I finished reading Gordon Wood’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN. An excellent biography of Franklin as well as a good American history book. I had commented in a previous blog (Ben Franklin and the Americanization of Freedom ) about the opening chapters of the book in which Franklin was a loyal British citizen trying to preserve the unity of the British Empire.
The book traces the changes in Franklin’s thinking through time resulting in his becoming an American. There is a parallel reality that America simultaneously was becoming American as well. In many ways Franklin’s transformation happens as America itself is being born and transformed into an independent nation.
I want to offer a few quotes from the book which were significant to me. First, a quote about Britain, the nation Franklin loved but became totally disenchanted with. Franklin criticized Britain for being blinded by
“… her Fondness for Conquest as a Warlike Nation, her Lust of Dominion as an Ambitious one, and her Thirst for a gainful Monopoly as a Commercial one.” (p 166)
I have to wonder what he would have said about the USA today with our pride in being the greatest military power on earth and our constant willingness to make the military our main form of foreign policy. Franklin saw in Britain what Eisenhower warned about in America – the military industrial complex.
The second quote deals with Franklin’s own self evaluation.
“… as Franklin disarmingly admitted, he never had much success ‘in acquiring the Reality” of the virtue of humility, but he ‘had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.’ Humility, he said, had not been on his original list of virtues; he had added it only because a friend had told him that he was too proud. Franklin was well aware of his pride and its near relation, vanity. He had begun his Autobiography by admitting the overwhelming power of vanity. ‘Most people,’ he had written in 1771, ‘dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves.’ But Franklin knew better. ‘I give it fair Quarter whenever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of Good to the Possessor and to others that are within his Sphere of Action.’ … Pride, he conceded, was the hardest passion to subdue. ‘Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.’ ‘Even if he could completely overcome his pride, he would probably then be proud of his humility.’” (p 207)
Wood points out in his book that interestingly America’s image and evaluation of Franklin through our history has changed as America changed. As American attitudes toward agriculture, economy and capitalism morphed so did American ideas of who Franklin was and what he accomplished. The notion of working hard to attain success amazingly enough was an American invention. In Europe the rich did not work at all while the majority of people, the laborers, struggled to survive not to get ahead.
“… Franklin’s Autobiography had an inordinate influence on America’s understanding of itself. Out of these repeated messages of striving and success not only did ordinary northern white men acquire a heightened appreciation of their work and their worth; they were also able to construct an enduring sense of American nationhood – a sense of America as the land of enterprise and opportunity, as the place where anybody who works hard can make it, as the nation of free and scrambling money-making individuals pursuing happiness. This myth of American identity created during the several decades following the Revolution became so powerful that succeeding generations were scarcely able to question it.
Among the peoples of the world only Americans of the early republic, as their great observer Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, celebrated work as ‘the necessary, natural, and honest condition of all men.’ What most astonished Tocqueville was that Americans thought not only that work itself was ‘honorable,’ but that ‘work specifically to gain money’ was ‘honorable.’” (p 243-244)
We no longer even have a sense of how radical an idea these notions of work for profit were to the 18th Century. And it explains how “profit” became a virtue in America, perhaps the greatest and most important virtue in American mythology. Something which no one would have listed as a virtue prior to 19th Century America became central to the American value system. Whereas prior to the Revolution Franklin with many other wealthy people believed it was only poverty and hunger which caused the working class to work (thus poverty was a positive motivating factor for the poor!), America changed the attitude of and toward the working class. For it came to pass that working for profit became so highly valued in America.
“…said Tocqueville, ‘all see quite clearly that it is profit which, if not wholly then at least partially, prompts them to work.’”
Making profit a virtue is from an American point of view, America’s success. It is the reinterpretation of Benjamin Franklin as an American that helped spur this development along.