Franklin and the American Identity


Rather than leave his life story to biographers and historians, Benjamin Franklin, ever the artisan, took the raw material of his recollections and from them carefully shaped the myth that has come to represent his life. (Isaacson 2) His use of thirteen virtues (Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility) by which one could improve one’s life became an integral part of his image. In his Autobiography, he claims to desire to “acquire the habitude (emphasis original) of all these virtues…” (Franklin 65) Yet it is only a few pages later when he admits having failed, adding “on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it…” (Franklin 70) Ironically, Franklin has established a program that even by his own standards is impossible to complete, while still critical to the development and long-term success of the participant. This program of unreachable self improvement goals became foundational to the Franklin Myth.

The Franklin Myth is particularly fascinating in that it serves to both shape American perceptions of national identity while simultaneously being shaped by them; depending on the era, the Myth can be anything from an America of endless opportunity built on meritocracy to an America of small-minded people obsessed with moneymaking. It is this elasticity, knitted into the fabric of the Franklin Myth, which both guarantees its long-term viability and explains how the Myth came to be so intrinsic to American identity.

As American self consciousness and the Franklin Myth grew up together, they influenced each other to such an extent that Benjamin Franklin has, for most of American history, been considered the “archetypical American,” which is striking when Franklin’s life is compared to other Founding Fathers such as Washington and Jefferson. (Gaustad 123) Franklin did not fight in the Revolution. He was never elected to public office. He authored no great public papers. In fact, he died just two years after the ratification of the Constitution, with the new republic just barely out of the womb.

Yet somehow it was his life, not Washington’s or Jefferson’s, which came to embody the American spirit, and became “a prototype for American national virtues and values.” (Bastain 83) No other American life is as often reinterpreted as Franklin’s, as each generation gets to discover Ben anew, and then redefine him for their own times. From those assessments, we learn as much about the values of the interpreters as we do about Franklin himself. The Franklin Myth, then, tends to “reflect, or refract, the attitudes of each succeeding era.” (Isaacson 477)

Much of this reinterpretation and redefinition plays itself out in literature, as writers grapple with just who Franklin was, and why he means so much to us. First to tackle the Franklin Myth was the biographer of Washington, Mason “Parson” Weems. Weems uses Franklin’s Autobiography and his own highly active imagination to create from Franklin’s life a depository of morals for Americans to emulate, and in his work on Franklin “he insisted on making a three-hour sermon out of a biography.” (Miles 127-128) Weems the biographer also begins the process of the transference of Franklin’s thirteen virtues from the Autobiography onto other great Americans. He attributes the virtue of industry to Washington, making the adoption of Franklin’s virtues synonymous with American greatness. (Wood 237)   

The generation that followed the Revolution contained thousands of enterprising young men who took up the call to strike out on their own, carrying with them an inherent faith in an American of opportunity, and in doing so they also “created a powerful conception of American identity – the America of enterprising, innovative, and equality loving people…” (Wood 242) Many of these young men were indoctrinated in Franklin as schoolboys, where the Autobiography was used as a reader, and they came to believe in the Franklin Myth, trying to live it out in their own lives (Seavey,  Becoming Benjamin Franklin, 94). Davy Crockett carried a copy of the Autobiography with him as he fought at the Alamo. (Isaacson 479)

Even though he was admired and emulated, so much of the Franklin Myth came to be focused on the rags-to-riches theme that by the 1830s his image had become that of a wealth-obsessed, penny-pinching schemer. The Age of Enlightenment, which had so characterized America for the past hundred years, was quickly giving way to the age of Romanticism, where Franklin’s pecuniary pursuits and devotion to logic would shine in a less favorable light. “The Romantics admired not reason and intellect but deep emotion, subjective sensibility and imagination.” (Isaacson 478)

The criticisms of Franklin had already begun by 1818 when John Keats described him as “full of mean and thrifty maxims” and “not a sublime man.” (Isaacson 479) For the creative writers of this period, Franklin represented a devotion to the materialistic and a lust for self-glorification. (White 250) Edgar Allen Poe took at swipe at Franklin and other “methodical men” in his story “The Business Man.” (Isaacson 479) Nathanial Hawthorne, who was forced to write juvenile literature in 1841 just to pay his bills, found Poor Richard’s maxims unsettling. (White 268) He dismissed Franklin’s writings as being “…all about getting money or saving it,” complaining that they “teach men but a small portion of their duties.” (Isaacson 480)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was equally contemptuous. “Franklin’s man is a frugal, inoffensive, thrifty citizen, but savors of nothing heroic.” (Isaacson 480) Herman Melville, in Israel Potter, characterizes Franklin as shallow and cowardly, replacing truth with clever sayings. (White 273) Henry David Thoreau was hostile to the Franklin success myth as well, while simultaneously constructing his own myth about men finding themselves in the midst of nature. (White 286)

