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Was Benjamin Franklin the First American?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Interest in Americaís revolutionary era ebbs and flows.

Itís flowing again, dramatized in Hollywood, on television and in books. Its major players, the founding fathers, and the founding brothers, are regularly invoked as sources of moral authority and political wisdom. Today, Think Tank asks about Benjamin Franklin, Americaís founding grandfather. Heís been called the first American, but not always as a compliment, but if he was the first American, then who are we? To discuss Franklinís life and legacy, we are joined by H.W. Brand, professor of history at Texas A&M, and author of The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin; Claudeanne Lopez, former editor of The Benjamin Franklin Papers at Yale University, and author of My Life With Benjamin Franklin; and Ormond Seavey, professor of English at the George Washington University, and author of Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and the Life.

The topic before the house, understanding Benjamin Franklin, this week on Think Tank.

During his life and for more than a century after his death, no American was more illustrious than Ben Franklin. His achievements in politics, science and letters were unrivaled. His reputation was great at home and abroad. Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. He was legally indentured to work in his brotherís print shop when he was 12 years old, and he did so until he turned 17. Then Franklin skipped Boston for Philadelphia, where he became a successful and influential printer and writer. He became a model citizen, founding Philadelphiaís first lending library, first fire department, and first post office. He was always active in colonial politics.

Along the way, he became a world-famous scientist. He served as Pennsylvaniaís colonial regent in England from 1757 to 1762. In America, Franklin helped draft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In Paris, during Americaís war for independence against the British, Franklin forged a critical alliance with France. When the war was won, he helped negotiate a peace treaty with Britain. Franklinís autobiography, The First in American Letters, chronicles his journey towards what he saw as a proper and industrious life,
But Franklinís critics speculated about scandal, and they attacked what they saw as Franklinís self-serving character and at times, even questioned his patriotism. Mark Twain said that Franklinís autobiography offered misery to young boys who might otherwise have been happy. Still, the book was required reading for well more than a century, and went a long way toward shaping the American character, the bedrock of the American nation.

Gentlemen, lady, thank you for joining us. Letís go around the room and first with you, Bill. What did you mean when you say in the title in your book that Benjamin Franklin was the first American? The First American?

MR. BRAND: I use the term in three senses. One is that in his lifetime he was the most illustrious American, he was the best-known American of his day. Secondly, he began a model for the American character. He was practical. He was self-reliant, self-educated, unimpressed with wealth and title, optimistic, he had a sense of humor, and he was a great enthusiast of civic virtue. And thirdly, I see him really as the one to haveóthe first to have a real sense of an American identity separate from that of Englishmen.

MR. WATTENBERG: Claudeanne, do you buy into this phrase, the first American?

MS. LOPEZ: I would really add that he was also the first American to become cosmopolitan. The first one to go to Europe, live there as Minister to Paris, to be admired immensely, to this day, by the Europeans, and to bring back this larger perspective when he came back to Philadelphia.

MR. WATTENBERG: Ormond?

MR. SEAVEY: The American nation needed somebody like Franklin, because Franklin had a European reputation before the American Revolution ever began. He was-- he had done really important work in science, he was thought of as an important economist. He had done important work in demography.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why was he more of a first American than Thomas Jefferson, for example?

MR. BRAND: I think it has a lot to do with what Claudeanne was saying; about the time he spent overseas. To get a perspective of what it meant to be an American, he had to live in England, and he saw the corruption that was invading English politics, and it was that that convinced him that for Americans to retain their self-respect, they were going to have to separate themselves politically from the English.

MR. WATTENBERG: At one time, he sort of believed that the extension and expansion of the English empire, including the American colonies would be the way to go for everybody.

MR. BRAND: No question about it, he was a great enthusiast of the British Empire. And he said, I glory in the name of Britain. He saw that, what he hoped would be a vision of America growing strong within the British Empire. So there would be two, these two co-equal branches of the British Empire. When he discovered the British wouldnít have anything to do with that, thatís when he realized thatís when he realized that the break had to be made.

MR. WATTENBERG: And he also said that in this growing British Empire, the most important part of it would ultimately be America?

MR. SEAVEY: Right. One of the things that Franklin recognized--

MR. WATTENBERG: And he may have been right.

MR. SEAVEY: -- was that England is, after all, just an island. It couldnít get much bigger in terms of population than it was at the time he lived, but America had open spaces where, in his view, lots of other English-speaking people would be living.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, this is an idea that continues for centuries, even after independence. Winston Churchill, after World War II, was for an English-speaking union around the world, Australia, Canada, the United States, and, again, as Franklin thought, he understood that the United States would be the center of that.

