Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Cultural Divide

“Taxation without representation” was the core of the argument. So why didn’t Parliament just give the colonies a few seats and then outvote them? 

Franklin’s arguments found friendly MPs who made notable appeals, such as Burke’s for reconciliation and the Earl of Chatham’s for the colonists’ rights. But with George III’s  hold on the Commons’ majority via patronage and bribes (BF.487) and the premiership held by his man Lord North, the king's petulance about the colonies’ “filial ingratitude” and his indifference to antiwar commercial interests probably scuttled any consideration of the idea.

And had the colonies been given representation, would that have sufficed? Van Doren suggests the two countries had already drifted too far apart. The ancestral “rights of Englishmen” for which the founders fought had been reshaped and amplified by 150 years of colonial self-reliance and local government, the Quaker’s rethink of social class and religious tolerance, and the near-complete absence of aristocracy and centralized power. These first colonists, who funded and defended their own expeditions in the unknown and unforgiving landscape of the New World, gave birth to a new society—and a culture no longer British.

Meanwhile, France had its own revolution around the corner. Its absolute monarch and courtiers were prone to ostentatious, even ridiculous displays of wealth and privilege—perhaps root to the modern Frenchman’s mistrust of wealth, considering it “vulgar” and worthy of taxation just because it is thereCulture endures.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tea Party was not about Taxes (part 2)

Subsequently Franklin published several anonymous satirical essays, notably Rules by Which a Large Empire may be Reduced to a Small One which burlesqued Britain’s bad colonial governance, and the hoax Edict from the King of Prussia. The Prussian demanded tax revenue, trade restrictions, monopoly on manufactures, etc. from the descendants of Britain’s first settlers, “…Subjects to our renowned Ducal Ancestors,” quoting as precedent British impositions on its own American colonies. Both are humorous summaries of colonial grievances, and can be found here.

Franklin made his case with wit. As he had predicted during his examination, the colonists eventually realized the distinction of external and internal taxation was artificial (see Dec 7 post). The Townsend Acts replaced the stamp tax but were just as divisive and eventually repealed, with the exception of the tax on tea.

The duty itself was not the issue. The East India Company’s tea was in fact less expensive and of better quality than the smuggled variety, even with the tax, and the income derived would add little to the Crown’s revenue. This was understood at Parliament; the tax was not meant for income but to keep precedent for Parliament’s authority over taxation. This was the issue, and was hotly contested.

The colonies found new reason to act in unison. Some let the tea rot on the docks. Others sent it back. In Boston the ships were made to stay, but to prevent their cargo being unloaded the “partiers” dumped today’s equivalent of $1 to $2 million of East Indian tea into the harbor. A British military blockade ensued, the united colonies declared independence, and the resulting war lasted seven years.

Franklin and his cofounders did not fight for “freedom” and still less for “freedom from taxes.” The former they were entitled to as English subjects; the latter was and is as improbable as immortality—it was Franklin who said “in this world nothing [is] certain, except death and taxes.”

The founders’ fight was to preserve the centuries-old “constitutional rights of Englishmen,” extant since Magna Carta days and entitling them to, among other things, representational government; if not Great Britain’s, then their own. Their principle is poorly expressed by the overworked word freedom, which suggests license. It has an etymology dating from the antiquity they so admired. And it is best when poignantly, didactically paired to the word responsibility. That is—liberty.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

(Parenthetical Post)

My videopost of October 19 was an animation of a talk by Ken Robinson, who claims among other things that our educational system “conceived…in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution” was “modeled on the interests of industrialism, and on the image of it.” I leave that debate to educators. 

Meanwhile, Stanley Fish, in his most recent column suggests that the privatization of higher education is moving towards the interests and values of—investment bank(er)s: “the cost of courses will be indexed to the likelihood of financial rewards down the line. A course’s ‘key selling point’ will be ‘that it provides improved employability...’” My favorite refutation of the idea can be found in highlighted comment #126.

