“Let the record stand, and explain itself,” wrote Carl Van Doren, near the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Benjamin Franklin. It was a grand sentiment and one that might stand as the aspiration and plea of every author who has ever set out to write a credible biography. But it was also an implausible one.
Van Doren knew this. The myth of the “First American” had long ago overtaken the man, a development for which Franklin, himself, was largely responsible. When he finally passed on April 17, 1790, after an abscess in his left lung burst and put a swift end to a cascade of ailments, among his effects was an unfinished work that would eventually become, even beyond the ubiquitous aphorisms of Poor Richard’s Almanack, his most persuasive piece of writing.
The Autobiography, as it was eventually presented, was unknown to any of the other Founders except for Jefferson, with whom Franklin shared the manuscript. He was more forthcoming with foreign correspondents who longed to know when he might finish. “What is to follow will be of more important transactions,” Franklin assured one, though he allowed that his early years might be “of more general use to young readers.”
They would have to do. The Autobiography breaks off two decades before the colonial rebellion. The story of Franklin at the Founding would be left for others to tell, and with the attention given the era, others, like Van Doren, would be well-equipped to shoulder the burden. But it would be almost impossible for anyone else to recover the founding of Franklin in his early years of struggle and obscurity, making it far easier for Ben to tell the story he preferred.
The truncated tale of the Autobiography focuses largely on Franklin’s transformation from runaway apprentice to one of the wealthiest printers in America. Born in Boston in 1706, Ben was the fifteenth of Josiah Franklin’s seventeen children. The elder Franklin longed that his youngest son become a clergyman, but he was a candlemaker with many mouths and modest means. The adolescent Franklin was instead apprenticed to his older brother James to learn the trade of a printer. The two quarrelled endlessly, and while James was no doubt embarrassed by a younger brother whose brilliance often upstaged him, Ben copped to having a youthful habit of never missing an opportunity to remind others of his superiority.
A blowout when Franklin was seventeen saw him flee—nearly penniless, his pockets “stuff’d with Shirts & Stockings”—to Philadelphia. Haunted by the twin specter of hunger and homelessness, he soon found work at one of the two printing houses in town. After a few years, his exceptional work, enterprising spirit, and incandescent wit eventually won him the admiration of the father of a fellow apprentice, who proposed to stake him.
And so the one-time runaway opened his own stationer’s shop and took upon himself the starched respectability of being a small businessman. As if he didn’t already have enough to worry about, he soon decided that he “wish’d to live without committing any Fault at any time.” He consulted the wisdom of a wide variety of authors until he finally derived the thirteen virtues that would fulfill the “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” To each one he appended a “short precept,” creating a kind of colonial listicle to confront his conscience and, later on, his readers. Consider virtues four through six:
Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
Make no Expence but to do good to others or yourself: i.e., Waste nothing.
Lose no Time.—Be always employ’d in something useful.—Cut off all unnecessary Actions.—
Such virtues, and the story in which they were embedded, made the Autobiography the original How to Succeed in Business book and nothing less than a literary phenomenon. It was far and away the most popular work by any of the Founders, transforming its author, who otherwise might have been best known for the gilt-edged engagements of science and diplomacy, into a folk hero. “Franklin became not only an icon that ordinary people could emulate,” a contemporary historian has written, “but also the most important mythical figure used to assimilate foreigners to American values.”
The figure they aimed to emulate was Ben the bourgeois striver, a character who won the allegiance of readers if they believed the values he embodied lent themselves to self-improvement rather than moral stultification. Mark Twain was an advocate for the second possibility. Woe betide aspiring Hucks if the ghost of Franklin got hold of them, Twain warned in one of his monthly contributions to The Galaxy. “His maxims were full of animosity toward boys” and inspired parents with the “calamitous idea” that “Franklin acquired his great genius by working for nothing, studying by moonlight, and getting up in the night instead of waiting til morning like a Christian.”
D. H. Lawrence famously went even further. He derided Franklin as the dreary architect of what he termed “the pattern American.” By the example he gave in the Autobiography, Lawrence claimed, the “economic father of the United States” had rigged up a “barbed wire moral enclosure,” confining the hopes and ambitions of a rising people to the colorless frontiers of commercial productivity. “I am a moral animal. But I am not a moral machine,” the Englishman declared. “I’m not going to be turned into a virtuous little automaton as Benjamin would have me.”
Lawrence’s assault on Franklin filled an entire chapter of his Studies in Classic American Literature. The book was published in 1923, and it clearly wasn’t far from Carl Van Doren’s mind a decade later when he began his work of biographical redemption. “Franklin, the most widely read of autobiographers, is best known from his Autobiography,” he writes in the preface to his book, “and therefore too little known.” Van Doren’s solution was to let Franklin speak for himself or, more to the point, to let him finish speaking. “He never found time to carry out the history of himself which he intended,” he notes. “But the materials which he would have used still exist, scattered in journals, letters and miscellaneous writings.”
What follows is a biography remarkable for being, at times, almost entirely in the hands of its subject. This is a boon for those who relish the verve and variety of Franklin’s canon—and Van Doren’s choice seems, in part, a token of such admiration—but it is something of a strange remedy for the enduring bugbear of the Autobiography: the author’s credibility. “They praise his thrift,” Van Doren declares of the “dry, prim people” who claimed the “Ben Franklin” of the Autobiography as a tedious tribune for the petite bourgeoisie:
But he himself admitted that he could never learn frugality, and he practised it no longer than his poverty forced him to. They praise his prudence. But at seventy he became a leader of a revolution, and throughout his life he ran bold risks. They praise him for being a plain man. Hardly another man of affairs has ever been more devoted than Franklin to the pleasant graces. The dry, prim people seem to regard him as a treasure shut up in a savings bank to which they have the lawful key.