MR. BRAND: Well, Franklin--I wonít say he was-- well, he was one of the first in a long series of people who see the center of gravity of Western civilization actually moving across the Atlantic Ocean. And he would see that it was a natural for it to wind up in what became the United States. Now, he had hoped initially that the British would recognize this, too, and accept the co-equal status of the American colonies with the British Empire, but when they didnít, then he said, weíve got to get out.

MR. WATTENBERG: Claudeanne, you specialized in his life in Paris. Did he make these views known to the French?

MS. LOPEZ: Oh, very much so. By then, he was bitter against England, of course. It had even cost him his very deep friendship with his son, because his son was on the other side of the revolution, but in Paris, he never stopped talking about the beauties of America, and especially the promise America held for international commerce, for riches, for land, and the French certainly wanted to immigrate as a result of this.

MR. WATTENBERG: What else was he that was so typically American? I mean, the word you keep coming across is a striver. What is that all about?

MR. BRAND: When Franklin left Boston and arrived in Philadelphia, he had literally one dollar in his pocket. And whatever he made of himself he was going to have to make by himself. So I think thatís the appeal of Franklin to generations of Americans. Hereís a guy who left home, came to a new city, and started a new career, started a new life for himself. He was a striver, especially early in his career, and it was through that kind of effort that he made his success, itís certainly overdone, though, if you applied it to his years in Paris, but his time in Paris, he was a very relaxed individual, he liked the finer things in life.

MS. LOPEZ: But then heís accused of being a bon vivant, as if that were a bad thing when youíre in Paris. Itís the thing to do.

MR. WATTENBERG: How would he have fared in the American university climate today with all these people running around, talking about deconstructionism and hereís this ultimately practical, inquisitive materialist, but very speculative man?

MR. BRAND: I think he would have succeeded pretty much wherever he landed, but he would have been very impatient with this airy theoretical stuff, because as much asóhe was an intellectual in the sense of valuing ideas for their own sake, but he always wanted to come back down to what does this do for the way we live.

MS. LOPEZ: You see, this is very clear if you read the wonderful series of his letters to Peter Collinson on electricity. At the beginning, electricity was a game.

MR. WATTENBERG: It was a parlor trick, wasnít it?

MS. LOPEZ: Yes, a parlor trickó

MR. WATTENBERG: Did they have traveling electricians?

MS. LOPEZ: Yes. Amusingó

MR. BRAND: Thatís what got him interested in the first place.

MS. LOPEZ: Very amusing, but then you see the moment when he leaves the games and begins building a theory. He begins building hypothesis, then he reaches his theory that the lighting is electricity, but after that as Ben says, he goes back to the practical. Now that we do it, we have to invent the lightning rod to save lives and property. So you see, he knows how to pass from the practical to the theoretical and back to the pragmatic.

MR. WATTENBERG: Youíre the English professor, Ormond. Your view was that he was a great literary figure in his own right?

MR. SEAVEY: Well, I think that one of the things that distinguishes him from other founding fathers is that he composed his life in writing, and he saw himself asóheís writing from the time heís a teenager to the time he dies and so we have an immense record of published and circulated material.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the two famous works are Poor Richardís Almanac and his autobiography? Is tható

MR. SEAVEY: I guess those would be things that are best known. Yes.

MS. LOPEZ: His letters are marvelous, many of them. Beautiful style, crystal clear, amusing when need be, serious when need be. When he wrote to people, he would always keep in mind the personality and the interests of the recipient of the letter.

MR. BRAND: And Franklin was constantly inventing new personas in literary terms. He first broke into print as Silence Dogood, the widow of a New England minister. He recreated himself as Polly Baker and of course, Richard Saunders, Poor Richard was the most famous of these personas, but they allowed him to say things that he couldnít say as Benjamin Franklin. He would simply put the words into someone elseís mouth and he could disavow them when necessary, but it still allowed him to get a message across.

MS. LOPEZ: He wrote a terrific hoax a month before dying and it was in favor of abolishing slavery. Just a month before dying, he was very, very able. He still found all the needed sense of humor to do that.

MR. WATTENBERG: He wrote it as a hoax? Is that what you said?

MS. LOPEZ: Yes, as a hoax. Yes. Supposedly written byóit was about the Barbary pirates who enslaved Christians when they caught them and then somebody had said well you shouldnít do that to Christians. What do you mean we shouldnít do that to Christians? Who is going to cultivate our lands if not those Christian dogs? And who is going to the work in the household and all that? Soó

MR. WATTENBERG: But he was originally pro-slavery and owned slaves?

