A re-post for Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, born in Massachusetts on this day in 1706. This makes me so sad to post. On this week of all weeks. If you’ve read me long enough, then you know my feelings for our Founders and my admiration for how carefully they created our flawed yet beautiful form of government. They tried. They tried to see into the future, to anticipate what could threaten the institutions, what could be coming. They knew that man was not to be trusted. Ever. They were deeply practical men. This is a terrible week. To anyone who thinks this is a good week, your comments are not welcome here. I’m very sad to say this for I have always cherished good old-fashioned political debate. But it’s a new world now. Defending the indefensible will not happen on my site. Not now. I re-read this post this morning, which I wrote maybe 5 or 6 years ago, and there’s a very prescient (if I do say so myself) line about the “easily duped.” So I post this with sadness and rage and the deepest sense of patriotism that I possess, which is pretty damn deep. I will continue to honor “these guys,” as I always have, even when it was unfashionable to do so in certain circles – some of the circles I operated in – these eccentric, contentious, brilliant, flawed men, who tried to set something up that would stand the test of time. Honoring them is now an act of protest.
My grandmother had a big illustrated copy of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which I had practically memorized by the time I was 6 years old. The illustrations were goofy and elaborate, and I somehow “got the joke” that so much of it was a joke, a satire on the do-good-ish bromides of self-serious Puritans who worry about their neighbor’s morality. Obviously I wouldn’t have put it that way at age 6, but I understood that the book in my hands, the huge book, was not serious at all. Clearly, many others did not get the joke. Benjamin Franklin, throughout his life, was a master at parody and satire, as well as such a master that he is still fooling people! He was his very own The Onion! He presented ridiculous arguments and opinions in a way where people nodded their heads in agreement, and then afterwards wondered uneasily if they were being made fun of. Their uneasiness was warranted. Yes, Benjamin Franklin was making fun of them.
Franklin played such a huge role not only in creating bonding-mechanisms between the colonies – with newspapers, his printing service, the Almanac – but in science and community service (he started the first fire-brigade in Philadelphia on the British model. He opened the first public lending library in the colonies), as well as his writing. He was an Elder Statesman of the relatively young men who made up the Revolution. There were so many of “those guys” who played a hand in the Revolution, but perhaps Benjamin Franklin played the most crucial role in his time as a diplomatic presence in France, where he became so beloved a figure that the French fell in love with him, commemorated him in songs and portraits, putting his mug on plates and cups and platters and buttons – so that in a time when nobody knew really what anybody looked like, Benjamin Franklin was instantly recognizable the world over. The French falling in love with him was extremely important, and helped ingratiate the rebellious American colonies to the French so that they made the (in retrospect) unbelievably risky choice to back the Revolution financially. (Dear France, you HAVE a king. You are supporting throwing over another King. You’ve got to know that that is going to come back and bite you in the ass. Oui? Non?)
When the Battle of Yorktown went down, Franklin was still in France. The following story may be apocryphal (as so many Franklin stories are), but I love it nonetheless:
Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.
The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”
The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”
Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”
One of my favorite periods in Benjamin Franklin’s life was early on, long before his time as a Revolutionary, and beloved ambassador to France. He was a teenager. 15, 16 years old. He was trying to get his work published. No luck. He had a lot to say. But no newspapers were biting. So he created an alter ego, a widow in her 40s named Mrs. Silence Dogood. I mean, the name alone … Mrs. Silence Dogood wrote chatty letters-to-the-editor about various issues of the day, her observations, her thoughts and feelings. Benjamin Franklin, the teenager, who had created her, would push “her” letters under the door at his elder brother’s print shop (brother printed the New England Courant). Franklin’s older brother found the letters amusing, and he had no idea that his teenage apprentice brother was the author. He started publishing them. They received a lot of attention, locally, and people loved her. She even got marriage proposals through the mail. Picturing a 15-year-old boy engineering this hoax just so he could see his name (although not really) in print … it’s just too awesome. Silence Dogood’s voice was somewhat arch, a little bit dim, very sentimental, and she seemed to not realize how funny she was. But Franklin knew how funny she was.
Like any good actor or performer, Franklin had a whole backstory for Silence Dogood. He cared about his character. He created her voice, and he stuck to it: he imagined his way into her “thought” processes. She shared her entire life story in one of the letters. I can barely read the Silence Dogood stuff without laughing out loud. All I can see is a teenage boy scribbling it all out in his tiny room by candlelight, giggling to himself.
Just one excerpt from the 15 Silence Dogood letters eventually published, this about her marriage to her “Master”:
We lived happily together in the Heighth of conjugal Love and mutual Endearments, for near Seven Years, in which Time we added Two likely Girls and a Boy to the Family of the Dogoods: But alas! When my Sun was in its meridian Altitude, inexorable unrelenting Death, as if he had envy’d my Happiness and Tranquility, and resolv’d to make me entirely miserable by the Loss of so good an Husband, hastened his Flight to the Heavenly World, by a sudden unexpected Departure from this.
