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Of this latest work, Wood said that he read Franklin's papers in the 1970s and was struck by them. "It was not the Franklin I knew — the American patriot," he said by phone from Providence. "He was critical of America, absorbed in England and parochial. Other scholars don't realize how close he came to remaining a Brit. If he had been offered a position in the British political hierarchy, America would have lost him."

Wood "stewed" about Franklin for several years, he said, finally incorporating some of his ideas into his book on the American Revolution. "Franklin was constantly aware of what people would think. He wanted to appear to be the right kind of man — like Dale Carnegie (author of "How to Win Friends and Influence People") in a way. He shrewdly promoted projects other people could take credit for.

"He had immense control of the world he lived in. He had hubris. As printer, editor or diplomat in France, he was very successful — but he couldn't gauge popular opinion. He misunderstood the passions of the revolutionaries. He always thought the American Revolution could have been avoided."
    Franklin fascinating in author's portrayal (Dennis Lythgoe, 6/18/04, Deseret Morning News)



There's certainly no shortage of books about Benjamin Franklin lately, including full biographies by H.W. Brands and Walter Isaacson, but it would be churlish to complain when two of our greatest historians of the Revolutionary period, Edmund S. Morgan and Gordon S. Wood, decide to take a crack at America's favorite Founder. Mr. Wood, like Mr. Morgan before him, has written more of a biographical essay than a full-fledged life of Franklin. What he asks the reader to do is to view Franklin through a particular lens, which in this case is how he identified over the course of his life with three different nations: first Britain, then America, and finally France. The observation that Franklin did have changing affinities over the course of his long life is not new, but Mr. Wood brings it into particularly sharp focus.

The outlines and even the details of Franklin's life are too well known to need much rehearsal here. We all know that he made his way in the world as a printer. In this role as a skilled artisan he hoped to rise to a height where he could be accepted as a British gentleman. And he did, very much, value the British half of that equation. He therefore strove longer and harder than any of the other Founders to maintain America as a part of the Empire, through efforts like the Albany Plan of Union. We've discussed previously our belief that both Britain and America would have been well served had Franklin succeeded, but he did not, of course. That his failure came about while he was in England, defending the colonies against their British critics, galvanized him into an ardent American patriot and made him almost reflexively anti-British. Mr. Wood suggests that there were psychological reasons for this radical transformation and that they had as much to do with the thwarting of his desire to be seen a gentleman as anything. Franklin personalized the British rejection of Americans as mere bumpkins, not entitled to the full rights of citizens and this helped drive him into full-throated rebellion:
Some of Franklin's anger and passion against British officialdom may have been calculated, but not all by any means. The Revolution was a very personal matter for Franklin, more personal perhaps than it was for any other Revolutionary leader. Because of the pride he took in his reasonableness and in his ability to control his passions, his deep anger at the British government becomes all the more remarkable, but ultimately understandable. Franklin had invested much more of himself in the British Empire than the other patriot leaders. He had had all of his hopes of becoming an important player in that empire thwarted by the officials of the British government, and he had been personally humiliated by them as none of the other patriots had been.
So much for the English gentleman

In this next phase of his life Franklin would help write the Declaration and the Constitution and become so closely identified with the Revolution that it was possible in later years for us to forget just how long he'd remained loyal to the Crown. But, as Mr. Wood shows, his fellow Americans were well aware that he came late to the cause and were slow to trust him. This left Franklin once again feeling somewhat out of place.

Oddly enough, his newfound radicalism also led to his being closely associated with the too democratic Pennsylvania constitution. It featured a unicameral legislature, which was well understood to exacerbate all the problems of a tyrannous popular majority. The republican ideal, as reflected in our own later Constitution, was to mix the power of government by establishing separate institutions that would check and balance each other:
[M]ost American constitution makers did not intend to abandon the idea of mixed and balanced government. John Adams, whose writings probably had the greatest influence on constitution-making in most of the states, but certainly not Pennsylvania, put the conventional wisdom best: "Liberty," he said, "depends upon an exact Ballance, a nice Counterpoise of all the Powers of the state.... The best Governments of the World have been mixed."
The final irony then is that it was this last version of Franklin--the anti-English democratic radical--that ended up appealing so much to the French and, in a way, they embraced him because he seemed to have drifted into opposition to the American Revolution and the quite conservative American Republic itself, so different from their own revolutionary notions and eventual republic:
Perhaps as much as anything it was Franklin's identification with the simple, unmixed democratic constitution of Pennsylvania that sowed the seeds of John Adam's growing enmity toward Franklin. Franklin's later identification with France only made matters worse. When French intellectuals saw in the bicameral legislatures of the other constitutions an effort to retain an aristocratic social order in the senates, they were astonished. They asked how "the same equilibrium of powers which has been necessary to balance the enormous preponderance of royalty, could be of use in republics, formed upon the equality of all the citizens."
The French view--of republicanism as a means to egalitarianism--is, of course, terrible nonsense and led to not only their own Terror but to much of the political murder in the following centuries. The republicanism of the American Founding era is far closer to the true ideal, which Maurizio Viroli has expressed as follows:
It is...a theory of political liberty that considers citizens' participation in sovereign deliberation necessary to the defense of liberty only when it remains within well-defined boundaries.
This too is all Franklin was really asking for when he first went to England, that Americans be represented in the deliberative body (Parliament) where decisions were being made about such matters as taxation. Had the British government had sense enough to yield on this point or had America earlier been granted something along the lines of the Albany Plan, with some degree of self-government, Franklin would have been associated with monarchical republicanism (maybe even constitutional monarchical republicanism) and been anathema to the French. It seems fair to say that he became a democratic icon in France to almost exactly the degree that he forsook classical republicanism. So, Franklin, who started by wanting to fit into English society, ended by representing the rejection of it, an effect he well knew how to milk, by wearing homespun and posing as the very sort of bumpkin he'd bristled at the British assuming Americans to be.

It's fascinating to follow along as Mr. Wood traces this arc and to observe how things like the writing and publication of the Autobiography fit into Franklin's changing political image. There's no chance this is the last word on Franklin, but they are some of the best.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Gordon Wood (2 books reviewed)
History
Gordon Wood Links:

    -Gordon S. Wood (Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History, Brown University)
    -BOOKNOTES: Gordon Wood, The American Revolution: A History (C-SPAN, April 21, 2002)
    -REVIEW: of Dead Certainties by Simon Schama (Gordon S. Wood) (pdf file)
    -ARCHIVES: The New York Review of Books: Gordon S. Wood
    -ARCHIVES: The New Republic Online: Gordon S. Wood
    -ESSAY: Eighteenth-Century American Constitutionalism (Gordon S. Wood, APSAnet)
    -ESSAY: The Origins of the Constitution (Gordon S. Wood, APSAnet)
    -REVIEW: of FREEDOM JUST AROUND THE CORNER: A New American History, 1585-1828 By Walter A. McDougall (Gordon S. Wood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Slaves in the Family (Gordon S. Wood, December 14, 2003, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, edited with an introduction and notes of Frank Shuffelton (Gordon S. Wood, New Republic)
    -INTERVIEW: with Gordon S. Wood (Diane Rehm Show, 6/04/04)
    -CHAT: washingtonpost.com > Discussions > Style > Books: The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Gordon S. Wood, June 1, 2004, Washington Post)
    -AUDIO DISCUSSION: Will the Real Ben Franklin Please Stand Up?: Pulitzer prize-winning historian Gordon Wood leads a ‘constitutional conversation’ about his new book, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (National Constitution Center, June 4, 2004)
    -PROFILE: Franklin fascinating in author's portrayal (Dennis Lythgoe, 6/18/04, Deseret Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of The Americanization of Ben Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -AUDIO REVIEW: of The Americanization of Ben Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air)
    -REVIEW: of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (John Freeman, CT Now)
    -REVIEW: of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (John Brewer, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Gordon S. Wood. The American Revolution: A History (Benjamin H. Irvin, H-Law)
    -INTERVIEW: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: Ray Suarez talks with author Gordon Wood about his new book, The American Revolution: A History. (Online Newshour, April 2, 2002)
    -INTERVIEW: Professor Gordon Wood: American Revolution (Beyond Books, May 8, 1999)
    -INTERVIEW: Inquiring Minds: Gordon Wood on the Electoral College (Kristen Cole, George Street Journal)
    -ARTICLE: The Aurora Forum: A Communist, a Cynic, and a Patriot (Piotr H. Kosicki, 2/01/03, Stanford Review)
    -SPECIAL EDITION: Forum: The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787: A Symposium of Views and Reviews (William & Mary Quarterly, July 1987)
    -ESSAY: Motives at Philadelphia, 1787: Gordon Wood's Neo-Beardian Thesis Reexamined (SHLOMO SLONIM, Law & History Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Gordon S. Wood (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "Gordon S. Wood" (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY: The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood (Steven F. Hayward, Winter 2006, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Anthea Lawson, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood (Paul Johnson, Daily Telegraph)