For his part, Mark Twain saw Franklin as duplicitous, refusing to accept that Franklin believed his own maxims and condemning him for putting forth a public image which he had no intention of living up to; Twain “could not tolerate the…skillful image-making in Franklin.” (White 297) In Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, he mocks Franklin “by opening each chapter with a maxim from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, an obvious parody of Poor Richard’s Almanac.” (White 299) Twain felt that Poor Richard’s maxims were words well turned, but without any particular use in the real world. (White 303) Even when Twain demonstrates the validity of Franklin’s program, he adds cynical commentary. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom gets rich by conning the neighborhood boys into whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence, for which he is congratulated by Aunt Polly, who perceives the virtue of industry in Tom’s success. (White 301)

Twain, however, was becoming something of a voice in the wilderness regarding Franklin at the onset of the Gilded Age in the 1870s. The rapid post-Civil War industrialization of the latter half of the nineteenth century saw a revival in the Franklin Myth, and “for the next three decades he was the most popular subject of American biography.” (Isaacson 480) The Gilded Age actively promoted the pursuit of riches and it celebrated Franklin’s Way to Wealth; many “success handbooks” actually plagiarized it. (White 289) Horatio Alger’s wildly successful dime novels of the period are indicative of the popularity of the rags-to-riches theme. (Isaacson 480) In these stories, hard scrabble boys make good in the world through hard work, pluck and determination. In an America where so many suffered in abject poverty, such stories kept hope alive where no reason to hope could legitimately be found.

Industrialists of the time championed Franklin as their role model. “…Thomas Mellon, who erected a statue of Benjamin Franklin in his bank’s headquarters, declared that Franklin had inspired him to go into business.” (Isaacson 480) Many of these wealthy men wrote memoirs, and when they did they almost invariably cited Benjamin Franklin as one of their inspirations (Wood 243-244). Historians and editors took up the banner as well. Frederick Jackson Turner called Franklin “the first great American”, and Harper’s Weekly editor William Dean Howell praised him in the pages of his magazine. (Isaacson 481)

By 1900, the Franklin Myth was in motion again. Scholar Paul Elmer More, a proponent of New Humanism, found in Franklin “the essence of the neo-humanistic doctrine”, making him out to be “America’s version of the Renaissance Man.” (White 241-242) But even as More wrote those words, the materialism and obsession with wealth of the late nineteenth century was falling out of favor in an increasingly progressive America (Isaacson 481). In the first decade of the twentieth century, trustbusting Theodore Roosevelt and the growth of the populist movement were challenging American perception of the pursuit of wealth. German sociologist Max Weber reexamined “America’s middle-class work ethic from a quasi-Marxist perspective” and Sinclair Lewis found Franklin’s ideology empty. (Isaacson 481-482) Literary critic Van Wyck Brooks blamed Benjamin Franklin for creating “lowbrow cultures.” (Isaacson 482)

Clearly the most vicious attack on Franklin came from D.H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature, published in 1923. Lawrence rejected the notion that an individual could change their life by merely willing it to be so, directly contradicting the premise of Franklin’s thirteen virtues from the Autobiography. (Seavey, “Modes of Consciousness”, 73) “To Lawrence, Franklin stood for the most repellent qualities in American life – the fondness of Americans for the willful manipulation of their own behavior, their devotion to business and moneymaking, their prurient desire to perfect the world.” (Seavey, “Modes of Consciousness”, 61) He bristled at the notion that the American way “provided an easy road to perfection.” (White 350)

Lawrence savaged the virtues, saying that a man’s soul was not in his “purse or his pocketbook or his heart or his stomach or his head.” (White 349) In many of Lawrence’s complaints about Franklin, he echoes the transcendentalists. He asserts that every individual must follow the direction that his or her conscience dictates, and that each of us must be true to our inner selves; he rejects “the discipline which the self must undergo to participate” in the kind of life Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography promotes. (Seavey, “Modes of Consciousness”, 76) Lawrence represents the rejection of discipline and mastery over the passions of the self, in favor of the exploration of these passions.

