Impressions of a Founding Father

The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume one: Journalist, 1706-1730 Volume two: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747
June 16, 2006

In the first fruits of a projected seven-volume biography, Márcia Balisciano finds the man behind the colonial superhero, who failed as well as succeeded

The year 2006 is a good one for Benjamin Franklin. The tercentenary of his birth on January 17 was feted across America - where he is revered as a key Founding Father - and farther afield. In London, the world's only remaining Franklin home, located at 36 Craven Street, steps from Trafalgar Square, opened to the public for the first time as a museum and educational facility. Here the publisher, writer, scientist, diplomat, inventor and bon vivant lived for 16 years on the eve of the American Revolution.

This year also sees J. A. Leo Lemay's long-anticipated opening volumes on the life of Benjamin Franklin. It was worth the wait. Franklin, one of history's great polymaths, is of endless fascination to laymen and scholars alike. He is a kind of cottage industry that spawns new tomes annually - biographies that often present only the outline of his long and substantive life (1706-90). As Lemay remarked of a recent popular edition, it "is a very good biography, but it has little original research in it... I learnt little from it, and I don't think... Franklin scholars did".

To grapple with the breadth of Franklin's life and mine beneath the surface requires a commitment of years, and Lemay's initial two volumes, with their many new insights, are satisfying for their sheer density. He seamlessly handles the challenge of a chronological-versus-topical approach, tracing the first half of Franklin's life in chapters divided into thematic subheadings that follow the evolution of Franklin from boy to man, apprentice to most important colonial journalist and publisher, and from Boston runaway to Philadelphia civic innovator and leader. It is thus a "sectional" read, rather than a single flowing narrative. However, given the mass of information, the format is less taxing on the reader, and Lemay weaves detailed analysis into an overall picture of Franklin.

He breaks new ground in revealing Franklin's creation of the first fictional African-American persona. Franklin got his start as a writer and printer while a precocious teenager apprenticed to his brother James. In a 1723 edition of James's New-England Courant , Franklin assumed the guise of Dingo, a black slave caught for selling illegal rum. Dingo acknowledges his guilt but claims the law is severe and unfairly disadvantages the underclass. "I publish this... in hopes some tender hearted Gentleman will undertake to be bound with me, and relieve me from rigorous Justice." Dingo needs £20, a considerable sum, or he will go to jail.

It would not be until 1772, while living in London, that Franklin expressed his first public opposition to slavery in a piece titled "The Sommerset case and the slave trade". His last public role was as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, some 80 years before the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which banned slavery.

Lemay also weighs in on one of the mysteries of Franklin's life: who was mother to his eldest child, William? Franklin, who found servitude to James harsh and stifling, fled to Philadelphia. Not long after, at the age of 19, he travelled to London and furthered his printing knowledge. He left behind one Deborah Read whom he had been courting, and she married another in his absence. On his return, however, a dalliance with an unknown woman - the name of whom Franklin never disclosed - led to the birth of a child. Lemay refutes the view that Deborah, who was said to express jealousy over William, could have been the boy's mother. Deborah's husband left shortly after their marriage, was never heard from again and was presumed dead.

Franklin's marriageable prospects were limited as an unwed single father, an unusual occurrence in 18th-century America, and he entered a common-law marriage with potential bigamist Deborah in 1730 (Lemay suggests 1728 as William's birth date).

One Franklin enemy during the American Revolution suggested that William was the result of a liaison with an "oyster wench in Philadelphia, whom he left to die in the streets of disease and hunger". Franklin, rare in his willingness to present himself in an unflattering light, cited in his Autobiography "hard-to-be-govern'd Passion of Youth" that "had hurried me frequently into Intrigues with low Women that fell in my Way, which were attended with Some Expense and great Inconvenience". Yet he was a public relations master who tailored anecdotes of his life for future generations.

The autobiography, begun in 1771 during his second tenure in Britain, takes the form of a letter to William. But there is no mention of the affair. According to Lemay, it is unlikely that William's mother had been of ill-repute, as she would potentially have been known to many with little incentive to remain discreet as Franklin developed a colonial and, eventually, an international reputation. Likewise, Franklin would not have been sure of William's paternity.