Fish’s June 7 post suggests an alternative, and was of particular interest to Dr. Eliot.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Tea Party was not about Taxes (part 1)

During his examination before Parliament, Franklin, urging repeal of the Stamp Act, brought life in America home for the ministers, most of whom had never cared to fully understand it or its attitude to the mother country.

The cost of the recently concluded French and Indian (Seven Years’) War was a British rationale for the Act. Franklin challenged the MPs’ base assumptions and brought the colonists’ perspective into focus. Boldly, he asserted that the war was not waged for the colonies’ protection: the trade of furs for manufactures and the removal of France from North America were British, and not American, interests. Among his other points:

  • The colonies had established themselves at their own cost and risk;
  • The colonies had defended themselves from their earliest days, and their settlers pushed the natives beyond the Appalachians without help from home;
  • The colonies had already contributed their fair share to the war, having raised, armed, and maintained militias—all funded by “many, and very heavy taxes” laid by their own Assemblies;
  • He equated the colonies’ legal status to that of Ireland at the time; without representatives in Parliament, revenue for the Crown was to be raised by the colonial assemblies or the Parliament of Ireland respectively.

Yet his opponents pressed Parliament’s right and authority to tax its colonists directly. The one-hundred and fifty-second question made reference to the charter given William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, by Charles II:
…[152] Q. Don’t you know that there is, in the Pennsylvania charter, an express reservation of the right of parliament to lay taxes there?
A. I know there is a clause in the charter, by which the King grants that he will levy no taxes on the inhabitants, unless it be with the consent of the assembly, or by act of parliament.
[153] Q. How then could the assembly of Pennsylvania assert, that laying a tax on them by the stamp-act was an infringement of their rights?
A. They understand it thus; by the same charter, and otherwise, they are intitled to all the privileges and liberties of Englishmen; they find in the great charters, and the petition and declaration of rights, that one of the privileges of English subjects is, that they are not to be taxed but by their common consent; they have therefore relied upon it, from the first settlement of the province, that the parliament never would, nor could, by colour of that clause in the charter, assume a right of taxing them, till it had qualified itself to exercise such right by admitting representatives from the people to be taxed, who ought to make a part of that common consent.
[154] Q. Are there any words in the charter that justify that construction?
A. The common rights of Englishmen, as declared by Magna Charta, and the petition of right, all justify it… 
Earlier in the examination Franklin had distinguished “internal” vs “external” taxes. External taxes were duties placed on imports; these became part of the price of the goods, and if the price was too high the goods need not be bought—by this logic, no one was obliged to pay duties. Because British ships defended trade, such duties had never been contested by the colonists. The stamp tax, however, was an “internal” tax “forced from the people without their consent,” and requiring a revenue stamp on all official paper documents—property deeds, wills, marriages, etc.—affected “all commerce among the inhabitants of a place” obliging those far inland “take long journeys and spend perhaps three or four pounds that the Crown might get sixpence.” [BF.337]
… [155] Q. Does the distinction between internal and external taxes exist in the words of the [Pennsylvania] charter?
A. No, I believe not.
[156] Q. Then may they not, by the same interpretation, object to the parliament’s right of external taxation?
In response Franklin continues the questioner’s thought to its logical end:
A. They never have hitherto. Many arguments have been lately used here to shew them that there is no difference, and that if you have no right to tax them internally, you have none to tax them externally, or make any other law to bind them. At present they do not reason so, but in time they may possibly be convinced by these arguments.
This point was brilliantly made and foreshadowed things to come. If in fact taxes were unjustly levied, why should not duties be considered likewise? Did not the artificial prices—indeed the entire British monopoly on trade—affect the prosperity of the colonists? Why accept any restriction, any law passed by Parliament, let alone one so impracticable?
…[82] Q. Can any thing less than a military force carry the stamp-act into execution?
A. I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose.
[83] Q. Why may it not?
A. Suppose a military force sent into America, they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.

To be continued… 


The “Q & A” text is taken from: The EXAMINATION of Doctor BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, before an August Assembly, relating to the Repeal of the STAMP-ACT, &c.” which can be found at Search for “Examination, House of Commons” and click on result #4 or #5. 

