If Edmund S. Morgan’s volume had a subtitle, it would be “An Appreciation.” The phrase fits for two reasons. The first is that Morgan admires Franklin, though he does so as Ben Jonson did William Shakespeare, this side of idolatry. The other is that Morgan does not attempt a full biography of his subject. This book offers a sketch rather than a detailed portrait. However, Morgan’s research background is more voluminous than any other Franklin biographer can claim; as chair of the administrative board overseeing the publication of Franklin’s papers (thirty-six volumes of which have been published to date), Morgan has read virtually everything Franklin ever wrote, as well as everything ever written to him.
Instead of beginning with Franklin’s birth or ancestry, Morgan in his first chapter explores what he regards as some of Franklin’s ruling passions, as the eighteenth century would have called them. The first of these, and the one that Morgan regards as controlling Franklin’s life, is utility. Morgan notes that while Franklin was in England for the first time, in the mid-1720’s, the young colonial published a pamphlet claiming that whatever is, is right. Good and evil, Franklin here maintained, are meaningless terms because whatever happens must have the sanction of an omnipotent deity. After two of Franklin’s acquaintances to whom he had lent money used his argument to justify failing to repay him, Franklin concluded that while his contention may have been philosophically sound, it was not useful. Franklin thus erected a morality based on practicality.
Morgan generally avoids recapitulating the ground covered in Franklin’s own Autobiography (first published in 1791, covering the period 1706-1759), but he does pause over one of the most famous parts of that work: Franklin’s list of thirteen virtues. As Morgan observes, these qualities all have utilitarian values. Under “Silence,” for example, Franklin wrote, “Speak not but what may benefit others or your self.” For Franklin, chastity meant, “Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.” Absent from Franklin’s list is the triad of cardinal Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as are courage and wisdom from the classical quartet. At the head of Franklin’s list is temperance. In the first Poor Richard’s Almanak (1732) Franklin explained that moderation in diet would prolong life and moderation in drink would save money as well as reputation.
Nonetheless, Morgan denies the common accusation that Franklin’s chief aim was the accumulation of wealth. He acknowledges that Franklin did warn repeatedly against debt and that poverty was his version of his Puritan ancestors’ conception of hell. Franklin modeled his Autobiography on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678); Franklin’s retelling shows a poor youth rising to affluence and influence. According to Morgan, however, Franklin’s conception of heaven was not riches but rather contentment. Had Franklin merely sought to amass a fortune, Morgan writes, he would not have retired at the age of forty-two.
Instead, Morgan argues, Franklin’s overriding desire was to be useful to others. When Cadwallader Colden wrote that he intended to retire from politics to pursue scientific research, Franklin protested this decision. Morgan shows that Franklin made the opposite choice: Throughout his long life, Franklin benefitted others. In the 1720’s he organized some dozen friends into the Junto, a social club that used its weekly meetings to improve the minds and fortunes of its members. As part of their effort at self-improvement, the Junto members brought books to their meeting place. Because the number of volumes was small, Franklin suggested that they establish a subscription library, which survives as the Free Library of Philadelphia. Franklin conceived of Philadelphia’s first volunteer fire department, the city’s first...
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