Was Benjamin Franklin an indispensable public servant, or a cunning chameleon? A believer, or a heretic? A hard-headed entrepreneur, or an opportunistic privateer? A devoted family man, or a salacious womanizer? An important scientist and inventor, or a hoaxer and self-promoter? The first civilized American, or the most dangerous man in America? Read the article below.
History of Freedom
Franklin and His Critics
by Mark Skousen
“Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly.” — Poor Richard’s Almanac
Was Benjamin Franklin an indispensable public servant, or a cunning chameleon? A believer, or a heretic? A hard-headed entrepreneur, or an opportunistic privateer? A devoted family man, or a salacious womanizer? An important scientist and inventor, or a hoaxer and self-promoter? The first civilized American, or the most dangerous man in America?
Probably, he was all of the above. But no matter where you come down on this debate, one thing is clear: Franklin’s stature has increased dramatically since his death in 1790.
A recent AOL poll ranked him after Washington as America’s most admired founder. None of the others (Jefferson, Adams, Madison) even came close. This year, the nation celebrates Franklin’s 300th birthday with fanfare: two commemorative coins by the U.S. Mint, four stamps by the U.S. Postal Service, and a national exhibit that is making its way around the country. A bevy of biographies has been published, and most of the books are laudatory. H.W. Brands identifies Franklin as “the first American . . . who is perhaps the most beloved and celebrated American of his age, or indeed of any age.”
Michael Hart ranks him as “the most versatile genius in all of history” — the most multi-dimensional of the founders as businessman, scientist, writer, and politician.
Joyce Chaplin identifies Franklin as one of only two scientists in the world who have achieved “international icon” status (the other is Einstein).
Many consider Franklin the cultural father of American capitalism, because of his emphasis on self-education, industry, and thrift. And Gordon Wood argues that Franklin was second only to Washington as America’s “necessary man,” the man who single-handedly raised 34 million livres (equivalent to $14 billion in today’s money) to finance the war of the revolution. Washington won the war at home, but Franklin won the war abroad: “He was the greatest diplomat America has ever had.”
I was privileged to be part of the Franklin celebration when, last April, I was invited to speak at the First Day Issue Ceremony in Philadelphia for the four commemorative stamps honoring Franklin as a printer, scientist, postmaster, and statesman. I’ve been an admirer of this versatile genius since reading his “Autobiography,” which is rightly regarded as America’s first “how to” self-improvement book, championing the virtues of industry, thrift, and prudence. Over the years I’ve collected dozens of other books on him, including the voluminous edition of his “Papers” compiled and edited by Yale University Press. It was while reading through the “Papers,” now approaching 38 volumes, that I came up with the idea of completing the “Autobiography.” These memoirs end abruptly in 1757, just as Franklin is about to embark on his career as an international political figure. He lived another 33 years as colonial agent, revolutionary, signer of the Declaration of Independence, America’s first ambassador, and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. In going over the “Papers,” I realized that it might be possible to gather together the autobiographical passages from his letters, journals, and essays, and complete his story, all in his own words. The result was “The Compleated Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin,” published this year by Regnery.
Yet I have sometimes wondered whether my admiration of Franklin was misplaced, and how, if at all, his ideas could be defended.
Among libertarians, there is a great deal of animosity toward wise ol’ Dr. Franklin. Just last month, for example, I came across an article called “Benjamin Franklin Was All Wet on Economics,” written by a college student for the Mises Institute website. The author focused on Franklin’s labor theory of value and his support of paper money.
No doubt the philosopher was seriously misguided on a number of important issues. Yet, if we are willing to take a broad view of his economics, a case can be made that even in this area he was a sound thinker. Actively involved in the creation of the three major documents of American government (the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution), Franklin was an advocate of a limited central government. “A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed,” he declared. He was a disciple of Adam Smith and free trade, and was enamored of the laissez-faire policies recommended by the French physiocrats (Turgot, Condorcet, et al.). His are the admirable sayings: “Laissez nous faire: Let us alone. . . . Pas trop gouverner: Not to govern too strictly.”