The clause in Pennsylvania's charter (Q&A #152) can be found at Yale’s
The Avalon Project. Scroll down to the fourth paragraph from the end of the link. Note that the clause does seem to specify duties on goods or merchandise ... to be laden or unladen within the ports or harbours of the said Province... as well as direct taxes. See Q&A #155 above.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

On Public Speaking

Franklin was no orator. He said barely a word at the constitutional convention, preferring to have his written comments delivered by another. Yet the shy will not be consoled that Franklin’s famous diplomatic career was launched not by his brilliant writing or powerful friendships but by his one major public interview, an event that bridges the homely anecdotes of the Autobiography to his founding-fatherhood. It established him as the expert on colonial affairs and as America’s de facto ambassador to Europe:  a lengthy, often hostile, and very public examination before the House of Commons on February 13, 1766.

Parliament was debating repeal of the Stamp Act passed the year before. Its injustice caused colonial dissent among both the Assemblies and occasional violent mobs. Franklin was invited as expert witness to explain Americans’ resistance to the Act. With the feelings, facts, and statistics of his homeland on the tip of his tongue Franklin faced the opposition with acute observations, extensive preparation, and practiced delivery.

Hints for the budding public speaker: know your material, know your audience, and know what to expect. Franklin anticipated many of the questions and memorized his answers; he foresaw likely lines of attack, and practiced with ministers friendly to his cause; these same MPs posed prearranged questions for Franklin to answer with theatrical effect.

The exchanges advanced his fame when reprinted in Europe and America. Van Doren’s description is certainly the highlight of his book and worth the entire read. A fuller account of his four-hour interrogation can be found at (search for “Examination, House of Commons”). Unfortunately, I can't find the official record from Parliament; though Hansard is online, its records only began in 1803.

One hundred thirty years later, a young Winston Churchill, not yet elected to Parliament, in his essay The Scaffolding of Rhetoric did not understate the value of effective speaking:
Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable. (Written in 1897, Churchill portends his own days in the political wilderness, lonely decrying the 1930s rise of Nazi Germany.)
“More durable than that of a king…” Eripuit Coelo fulmen, mox Sceptra Tyrannis as Turgot described Franklin: “He seized the lightning from Heaven and the scepter from the Tyrants.”

To be continued…

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reassessing the Method

Never start with a preconception of where your reading and writing will take you, no matter how well-founded your anticipation. This was my mistake and why I haven’t posted in some time. This post was to cover the last facet of Franklin’s self-education: his studied ability to fathom, anticipate, and influence others. From the 800 pages of Carl Van Doren’s biographic eulogy I thought some easily digestible anecdote would emerge, but none did.

In fact, Franklin’s astuteness saturated every episode of his later life in a way hard to vignette. Still, between infilling the Autobiography and cataloging later achievements, Van Doren beautifully depicts one event which marked his subject’s arrival as a master diplomat and also works well for my purposes. At seventeen pages it’s not an anecdote easily digested, but it’s a brilliant read not only for Franklin’s mastery of the occasion, but for its hints of coming revolution—played out at a human scale and in real time, so to speak. On 13 February 1766, with the colonies violently protesting the Stamp Act, Franklin testified to the House of Commons.

To be continued…

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Speaking of Education ...

... yesterday I received a video I can't resist posting. Enjoy!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Self-taught Master, part 2

In this penultimate post about Benjamin Franklin, I want to quote at length a passage from the Autobiography.

The Quakers, having had outsized political power in the Pennsylvania Assembly at the start of King George’s War (War of the Austrian Succession), found themselves opposing, on principle, funding for the proper military defense of the colony including their own homes. Franklin recalls an exchange with the leader of a different sect whose approach to such matters impressed Franklin as much as it does this reader:
Those embarrassments that the Quakers suffer’d, from having establish’d and published it as one of their principles that no kind of war was lawful, and which, being once published, they could not afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of, reminds me of what I think a more prudent conduct in another sect among us, that of the Dunkers. I was acquainted with one of its founders, Michael Welfare, soon after it appeared. He complained to me that they were grievously calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charg’d with abominable principles and practices to which they were utter strangers. I told him this had always been the case with new sects, and that to put a stop to such abuse I imagin’d it might be well to publish the articles of their belief and the rules of their discipline. He said that it had been propos’d among them, but not agreed to, for this reason: “When we were first drawn together as a society,” says he, “it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.”
This modesty in a sect [continued Franklin] is perhaps a single instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man travelling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, tho’ in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them. To avoid this kind of embarrassment, the Quakers have of late years been gradually declining the public service in the Assembly and in the magistracy, choosing rather to quit their power than their principle.
Michael Welfare, observing the unsettled tenets of faith during the First Great Awakening, appears as skeptical and logical as a scientist, as humble as a saint. Franklin was obviously surprised by this confluence of cool rationalism and religious faith, but, brilliant writer that he was, doesn’t fail to provide a vivid (yet foggy) contrasting metaphor of human conceit. Franklin’s perspicacious judgment of the prejudices, inclinations, and motivations of his fellow man was his greatest asset, and the subject of the next post.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Self-taught Master, part 1

Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master. 
— Leonardo da Vinci

Much of Franklin’s self-education came from his own observations of the natural world and of his fellow man, but can’t be found in the Autobiography: even he refers us elsewhere for an explanation of his electrical experiments, and he is coy (but not silent) about his influence on others. For a better sense of his powers of discernment--scientific and otherwise--I have relied on Carl Van Doren’s excellent biography; Benjamin Franklin (1938), and the second volume of Isaac Asimov’s three-part Understanding Physics (1966). Today’s post is focused on the scientific.

The first fifty pages of Van Doren’s book are essentially the Autobiography with a few gaps filled in and added historical perspective. As it progresses the contextual infill is expanded, until 1757 when the Autobiography breaks off. The remaining two-thirds are based on Franklin’s other writings and the author’s own research.

Asimov’s book includes a technical explanation of Franklin’s experiments with electrostatics. His most famous demonstrated the equivalence of lightning to electricity, which seems obvious to us but was unproven for the scientists of the time (while for the common people, lightning still had an almost mythological aura). The famous story of the kite and the key is factual, but came after his conjectures had been proven.

The then-prevailing notion was that electricity came in two forms: “resinous” and “vitreous.” Charged resins would repel each other but attract charged glass tubes and vice-versa. Franklin’s insight was that there are not two but only one “electrical fluid,” and that the attractive or repellant forces are a result of a lack or surfeit of the fluid: a “negative” or “positive charge.”

According to Van Doren, Franklin coined terms common to us today:  armature, battery, brush, charge, charging, uncharged, condense, conductor, non-conductor, non-conducting, discharge, electrical fire, electrical shock, electrician, electrified, minus/negative, and plus/positive (BF.173). These last, said Franklin, like magnetic north and south are two aspects of the same thing. All objects have electricity, he said, but “uncharged” bodies are at equilibrium. Thus electrical charge can be neither lost nor destroyed, only in or out of equilibrium. When “grounding” static electricity, any excess electric fluid returns to the body of the earth, where it is so broadly distributed its presence can no longer be felt.

Because electrical charges can exist in isolation (unlike the poles of a magnet) and there is no general reference (as the earth’s magnetic field is for the compass), Franklin had no way to know which charged body held the excess electric fluid (for him, the “positive” charge), and which lacked the fluid (the “negative”)--so he was forced to guess. His odds were even, but he guessed wrong. Years later, once the electron was understood, it was determined that “positively” charged bodies in fact lack electrons; for this reason electrons--the movable electric fluid--are assigned a negative charge. (UP2.163)

Franklin also found that a spark moves through air more easily, and more quietly, towards a pointed object than towards a blunt one. Once lightning was shown to be electricity, the lightning rod became obvious. This simple device was adopted across the western world and within two decades removed this ancient danger to lives and property and earned applause from commoners and kings alike. Asimov suggests Franklin’s fame was particularly useful a quarter century later, when he was made ambassador to France of the newly independent United States, then fighting for its existence. (UP2.175)

Franklin held wide-ranging interests and an unremitting creative mind. He corresponded with experts in economics, biology, medicine, physics, geology, physiology, meteorology, and agriculture (he briefly owned a farm). Van Doren highlights a few:
  • He noted the different onset times of a major storm across the colonies and conceived of a macro weather pattern, dubbed the jet stream nearly two centuries later.
Appalachian Orogeny
  • He noted the marine fossils found at the highest peaks of the Appalachian mountains, and guessed that the world must be extraordinarily old. Franklin had no way to know it, but the reason for this oddity is found in the geology of plate tectonics.
  • Against Newton’s then-prevailing theory, he decided that light must be a wave and therefore must travel through a medium. It took Einstein to eliminate the theoretical need for an “aether” 150 years later.
  • He created the first flexible catheter in the Americas.
(all: BF.175-182)

Many of his observations and inventions arose from daily life. He saw the waste of heating a room, so to retain the heat of a fire and draw away its smoke  he created the cast-iron “Franklin stove,” eight times as efficient as the then-common open hearth. He got tired of changing his glasses from one pair to another, so he invented bifocals. Both sound obvious to us perhaps--perhaps as only what is now familiar can.

Franklin’s breakthroughs are so fundamental to our lives that they recede into the background; like the terms he coined, what was once mythological is now quotidian. As their provenance recedes further into history and their usage broadens evermore into the future, his contributions become each like a grounded electric charge: distributed uniformly across the Earth, yet perceptible hardly at all.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Franklin’s Absent Virtue

Franklin’s list of virtues (see last post) includes all but the most important ingredient to his success: education. Franklin’s education was not formal; he was a classic autodidact whose self-taught polymathy had three sources: 

First – Books. As a kid he read everything he could, spending all his extra money on books. As a printer’s apprentice he found every way to economize, becoming a vegetarian for example: saving on meat to spend money on books. He sold the books he’d read to buy others he hadn’t. He borrowed books from booksellers’ apprentices to read overnight, returning them early, before they’d be missed. The teenaged Franklin took his lunch breaks alone, with a slice of bread, some fruit, a glass of water, and the classics.  Dr Eliot no doubt approved.

Second – People. The best way to grow is to challenge yourself, and a good way to challenge yourself is to keep friends who will challenge you. In his twenties, an established printer in his own right, Franklin with a small group of friends created a study group:
I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth [argument], all expressions of positiveness [insistence] in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties. (HC01.059-060)
This tiny club was Franklin’s inspiration for the American Philosophical Society, founded by him in 1743 and still promoting the sciences and humanities today.

As Franklin became more occupied with worldly affairs he was there was less time for the Junto, but he never forgot his earnest friends. There were other conversations to be had though, and in time Franklin would hold ongoing conversation—correspondence mostly—with many of the great minds of his time, and at the highest level of “Morals, Politics, and Natural Philosophy,” because Franklin himself became a central figure in philosophy, diplomacy, and scientific discovery.

Thought, observation, and experimentation—what we discover on our own, untaught—together form the third source of Franklin’s education, subject of the next post.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Franklin and “The Art of Virtue”

You will be more happy than princes, if you will be more virtuous.
—Poor Richard 
Franklin said to have success we need to have the right attitude. Today’s definition of right attitude was for him a measure of virtue. In the Autobiography he devotes much effort to the topic because, as Poor Richard said, “it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.”

The several modern definitions of virtue at are mostly related to goodness or righteousness. For Franklin’s time—and its reverence for the Classical world—the more revealing meaning of virtue comes from the etymology of the word virtus /weer-toos/ meaning “moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, worth”. Vir is Latin for man. In the Classical sense, to be virtuous is to be manly.

Wikipedia says the original seven virtues were defined at different times: the four “cardinal virtues” by Aristotle and Plato, and the remaining “theological virtues” by the early Christian church. Another, later list of virtues separately created and widely popular in the first millennium made a counterpoint to the “seven deadly sins”:

   1.  Temperance
   2.  Wisdom
   3.  Justice
   4.  Courage
Early Christian
   5.  Faith
   6.  Hope
   7.  Charity

Early Medieval:
Virtues vs Vices
1.  Chasitity          vs   Lust
2.  Temperance    vs   Gluttony
3.  Charity             vs   Greed
4.  Diligence           vs   Sloth
5.  Patience            vs   Wrath
6.  Kindness           vs   Envy
7.  Humility            vs   Pride

For Franklin these were ill-defined, with much overlap and some disagreement among moral traditions as to their meaning: 
In the various enumerations of the moral virtues I had met with in my reading, I found the catalogue more or less numerous, as different writers included more or fewer ideas under the same name. Temperance, for example, was by some confined to eating and drinking, while by others it was extended to mean the moderating every other pleasure, appetite, inclination, or passion, bodily or mental, even to our avarice and ambition. I proposed to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex'd to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurred to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express'd the extent I gave to its meaning. (HC1.82)
Franklin planned a book called “The Art of Virtue,” possibly as a companion volume to “The Way to Wealth.” In this work he would provide the method to achieve each virtue, this being different “from the mere exhortation to be good, which does not instruct or indicate the means … like the apostle's man of verbal charity – James ii 15, 16” (HC1.90). Biblical reference aside, his thirteen points were purposefully not aligned with any religious practice or sect, he believing they would gain greater currency if readers perceived no bias in them.

The Autobiography suggests what such instructions might have been. In Franklin’s own search for “moral perfection,” he organized his thirteen points into tables drawn on the pages of a small book. Each week he devoted himself to a different point. With his book always handy, at day’s end he logged each slip with a tiny black dot. He would complete a program in thirteen weeks, and would repeat the exercise many times in his life before he became too busy with travel, diplomacy, and the affairs of the new republic to continue. “I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish,” he said. He never achieved the perfection he sought, but he felt “a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.” (HC1.89). 

Franklin’s thirteen virtues are:
1. Temperance. — Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. 
2. Silence— Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. 
3. Order. — Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. 
4. Resolution. — Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. 
5. Frugality. — Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; that is, waste nothing. 
6. Industry. — Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. [*This Puritan favorite remains in full force, according to one Briton.]
7. Sincerity. — Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly. 
8. Justice. — Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty. 
9. Moderation. — Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. 
10. Cleanliness. — Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation. 
11. Tranquility. — Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable. 
12. Chastity— Rarely use venery but for health and offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility. — Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
… Let no pleasure tempt thee, no profit allure thee, no ambition corrupt thee, no example sway thee, no persuasion move thee, to do anything which thou knowest to be evil; so shalt thou always live jollily, for a good conscience is a continual Christmas.
(--Poor Richard)
Oddly lacking was a virtue centrally important to his life: Education. As the Autobiography makes clear, this was essential to all he did, and will be the subject of the next post.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

(The Harvard Classics, Volume I)
I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan; and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business. (I.106)
A quote from the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”, to which he might have added: “…achieving success according to merit and regardless of the circumstances of his birth.” This is the great lesson of Franklin’s work, and core to its enduring popularity among Americans.

The American ethos is self-improvement, and it has been central to our individualist and immigrant culture since colonial times. Add the capitalist instinct and you have 300 years of hawking lectures, pamphlets, and books dedicated to the theme, including Franklin’s Autobiography and the packaging of the Harvard Classics themselves. “Self-help” yields 112,323 book results on Amazon, and many linear feet at your local Barnes & Noble are filled and refilled by the heirs of another of Franklin’s bestsellers, “The Way to Wealth”.

The Autobiography is clearly divisible into two sections. The first, dating from 1771, was intended as a memoir for his son alone. It describes Franklin's childhood, apprenticeships, and success in business, ending just after his marriage to Deborah Read in 1730. The work was left untouched for many years.

