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The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin


Lorraine Smith Pangle


 Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0801886669. xi, 277 p. $22.95


Reviewed by Marie-Jeanne Rossignol

Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot



The United States ‘founding fathers’ (a phrase coined in 1916 by Republican senator Warren G. Harding, later to become president) have become the stuff of new American ‘canon wars’, or more generally the stuff of cultural wars in the past ten or fifteen years, culminating in the 2010 ‘tea parties’, when radical Republicans are recuperating a famous Revolution-era event as a rallying cry to organize and oppose the Obama administration.1 Social historians from the 1960s to the 1980s had insisted on the need to emphasize the role the ‘people’ played in the American Revolution. More recent analysts of the American Revolution have underlined the major fault lines that divided Americans at the time.2 But many current academic promoters of the ‘Founders’ – or ‘Founding Fathers’, a phrase which they apparently prefer to the (to them) probably embarrassing ‘American Revolution’ – seem to have set their sights on doing without ‘historical contextualism’ and to study the ‘thought’ of the  great men of the Revolutionary period as political exemplars, as spokesmen for ‘a set of philosophical principles that are timeless’, as Saul Cornell once put it, and that should serve as models for contemporary political action.3


Such is the case with The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin, a puzzling book in many ways for this reviewer. First, one would never guess by reading this volume that the Franklin tercentenary kept scholars busy between 2004 and 2008 with conferences and major publications by famous historians such as The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon Wood4: these critical assessments of Franklin's career are conspicuously absent from the short bibliography and footnotes, as are other, and far less critical, good recent books. Of all the great contemporary names in the historical profession, only Edmund S. Morgan is saved as he ‘makes the case for Franklin with unusual sympathy and insight into the nerve of Franklin's thought’ [233].5 Not taking into account the recent historiography which depicts Franklin as a British colonial, and an Atlantic citizen, Lorraine Smith Pangle starts her study by writing that ‘Benjamin Franklin is and always has been the most American of Americans’[1], thus reverting to the stereotypical view of Franklin which used to be prevalent in the 19th century and has been challenged in recent years.


Second, is Franklin's thought really worthy of such close philosophical attention, as if he were the equal of Socrates, Locke and Montesquieu (to whom he is compared) and other major figures from the history of philosophy? A printer, businessman, political administrator and politician, Franklin became famous in Atlantic Enlightenment circles primarily through his scientific achievements, far less so through his writings, the most famous of which, The Autobiography, was only published after his death in 1790. During his lifetime, Franklin was mainly known as the author of a highly popular almanac, the best adages of which formed the core of The Way to Wealth (1758), a bestseller on how to become financially prosperous. Although his scientific and political correspondents could enjoy his keen intellect in small pamphlets and private letters, Franklin was no Rousseau, and his intellectual reputation at the time was based on his science first, and then only on his economic ideas and his perspective on life as a moralist. Lorraine Smith Pangle addresses the thorny issue of Franklin as a political philosopher in the introduction, and answers by positing that Franklin's political thought can be constructed from his myriad actions and writings over his long life, and more importantly, that ‘his healthy democratic vision is uniquely suited as an antidote for some of our worst civic woes’[5]. Her other puzzling motivation for writing the book is to ‘provide the best response we can make to Franklin's major critics’[4], as if it were even desirable to present a uniformly positive interpretation of such a complex historical figure. As Peter Onuf once wrote when reviewing one of the Pangles' previous books on the ‘Founders’: ‘Historians are not accustomed to thinking of the Founders as exemplary heroes, or for that matter even of thinking of them as ‘founders’ (...)’6  The risk is great indeed, and to quote R.B Bernstein, a less militant ‘Founders’ specialist, ‘public veneration has obscured rather than enhanced public comprehension of Washington and Franklin ’.7


Thus devoted to a revering view of Franklin, the book unfolds as a series of chapters covering his life and ideas, and strictly focused on what Lorraine Smith Prangle analyzes as his political thought. Chapter 1 is devoted to Franklin's conception of the economy as the basis of liberty: this indeed should come first, as Franklin's contribution to economic thought has long been recognized, though Pangle is mainly interested in it as laying ‘solid foundations for freedom’ [30].8 This chapter offers the author an opportunity to grapple with Max Weber's famous use of Franklin as an exemplar of the ‘capitalist outlook’ [16] and to side with Leo Strauss's own critique of Weber [29]. Closely reading Franklin's diverse writings on the subject, she seems to experience difficulty in proffering an overarching intellectual thesis, as in ‘He always looked for benefits that were truly common, but when choices had to be made, he preferred the good of many to the good of the few, and the good of the common man to that of anyone else’ [35]. The chapter embarrassingly ends on praise for Booker T. Washington, the conservative black leader who decided not to fight segregationin the 1890s in the South, but to adjust to it.


