Has Benjamin Franklin Worn Out His Welcome? (Spring 2006 Trust Magazine article)

  • May 01, 2006
  • By Walter Isaacson

Not likely. What we see in this 300-year-old founding father mirrors ourselves.

What leadership lessons can we learn from our country's founders? What qualities and personality traits make a leader great? There is not, I think, one answer. What made the era of the founders so successful was that there was a group of leaders who each had different talents and who together complemented one another.

It was critical to have someone like George Washington, who was revered by all and could command authority. We also needed men like John Adams and his cousin Samuel, who were unflinching and unbending and uncompromising in pursuit of principle. Then, too, we needed bright young philosophers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

But equally important, the nation, aborning, needed a Benjamin Franklin: someone who was sage yet sensible and very pragmatic, who could bring people together and calm their passions, who could understand that it was possible to uphold core values while also seeking to find common ground with others.

Indeed, these are the traits, I think, that account for Franklin's recurring popularity in times of social discord and strife. He enjoyed a brief vogue, for example, during the Depression, when Carl Van Doren wrote the masterful biography of his life and when I. Bernard Cohen exalted the practical and pragmatic nature of his science. And after a decade of rising divisiveness in politics and the media in our own time, almost a dozen new books celebrate Franklin as a voice of reason and moderation.

Each new age can relate to him because, more than any other, he is the founding father who winks at us. Washington's colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would find the idea even more unthinkable today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than marble; addressable by nickname, he turns to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time, which can be a bit disconcerting.

Franklin helped invent the type of a middle-class meritocracy that informs the American dream today. Jefferson's idea of a meritocracy, expressed in his founding documents for the University of Virginia, was to take the cream of naturally talented young men and elevate them from the masses to become part of a new “natural aristocracy.” But Franklin, though he loved young Jefferson, had a less elitist ideal. In his document launching the academy that became the University of Pennsylvania, he talked of helping all “aspiring” and “diligent” young men (alas, not women) from any stratum or of any natural endowment, for he felt that society was helped by elevating people from all levels who strove to improve themselves.

He believed in a new political order in which rights and power would be based not on the happenstance of heritage but on merit, virtue and hard work. He rose up the social ladder from runaway apprentice to royal dinner guest in a way that would become quintessentially American. Yet in doing so he resolutely resisted, as a matter of principle—sometimes to a fur-capped extreme—aristocratic pretensions. More than almost any other founder (certainly more than Washington and Adams), he held firm to a fundamental faith that the New World should avoid replicating the hierarchies of the Old. His aversion to elitism and his faith in a new order built on the virtues of common people were among his most lasting legacies.

Indeed, the roots of much of what distinguishes the nation can be found in Franklin: Its cracker-barrel humor and wisdom. Its technological ingenuity. Its pluralistic tolerance. Its ability to weave together individualism and community cooperation. Its philosophical pragmatism. Its celebration of meritocratic mobility. The idealistic streak ingrained in its foreign policy. And the Main Street (or Market Street) virtues that serve as the foundation for its civic values. Franklin was egalitarian in what became the American sense: He approved of individuals making their way to wealth through diligence and talent but opposed giving special privileges to people based on birth.

At the height of his success, Franklin did something unusual. He stepped back from his businesses to devote himself to philanthropy, community projects and civic works. His mother, back in Boston, was disapproving of his lack of focus on his earthly calling. She was a good Calvinist Puritan who believed in the doctrine of salvation through God's grace alone. Her son, on the other hand, had rejected this doctrine and espoused instead the covenant of works. He believed that salvation came through good works, that the only religious doctrine he could be sure of was that, if God loved all his creatures, then the best way to serve God was to serve your fellow men. He explained this in a letter to his mother, which ended with the wonderful line, “I would rather have it said ‘He lived usefully' than ‘He died rich.'”

When it came time for a declaration to be written explaining why the colonies had asserted their independence, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft it— perhaps the last time Congress created a good committee. It included, among others, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

They were clear, in their first sentence, about the purpose of the declaration. “A decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required the signers to explain their actions. It was, in short, a propaganda document or, to put it more politely, a piece of public diplomacy designed to enlist others to their cause.

Jefferson wrote the first draft and sent it down Market Street to Franklin. He had begun his famous second paragraph with the words, “We hold these truths to be sacred.” Franklin took his heavy black printer's pen— you can see the rough draft in the Library of Congress—crossed out sacred, and made it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” His point was that our rights come from rationality and reason and depend on the consent of the governed, not the dictates or dogmas of a particular religion.

