Ben Franklin and the Americanization of Freedom

Every year about the 4th of July, I try to read a book on American history.  This year I finally got around to a book I’ve owned for a long time but never read, Gordon Wood’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.   Despite my general love for reading, I’ve not found as much time to read as I would like and I’m only about ¼ of the way into the book.  However, my initial impressions are very positive and I’m enjoying the book.  I’ll quote two passages from what I’ve read so far both dealing with things Mr. Franklin valued highly.  The first is about the word “condescension.”   Ben Franklin strove to become a “gentleman,” part of that class of gentry, whose virtues he embraced and wished to instill in others.

“Only a hierarchical society that knew it distinctions well could have placed so much value on a gentleman’s capacity for condescension—that voluntary humiliation, that willing descent from superiority to equal terms with inferiors.  For us today condescension is a pejorative term, suggesting snobbery or haughtiness.  But for the eighteenth century it was a positive and complimentary terms, something that gentlemen aspired to possess and commoners valued in those above them.”  (p 38)

The virtue of a superior reaching down (condescending) to be with those inferior to him is also valued in Orthodoxy, as it is a very positive term used to describe Christ Himself who though God, condescended to become man in order to save us (Philippians 2:5-8).

The second quote deals with 18th Century ideas about what “freedom” means.   Dr. Franklin accepted and lived by a notion of freedom which was based in materialism.    It is wealth that enables us to be free, which makes us independent of the demands of society and of necessity.  Freedom enables us to become people of leisure.

“Ultimately, beneath all these strenuous efforts to define gentility was the fundamental classical quality of being free and independent.  The liberality for which gentlemen were known connoted freedom – freedom from material want, freedom from the caprice of others, freedom from ignorance, and freedom from having to work with one’s hands.  The gentry’s distinctiveness came from being independent in a world of dependences, learned in a world only partially literate, and a leisured in a world of laborers.  …    People labored out of necessity, out of poverty, and that necessity and poverty bred the contempt in which laboring people had been held for centuries.  Since servants, slaves, and bonded laborers did much of the work of society, it seemed natural to associate leisure with liberty and toil with bondage.  A gentleman’s freedom was valued because it was freedom from the necessity to labor, which came from being poor.      Indeed, only the need of ordinary people to feed themselves, it was thought, kept them busy working.”  (pp 38-39)

Franklin agreed with those who thought that poverty and hunger were the main motivators to keep the lower class working.  He however strove for freedom from such necessity.

So no doubt he would have favored a society which made the lives of the gentry easier and even more free from dependencies and necessity, but which would have kept the lower class working ever harder to help them avoid indolence, idleness and prodigality.  At least to the point I’ve read in the book, Ben Franklin does not conceive of freedom as belonging to everyone nor even good for everyone.   Freedom in Franklin’s thinking would lead the lower class into sloth and poverty.   But for the gentry class, freedom allowed them to live nobly and involve themselves in civil affairs.