It should be remembered that at the time of Lawrence’s writing only a few years had passed since the end of the First World War, when a self-righteous, moralizing American president, Woodrow Wilson, had come to Europe hoping to impose American virtues on the English and French negotiators at Versailles. The Allies rejected Wilson’s vision of a lasting peace, and were put off by his attitude of American moral superiority; hard feelings ensued on both sides. By the time D.H. Lawrence wrote his scathing review of Benjamin Franklin, he had come to view Americans as “delinquent children, rebelling against the old parenthood of Europe…” (White 348).

Once again, however, times shifted in favor of Franklin. “The Great Depression of the 1930s reminded people that the virtues of industry and frugality, of helping others and making sure the community held together, did not deserve to be dismissed as trivial and mundane” (Isaacson 484). By 1939, as Americans debated entry into the Second World War, pacifists were quoting Benjamin Franklin. (White 338-339) This demonstrates one of the strengths of the Franklin Myth, its flexibility; Franklin’s memory has the amazing capacity to be all things to all people. (Bastain 89)

The fascinating ability of the Franklin Myth to be “all things to all people” is readily seen in Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946, in which an African-American woman pursues the “American Dream” and is destroyed by it. The protagonist in The Street, Lutie Johnson, is depicted as having a “blind adherence to American values.” (Clark 496) Lutie models her life after Benjamin Franklin’s, even muttering his name to herself, as if the name alone gives her power. (Petry 50) Lutie tries to apply Franklin’s virtues to her ghetto reality, and this drives the book’s plot and character development. (Wurst 2) “The ‘rags to riches’ motif holds power over her (Lutie), for it has given a new sense of hope to her fairly grim life…”(Wurst 7)

In The Street, allusions are sometimes made to the Franklin legacy which might initially escape notice. Early in the book, Lutie is employed by a white family named Chandler which “slyly refers us to Franklin via the auspices of his father’s profession, that of a tallow chandler” (Wurst 3). Later, we are introduced to Junto, a white man who manages the neighborhood’s underground economy, and we find another subtle reference to Franklin. “…the name Junto seems a calculated invocation of the sort of cabal of powerful men that propelled Ben Franklin…on his road to success” (Hicks 28). The Junto reference is made clearer by the fact that Junto is the self-made man of Petry’s book.

Lutie demonstrates many of Franklin’s virtues throughout the book, but none of these help to resolve her problems. Rather, it is her blind adherence to Franklin’s ideology and to the American Dream “that binds her to the street.” (Park and Wald 618) Lutie’s faith in the Franklin Myth allows her to deny the reality of her situation, which eventually will lead to her downfall. (Wurst 16) While Lutie and Franklin share much, the end results are disastrously different as the “…similarities between Franklin and Lutie work throughout The Street to better expose the dissimilarity (emphasis original) of their social situations and sharpen Petry’s points about post-war racism.” (Wurst 5)

Lutie spends the entire novel vainly trying to live the program spelled out in Franklin’s Autobiography, which Petry depicts as a book that has no relevance for African-Americans in the ghetto. (Clark 501) In one example, Lutie “…like Franklin himself,…begins by saving money wherever and however she can, in the belief that self sacrifice will lead to a better future.” (Wurst 8) As Lutie struggles to implement Franklin’s program, there is a “parallel increase in the drama of her story and the irony and bitterness of her fate.” (Wurst 10) Despite the sincerity of her efforts, Lutie is persistently met by frustration and degradation, because “…vertical mobility à la Franklin is unknown” in the ghetto. (Wurst 15)

Petry explores Franklin’s persona, dramatizing the opposition of Franklin’s two “halves”, the “mythic and moral” versus the “manipulative and pragmatic.” She accomplishes this through the opposition of Lutie and Junto. (Wurst 18) Lutie’s life soon takes its precipitous downhill slide as she continues to hold to “foundational American ideals all too purely in a society which puts them to insidious use.” (Wurst 21-22) Without realizing it, Lutie has entrapped herself by giving fidelity to a myth that focuses on wealth rather than social justice. (Park and Wald 618) She has “…movement without the promise of mobility, choice without the promise of agency.” (Park and Wald 619) Seeking an honest, hardworking path to the American Dream, Lutie finds herself instead a murderer in flight from prosecution. (Wurst 21) While Lutie is destroyed by her adherence to myth, other African-American women in the book manage to survive by accepting the cruel realities of the street. (Clark 504)