Franklin was certainly no Keynesian. He defended the rich and worried about how incentives for the poor would be affected if the state adopted a welfare system. He was no Malthusian, either. He opposed a minimum wage law and wrote in favor of free immigration and fast population growth. He rejected any form of state religion or mandatory religious oaths and demanded that slavery be abolished in the new nation — in 1789. And he learned by sad experience (through the careers of his son and grandson) that public service is less rewarding than private business. His ideas on foreign policy anticipated George Washington’s farewell address by nearly 20 years. In 1778 he stipulated that “the system of America is to have commerce with all, and war with none.”
Granted, he was no anarchist. In economics, he did favor paper money and a “real bills” doctrine of expanding the money supply beyond specie, though “no more than commerce requires.”
He believed that easy money would facilitate trade. During the American revolution he justified the runaway inflation of paper “Continentals” as an indirect way for all Americans to pay for the war, although he begged Congress to improve the creditworthiness of the United States by 2006 paying interest in hard currency. He was a strong supporter of Hamiltonian-style central banking and an investor in the Bank of North America. His likeness on the $100 bill — the highest denomination of an irredeemable American paper currency — would greatly please his vanity.
He argued that the state should be actively engaged in the free education of youth and other public services, and in dispelling the ignorance represented by public fads and superstitions. From several sources, it appears that he was in league with Jefferson in emphasizing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the goal of government, downplaying John Locke’s inalienable right to property. Property, he wrote, is purely a “creature of society” and can be legitimately taxed to pay for civil society. He was quite critical of Americans who were unwilling to pay their share of society’s “dues.”
None of this is likely to endear Franklin to libertarian theorists, and it hasn’t. Among them, the leading detractor has been Murray Rothbard, who in his four-volume history “Conceived in Liberty” describes Franklin as “perhaps the most over inflated [leader] of the entire colonial period in America.” At every turn in the history of the American revolution, Rothbard deprecates Franklin’s achievements and accentuates his peccadilloes. He finds in the sly Dr. Franklin “a sinister, subversive devil . . . an opportunist par excellence . . . cunning . . . fawning . . . meddling . . . opportunistic hedonist . . . ”
According to Rothbard, Franklin was a warmonger, a Tory imperialist, and a speculator with his “cronies” who engaged in a “pattern of plunder of the American taxpayer” during the war. His Albany Plan was far more than an innocent way to unify the nation; it was a deliberate attempt to create a “central super government.” Franklin comes off almost as badly as the “deep-dyed conservative” Washington, who is characterized as a fumbling, inept general who sought to “crush liberty and individualism” among his soldiers and impose a “statist” army.
Rothbard would have preferred as American commander “the forgotten hero,” the “brilliant, gifted” Charles Lee, champion of “liberty and guerrilla war.” And instead of Franklin as envoy to France, Rothbard would have selected the “estimable liberal” Dr. Arthur Lee.
Never mind the fact that other historians uniformly describe Arthur Lee as a “bilious” and “cantankerous” patriot who hated America’s French allies and accomplished little himself. Rothbard also likes Thomas Paine, promoter extraordinaire of the American cause — while ignoring the fact that Paine’s mentor was none other than Benjamin Franklin, and that Franklin was a lifelong supporter of Paine’s ideas. What did Paine see that Rothbard couldn’t?
Rothbard never explains the way in which somehow, by July 1776, the “Tory imperialist” suddenly became the “radical revolutionary” and co-conspirator of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, Franklin was one of the first of the founders to call for independence. As early as 1771, he observed that the “seeds are sown of total disunion” between England and her colonies. In 1775, he drafted a resolution to Congress to dissolve “all ties of allegiance” with a country that had failed to “protect the lives and property of [its] subjects,” adding: “It has always been my opinion that it is the natural right of men to quit, when they please, the society or state, and the country in which they were born, and either join with another or form a new one as they think proper.”