The latter half of the book, begun in Paris in 1784 and never finished, picks up the tale with Franklin an established leader of his community. This section was begun in a different spirit, with a wider readership in mind. He was convinced to return to the project by friends who had seen the original manuscript. One, Abel James, wrote: 

...what will the world say if Ben. Franklin should leave his friends and the world deprived of so pleasing and profitable a work...which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but to millions? The influence writings have on that class of youth is very great...and almost insensibly leads [them] into the resolution of endeavoring to become as good and eminent as the journalist. (I.71)
Another, Benjamin Vaughn, goes further:
All that has happened to you is connected with the detail and manners of a rising people; and in this respect I do not think that the writings of Caesar or Tacitus can be more interesting to a true judge of human nature or society...
But these are small reasons compared with the chance your life will give for the forming of future great men... The work will give a noble rule and example of self-education. Your discovery that the means for a reasonable course in life is in many a man’s private power will be invaluable!
Your biography will not only teach self-education, but the education of a wise man; and the wisest man will improve his progress by seeing detailed the conduct of another wise man. (I.72-73)
Aside from the inspirational, Franklin’s particular self-help book happens also to have historical, philosophical, and literary value: as Vaughn suggests, it is an excellent firsthand account of conditions during colonial times; it includes meditations on the well-lived life; and it is notable for the quality and wit of its writing. The many facets of the work merit its inclusion in the Harvard Classics, but for its vivid example of the power of self-education, Dr. Eliot put Franklin up front: the Autobiography is the first selection of the first book of the set.

Franklin is one of the most famous self-educated, self-made men in our history. Born poor, through hard work and lifelong study he achieved wealth and fame as a writer, printer, scientist, diplomat, founding father, and philosopher. His Autobiography preaches by example the virtues of a strict work ethic, moderation, a proper outlook, and personal responsibility. But Franklin places considerable emphasis on community spirit as a balance to individual self-interest.

Franklin, Like Dr. Eliot, believed in the power of education. He used his reach as a publisher to influence and to contribute to the public discourse. 
In 1732, I first published my Almanack...I endeavoured to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such demand, that I reaped considerable profit from it: vending annually near ten thousand. And observing that it was generally read, scarce any neighbourhood in the province being without it, I considered it as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcely any other books. I therefore filled all the little spaces, that occurred between the remarkable days in the Calendar, with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality, as the means of procuring wealth, and thereby securing virtue; it being more difficult for a man in want to act always honestly, as, to use here one of those proverbs, “it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.” (I.106-107)
“Poor Richard's Almanack” was famously filled with maxims and proverbs—some borrowed, others original—for the edification of its readers. I bought a copy of the Almanack as a supplement to this reading. Most of his proverbs are timeless:

Regarding work… 
  • No gains without pains. 
  • Great talkers, little doers. 
  • Lost time is never found again. 
  • Well done is better than well said. 
  • Be always ashamed to catch yourself idle. 
  • Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him. 
  • Words may show a man’s wit, but actions show his meaning. 
  • He that would catch fish must venture his bait. 
  • Would you live with ease, do what you ought and not what you please. 
  • Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. 
  • If you would not be forgotten when you are dead and rotten, either write things worth the reading or do things worth the writing.

Regarding education… 
  • The things which hurt, instruct. 
  • The wise and brave dares admit he was wrong. 
  • The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason. 
  • Where there is hunger, law is not regarded; and where law is not regarded, there will be hunger. 
  • Reading makes a full man. Meditation, a profound man. Discourse, a clear man. 
  • Tim was so learned, he could name a horse in nine languages. So ignorant, that he bought a cow to ride on. 
  • What signifies knowing the names, if you know not the natures of things? 

Regarding thrift… 
  • Pay what you owe, and you’ll know what is your own. 
  • Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship. 
  • Drink water, put the money in your pocket, and leave the [hangover] in the punchbowl. 
  • For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost. 

Regarding vice and virtue… 
  • Prosperity discovers vice, and adversity, virtue. 
  • Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices. 
  • To be proud of your virtue is to poison yourself with the antidote. 
  • He that lieth down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas. 
  • He who thinks that money will do everything, may well be suspected of doing everything for money. 

