concern Franklin’s contributions to Edward Braddock’s campaign against Fort Duquesne. In 1754 George Washington was defeated by the French at Fort Necessity. Braddock was sent with nearly 2,000 soldiers to reassert British control over the frontier. The campaign was a disaster, but Franklin’s efforts—especially contracting Pennsylvania farmers to provide wagons and horses for transport—were lauded on both sides of the Atlantic.

Upon realizing what you had, what was your first reaction?

My heart beat faster, my chest tightened, and I could not sit still. I was in the Manuscripts Reading Room of the British Library, so I rushed outside and called my wife, who was back in San Diego!

Your second?

Panic! I thought to myself, ‘This can’t be right; Franklin is too well known and too thoroughly studied; someone has to have already discovered these letters.’ Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case.

How do the new letters change our understanding of Franklin?

Among other things, the letters illuminate the gap between imperial ambitions and local realities, giving us a better sense of the challenges Franklin faced. Previous accounts have asserted that contracting for wagons and horses was relatively painless. These letters suggest otherwise. Many farmers were reluctant to part with their wagons and horses, and had to be threatened or cajoled. Cruel treatment at the hands of British soldiers only heightened their anxieties. Some farmers were intoxicated and abusive and had to be treated cautiously. Others refused to contract with Franklin, calculating that they could command a higher price by holding out and making Braddock even more desperate for their help.

Franklin liked to organize people. What was the first association (or club) he created?

As a ten-year-old, Franklin persuaded his friends in Boston to build a wharf on a mill pond with stones stolen from a nearby construction site. The boys were caught, and though Franklin “pleaded the usefulness of the work,” his father “corrected” him.

The last?

The Society for Political Enquiries, formed in February 1787. The Revolutionary War had been won, and new governments had been created. But “foreign prejudices,” embedded in laws, manners, and opinions, remained. SPE was formed for “mutual improvement in the knowledge of government,” and “the advancement of political science.”

Which stereotype of Franklin would you like to do away with?

That he was a crass and boorish apologist for making money. Or that he was a shameless skirt-chaser. Or that he was the “first” American, the epitome of our national identity. Hmm. Can I slay all three at a single stroke?

What would you replace it with?

That he was a lively companion, with a love of wit both high and low; that he was a vibrant public intellectual, consciously committed to both learned controversies and civic policies; and that he was a cosmopolitan, deeply indebted to ideas and values circulating throughout the Atlantic world.

If Franklin were alive today and hosting a dinner party for six, whom would he invite?

Franklin relished good conversation, especially when discussing politics and science. But he had little tolerance for self-righteousness, and he avoided open conflict whenever possible. Surely Barack and Michelle Obama would top his list, for every possible reason. He would have appreciated the spirit of a man like Roger Revelle, the oceanographer and climatologist who founded UC–San Diego. As writer, printer, and businessman, Franklin would have been fascinated by computers and the Internet, so Bill Gates might make the list. As the creator of Poor Richard’s Almanack, he would have enjoyed Stephen Colbert’s satiric wit. He knew nothing of Buddhism but would have embraced the ecumenical spirit of the Dalai Lama. And despite my protestations above, he clearly enjoyed the company of charming and talented women, especially if they liked to play chess. I, in turn, would gladly serve as chef or waiter.