Alan Houston. Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement. Yale University. 336 Pages. $35.00
During the Constitutional ratification debates of 1787–88, the pseudonymous “Federal Farmer,” an anti-Federalist assumed to be Richard Henry Lee, published a letter criticizing the representational scheme of the proposed Constitution and arguing instead for a delegate system based on class interests. Each class, he proposed, should be represented in the national legislature in proportion to its numbers in society. Although the feuding classes “mutually depend on each other,” their differences nonetheless run deep: “Men of the [aristocratic] class associate more extensively, have a high sense of honor, possess abilities, ambition, and general knowledge,” the Federal Farmer wrote. “Men of the [democratic] class are not so much used to combining great objects; they possess less ambition, and a larger share of honesty. . . .” The Federal Farmer’s democratic class was suffering from what we might today call a lack of social capital.
If the Federal Farmer had plumbed the American experience of only a generation before, he would have discovered that Benjamin Franklin had applied himself to this very problem. Arriving penniless in Philadelphia in 1723 as an escaped apprentice, Franklin found himself in a vibrant commercial city that was then the British trade hub of the Eastern Seaboard. “The youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back,” as he described himself in his Autobiography, he arrived lacking connections, resources, even an education. But Franklin differed from the poor, hard-working men of the Federal Farmer’s “democratic class” in one important respect — he was not content to remain one of them.
Social mobility is a familiar enough clarion call for the 21st century, but the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps was hardly laudable in the 18th. Even in the flatter social world of the American colonies, self-made men were objects of suspicion in a society still largely married to traditional European hierarchies rooted in blood and land. Even a very rich merchant or mechanic was a lowly creature, bereft of the appropriate education and attendant civic virtue required of someone in his position. Mobility threatened to undermine the stability of traditional social organizations by giving vast power to men who were not prepared by education and habit to take up such responsibility.
Still, Franklin’s ambition was not altogether unsuited to the historical moment. Europe in the mid-18th century was in the midst of a commercial revolution. The market was transformed from a demarcated place in the center of town where people exchanged tangible goods to an abstraction located in the collective imagination of its participants, whose commodities had come to be equally intangible. With the widespread employment of credit, it became possible to trade shares of stock, purchase bonds against the national debt, and speculate in unseen land — all on the basis of unbacked currencies which depended only on public faith for their value. There were instant fortunes to be made in the employment of these new financial instruments and, as the South Sea Bubble demonstrated in 1720, there was great wealth to be obliterated just as quickly.
While this new economy provided fodder for thinkers like Adam Smith, it was not without its detractors. Edmund Burke decried the new “monied interest” that commodified such once-permanent institutions as land, created money out of money, and allowed men to achieve rapid wealth, culminating finally in the French Revolution, which he excoriated as an effort to “found a commonwealth upon gaming.” Such criticisms were also leveled by republican critics of commerce, who held up the independent farmer-soldier as the model citizen and feared that commercial indebtedness would compromise his virtue, undermine the stability of the republic, and turn the people into the de facto slaves of a handful of creditors.
Franklin read and agreed with thinkers on all sides of this question, and his particular genius consisted in forging a heterodox political approach to modernity — a distinctly American approach — that both accepted commerce and guarded virtue against its predations. As Alan Houston, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, shows in his excellent new history, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement, Franklin attempted to chart a course between the competing ideologies of republicanism, which understood politics in terms of virtue and corruption, and liberalism, which understood politics as a contract rooted in pre-political individual rights. “Franklin framed his arguments using a quite different vocabulary,” Houston writes, “He spoke the language of improvement: of profit and gain, progress and perfection, benefit and amelioration. Utility was the goal, sociability the means. This was the language of commercial society.”