Furthermore, Franklin (like Rothbard) appears to have been an advocate of natural rights: “I am a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power. I am naturally very zealous for the rights and liberties of my country, and the least encroachment of those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil.”
No modern libertarian could have said it better. It is surprising that modern libertarians should fail to give Franklin credit for the “radical” and “libertarian” Pennsylvania Constitution written in 1776 and endorsed by him throughout his lifetime. And what about his critical role in raising military and financial aid in France? This is what we receive from Rothbard’s witty but poisoned pen: “The wily old tactician Franklin proved to be a master at the intricacies of lying, bamboozling, and intriguing that form the warp and woof of diplomacy. Moreover, the old rogue was a huge hit with the French, who saw him as the embodiment of reason, the natural man, and bonhomie.”
Rothbard is deadly silent about Franklin’s thrill of victory and Arthur Lee’s agony of defeat when it came to fundraising for the American cause.
Unfortunately, the only biography that Rothbard recommends is Cecil B. Currey’s “Code Number 72: Ben Franklin: Patriot or Spy?”, which accuses Franklin of being a double agent for the British. (Carl Van Doren’s “Benjamin Franklin”  is the most comprehensive work in the field, and quite different in its conclusions from Currey.) Currey is a tough-minded researcher but ignores the evidence that doesn’t fit his agenda. “I have not . . . pretended to write a ‘balanced’ picture of Franklin (for I have focused on his shadows).”
Currey put together a sizeable amount of circumstantial evidence that while Franklin was ambassador to France he played both sides of the conflict. “The story involved treason, breaches of security, lackadaisical administration, privateering, misplaced truth, war profiteering, clandestine operations, spy apparatus, intrigue, double-dealing.” Today we know that Franklin and Adams were surrounded by spies, including one of their secretaries, Edward Bancroft. “A cell of British Intelligence was located at Franklin’s headquarters in France, and Benjamin Franklin — covertly perhaps, tacitly at least, and possibly deliberately — cooperated with and protected this spy cell operating out of his home in France from shortly after his arrival in that country until the end of the war.”
It is true that Franklin loved England before he loved France. He lived in London for nearly 20 years and considered it home, more even than Philadelphia. His son William was so enamored with the British Empire that he remained a loyalist throughout the war, thus giving rise to the rumor that his father was a double agent. In France, Franklin met with British agents and listened to their offers of honors, emoluments, and bribes. He did little to hide his activities and papers from alleged spies, whether French or British. And, yes, he was identified clandestinely as “Number 72.”
But it is also clear that Franklin broke with his son and was so bitter about being deserted “in a cause where my good fame, fortune and life were all at stake” that they never reconciled. Currey is correct that the British had a code number for Franklin, but the French also had a code for him (“Prométhée,” the Greek god who brought fire from heaven). The British had code numbers for almost everyone, including Washington (“Number 206”). And British and French spies were so common that Franklin simply ignored them.
Again, it’s important to look at the big picture. If indeed Franklin was playing both sides of the war, would he have worked so enthusiastically to obtain essential aid from France? If you buy Currey’s argument, you could just as easily make the argument that Arthur Lee and even John Adams were traitors, because both seemed to make every effort to insult the French and sabotage Franklin and his fundraising efforts. Practically every historian today agrees that without Franklin, the French would not have given the financial and military support necessary to win the war at Yorktown.
Nevertheless — and this demonstrates the influence of Rothbard in libertarian circles — when Gary North devoted the 1976 bicentennial edition of his “Reconstructionist” journal to a symposium on Christianity and the American Revolution, he chose only one historian to write “The Franklin Legend,” Cecil Currey. Today Currey’s book is out of print, and for good reason. Franklin clearly switched from loving the British Isles to hating the Crown and its ministers. He considered the War for Independence “the greatest revolution the world has ever seen” and a “miracle in human affairs.”
