The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin
Gordon S. Wood
From the most respected chronicler of the early days of the Republic—and winner of both the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes—comes a landmark work that rescues Benjamin Franklin from a mythology that has blinded generations of Americans to the man he really was and makes sense of aspects of his life and career that would have otherwise remained mysterious. In place of the genial polymath, self-improver, and quintessential American, Gordon S. Wood reveals a figure much more ambiguous and complex—and much more interesting. Charting the passage of Franklin’s life and reputation from relative popular indifference (his death, while the occasion for mass mourning in France, was widely ignored in America) to posthumous glory, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin sheds invaluable light on the emergence of our country’s idea of itself.
of New York. When he had his portrait painted, he had the artist insert a profile of Franklin in it. The experience of Thomas Mellon, the founder of the great banking fortune, was similar. In 1828 fourteen-year-old Mellon had thought he would remain a farmer like his father on their modest farm outside of Pittsburgh. But reading Franklin’s Autobiography and Poor Richard’s sayings became “the turning point” of his life. “For so poor and friendless a boy to be able to become a merchant or a
duplicating his particular experiences.106 THE MYTH OF AMERICAN NATIONHOOD The men who wrote these memoirs were successful businessmen who were proud of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. And cumulatively the stories they told, along with the numerous editions of Franklin’s Autobiography, had an inordinate influence on America’s understanding of itself. Out of these repeated messages of striving and success not only did ordinary northern white men acquire a heightened
Revolutionary fervor, ref-1, ref-2n5 on Franklin’s theory of colds, ref-1 on Frenchwomen and Franklin, ref-1 on gentlemen and commoners, ref-1, ref-2, ref-3n51, ref-4n69 on Anne-Catherine Helvétius, ref-1 on Hutchinson, ref-1 and Izard on Franklin, ref-1n81 as jealous of Franklin and Washington, ref-1 marriage of, ref-1, ref-2 and Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, ref-1, ref-2 missions to France of, ref-1 in negotiations with Howe, ref-1 and Pennsylvania constitution, ref-1, ref-2
beginning Franklin had sought to give William every advantage that he had lacked as a boy. Instead of being taken out of school after only two years, William was sent to the best schools in Philadelphia. William did not have to borrow books or learn a trade. It was clear at the outset that William would be a gentleman who would never have to work for a living with his hands. If it was inevitable that Franklin would take his son with him to London, it was equally inevitable that he would leave
Adams noted, Frenchwomen had “an unaccountable passion for old age.”19 Franklin had spent all but three and a half years out of the previous twenty-seven years abroad, the last eight years in France. “I am here among a People that love and respect me, a most amiable Nation to live with,” he wrote in 1784, “and perhaps I may conclude to die among them; for my Friends in America are dying off one after another, and I have been so long abroad that I should now be almost a Stranger in my own