Jefferson went on to say that, by virtue of their equal creation, people are endowed with certain inalienable rights. Here we see the probable influence of that old Massachusetts Puritan John Adams. The committee added the phrase “endowed by their Creator.” The final sentence became a perfect balance of fealty to divine Providence tempered with an understanding that our rights are guaranteed by the consent of the governed.

Americans have long struggled to come to grips with the role of religion and divine Providence in our politics and society. But our founders were sensible enough to realize that, whatever each of us believes about the place of religion in public life—whether the words “under God” should appear in the Pledge of Allegiance or the Ten Commandments be displayed in public buildings—invocations of the Lord should be used to unite rather than divide us.

The complex interplay among various facets of Franklin's character—his ingenuity and unreflective wisdom, his Protestant ethic divorced from dogma, the principles he held to and those on which he was willing to compromise—means that each new look at him reflects and refracts the nation's changing values. He has been vilified in romantic periods and lionized in entrepreneurial ones. Each era appraises him anew and, in doing so, reveals some aspect of itself.

What is his particular resonance in 21st-century America? Both his earnestness and his self-aware irony. And the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, a pursuit of reputation, wealth, earthly virtues and spiritual values.

Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret about our shallowness of soul and spiritual complacency, which seem to permeate our culture of materialism. They say that he teaches us how to live a practical and pecuniary life, but not an exalted one. Others, seeing the same reflection, admire the basic middle-class values and democratic sentiments that now seem under assault from elitists, radicals, reactionaries and other bashers of the bourgeoisie. They look upon Franklin as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that is too often missing in modern America.

Much of the admiration is warranted, and so too are some of the qualms. But the lessons of Franklin's life are more complex than those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. Both sides too often confuse him with the striving pilgrim he portrayed in his autobiography. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions. But his morality was built on a sincere belief in the value of leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. This led him to make the link between private and civic virtue and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God's will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, “to pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.”

In contrast to the views of contemporaries such as Jonathan Edwards, who believed that men were sinners in the hands of an angry God and whose salvation could come through grace alone, Franklin's outlook might seem somewhat complacent. In some ways it was, but it was also genuine.

Franklin represents one side of a national dichotomy that has existed since the days when he and Edwards stood as contrasting cultural figures. On one side are those, like Edwards and the Mather family, who believed in an anointed elect and in salvation through grace. They tended to have religious fervor, a sense of social class and hierarchy, and an appreciation of exalted values over earthly ones. On the other side were the Franklins, who believed in salvation through works, whose religion was benevolent and tolerant, and who were unabashedly striving and upwardly mobile.

Out of this grew many related divides in the American character, and Franklin represents one side: pragmatism versus romanticism, practical benevolence versus moral crusading. He was on the side of religious tolerance rather than evangelical faith. The side of social mobility rather than an established elite. The side of middle-class virtues rather than aristocratic aspirations.

Whichever view we take, it is useful to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so, we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How can we live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.

During his lifetime, Franklin contributed to the building fund of every church in Philadelphia. And at one point, when the people of Philadelphia were trying to raise money for a hall for visiting preachers, he wrote the fundraisers' prospectus. Even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to come here to preach Muhammad to us and teach us Islam, he said, we should offer him a pulpit, we should be open and listen, for we might learn something. And on his deathbed, he was the largest individual contributor to the Mikveh Israel synagogue, the first synagogue built in Philadelphia. So at his funeral, instead of just his minister accompanying his casket to the grave, all the ministers, preachers and priests of Philadelphia, along with the rabbi of the Jews, linked arms and marched with him to his burial place.

Franklin did not embody every transcendent, poetic ideal, but he did embody the most practical and useful ones. That was his goal, and a worthy one it was. The most important of these ideals, which he held from the age of 21 when he first gathered his Junto, was a faith in the wisdom of the common citizen that was manifest in an appreciation for the possibilities of democracy. It was a noble ideal, transcendent and poetic in its own way.

And it turned out to be, as history has proven, practical and useful as well.

This article is reprinted with permission of the author. A fuller version serves as the introduction to Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, ed. Page Talbott (Yale University Press, 2005). The illustrations are from the book and are reprinted with permission of Dr. Talbott.

Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, book and traveling exhibition, is the centerpiece of the Trusts-supported Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary. For more about the celebrations in his honor, visit and

Walter Isaacson, who wrote the best-seller Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, is president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He formerly served as chairman and CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine.