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Benjamin Franklin, Natural Right, and the Art of Virtue


Kevin Slack


Rochester (New York): University of Rochester Press, 2017

Hardcover. x+305 pp. ISBN 978-1580465632. $95


Reviewed by Robert T. Jones

U.S. Army Command & General Staff College

Fort Gordon (Georgia)





As one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was at once many things: author, printer, postmaster, scientist, inventor, soldier, diplomat, philosopher, and political theorist. Franklinís contributions and evolution as a philosopher and political theorist are the subject of Kevin Slackís Benjamin Franklin, Natural Right, and the Art of Virtue. Professor Slackís 2017 work is a scholarly study of Franklinís extensive political and philosophical writings. Building on the work of other Franklin scholars, the author argues that ďFranklin was a philosopher of natural right in the Western tradition, and he was a political theorist in the Whig natural rights traditionĒ [5]. He makes extensive use of primary sources in applying textual criticism as a method to interpret Franklinís philosophical and political thought.(1) A prolific writer throughout his long life, Franklin left a large body of work as a lasting legacy. The author limits his textual interpretation to essays written before 1760, intending to show that neither Franklinís philosophical nor his political thought changed much after that time, including the revolutionary years [2]. Given the heavy reliance upon primary sources, the author assumes the reader to have a basic familiarity with Franklinís most important writings. Professor Slackís careful research also identifies some new attributions to the Franklin canon, a welcome addition to the body of knowledge.

The main body of the book, spread over ten chapters, traces the evolution of Franklinís philosophical thought. Chapter 1 ďLiberty and NecessityĒ examines Franklinís early thought as influenced by Bernard Mandeville and his use of the Socratic method.(2) The author uses the Silence Dogood letters to illustrate Franklinís adoption and use of necessitarian arguments.(3) The second chapter outlines Franklinís subsequent rejection of Mandeville and philosophical turn away from necessitarianism. The turn was motivated by his process of self-examination and search for a useful philosophy. Chapters 3 and 4 contain Franklinís essays on his ďArticles of BeliefĒ and religion respectively. The author offers an interpretation that Franklin adopts a polytheistic approach to worship that entails virtuous behavior. Chapter 4 discusses Franklinís move away from atheism after 1730 and the need for a free society to embrace virtue. In Franklinís view, virtue encouraged an improved public spirit. He called the rise in public spirit during the American Revolution a ďmiracleĒ of divine providence [85]. The theme of Chapter 5 is Franklinís moral philosophy, focused on his essays of the 1730s concerning virtue. Concurrent with his essays on virtue, Franklin engaged in a program of self-examination.  Franklinís essays on the results of his self-examination are the subject of Chapter 6. This chapter describes Franklin as a lover of truth, as opposed to a follower of a creed [122]. The author argues Franklin adopted the liberal principles of equality and liberty as the foundation of natural law [123]. Chapter 7, ďThe Virtues of a Free People,Ē is perhaps the key chapter of the book. Franklin holds out Cato as the perfect model of virtue, a common image in colonial times.(4) The chapter also contains a brief discussion of Franklinís thirteen virtues.(5) As scholarship on Franklinís virtues is extensive, the author provides insights into select topics of virtue. Chapters 8 and 9 discuss Franklinís Whig principles (especially natural right) and his political theory respectively. The final chapter ďStatesmanshipĒ examines how Franklin applied his Whig principles of natural rights to practical politics in disputes with the Pennsylvania Proprietors and the English crown [7].

In Professor Slackís concluding section ďFranklin and Socrates,Ē he reiterates his thesis that Benjamin Franklin espoused natural right, both as a philosophy and a modern political teaching [207]. The final appendix contains six new attributions or clarifications to Franklinís body of work. This book is best suited for the advanced Franklin scholar or students of philosophy. The authorís thoroughly researched and cogently argued thesis adds a new dimension to our understanding of one of Americaís most influential founding fathers.


(1) The author draws from a number of primary sources including The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964); The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree et al., 41 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959-); and The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Albert Henry Smyth, 10 vols. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1905-07).

(2) Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) was an Anglo-Dutch philosopher, political economist, and satirist. He is best known for his influence on early-eighteenth-century discussions of morality and economic theory.

(3) Silence Dogood was a fictional ministerís widow and pen name of Benjamin Franklin. He used the alias to get letters published in the New England Courant, his brotherís newspaper. The letters commented on various aspects of colonial life and were very popular.

(4) Franklin is referring to Cato the Younger (95 BCE-46 BCE), formally known as Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis. Cato was known for his absolute integrity and staunch support of the Roman Republic.

(5) Franklinís virtues were Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, and Chastity. (See pp. 130-138 and fig. 7.1.)



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