Pennsylvania's polymath

Benjamin Franklin
June 6, 1997

The founding fathers of the United States command not merely continuous respect but also regular reassessments of their character and contributions to the creation of a new nation. In consequence, reputations can rise and fall: only recently Conor Cruise O'Brien has expressed serious disquiet at the intellectual attitudes of so venerated a figure as Thomas Jefferson. Even in cases that escape major criticism, the extent and complexity of the material made available through the indefatigable efforts of the editors of their literary remains indicate the need for further studies. The more that is brought to light, the less remains certain.

In this company Benjamin Franklin has never been relegated to the sidelines, least of all by himself. His Autobiography may have revealed far less than appeared to be the case, but his presence, whether in Philadelphia, London or Paris, was not to be overlooked. Was it the breadth of his interests or the depth of his intellect that presented his biographers with such a daunting task? And, even so, was Franklin, the politician, for all his qualities, more conventional and less perceptive than his talents might suggest should have been the case?

Francis Jennings is best known for his magisterial three-volume study of relations between American Indians, colonial settlers and imperial rulers, in the course of which he fearlessly corrected and denounced figures, both historical and historiographical, who have distorted past events. The tendency was apparent from the very first paragraph of his initial study, in which he recalled buying a used set of Francis Parkman's works and reading them through, "fascinated ... and increasingly plagued by a sense of something terribly wrong''. Parkman has never been reinstated to any state of grace and for Jennings remains to this day an unacceptable authority.

Against such a background the first reaction a seasoned reader of Jennings may have, especially when the book under review is a biography, is curiosity as to whether the subject will be assailed or approved. There is little likelihood of either outcome. This is not to suggest that the account will be unduly emphatic in its use or manipulation of material, but simply that Jennings combines scholarly assessment with personal declarations and judgements that extend from the 18th to the 20th centuries in content and relevance.

With Benjamin Franklin, any such expectations are more than fulfilled. We are provided with a distinctly unbuttoned academic examination of an aspect of Franklin's political career; en passant, the author conveys his opinions on race, Quakers, Nixon, Kissinger, colonial liberation, and other assorted subjects. Needless to say, Francis Parkman does not escape scot-free.

The substance of this study concerns Franklin's involvement in the politics of colonial Pennsylvania, a topic that has long interested Jennings, and not simply in terms of its relation to Indian affairs. If its central personage cuts an only occasionally heroic figure, there are striking contrasts to be observed in the descriptions of the activities of, to him, such thoroughly reprehensible connections as William Smith, provost of the recently founded College of Philadelphia, condemnation of whom extends also to historians who have failed to detect his villainy. The major criminal, however, was not to be found in Pennsylvania: Thomas Penn, the proprietor, remained resident in England. Jennings offers a picture of unrelieved chicanery and greed as composing the dominant quality of an interest that is characterised as "feudal" and on which Franklin's great passion since 1755 was fulfilled: the revolutionaries overthrew the feudal lords of Pennsylvania and banished them forever.

The pursuit of this theme elicits two reactions: a desire to secure further details for a general study of the Penns' role in the years before independence, and regret that Franklin's part in this confused political conflict does not, perhaps inevitably, emerge more precisely. Feudalism is not a concept or condition that translates easily to 18th-century colonial America. The proprietary element in Pennsylvania may not deserve any praise but its nature and purpose requires more specific attention and demonstration than it receives here. Jennings offers a salutary reminder rather than a convincing description.

His account of Franklin as politician covers more familiar ground, rather too rapidly for comfort. While failures are accorded as much prominence as successes, the record seems rushed, the details skimped. One might well ask whether Franklin ever achieved a political success in the struggle for independence. Until hostilities began, he was at least as interested in profiting from imperial benefits, as Jennings is at pains to indicate, and the confused proximity of leading figures on both sides in the war is strikingly indicated by the contrasting decisions of two formerly close political allies in the last years of colonial Pennsylvania: Franklin opted for the new nation while Joseph Galloway emerged as a leading loyalist. Who, observing their careers before the war, could have confidently predicted such an outcome?

This cannot be the last word on Franklin. It is, nonetheless, the most personal of recent accounts. Jennings, it can be argued, is saluting a kindred spirit. The founding fathers deserve their historians: all the better when they can also be seen to qualify as their descendants.

Peter Marshall is emeritus professor of American history and institutions, University of Manchester.

Benjamin Franklin: Politician

Author - Francis Jennings
ISBN - 0 393 03983 8
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £19.95
Pages - 240

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