Americanization of Benjamin Franklin
With The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Gordon Wood is reaching out in a new genre. Over the course of a long, distinguished career, his work has centered on the history of the American Revolution. His numerous publications in the area include several prize-winning books (The Radicalism of the American Revolution, published in 1992, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize). Here, for the first time, Wood turns to biography. The links with his past work are close, however, since the subject of this biographical study is one of the major figures of the Revolution. Also, though it constitutes a new departure, the work has been a long time in the making. Wood tells us that he has been especially interested in Franklin since the early 1970s and that several passages in The Radicalism of the American Revolution already contain the germ of the ideas developed in the biography. For the latter is not a “traditional biography,” Wood insists, but rather one with a thesis. Wood chooses to focus on certain aspects of Franklin’s life that he considers to be both fundamental and largely ignored or misunderstood. He wishes to penetrate beyond the popular image of Franklin, that of the “folk hero,” and to bring out aspects of the real person which hitherto have been obscured by it.
In addition to being fully identified with the Revolution, Franklin has come to be seen as the archetypal American, as a symbol of the American spirit or mentality, whether viewed with approval or condemnation (D.H. Lawrence’s loathing—in Studies in Classic American Literature—of what he saw Franklin as incarnating is only the most famous instance of the negative pole). More specifically, for many, Franklin has come to represent the “self-made bourgeois moralist and spokesman for capitalism” . Wood claims, and sets out to demonstrate, that on all these counts the image is at least to a large extent false. The real Franklin was far more complex than is suggested by the stereotype, and many elements of Franklin’s life frankly contradict it. Franklin came to support the revolutionary movement only belatedly and reluctantly. He spent much of his adult life abroad, in England and in France, and for periods of time preferred each of those countries to his own, hesitating whether or not to permanently resettle in it. Finally, he aspired to be a gentleman of leisure and condemned at various times those who were motivated mainly by pecuniary gain. In all of these ways, he was untypical of the “middling” Americans that he came to represent, and it is in this sense that he needed to be “Americanized,” as indicated by the book’s title. This “Americanization” was effected partly through developments in his later life, but to a greater extent, Wood argues, through the elaboration of a myth in the several decades following his death.
The first two chapters of the book, entitled respectively “Becoming a Gentleman” and “Becoming a British Imperialist,” explore and analyze thoroughly and convincingly these two facets of Franklin’s life story that seem jarringly paradoxical in terms of the received wisdom about him. After having risen from being youngest son of a candle and soap maker, himself starting out as a printer’s apprentice, to being one of the wealthiest men in the Northern colonies, Franklin retired at the age of forty-two and devoted himself to the life of the cultivated gentleman, which included scientific, public service and benevolent activities. In his new persona, Franklin had a portrait of himself painted in 1748 that is utterly different from the later, more familiar ones (the volume provides a generous selection of images of Franklin from different periods); here he appears bewigged, in a stylish pose and almost foppish dress. Following his adoption of the life of leisure Franklin became a more and more fervent advocate of the English monarchy and the extension of the British Empire. While living in London in the late 1750s, 1760s and early 1770s, he generally compared the Americans unfavorably to the English and feared that when he returned he would be a “stranger in his own country.”
Chapter III, “Becoming a Patriot,” shows how Franklin continued to support the British crown long after most American colonists had become violently opposed to it, trying to mediate and bring the two sides together until the rebuffs and personal humiliations visited upon him by the English finally led him to make an abrupt about-face. Thenceforth he became one of the most stridently anti-English of the revolutionaries. Chapter IV deals with his active role in the Revolution, that of diplomat, in which he astutely used his immense reputation with the French, and the myth that they were already spinning around his person, as tools with which to further the American cause. Wood credits Franklin with almost single-handedly bringing the French to aid the Americans in the war of Independence. Yet because of his sympathy with the French Franklin was viewed with great suspicion by many of his compatriots, both during his diplomatic service and after his return. The final chapter of the book—“Becoming an American”—deals with how this largely negative image held by his countrymen, gave way in the years following his death to the legendary one which is well-known to all Americans today.
Wood brings impressive erudition to his subject, the fruit of long familiarity and intense intellectual engagement with the era of the American Revolution. His first foray into biography seems to me highly successful. The portrait of Franklin that emerges from his study is a welcome corrective to the popular image and constitutes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the man. In two respects, though, I would express reservations. First, and most important, Wood does seem, perhaps inevitably, to overstate his main thesis. In spite of the evidence that he brings to bear to undermine it, the image of Franklin as a typical “middling” American and “self-made bourgeois moralist” retains a certain truth. Although Franklin transformed himself in the middle of his life into a gentleman and an Englishman, then later a Frenchman, in the important early years, and to a certain extent at the end of his life, image and reality do largely coincide. Even in the middle years, after his retirement from business, his repeated involvement in land speculation in the American West is indicative of a real continuity. As for the gentlemanly pursuit of philanthropy after making a fortune, the robber barons of a later era often did just that themselves.
while Wood speaks of a single myth of Franklin, it seems clear that
there are two: the French and the American. Wood’s own treatment
of the French attitudes toward Franklin—centering on notions
of the “untutored genius” and homespun Quaker (a manifest
error!) philosopher—makes evident that they did not entirely
correspond to the later American legend focusing on rags-to-riches
and the gospel of wealth. The title of the French translation of
Franklin’s immensely popular The Way to Wealth amusingly
suggests, in its irony, a different interpretation of the contents:
La Science du Bonhomme Richard, ou moyen facile de payer les
impôts. As Wood points out, Franklin understood that
with the French one should appeal to idealism and not self-interest,
and so while in France (and under their influence) he adjusted his
approach accordingly. Yet Wood does not seem to notice that there
is a significant difference between the two Franklin myths. To have
done so might have led him to an interesting cross-cultural analysis.
This having been said, Wood’s new work is to be highly recommended.