GENERAL:
    -This Constitution: A Bicentennial Chronicle (APSA Net)
    -REVIEW: of John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty by C. Bradley Thompson (K. R. Constantine Gutzman, The Independent Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Natural Rights Republic. By Michael Zuckert (Christopher Wolfe, First Things)

AVAILABLE ON J-STOR & ACCESSIBLE FROM .EDU ACCOUNTS:
    -ESSAY: A Century of Writing Early American History: Then and Now Compared; Or How Henry Adams Got It Wrong (Gordon S. Wood, June 1995, The American Historical Review)
    -ESSAY: Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century (Gordon S. Wood, July 1982, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Authorship of the Letters from the Federal Farmer (Gordon S. Wood, April 1974, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: A Note on Mobs in the American Revolution (Gordon S. Wood, October 1996, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution (Gordon S. Wood, January 1966, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Massachusetts Mugwumps (Gordon S. Wood, December 1960, The New England Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington's Times by Charles Royster (Gordon S. Wood, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution by Peter Shaw (Gordon S. Wood, Reviews in American History)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Historians and Documentary Editing (Gordon S. Wood, The Journal of American History)
    -ESSAY: How Radical Was the Revolution: A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Gordon S. Wood, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Revolution: The Genteel Radicalism of Gordon Wood (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Michael Zuckerman, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Adequate Revolution (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Barbara Clark Smith, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Radical Recreation of the American Republic (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Joyce Appleby, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
   -ESSAY: Equality and Social Conflict in the American Revolution (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Michael McGiffert, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: A Pearl in a Gnarled Shell: Gordon S. Wood's The Creation of the American Republic Reconsidered (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Pauline Maier, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Between Bailyn and Beard: The Perspectives of Gordon S. Wood (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (John Patrick Diggins, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Gordon S. Wood, the "Republican Synthesis," and the Path Not Taken (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Jack N. Rakove, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Also There at the Creation: Going beyond Gordon S. Wood (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Gary B Nash, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Gordon S. Wood and the Analysis of Political Culture in the American Revolutionary Era (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (John Howe, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Joyce Appleby, The American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Edward Countryman, Reviews in American History)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (H. G. Pitt, The English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Richard R. Johnson, Journal of Interdisciplinary History)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Colin Bonwick, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Robert M. Weir, The Journal of Southern History)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Drew R. McCoy, The Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Alan Taylor, The Historical Journal)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (Page Smith, The Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (Jackson Turner Main, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (J. G. A. Pocock, Journal of Interdisciplinary History)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (E. James Ferguson, Political Science Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (J. R. Pole, The Historical Journal)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (Robert E. Brown, The American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (John R. Howe, Jr., The Journal of Southern History)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (Charles W. Akers, The New England Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Russian-American Dialogue on the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood; Louise G. Wood (David J. Nordlander, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Russian-American Dialogue on the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood; Louise G. Wood (Alan Taylor, The Journal of American History)

GENERAL:
    -REVIEW: of The Thinking Revolutionary: Principle and Practice in the New Republic by Ralph Lerner (Paul Goodman, Reviews in American History)
    -ESSAY: Republicanism: the Career of a Concept Daniel T. Rodgers, June 1992, The Journal of American History)
    -ESSAY: Power and Authority in American History: The Case of Charles A. Beard and His Critics (John Patrick Diggins, October 1981, The American Historical Review)

Book-related and General Links:
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN:
    -REVIEW: of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: An American Life By Walter Isaacson (JOSEPH J. ELLIS, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: An American Life By Walter Isaacson (Janet Maslin, NY Times)

FICTIONAL FRANKLIN:
    -ETEXT: The Business Man (1850) (Edgar Allan Poe)
    -Israel Potter by Herman Melville

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