Starting associations dedicated to what he termed “mutual improvement” would be the backbone of Franklin’s public career. He started the Junto, part social club, part debate society, in 1726. It was organized to demonstrate to the industrious tradesmen of Philadelphia — about whom one might say, borrowing a phrase from the Federal Farmer, they were “not so much used to combining great objects” — how to network with each other and undertake public projects. Its members were, like Franklin, small-time merchants and mechanics looking to get ahead. The Junto provided the social capital for him to launch many of his later ventures, including the first lending library, a fire company and public hospital that were the first in the colonies, the first university in Pennsylvania, the colony’s first militia, and Philadelphia’s night-watch system. Not the least of his new associations, of course, was the United States itself, in whose foundation he played a major role. “Voluntary associations are an integral part of commercial societies, a crucial mechanism for negotiating relationships of interest, taste, and value,” Houston writes. “They meet needs and provide important settings within which habits are formed, characters are shaped, and identities are confirmed.” Franklin’s political philosophy was always more of a practice than a theory, justifying itself in the tangible benefits it brought to people’s lives, and it was these associations that embodied its principles and its advantages.
These advantages were aimed first and foremost at men of middling social stature. In 1728, he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” The only half-serious project was to consist of delineating 13 virtues that constituted “moral perfection” and charting his progress in attaining each in a daily notebook. His virtues were a variation on traditional Puritan virtues, downplaying the heroic virtues, such as courage and prudence, that are conducive to military republics while emphasizing those favorable to financial success and sociability, such as frugality and sincerity. These virtues are, not coincidentally, more attainable by the average person than the courage of an Achilles or the piety of a St. Peter. Franklin even included a handy chart to help his readers replicate his training regimen.
This odd approach to “moral perfection” stems from a kind of egalitarian impulse to put virtue within reach of almost everyone. It was clear to Franklin that political power in a commercial republic was diffuse, and if the right to rule was not going to be determined by wealth or by God, it would be necessary to redefine virtue so that it could be more broadly achieved. Without the active cooperation of citizens, such basic services as street sweeping and education would never be provided, and everyone would be worse off. It was necessary, in short, to both prepare the middling men of colonial America for public service, and to persuade them to enter it.
Although Franklin once expressed the ambiguously utopian desire to have been “born two or three centuries hence,” so that he might have the opportunity to witness the progress of science to the point that “we may then be able to avoid diseases, and live as long as the patriarchs in Genesis,” he nonetheless acted on the belief that political societies would always be shot through with contradictions and inconsistencies, so there would always be room for improvement. “Improvement — change for the better — need not imply a taste for uniformity or a naïve faith in reason and method,” Houston writes. “It was less a philosophical doctrine or a political program than a set of priorities applied in comparative and contextual judgments.” Precisely because human life would always be plagued by problems and improvement had no end, Franklin saw the necessity of building the social capital of the “democratic class” in a republic where nothing but the principle of mutual benefit was available to serve as a basis for public service.
When membership requests to the Junto proliferated, Franklin suggested that current members should “form a subordinate Club” rather than expand the existing Junto. It was a move in favor of decentralization over hierarchy. Franklin’s plan was formulated to facilitate the greater “Promotion of our particular Interests in Business by more extensive recommendations; and the Increase of our Influence in public Affairs & our Power of doing Good by spreading thro’ the several Clubs the Sentiments of the Junto.”
This impulse to refuse ownership in favor of allowing members to govern themselves spoke directly to Franklin’s concern that the experience of leadership and public action be as widely diffused among the citizens as possible. Such experience would be invaluable in a commercial republic where no single individual could have the time or resources to govern all, so all would have to actively perform their share of government in order to realize the ideal of the free republic. Just as he refused to take out patents on his inventions, claiming that it would obstruct the principle of mutual benefit (“as we enjoy great Advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours ”), so too he preferred to put up his organizations and ideas for imitation and improvement by others than to control them himself.