But let’s consider some other historians’ attacks on Franklin. Tom Tucker wrote an entire book (“Bolt of Fate” ) contending that Franklin’s famous kite experiment was faked, that it was one of Franklin’s hoaxes. His evidence? Franklin didn’t write about the kite story for years, and the only detailed account was written by his friend Joseph Priestley, some 15 years after the event. Yet according to Priestley, Franklin dreaded the ridicule of performing an unsuccessful experiment in public, so he used his son William as his only witness — and William never denied the kite test, even after he and his father had become estranged.
Another assault on Franklin is embodied in “Runaway America” (2004), by David Waldstreicher, who argues that Franklin masked his true feelings about slavery, and that he was a slave trader and slave owner in an age of supposed freedom and equality. Here again the author ignores or downplays contrary evidence, such as the fact that in 1763 Franklin visited the Negro School of Philadelphia, which he helped establish, examined the students, and discovered “a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race . . . Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children.”
Franklin was never much of a slaveholder — compared, for example, to Washington or Jefferson — and the few slaves he held as servants were freed in London before he returned to America in 1775. Two years before he died, he became president of the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery and helped introduce legislation in Congress to abolish slavery once and for all.
Franklin has been blamed for abandoning his devoted wife, Deborah, and becoming a lecher in London and France. There is plenty of evidence to support a charge like this. He wrote several risqué bagatelles, such as “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress,” and “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker,” which defends a single mother who was prosecuted for the fifth time for having an illegitimate child. Franklin himself had a “natural” son, William. In his “Autobiography” he confessed that, as a young man, his “hard-to-govern’d passion of youth” led him into “intrigues with low women.” (This paragraph was censored in grade schools until the early 20th century, when, presumably, it was realized that children no longer understood what this usage of “intrigues” might mean.) Carl Van Doren says that “he went to women hungrily, secretly, and briefly.”
In 1730, Franklin entered into a common-law marriage with Deborah Read, whose husband abandoned her without a divorce. Together they raised William and had two children of their own: Franky, who died of smallpox at age four, and Sally, who cared for Franklin in his final years. Despite all the rumors, there is no hard evidence that Franklin sired any other illegitimate children. He settled into a faithful relationship with his wife in Philadelphia and focused on his printing business.
The relationship changed in the last 18 years of their marriage, when they lived separate lives. But he did not by any means abandon her. When he was made a colonial agent in 1757 and moved to London, he begged her to come with him, but she had a mortal fear of crossing the ocean and repeatedly refused. “I have a thousand times wished my wife with me, and my little Sally,” he wrote from London. Over time, they drifted apart emotionally, corresponding largely about mundane household matters and local gossip. Claude-Anne Lopez, a Franklin expert, notes that “it strains credulity to imagine that so vigorous a man was never unfaithful in all that time.”
Deborah died in late 1774, when Franklin was still in London. Two years later, as a widower, he was back in Europe. The French lionized the American ambassador, who developed a considerable friendship and correspondence with several beautiful French women, including Madame Brillon, who was an artist and musician, and the wife of a diplomat. Their relationship supposedly never went beyond friendship, although Franklin admitted to a friend, “I sometimes suspected my heart of wanting to go further.”
Their letters are intimate and flirtatious, and fun to read. (See chapter 6 of “The Compleated Autobiography.”) He considered flirtation a legitimate “amusement” and refuge from a grueling schedule of diplomacy. Gossip spread about him and Madame Brillon. Her husband once found them kissing; they played a game of chess in her bathroom; she sat on his lap at a dinner party attended by John and Abigail Adams, puritans who were “disgusted” by Franklin’s behavior. Jefferson observed that “in the company of women . . . he loses all power over himself and becomes almost frenzied.”
One of his critics wrote this ditty:
Franklin, though plagued with fumbling age,
Needs nothing to excite him,
But is too ready to engage,
When younger arms invite him.
The old doctor was 70 years of age when he arrived in France in 1776. During his long stay he suffered severely from gout and kidney stones. Sometimes he could hardly walk. It is doubtful that he fulfilled his sexual fantasies in any meaningful way. As historian Robert Middlekauff suggests, “Reading his correspondence of this period and remembering what we know of his physical condition, we might conclude that Franklin’s sex life was very much like Jane Austen’s novels — all talk and no action.”
