American ideologues of all stripes (but particularly the far right) love to use the founding fathers to argue their talking points. The truth is far messier. No founding father fits into the mold of what we consider right or left. Many of the debates of their age do not translate well into ours. Mostly we find much of the modern left and right within the same person’s opinions. Benjamin Franklin was no different.
Walter Isaacson, now famous for the ubiquitous Steve Jobs biography, crafts a wonderfully accessible tale of Benjamin Franklin’s life. What a life it was. His 84 years of adventures allowed him to cross paths with some of the day’s most famous figures and allowed him to be crucially involved in some of the most important political events of the modern era. Voltaire, Thomas Paine, George Washington, John Adams, David Hume, Joseph Priestly, and many others all play a part in his story. Franklin embodied the intellectual time period in which he lived: The Enlightenment. He valued practicality, reason, religious tolerance and skepticism, compromise, and a hatred of arbitrary political power.
As I said before, Franklin’s politics do not neatly fit into any modern ideology, while at the same time the man himself was thoroughly modern. A self made man of one of the world’s first true middle classes, he espoused hard work, frugality, practicality, and modesty, when it fit his needs. He was the master of his own brand from the beginning, attempting to be all things to all people. In America, where hard work was a virtue, the public image he created was of a tradesman. In France, where leisure was a virtue, his image was nearly libertine. In reality, Franklin embodied both these archetypes. What could be seen as cynical manipulation was really just an extension of his gregarious personality. He always preferred influence and friendship as a way to achieve his (and America’s) goals as opposed to aggressive debate argument and leveraging of power.
His amiable personality and subtly negotiation skills were invaluable during the intense arguments that occurred while creating the Constitution. His words cooled the delegates to the point where compromise could take place. His final words to the delegates:
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them; for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.
Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right. “Je ne trouve que moi qui aie toujours raison.”
No matter your political leanings, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s life will challenge your assumptions. He was a man of his times, but also ours. We live in a world partially of his making.