Lemay speculates she was actually a woman of respectable station, possibly even the wife of one of Franklin's friends (it was not uncommon for merchants to travel for as long as a year or two). Franklin's silence - and her own - protected her reputation. As Franklin quipped in Poor Richard's Almanack , his colonial bestseller, "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead." The woman may, in fact, have died in childbirth. The eventual breach between father and son over loyalty to the Crown (William) or the Americans (Franklin) would prove Franklin's deepest disappointment.

Lemay gives a fresh perspective on Franklin's religious views, arguing that while he claimed in the autobiography to be a deist, it was written when Franklin had become more circumscribed about revealing his true beliefs.

Deism was socially acceptable while the critical satire inherent in Franklin's anonymous youthful work, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain , was scandalous. Franklin noted "our reasoning Powers when employ'd about what may have been before our Existence here, or shall be after it, cannot go far for want of History and Facts: Revelation only can give us the necessary Information, and that (in the first of these Points especially) has been very sparingly afforded us".

Lemay uncovers Franklin's "Articles of belief and acts of religion (1728)", in which the young thinker heretically espouses the existence of many gods.

"I believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being, Author and Father of the Gods themselves. For I believe man is not the most perfect Being Out of One, rather that as there are many Degrees of Beings his Inferiors, so there are many Degrees of Beings superior to him."

Such views, Lemay reminds us, "were outside the normal bounds of Christianity". He argues that Franklin's most surprising and perhaps honest words were those he wrote to his parents after they expressed a concern for his faith: "You both seem condern'd for my Orthodoxy. God only knows whether all the Doctrines I hold for true, be so or not. For my part, I must confess, I believe they are not, but I am not able to distinguish the good from the bad." As Lemay notes, "What a paradox! How could anyone say that he believed that the doctrines he held to be true were not true." For Franklin, he maintains that the challenge was "trying to find absolute certainties when one believes there is none", that in questions of "metaphysical absolutes, like God or Truth, we are all probably wrong".

Franklin was a religious independent in a non-secular world.

Lemay is less effective when attempting to fill in where the historical record is sparse. Other than the autobiography, Franklin's self-selected retrospective on his early life, there is little detail of Franklin's first stint in London acquiring publishing knowhow. Referencing his interest in preachers of the day, Lemay states that in "January 1724/5, (Franklin) may have heard the Reverend Richard Mayo preach at Lambeth Chapel... at the consecration of Robert, Lord Bishop of Landaff. The next evening he may have gone to hear the Reverend Edward Chandler preach to the Societies for the Reformation of Manners at St. Mary-le-Bow." He can only guess about much of Franklin's actions during the period.

Lemay comprehensively shows Franklin as "the most civic-minded colonial American". He provides the background to Franklin's well-known lasting projects, such as the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731), the Union Fire Company (1736), the Academy and College of Philadelphia (1748), the Philadelphia Contributionship for Insuring Homes from Loss by Fire (1751) and the Pennsylvania Hospital (1751).

He explains interesting facets of Franklin's character, including his role as an early environmentalist tackling polluting tanners, an evocation of his lifelong defence of the rights of the many over the few. Lemay's Franklin is more real man than iconic colonial superhero, whose failures were numerous, among them ventures such as America's first German-language newspaper and a general magazine that collapsed due to Franklin's spite over a rival. He presages his Americanism, showing how, in the first half of his life, Franklin fought prejudice against Americans - so too the unfair policies of the Penns, Pennsylvania's proprietary owners. To their chagrin, Franklin boldly proposed a paper currency - which he naturally would be able to print - as an economic driver for the burgeoning nation.

Retirement in his early forties allowed Franklin to pursue "philosophical amusements", work in science and politics, which also enabled him to transcend his social class "where a tradesman was naturally subservient to a gentleman".

Lemay's exhaustive volumes will likely come to be seen as the authoritative compendium of Franklin's remarkable exploits and contributions. His next instalments should be eagerly anticipated.

M rcia Balisciano is founding director of Benjamin Franklin House in London. She holds a PhD in economic history from the London School of Economics.

The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume one: Journalist, 1706-1730 Volume two: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747

Author - J. A. Leo Lemay
Publisher - University of Pennsylvania Press
Pages - Volume one, 549pp Volume two, 647pp
Price - £26.00 each
ISBN - 0 8122 3854 0 and 3855 9

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