Franklin was often criticized by contemporary Christians for his heretical religious views. He was not a churchgoer, and had doubts about the divinity of Jesus. But he believed in God. A deist for most of his life, he supported a pragmatic religion that favored good works and charity more than simple faith and hope. And by “good works,” he said, “I mean real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity.”
Franklin is justly famous for engaging in innumerable civic and charitable causes throughout his adult life — and into the afterlife, by means of his perpetual fund, established in his will, for the benefit of young tradesmen in Boston.
But to return to the heart of libertarian concerns about Franklin, it can be said that, in many ways, he was America’s first champion of free enterprise. Economists of the “Austrian” school, who have been so influential on modern libertarian thought, would be pleased with his emphasis on entrepreneurship, industry, and thrift. Eugen Böhm-Bawerk and Max Weber recognized his genius, and so did American capitalists Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon, who were deeply influenced by the “Autobiography.” Franklin anticipated the incredible material and technological progress that America has made in the centuries since its founding. An incurable optimist, he was always bullish on America, and life in general. At the end of the War for Independence, he predicted, “America will, with God’s blessing, become a great and happy country.” The United States, he said, is “an immense territory, favored by nature with all advantages of climate, soil, great navigable rivers and lakes . . . [and] destined to become a great country, populous and mighty.” More importantly, he told potential immigrants that the country “affords to strangers . . . good laws, just and cheap government, with all the liberties, civil and religious, that reasonable men can wish for.” (He underlined the word “cheap.”)
What were his politics? Franklin was opposed to a strong central executive. In his original draft of the Articles of Confederation, he proposed twelve members of the executive instead of one president, to disperse political power. He opposed public “offices of profit.” As Bernard Fay concludes, “They [Congress] were directly opposed to Franklin’s philosophical tendency, which might be summed up in this formula: the least government possible is the greatest possible good.”
Certainly he was no social libertarian, despite his image as a libertine and free thinker. While he is famous for reading books in the nude, frequenting the salacious Hell-Fire Club in London, and flirting with French ladies in Paris, he wrote stern letters to his daughter Sally chastising her for wanting to wear the latest fashions while a war was going on, and he refused to buy his grandson Benny a gold watch while in France. He dressed plainly and constantly preached economy. He always promoted frugality and industry in both public and private life. Readers might be surprised by his attack on the growth of taverns in Philadelphia upon his return from England in 1762. Though a defender of free speech, he railed against scurrilous newspaper reports.
There is nothing special about this side of Franklin. His distinctive contribution is not found in his lectures on the more conventional virtues but in his openness to the new, entrepreneurial, can-do spirit. He lambasted privileged public offices and aristocracies of birth, and told European immigrants that “in America, people do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but What can he do?”
He illustrated what an individual could do by doing it himself, helping to finance good causes with his own business profits. He was civil-minded early in his career, involving himself with the nation’s first fire company; the nation’s oldest property insurance company; and Philadelphia’s own hospital, library, and militia. All were created with mostly private funds. “America’s first entrepreneur may well be our finest one,” concludes John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard family of mutual funds.
Like all the founders, he had his share of foibles. How should one weigh his mammoth achievements against his inscrutable flaws? Before you make up your mind, I suggest you spend a few days reading Franklin’s own accounts of his life. You may see a different Franklin from the man his critics and I have described.
Libertarians are not used to winning. They prefer being in the minority. They figure that if they are victorious, they must be compromising their principles. That may be what galled Murray Rothbard: Franklin was so damned successful as a scientist, businessman, and diplomat. To libertarians, it may help to know that he wasn’t always successful. He had his share — and perhaps more than his share — of enemies. Here’s his philosophy about his critics: “As to the abuses I have met with, I number them among my honors. . . . The best men have always had their share of this treatment . . . and a man has therefore some reason to be ashamed when he meets with none of it. Enemies do a man some good by fortifying his character. I call to mind what my friend good Rev. Whitefield [the famous evangelist] said to me once: ‘I read the libels writ against you, when I was in a remote province, where I could not be informed of the truth of the facts; but they rather gave me this good opinion of you, that you continued to be useful to the public: for when I am on the road, and see boys in a field at a distance, pelting a tree, though I am too far off to know what tree it is, I conclude it has fruit on it.”