Be that as it may, it was Franklin who filed the teeth for them. And given his preferred approach as a biographer, one more of curatorial appreciation than critical analysis, Van Doren was pretty much counting on the same locksmith.
Using Ben Franklin to debunk “Ben Franklin” is a tricky proposition, for one is inevitably left wondering which Franklin to believe. For the most part, Van Doren assumes that the Franklin of the Autobiography is merely “the complete tradesman,” a sedulous, sober figure, “strategically assumed” to provide a simplified ideal that might inspire the works and days of a young nation. And yet, says Van Doren, Franklin “could not be forever in his leather apron, behind his conscious wheelbarrow. He wanted to speak out.”
When he does in Van Doren’s work, it is often to undermine the caricature of the Autobiography. While the complete tradesman might contend that he was “seen at no Places of idle Diversion,” Van Doren compels Franklin to share several pages of drinking songs he authored: “’Twas honest old Noah first planted the vine, / And mended his morals by drinking its wine.” While the avatar of the Autobiography lists Chastity as one of his thirteen virtues in service of moral perfection, Van Doren includes the author’s Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress, a missive that takes “prefer old women to young ones” for its thesis and concludes its reasoning with the chestnut “they are so grateful!” (Your move, D. H. Lawrence…)
Over the course of Van Doren’s nearly nine hundred page account, the length of the Autobiography several times over, discrepancies like these serve to complicate and enrich the figure of Ben Franklin for generations of devotees and detractors alike. “[H]is character was never of one single piece, like, for example, Washington’s,” Van Doren contends. “Franklin’s was rich, flexible, dramatic.” It was also quite endearing. Van Doren clearly likes his subject, so much so that he sometimes silences him in service of that impression.
In what may be the oddest moment of the Autobiography, and no doubt the most unnerving, Franklin describes a diplomatic mission he joined, in Van Doren’s words, “to renew, ratify, and confirm the league of amity already existing” between the settlers in Pennsylvania and a collection of tribes west of the Appalachian Mountains collectively known as the Six Nations. The “amity” between them would be underwritten by eight hundred pounds of “presents” the colonial delegation would bring by wagontrain, which probably included “blankets, coats, shoes, ruffled shirts, bolts of coloured cloth, guns, powder, lead, flints, knives—and rum.”
The last addition to the list we know with certainty, for it plays a key role in Franklin’s account. When the native Americans are given the rum at the conclusion of the backwoods diplomacy, shortly thereafter, Franklin and his fellow commissioners find, as the Autobiography tells it, the “Men and Women, quarrelling and fighting” around a bonfire. The “horrid Yellings, form’d a Scene the most resembling our Ideas of Hell” and continued on late into the night. In the morning, an “Orator” apologized to the commissioners for the fracas. However, he blamed it on the rum, explaining: “The great Spirit who made all things made every thing for some Use, and whatever Use he design’d any thing for, that Use it should always be put to; Now, when he made Rum, he said, LET THIS BE FOR INDIANS TO GET DRUNK WITH. And it must be so.”
Franklin might have terminated the story on this farcical note, but he felt the need to supply a dreadful coda: “And indeed if it be the Design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for the Cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that Rum may be the appointed Means. It has already annihilated all the Tribes who formerly inhabited the Sea Coast.”
Franklin could occasionally be crude, but apart from this unseemly episode, he is rarely cruel and never unapologetically so. At least to my knowledge. Van Doren’s is far more complete, which makes his treatment of the incident so damning, not for Franklin, who needs no help, but for his own biographical pretensions.
After noting the Native Americans “all got drunk” on the rum given them, Van Doren concludes his account of the incident without any help from Franklin. “Neither an anthropologist nor a romancer,” he said:
Franklin looked upon the Indians always with the human curiosity and natural respect which he felt for any people whose way of life was different from his own…. As between the Indians and the white settlers, he sympathized with the Indians. It was not they who broke treaties or drove greedy bargains or presumed on superior strength. He believed with William Penn that civilized justice and savage justice were much the same and could live side by side in peace. What was needed was equitable agreements between the two races, and honest trading.
There the chapter ends. In a book where Franklin will occasionally be allowed to speak uninterrupted for pages, of rum’s “appointed Means,” genocidal and putatively provident, no mention is made.
What to make of this omission? Not too much, perhaps, for it isn’t altogether surprising. Charles Van Doren knew as well as anybody that, for those whom history deems great, there is always the myth that contends with the man posthumously. But even if a sincere historian takes upon himself the burden of biographical redemption, there is always the temptation to further mythmaking, an endeavour that succeeds by addition as well as subtraction, curlicue no less than lacuna. Ultimately, Van Doren did for Franklin only what Franklin did for himself: He amended the story of his subject’s life to bring him a shade closer to the hero he favored.
Legends grow in many ways, but inevitably at some expense, occasionally of the heroes themselves, sometimes of an author’s integrity, but always at the cost of an honest reckoning with the half shadows of history.