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

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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