Now that’s a saying that all libertarians can appreciate.
1. H.W. Brands, “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” (Doubleday, 2000), jacket.
2. Michael H. Hart, “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History,” 2nd ed. (Kensington, 1992) 516–17.
3. Joyce E. Chaplin, “The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius” (Basic Books, 2006) 1.
4. Gordon Wood, “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin” (Penguin, 2004) 196.
5. “The Compleated Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin,” compiled and edited by Mark Skousen (Regnery, 2006) 189, 300.
6. “Compleated Autobiography” 148.
7. “Compleated Autobiography” 357.
8. “Compleated Autobiography” 298–99.
9. Murray N. Rothbard, “Conceived in Liberty” (Arlington House, 1975) 2.64, 67, 172; 3.273; 4.358. My disagreement with Murray Rothbard on his assessment of Franklin, as well as Adam Smith, does not diminish my admiration of Rothbard’s tremendous contributions to economics, including “America’s Great Depression,” “Man, Economy, and State,” “Power and Market,” and “What Has the Government Done to Our Money?”
10. Rothbard, “Conceived in Liberty” 4.359, 4.43–44.
11. Rothbard, “Conceived in Liberty” 3.218, 4.34–35
12. “Compleated Autobiography” 65, 120.
13. “Compleated Autobiography” 80.
14. Rothbard, “Conceived in Liberty” 4.232–33.
15. Cecil B. Currey, “The Franklin Legend,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction (Summer 1976) 143.
16. Cecil B. Currey, “Code Number 72: Ben Franklin, Patriot or Spy?” (Prentice Hall, 1972) 12, 266.
17. “Compleated Autobiography” 130–32.
18. “Compleated Autobiography” 26. Waldstreicher ignores this passage.
19. Carl Van Doren, “Benjamin Franklin” (Viking Press, 1938) 91.
20. Claude-Anne Lopez and Eugenia W. Herbert, “The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family” (Norton, 1975) 26–27.
21. “Compleated Autobiography” 162.
22. Quoted in “Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings,” ed. Kenneth Silverman (Penguin, 1986) 206.
23. Hugh Williamson, “What Is Sauce for a Goose Is Also Sauce for a Gander” (1764).
24. Robert Middlekauff, “Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies” (University of California Press, 1996) 115–16.
25. “Compleated Autobiography” 387.
26. “Compleated Autobiography” 290.
27. Bernard Fay, “Franklin, Apostle of Modern Times” (Little, Brown, 1929) 504.
28. Some libertarians are critical of Franklin for opposing the notorious “outlaw” John Wilkes, a defender of free speech who was imprisoned for libeling the king of England in 1768, and the “drunken mad mobs” supporting “Wilkes and Liberty.” This is another case of Franklin’s social conservatism before the American Revolution. Interestingly, after the war, Wilkes’ sister and mother came over to America and stayed at Franklin’s home in Philadelphia. See “The Compleated Autobiography” 59–62, 349.
29. “Compleated Autobiography” 292.
30. John Bogle, Introduction, “Benjamin Franklin: America’s First Entrepreneur,” by Blaine McCormick (Dallas: Entrepreneurial Press, 2005).
31. “Compleated Autobiography” 44–45.
Dr. James Willingham says
Was Franklin converted in his last years? He joined the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia where he is buried. that would require a profession of faith or so it would seem.
C Joe Hughes says
I believe Franklin is viewed much kinder than his actions earned.
Mark Skousen says
Really? What more would you have had the “Grandfather of America” do? He was an inventor, a diplomat, a journalist, a sage, a philosopher, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, a revolutionary, an abolitionist? Have you read any of the biographies of this great man?