In 1747, Franklin organized Pennsylvania’s first militia: the Association. Militias were common in the colonies at the time, but they were, for the most part, structured like traditional European armies, emphasizing hierarchy and discipline and relying on compulsory enrollment and government funding. Franklin, however, organized the Association as though it were any other civil mutual benefit society. Houston writes that, “Men did not ‘enlist’ in the Association. They were ‘subscribers,’ just as the members of the Library Company and the Fire Company were ‘subscribers.’ This was the language of a joint-stock company.” Moreover, Franklin allowed the militia men to elect their own officers and barred corporal and financial punishments for misbehavior unless imposed by mutual agreement of an individual company. When the Quaker government of the colony refused to authorize the purchase of cannon or powder, Franklin organized a lottery to cover the cost. The entire project was an exercise in applying the precepts of commerce to defense, and it demonstrated the way that commercial self-interest could be channeled into citizenship.
Houston emphasizes that Franklin’s use of self-interest as a goad to civic action must be distinguished from the kind of narrow self-interest that critics of capitalism have accused free markets of fostering. Franklin accepted that a degree of self-interest would govern men’s choices about how to render themselves useful to the republic. Although self-interest was anathema to classical republicans, for Franklin, the fact remained that every useful and good undertaking must serve someone’s interest, because if it benefited no one, it could hardly be said to be useful or good at all. “Few in public affairs act from a meer view of the good of their country, whatever they may pretend; and tho’ their acting brings real good to their country, yet men primarily considered that their own and their country’s best interest was united, and did not act from a principle of benevolence,” he wrote in his Autobiography.
The flipside of mutual benefit is mutual need. Unlike later thinkers who would theorize about equality rooted in nature, capacity, or moral worth, Franklin perceived an equality of need among commercial citizens and modified traditional republicanism accordingly. “Franklin gutted the concept of the body politic of these traditional meanings and stuffed it with new ideas,” Houston writes. “Unity was a function of interdependence, not hierarchy . . . Vulnerability, not martial virtue, defined ‘the middling People.’” In Franklin’s thinking, the goal of drawing the private man out into public life and civic service could be achieved by showing him his need of others. And shared vulnerability engendered the social camaraderie that could replace hierarchical obligation as the glue of society.
What is novel about Franklin’s formulation of virtue is not that it praises wealth, but that it assumes none. Aristotle ruled out the possibility of making virtuous men out of those who were born into slavery or poverty. Franklin, however, saw how it might be possible to reorient virtue around the market without lapsing into individualism. “Commerce,” Houston writes, “involved much more than buying and selling . . . [It] provided a model for cooperative social relations based on the power of needs and interests: humans join together because they are useful to each other. The theory of commercial society provided a vibrant alternative to accounts of cooperation based on moral virtue . . . or mortal fear.”
There was nothing systematic about Franklin’s philosophy; in fact, its basis was an extraordinary flexibility that abhorred absolutes. As a young man, after several failed attempts to define a moral system by which to live, Franklin abandoned metaphysics entirely, claiming in a letter to a friend that, “The great Uncertainty I have found in that Science, the wide Contradictions and endless Disputes it affords; and the horrible Errors I led my self into when a young Man . . . have given me a Disgust to what I was once extreamly fond of.” Historians have had great difficulty pinning down Franklin’s elusive religious views, but suffice it to say that, for most of his life, they lay somewhere between deism and outright atheism. How then to ground his ideas about virtue?
Houston picks up on a story from the Autobiography that illustrates perfectly how Franklin managed to formulate his unphilosophical, unsystematic philosophical system. When he was 16, after reading Thomas Tryon, who advocated kindness to animals, Franklin became a vegetarian. This lifestyle being highly unpopular in the 18th century, Franklin had a great deal of difficulty maintaining his commitment, but managed to do so until, during his passage from Boston to Philadelphia, his boat was caught in a storm and the passengers forced to land on a beach for the night. They caught fish and Franklin, sorely tempted by the cod roasting over the fire, gave in and ate with the others. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do,” he wrote. Franklin makes light of his weakness of will over the fish incident, but he does not rank it among his “errata.” Doctrines are nice when you can afford them, but more important is the ability to be flexible and to be sociable — without other people, you are lost, doctrines and all.