Petry gives her fascination with Benjamin Franklin one last salute in her 1953 novel The Narrows, which is set in a black neighborhood of a highly segregated New England town. Most of the major action in The Narrows occurs on Franklin Avenue. (Wurst 3) During this last half of the century, mass market magazines also worked to “(keep) alive and (expand) the Franklin Myth.” (White 321)

As the twentieth century moved toward its close, Franklin became the “patron saint of the self-help movement.” (Isaacson 484) Dale Carnegie claims to have studied the biography when he wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Stephen Covey refers to Franklin’s program in his bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; national chain stores now hawk “Franklin/Covey Organizers” and other items invoking Franklin’s name. (Isaacson 484)   “It is this image of the hardworking self-made businessman that has most endured… – the man who personifies the American dream – who stays with us.” (Wood 246)

And it all started with the Autobiography. In it, Franklin tells us that he wants to share the incidences of his life so that his posterity “may find some of them suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.” (Franklin 1) And imitate they did. “Indeed the roots of much of what distinguishes the nation can be found in Franklin…” (Isaacson 492) What makes Franklin’s rags-to-riches tale so compelling is that the events are so ordinary that we all become convinced that it is “perfectly natural to be Benjamin Franklin: anyone else at a later date can do it too.” (Seavey, Becoming Benjamin Franklin, 9)

Franklin continues to resonate with us today, and to divide us in our interpretations. Social critic David Brooks once called Benjamin Franklin “our founding Yuppie.” (Isaacson 3) And yet many are still troubled with the implications of Franklin’s willing pursuit of wealth. “Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret about a shallowness of soul and a spiritual complacency that seem to permeate a culture of materialism…Others see the same reflection and admire the basic middle class values and democratic sentiments…They regard Franklin as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in modern America.” (Isaacson 4)

And so it goes. Benjamin Franklin’s legacy will continue to be redefined as the years go by, his image will continue to be used to move merchandise, and we will continue to rewrite his epitaph anew according to each generation’s sensibilities. Some will embrace him, some will excoriate him, and some will leave him alone. But of one thing we can all be sure: we can’t get rid of old Dr. Franklin. As Americans, he’s already a part of us and has been from birth, both individually and as a nation.



Works Cited

  • Bastain, Peter. “Let’s Do Lunch: Benjamin Franklin and the American Character.”    Australasian Journal of American Studies 24.1 (2005): 83-89.
  • Buxbaum, Melvin H. Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987.
  • Clark, Keith. “A Distaff Dream Deferred? Ann Petry and the Art of Subversion.” African American Review 26.3 (1992): 495-505.
  • Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott & Co., 1868. Reprint, Toronto: Dover Publications, 1996.
  • Gaustad, Edwin S. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.
  • Hicks, Heather. “’This Strange Communion’: Surveillance and Spectatorship in Ann Petry’s The StreetAfrican American Review 37.1 (2003): 21-37.
  • Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
  • Miles, Richard D. “The American Image of Benjamin Franklin.” American Quarterly 9.2 part 1, (1957) 117-143.
  • Park, You-me and Gayle Wald. “Native Daughters in the Promised Land: Gender, Race and the Question of Separate Spheres.” American Literature 70.3 (Sept. 1998): 607-633.
  • Petry, Ann. The Street. London: Virago Press, 1946.
  • Seavey, Ormond. Becoming Benjamin Franklin. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.
  • Seavey, Ormond. “Benjamin Franklin and D.H. Lawrence as Conflicting Modes of Consciousness.” Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-Versions of the American Columbiad. Ed. Gert Buelens and Ernest Rudin. Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1994. 60-80.
  • White, Charles W. Benjamin Franklin: A Study In Self-Mythology. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
  • Wurst, Gayle. “Ben Franklin in Harlem: The Drama of Deferral in Ann Petry’s The Street.” Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-Versions of the American Columbiad. Ed. Gert Buelens and Ernest Rudin. Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1994. 1-23.
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