Chapter 2 focuses on Franklin ‘the virtuous citizen’, another central preoccupation in Franklin's life, where Lorraine Smith Pangle convincingly explains how Franklin reached an understanding of virtue only after a ‘period of severe moral skepticism’ [54]. She admits Franklin's frank attitude to sex (which she calls ‘laxness in sexual morals’) [70] but otherwise the chapter also lacks a strong demonstration and remains mired in the details of Franklin's very pragmatic thoughts, ending with ‘Here we have the epitome of Franklin's moral instruction: he acknowledges the presence of human malice but hopes that gentle, mocking rebukes will make more headway against it than angry condemnation’ [90], obviously more a commentary than an analysis. Chapter 3 deals with Franklin's undeniable great achievements in ‘Philanthropy and Civil Associations’, in which she notes, as have Franklin specialists, his ability to combine his quest for ‘individual happiness’ with the ‘broader social good’ [91]. Her section on Franklin and the militia leads her to analyze Franklin's style of ‘democratic leadership’ quite subtly. Chapter 4 is devoted to Franklin's ‘Thoughts on Government’, that is to say, the period in his life after he entered public service (1751), which she perceptively observes Franklin found far less personally rewarding than his earlier philanthropic initiatives. Yet her analysis of Franklin's support of unicameral legislatures in the 1780s as ‘love of simplicity’ falls short of addressing the political and philosophical issues that lay behind such support at the time of the French and American revolutions [128]. However, through her section on the Albany Plan and the rest of the chapter, her presentation of Franklin as a colonial with a vision of imperial reforms [133] – one that was not to be – clearly shows that Franklin was more at ease in the context of empire than in the narrow confines of a new nation, the birth of which he embraced only belatedly. The chapter also covers Franklin's contrasting views (over a long life) on ‘Immigration, Race, and slavery’. Though this may not directly appear as ‘political philosophy’, Lorraine Smith Pangle's concluding remarks still suggest that Franklin may have supported antislavery, but he was wary of immediate emancipation, not trusting charity to turn ex-slaves into independent, self-helping citizens [184]. Chapter 5 deals with ‘the ultimate questions’, that is to say religion and death. Pangle cannot but admit Franklin's views on religion remain hard to fathom until this day [204], and the chapter ends on her nostalgic vision of Franklin as an inspiration to return to a more humane form of capitalism.


Historians will be disappointed by this book, which does not take part in the current scholarly discussion on Franklin, minimizes the context in which Franklin developed his political ideas, and offers no new information and interpretation. Will political scientists like the book better? Lorraine Smith Pangle often retraces the meanders of Franklin's thought without being able (in this reviewer's eyes) to pin down the theory behind, and thus paradoxically comforts those critics who have accused Franklin of being ‘shallow’ in the past [222], while her treatment of Franklin's preference for monocameralism falls short of addressing the issue properly [172]. The book causes a malaise in the non-American reader, as it is so geared to the American public and its cultural/political wars, for instance dropping hints that Benjamin Franklin would not have supported the welfare state [184] or taking the side of Booker T. Washington, presented as a Franklin disciple [47], against Du Bois. One feels that Benjamin Franklin is being instrumentalized (as other ‘Founders’ are). However Lorraine Smith Pangle's genuine attachment to her subject, her close readings of Franklin's writings, save the book from its agenda: one can also read it as a personal commentary on a fascinating moralist who defeats categorization and cannot be made to serve any cause but his own.



1  For a history of the phrase ‘founding fathers’, see Richard B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) : 4. For the phrase ‘canon wars’ as applied to the new, conservative, focus on the Founders, see Saul Cornell, ‘Canon Wars II The Return of the Founders’, a review of a previous book by Lorraine Smith Pangle on the ‘Founders’, Reviews in American History 22-3 (Sep. 1944) : 413. For a presentation of the ‘Tea parties’, see Denis Lacorne, « Tea Party, une vague de fond », Le Monde (18 October 2010).

2  Michael McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill: University Press of North Carolina for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2007).

3  Cornell : 414.

4  Wood (New York: Penguin, 2005). As for David Waldstreicher, another famous historian who published a critical appraisal of Franklin at the time of the tercentenary (Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill & Wang, 2004), his book is summarily dismissed in a footnote [253].

5  Edmund S. Morgan has sided against social historians in the current debate on the meaning of the American Revolution, see Marie-Jeanne Rossignol & Naomi Wulf, « La révolution américaine : sujet brûlant ou vieille querelle ? », Transatlantica 2 (2006), accessed 10/21/2010.

6  Peter S. Onuf, review of The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders, Journal of American History 81-2 (September 1994) : 671. Thomas Pangle, a political scientist, and his wife Lorraine Smith Pangle, a philosopher, have together produced three books on the ‘American Founders’. See Thomas Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), Lorraine Smith Pangle & Thomas Pangle, The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders (Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1993).

7  Bernstein : 142. The spirit of veneration does not apply to Franklin only in Lorraine Smith Pangle's volume, but to the whole group of ‘Founders’, as she talks of the ‘Founders's splendidly philanthropic spirit’ [46].

8  For a summary of Franklin's position in modern economic thought, see Christian Lerat, Benjamin Franklin : Quand l'Amérique s'émancipait (Talence : Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 1992) : 51-72.







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