The “reasonable Creature” Franklin jokes about is a standard trope of Enlightenment rationalism, and Houston is careful to distinguish Franklin’s politics of improvement from the Baconian ideal of relieving man’s estate through science, or the later progressive faith in a world constantly moving towards social perfection. Franklin’s politics were aimed at addressing the immediate problems of a community: educating children, caring for the sick, establishing young craftsmen in business, even something as seemingly insignificant as lighting city streets at night.
Franklin’s improvement has no final end or utopian vision. He sought to establish self-sustaining institutions, but he recognized that the needs they served would change, and so institutions must change in turn. The problems we face change over time and place, and solutions to some may create novel problems. Franklin worked diligently in 1754 to strengthen political ties between the American colonies, believing that colonial union would provide better protection against the French and the Indians threatening the inland frontier. His aim was never to foment an independence movement, but one of the unintended consequences of his efforts was a template for revolution.
It was this inability to predict where civic action might lead that demonstrated the limitations to progress as conceived by Bacon or stricter utilitarian thinkers. Houston points out that “One of the key ideas developed by eighteenth century theorists of commercial society was that intentions and outcomes were not necessarily correlated . . . Closely linked to this emphasis on the unintended consequences of our actions was a move away from thinking about human character in terms of a single, unified structure. Mirroring the complexity of the social world was the belief that the self was ‘an adulterated compound, a heap of contradictions.’”
Forty years after Benjamin Franklin’s death, Alexis de Tocqueville landed in America and discovered a vast, friendly, associative, rabidly commercial society. Houston is not the first to note how odd it is that Tocqueville never credits Franklin in his account. But Franklin’s politics of improvement justify themselves primarily in action — they work quietly and their effects accumulate to materially improve people’s lives, promote friendliness and accord between citizens, and elevate heroes and leaders without trampling on everyone else. Even as the Federal Farmer described a society of calcified and constantly warring classes, Richard Henry Lee himself was a member of the Continental Congress and the U.S. Senate, suggesting that combining for mutual benefit was not incompatible with his Anti-Federalist views. The adoption of Franklin’s ideas and modes of thought took root below the threshold of explicit doctrine. After all, resenting the established elite in Washington has never prevented anyone from helping his neighbor put out a fire.
The strength of Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement lies in Houston’s adeptness at tying together the importance of commerce, association, and sociability in Franklin’s thought. The book is also full of winding efforts to trace Franklin’s influence on modern thinkers like William Godwin and Charles Darwin, and to locate his interests in the wider world of 18th-century Atlantic society, but these instances often distract from the heart of Houston’s effort to elevate Franklin as a model for the governance of commercial societies.
Houston offers Franklin’s politics of improvement as a resolution not only to the academic conflict of the past 30 years between the liberal and republican schools of 18th-century historiography, but also, more obliquely, to the political polarization of contemporary American society. If, like Franklin, we could put off fighting bitter public-policy battles over questions of abstract moral principle and instead dedicate ourselves to joining together and incentivizing undertakings to improve our immediate situations, then maybe we could return to the relatively harmonious prosperity of the early republic.
But commercial republicanism as Franklin envisioned it is averse to conflict — of the traditional military kind to a lesser extent than the new ideological strain that developed in France during Franklin’s life. Houston’s chapter on the militia is an answer to the criticism that commercial republics can’t defend themselves against physical attack, but it doesn’t address the increasingly urgent problem of ideological warfare.
Because the politics of improvement are fundamentally anti-dogmatic and anti-metaphysical, they contain no principled defense against sharply competing ideals. They depend on a sufficiently broad majority that believes that the convenience of indoor plumbing and credit cards is preferable to any abstract ideal over which a revolution might start. So far, in the U.S., one could say the center has held, but unsteadily and maybe not at so small a cost as Franklin would have thought.