Now if you didn’t know that the whole thing was an elaborate joke, you might see in this flowery language a depth of emotion, an actual woman trying to express herself. This was the style of the day. Nobody would ever guess that a pimply kid was writing it. But once you know the joke, there is barely a line of Silence Dogood’s prose that is not 100 % hilarious. It’s all quite EARNEST, her opinions, her humility (“why should any of you want to listen to little ol’ me?”), her outrage about things like hoop skirts, her observations, her expressions of loneliness and yearning for a man … But it’s all just an invention of Benjamin Franklin and it’s deliciously funny.
Of course his older brother eventually discovered that he had been printing phony letters – written by his sibling – and was furious about it. Benjamin Franklin fled Boston and went to Philadelphia, and left Silence Dogood behind him.
But I love that that was Franklin’s start as a writer. It was basically a drag performance. You get the sense he could have just kept going. And Poor Richard’s Almanack (wrote a post about it here) was also a “performance”. Yes, it had proper almanac features, but it was the voice of the self-pitying “Poor Richard” himself that distinguished it from other almanacs. And sprinkled throughout were little pearls of “wisdom”, epigrams and “sayings” – and these are what the almanac is still known for.
Obviously I could talk about Benjamin Franklin forever.
Let’s move on to Hitchens’ essay about him, included in Arguably (an awesomely comprehensive essay collection – the subject matter, the depth, the breadth!). This particular essay is a review of Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought, by Jerry Weinberger, a book that Hitchens clearly admired very much. I should read it. I’ve only read crappy biographies of Franklin. And then of course there is Franklin’s essential Autobiography. Hitchens writes, of that Autobiography:
There are two kinds of people: those who read Franklin’s celebrated Autobiography with a solemn expression, and those who keep laughing out loud as they go along.
One can guess which group Hitchens belonged to. He describes reading it in a bar in Annapolis and guffawing to himself, and when people asked him what he was reading that was making him laugh so hard, he showed them the cover, and everyone looked confused.
You have to go into Franklin’s Autobiography with great skepticism, and you need to keep an eye out for the booby traps everywhere. Some of it is serious, some of it is not. Some of it is personal myth-making, other parts are making fun of those who turn their own narratives into an epic myth. Take nothing at face value. Benjamin Franklin is both brilliant and totally unreliable as a narrator. Don’t trust him! Ever! It’s like people who post links to the Onion on their FB pages, saying, “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS IS GOING ON????? I AM OUTRAGED.” And the comments section then fills up with people saying, “Uhm, that’s satire.” Once the credulous folks realize that they have been Punked but GOOD, they often resort to defensive huffy comments such as: “Well, it’s so close to the truth that I AM STILL OUTRAGED.”
The easily-duped will always be with us. I wonder if being addicted to OUTRAGE. ALL. THE. TIME. makes people more credulous.
Here’s an excerpt from Hitchens’ entertaining book review.
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, ‘Benjamin Franklin: Free and Easy’, by Christopher Hitchens
It is precisely Franklin’s homespun sampler quotations about frugality and thrift that made him rich and famous through the audience of his Almanack. And it was these maxims, collected and distilled in the last of the Poor Richard series and later given the grand title The Way to Wealth, that so incensed Mark Twain as to cause him to write that they were “full of animosity toward boys” and “worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel.” A point, like a joke, is a terrible thing to miss. When I re-read The Way to Wealth from the perspective of Jerry Weinberger, I could not bring myself to believe that it had ever been taken with the least seriousness. In the old days at the New Statesmen we once ran a celebrated weekend competition that asked readers to submit mad-up gems of cretinous bucolic wisdom. Two of the winning entires, I still recall, were “He digs deepest who deepest digs” and “An owl in a sack bothers no man.” Many of Poor Richard’s attempts at epigram and aphorism do not even rise to this level. My favorite, “‘Tis hard for an empty Bag to stand upright,” is plainly not a case in which Franklin thinks he has polished his own renowned wit to a diamond-hard edge. The whole setting of The Way to Wealth is a “lift,” it seems to me, from Christian’s encounter with Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim’s Progress. And the heartening injunctions (of which “The Cat in Gloves catches no Mice” is another stellar example) are so foolish that it is a shock to remember that the old standby “God helps them that help themselves” comes from the same anthology of wisdom.
Franklin’s moral jujitsu, in which he always seemingly deferred to his opponents in debate but left them first punching the air and then adopting his opinions as their own, is frequently and sly boasted about in the Autobiography, but it cannot have afforded him as much pleasure as the applause and income he received from people who didn’t know he was kidding. The tip-offs are all there once you learn to look for them, as with Franklin’s friend Osborne, who died young.
He and I had made a serious Agreement, that the one who happen’d first to die, should if possible make a friendly Visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that separate State. But he never fulfill’d his Promise.
At a time when some noisy advocates are attempting to revise American history, and to represent the Founders as men who believed in a Christian nation, this book could not be more welcome. I close with what Franklin so foxily said about the Reverend Whitefield, whose oral sermons were so fine but whose habit of writing them down exposed him to fierce textual criticism: “Opinions [delivered] in Preaching might have been afterwards explain’d, or qualify’d by supposing others that might have accompany’d them; or they might have been deny’d; But liter script manet.” Yes, indeed, “the written word shall remain.” And the old printer left enough of it to delight subsequent generations and remind us continually of the hidden pleasures of the text.