Benjamin Franklin

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In what ways do Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson reflect the legacy of Puritan thinking in their writing? 

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Of these two men only Franklin, a New Englander before relocating to Philadelphia in his youth, can be said actually to have a Puritan background. Jefferson was from Virginia, a colony settled not by Puritans but largely by Church of England members. It is difficult to determine exactly how much...

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Of these two men only Franklin, a New Englander before relocating to Philadelphia in his youth, can be said actually to have a Puritan background. Jefferson was from Virginia, a colony settled not by Puritans but largely by Church of England members. It is difficult to determine exactly how much of either man's thinking stemmed from his religious background or from the religious and ideological conflicts occurring in England and, by extension, the colonies in the century and a half before they reached maturity and formed their own views.

Both Franklin and Jefferson, like many intellectuals of their time, were deists: they believed in God, the Supreme Being, but they had basically rejected organized religion. Franklin had as one of his precepts to "imitate Jesus and Socrates." This statement indicates both his secularism, in seemingly placing Socrates on the same plane as Jesus, and his rational, non-spiritual form of Christianity in his continuing belief in the principles of conduct laid down by Jesus. In spite of our image of the Puritans as fanatical religious believers, one can make a case that because the Puritans were a dissenting sect in England, the later generations of people of Puritan background were influenced into ironically being tolerant of all beliefs, including non-Christian ones. The relative freedom of thought and action that already existed in England, going back to the Magna Carta, was just as influential upon the leading American colonists as any specific religious denomination in shaping their thoughts. Jefferson, like Franklin, was not a religious believer but retained a respect for Christianity and believed in a kind of secularized version of it: the so-called "Jefferson Bible" that he prepared is a version of the New Testament that omits everything supernatural and retains the basic message of Jesus.

In one further respect we can see that the specific type of Christianity represented by Puritanism influenced Franklin and, perhaps, Jefferson. The Puritans were a Calvinist sect. The denomination of Protestantism begun by Calvin emphasized that success in this world had a bearing on, or was an indication of, whether a person was one of the elect, those chosen for heaven in the afterlife. The "Protestant ethic"—the idea that hard work and earning money are the prime virtues—is usually attributed to Calvinism. Both Franklin and Jefferson, in their personal and professional lives, were indefatigable. Franklin was an eighteenth-century Renaissance man who became an international celebrity renowned for his scientific achievements and general learning at a time when Europeans thought of most Americans as illiterate backwoodsmen. And Jefferson, when his authorship of the Declaration of Independence became generally known throughout Europe, also came to be considered a man whose thinking was at the forefront of modern civilization, and the Declaration of Independence was the model for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen that became the credo of the French Revolution. It is hard to imagine that either Franklin or Jefferson would have achieved such greatness without their belief in the Protestant work ethic.

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While it is widely understood that Benjamin Franklin rejected Puritan thought and turned instead to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Franklin was certainly raised in the Puritan tradition, and Puritan influence can certainly be seen in his writing. Influence can especially be seen in his autobiography. Author David M. Larson points out that the writers of Puritan autobiographies stressed their "dependence upon God for grace and salvation and their inability to achieve virtue without grace" ("Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)"). While in his autobiography Franklin did not attribute the achievement of virtue to the dependence on God, he did stress the importance of virtue. In fact, throughout the autobiography, he discusses his endeavors to learn exactly what virtue is and to put it into practice, showing us that Franklin maintained his Puritan influence concerning the existence of virtue. The only difference is that he considered acting virtuously to be only a means of self-improvement rather than having anything to do with God. One can also see the influences of Puritan minsters and theologians, such as Cotton Mathers and Jonathan Edwards, in Franklin's writings. The only difference is that Franklin viewed acting with morality and benevolence as more important than faith.

Puritan influence can further be seen in Thomas Jefferson, though through a more political aspect. Puritan thinking actually had a significant influence on those who led the American Revolution. The Puritans rose up from the Reformation due to Luther's influence and were mostly Calvinists. As a part of Luther's influence, the Puritans were against the ruling of kings, thinking that kings were not above the laws of the land, laws dictated by God. For that reason, Puritans argued that the government should rest in the hands of the people, a political philosophy spurred by Puritan and Protestant theology that Thomas Jefferson echoed in writing The Declaration of Independence. Hence, it can be argued, when Jefferson states that when any government "becomes destructive" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," it is the people's right to put an end to the government, Jefferson is not only reflecting on the famous philosopher John Locke, he is also reflecting on Puritan writers ("Americas Founding and Christianity (Part I): Luther and the Puritan Influence"). Jefferson even further reflected Puritan philosophy in what became his own personal motto, "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God."  

Hence we see that, regardless of being Enlightenment thinkers, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson remained influenced by their Puritan roots in terms of thoughts concerning virtue, morality, and justice

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