MS. LOPEZ: I donít know how pro-slavery he was. He had house slaves. He had two. He didnít have all that many. One of them ran away when he was in England.

MR. WATTENBERG: Right.

MS. LOPEZ: And in his will he asked his son in-law to emancipate their slaves. He was called Bob, to let Bob go free. He did say tható

MR. WATTENBERG: But he became politically an abolitionist?

MS. LOPEZ: Yes, towards the end of his life. And I think he did it under the influence of Condorce (sp) the French philosopher who was an abolitionist and who was a great friend of Franklin in France.

MR. BRAND: Well, I would agree with that up to a point, except there was a moment when Franklin visited a school for African-American children and Franklin had sort of unthinkingly adopted the prejudice that Africans were inferior in intelligence to those people of European descent. He went to this school and he saw these black kids doing just as well as white kids and he said, you know, Iíve got to reconsider this whole business and that was before he went to France.

MS. LOPEZ: Yes.

MR. BRAND: But certainly after he went to France and then by the time he got back to America, he had changed his views entirely.

MR. WATTENBERG: Letís talk politics for a minute. I mean, Franklin lived at a time when the American nation was born. What was going on? What did he think about it? How did his views change? What role did he play in a one-word answer?

MR. BRAND: I donít know if I could do tható

MR. WATTENBERG: (Inaudible).

MR. BRAND: But over the course of Franklinís life, he spanned the colonial era to the era of independence and during the whole period, Franklin was trying to establish the rule of the people. He first got into politics as a representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He first went into imperial politics as a representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly against the Penn family, because he didnít like the arbitrary rule that the Pennís still had over Pennsylvania. So he went to England to try to change the situation, to give the Pennsylvanians more authority in running their own affairs.

MR. WATTENBERG: When and why does he become a revolutionary? I mean he was in favor of limited freedom under the Crown, which was thousands of miles away?

MR. BRAND: Well, limited freedom essentially meant, local autonomy, which would have been sufficient, butó

MR. WATTENBERG: For him.

MR. BRAND: Which would have been sufficient, yeah, in fact, for most people in the American colonies. When the British parliament began to encroach on what nearly everybody in America thought of as their English liberties, that the trouble began. Now Franklin was not an agitator by temperament at all and people like Sam Adams and John Adams, these were people who liked to make a fuss, Franklin did not like to make a fuss. He only came to the revolution very reluctantly, but it was more important for that fact when he did.

MR. WATTENBERG: He was not anti-English until he thought that American rights were being trampled on to a sufficient point that it demanded revolution.

MR. BRAND: During the first 65 years of Franklinís life, he was an American and an Englishman. He didnít see a contradiction between the two. In fact, he didnít think there was a contradiction between the two. During the late 1760s and early 1770s, what he realized was, that he couldnít be an American and an Englishman. He had to make a decision and the American colonies, more generally, had to make the decision. And when he was forced to make the decision, he chose to be an American rather than an Englishman. His son, for example, remained an Englishman.

MR. WATTENBERG: There were some people who swore by him and thought he was the most honorable man in the world. There were people who thought at the time, including as I recall, John Adams, who thought he was quite a piece of work and sort of a rat and a very sly guy. Is that right?

MR. SEAVEY: John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were simplyóthe chemistry was wrong between the two of them. They were both from Massachusetts originally, but Adams had a sense from his Puritan background of certain things that ought to be done and Franklin wasnít necessarily doing those things and itís really a sense of rivalry between the two of them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Does he have a sly side to him?

MS. LOPEZ: I donít think so. I think Adams saw it that way. I think Adams felt towards Franklin the way we are told Salieri felt towards Mozart. Adams was hard working, a good Christian, a good husband. I mean everything right, and Franklin had all the charisma. Franklin amused himself in Paris, had a good time, everybody lionized him. Adams got up early, did the work of the mission. Franklin stayed in bed late.

MR. WATTENBERG: Adams thought he was lazy.