And timeless humorous truths… 
  • Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead. 
  • Fish and visitors stink after three days. 
  • A full belly makes a dull brain. 
  • If Jack’s in love, he’s no judge of Jill’s beauty. 
  • Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards. 
  • One good husband is worth two good wives; the scarcer things are, the more they are valued 
  • Old boys have their playthings as well as young ones; the difference is only in the price. 
  • People who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages. 
  • He's gone, and forgot nothing but to say farewell to his creditors. 
  • Shame and the [hangover] were diseases of the last age; this [age] seems to be cured of them. 

Many of his adages were included in “The Way to Wealth.”  Franklin felt that success was within anyone’s reach, provided he applied himself diligently to the effort, and his definition of success was not wealth alone: 
"You will be more happy than princes, if you will be more virtuous,” wrote Poor Richard. We need only the right attitude, and just as importantly, the right expectations.

Franklin’s contributions weren’t limited to his publications, but in the Autobiography his many philanthropic works are merely touched upon: Philadelphia’s first fire department, the illumination and paving of its streets, his experiments with electricity, the efficient “Franklin” stove (which he chose not to patent, giving away the design), and the colonies’ first circulating library: 
The institution soon manifested its utility, was imitated by other towns, and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observed by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries...” (I.88)
He felt that this “better instruction” added indirectly to the intellectual force behind the Revolution. This is one of the few foreshadows of that event. Another comes just before the Autobiography breaks off, upon his second visit to London, in 1757, as head of a delegation sent to petition the king. The proprietary colonial governors had exempted themselves from the collection of tax, against the will of the Pennsylvania assembly. Upon arriving at London he was told by one Lord Granville:
You Americans have wrong ideas of the nature of your constitution; you contend that the king’s instructions to his governors are not laws, and think yourselves at liberty to regard them or disregard them at your own discretion …[but] they are, so far as they relate to you, the law of the land, for the king is the Legislator of the Colonies.
Wrote Franklin:
I told his lordship this was a new doctrine to me. I had always understood from our charters that our laws were made by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the king for his royal assent, but that being once given the king could not repeal or alter them. And as the Assemblies could not make permanent laws without his assent, so neither could he make a law for them without theirs. He assured me I was totally mistaken.
This exchange alarmed Franklin. Being student of human nature, and knowing his own compatriots, he foresaw the inevitable outcome of such a profound difference in opinion. Here on the last pages of Franklin’s unfinished Autobiography, we find in his visit to London, or in his oblique reference to the Stamp Act, the first stirrings of the Revolution in which he would play so vital a role—but for that, sadly we can no longer rely on Franklin himself; we need to turn to his many biographers. They say the best is Carl Van Doren’s “Benjamin Franklin” published in 1938, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and subject of a future post.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lorem ipsum

This is another test post. The site is under construction. Please try again by 15 September!

Meanwhile, I leave you a repeat of last week's Latin lesson: 
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum
From a treatise by Cicero called Extremes of Good and Evil, corrupted by a sloppy 16th century typesetter and repeated verbatim for five centuries by every lazy publisher in need of dummy text, including me. I later found the source and translation at

Cicero said, in de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, section 1.10.32, in 45 BC:
"Sed ut perspiciatis unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accusantium doloremque laudantium, totam rem aperiam, eaque ipsa quae ab illo inventore veritatis et quasi architecto beatae vitae dicta sunt explicabo. Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem quia voluptas sit aspernatur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt. Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, sed quia non numquam eius modi tempora incidunt ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem. Ut enim ad minima veniam, quis nostrum exercitationem ullam corporis suscipit laboriosam, nisi ut aliquid ex ea commodi consequatur? Quis autem vel eum iure reprehenderit qui in ea voluptate velit esse quam nihil molestiae consequatur, vel illum qui dolorem eum fugiat quo voluptas nulla pariatur?"
H. Rackham translated, in 1914 AD:
"But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?"
The Sixth Foot concludes:
Not a bad start for the blog. The Harvard Classics alone are 22,000 pages long. Let's see what resultant pleasure comes...