Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin — July 28, 2013

Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin

Oil painting of Franklin.

I didn’t know, before reading this book, why Benjamin Franklin is often honored as the greatest American. Having now read 800 grippingly constructed pages that are as close as possible to a first-person account of Franklin’s life, I now understand, and I agree. A philosopher, printer, diplomat, scientist, sage, and a revolutionary starting in his 70s, it’s hard to imagine a more complete person. Or to put it as Carl Van Doren does in the concluding paragraph of this book, in words that had tears streaming down my face,

> The death of a great man begins another history, of his continuing influence, his changing renown, the legend which takes the place of fact. This is not a biography of the posthumous Franklin. He has here told his story, which ends with his life. Nor should there now be need of a further comment on the record. Let the record stand, and explain itself. It has meant to make clear that Franklin was not one of those men who owe their greatness merely to the opportunities of their times. In any any age, in any place, Franklin would have been great. Mind and will, talent and art, strength and ease, wit and grace met in him as if nature had been lavish and happy when he was shaped. Nothing seems to have been left out except a passionate desire, as in most men of genius, to be all ruler, all soldier, all saint, all poet, all scholar, all some one gift or merit or success. Franklin’s powers were from first to last in a flexible equilibrium. Even his genius could not specialize him. He moved through his world in a humorous mastery of it. Kind as he was, there was perhaps a little contempt in his lack of exigency. He could not put so high a value as single-minded men put on the things they give their lives for. Possessions were not worth that much, nor achievements. Comfortable as Franklin’s possessions and numerous as his achievements were, they were less than he was. Whoever learns about his deeds remembers longest the man who did them,. And sometimes, with his marvellous range, in spite of his personal tang, he seems to have been more than any single man: a harmonious human multitude.

Truthfully, I couldn’t help but say out loud, “GodDAMN” when I reached those final four words. Franklin the genius met a biographer who deserves him.

Van Doren’s emphasis on the record, at the beginning of that paragraph, is not for nothing: his book feels, to the extent possible, like a stitched-together collection of Franklin’s letters and diaries. One might wish that the biography would contain more context from the 18th-century United States and Europe, but there is no such context — unless Franklin himself was aware of that context. Imagine a biography that ruthlessly forbids itself to step outside of the world of its subject; there you have Van Doren’s [book: Franklin].

There is so much to say about this book, and so much to quote — because Franklin was, if nothing else, endlessly quotable. I will limit myself to the following; it gets to one of my hobbyhorses, namely that when “libertarians” claim to be “classical liberals”, they are merely putting on daddy’s big-boy business suit in the hope that they’ll gain all the respect that daddy earned. But the suit doesn’t fit. Classical liberals believed in, say, progressive taxation (look in there for the phrase “support of the government”), and here we see Franklin essentially telling us that “You didn’t build that”:

> In November 1789 [Franklin] was firmly opposed to the plan to alter the constitution of Pennsylvania so that, as was proposed, the upper house in the legislature should represent the property of the state and the lower house the people, with equal authority between them. “Why should the upper house, chosen by a minority, have equal power with the lower chosen by a majority? Is it supposed that wisdom is the necessary concomitant of riches, and that one man worth a thousand pounds must have as much wisdom as twenty who have only 999? And why is property to be represented at all? … The accumulation … of property … and its security to individuals in every society must be an effect of the protection afforded to it by the joint strength of the society in the execution of its laws. Private property therefore is a creature of society and is subject to the calls of that society, whenever its necessities shall require it, even to its last farthing; its contributions therefore to the public exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a benefit to the public, entitling the contributors to the distinctions of honour and power, but as the return of an obligation previously received, or the payment of a just debt … The important ends of civil society, and the personal securities of life and liberty, these remain the same in every member of the society; and the poorest continue to have an equal claim to them with the most opulent, whatever difference time, chance, or industry may occasion in their circumstances. On these considerations I am sorry to see … a disposition among some of our people to commence an aristocracy by giving the rich a predominancy in government.”

(The ellipses are in Van Doren. Unsure if they’re in Franklin.)

That quote is a prelude to my lifelong project of taking the Founders back from the “libertarians” (which I’m constantly going to put in quotes, because I simply hate how they have claimed ownership over liberty). I include the quote, not because Franklin’s having said it makes it correct, but rather because “libertarians” themselves claim to be the sole legitimate heirs of the Framers’ philosophy, and claim that the Revolution sprang fully formed from John Locke’s brow. Any number of scholarly works refute this idea; I’d cite, just off the top of my head, Pettit’s [book: Republicanism], Bailyn’s [book: Ideological Origins of the American Revolution], Pocock’s [book: Machiavellian Moment], and Wood’s [book: Creation of the American Republic]. If the bulk of “libertarians'” justification for their radically anti-American minimal-government project comes from mythical origins in the Framers’ minds, then it’s more than fair to fire back at them from the same source.

(I should add a general note here: looking for a single story of what the Framers wanted is a fool’s errand. They fought over whether they should even have a Constitution, and the document that resulted was the result of compromise between passionately opposed views. The document that resulted contained visible fractures that the country only mended after a civil war. Read Elkins and McKitricks’ [book: Age of Federalism], and you’ll find the Framers arguing over what their “original intent” was *even while the Framers themselves were still alive*. This would be hilarious if we weren’t still suffering from Supreme Court justices who believe that they, 200+ years on, know what the original intent was when the Framers themselves could not agree on it.)

Van Doren’s [book: Franklin] should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the origins of our republic, and anyone who wants to read biography from the hand of a scrupulous artist.