MS. LOPEZ. Oh yes, very lazy, and that he went out in society too much, but of course this was Franklinís method. He started his mission in France with a lot going against him in the sense that he was a Protestant in an exclusively Catholic country. Protestants were not even allowed. He was the son of a soap maker at the most snobbish court in the world. The Court of Versailles. He was representing a republican country to a king who was the cousin or distant cousin of the King of England. All those kings held together supposedly. So all that was working against. So how was he going to do? He had one asset, which was his popularity. It was as if Einstein had come to France. He was the most famous scientist. The French had been the first to prove experimentally his theory of electricity in lightning. He didnít have done the experiment with the kite, because it had already been done in France in a different way. So his popularity was enormous and that was the asset he played and he understood that in London what counted were the menís clubs. Thatís were things were done and decided. In France, in Paris, it was the salons where women participated.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, speaking of women there as a whole body of lore, that he was quite a ladiesí man. Is tható

MS. LOPEZ: It depends on what you mean by a ladies man.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, why donít you tell me what the various interpretations of that are?

MS. LOPEZ: I wonít talk about his supposedóthe other day when Bill was on television. Somebody asked him if Franklin was randy. Well, I wonít talk about that. The only sexual life that interests me is my own. So Iím really not interested.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, but it became an issue. Iím bringing it up for a reason. It did become an issue, particularly about a man whose great book was regarded as a primer on morals and moral behavior.

MR. BRAND: I should point out though in Franklinís autobiography, heís quite frank about as he said, his intrigues with low women that preceded his marriage to his wife, Deborah. So he didnít try to hide the fact that he had been fooling around before he was married. Franklin understood that he had a great reputation as a ladiesí man, and in line what Claudeanne was said, when in Paris do as the Parisians, and this simply made him more popular. And back to what your asking about John Adams and the fact that Adams was in the office at 8 oíclock in the morning and wonder why Franklin wasnít, it was because Franklin understood that you got more business done in Paris at 2 oíclock in the morning, then you did at 8 oíclock in the morning. So he was up doing the business of the ministry when John Adams was home asleep.

MS. LOPEZ: He did it in a completely different way. Adams wanted to be strong with the French. He wanted them to know that they were more indebted to America then America to them, which was nonsense at the time. Franklinís idea was to take it easy, to wait until the French saw that their interests was really into becoming the allies of the Americans.

MR. BRAND: And everybody knew that if France joined the war, then the American colonies had a chance of winning. If France didnít join the war, the American colonies would lose. So that was really the critical element of the diplomacy of the war. It was Franklin that negotiated that treaty.

MR. WATTENBERG: Weíve about run out of time. Letís go around the room and justólet me ask, what is Franklinís legacy to America? What in the 21st Century, at the beginning of the 21st Century, what should we learn from Franklin? And what about his critics who sort of, I mean, Mark Twain, D.H. Lawrence, all those people they sort of put him down. They saw him as a grubby materialist who never understood the broader frame of humanity?

MR. SEAVEY: Well, I think he had the notion that a poor boy could make good. Heís made lots of other poor boys, I suppose poor girls now, believe that they could organize their lives. Set about and rise in the world.

MR. WATTENBERG: Itís not just political liberty, but personal liberty.

MR. SEAVEY: And personal success too.

MR. WATTENBERG: If somebody asked you, Claudeanne, whatís Franklinís legacy for today?

MS. LOPEZ: First, Iíd like to dispute the notion that Mark Twain put him down. It was a joke. The whole story is just a joke, saying heís ruined the lives of boys because he was so good. It doesnít mean anything except being funny.

MR. BRAND: Sure.

MR. WATTENBERG: And Twain was quite a striver himself, wasnít he?

MS. LOPEZ: Exactly, and very successful at all that, so he just said the way I once heard one lady say to another after a wonderful meal; you cooked yourself out of my friendship.

MR. WATTENBERG: (Laughter.)

MS. LOPEZ: Itís the same kind of joke, when somebody is too good, you know, so we shouldnít take Mark Twain seriouslyó

MR. WATTENBERG: But there was a whole school of intellectual thought that thought he was just too materialistic and that in an old political phrase that they used around here for awhile, that deep down he was shallow. That whole idea comes through.

MR. BRAND: Yeah. Mark Twain got the joke that Franklin made in his autobiography about all this. D.H. Lawrence didnít get the joke and I think thatís the difference.

MR. WATTENBERG: So whatís his legacy to America? Letís finish it up with you, Bill?

MR. BRAND: A strong sense of civic virtue. Toleration for different points of view and a sense of humor about the whole thing.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. I would like to have Benjamin Franklin as a panelist on Think Tank.

MR. BRAND: Invite me back if you doó

MR. WATTENBERG: (Laughter.) I will, but I think he could sit in most any chair on any topic that we brought up.

Thank you very much, Claudeanne Lopez, H.W. Brand, Ormond Seavey, and thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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