6..0 Benjamin Franklin: the Charismatic Privatist Fixer-Upper

Franklin was the first major colonial leader who publicly explored the feasibility for the colonies (1) to unite in common action, and (2) to formally embrace limited forms of autonomy within the newly emerging British imperial system. He did this ostensibly as Deputy North  American Postmaster General (an imperial office). In this modules, and modules which focus upon Franklin’s role in Pennsylvania politics and policy-making, we will see quite another Franklin. In these modules he is no John the Baptist; his impact is to lead aggressively in pushing Pennsylvania and the Imperial decision-makers to terminate the Penn sole proprietorship in favor of appointing a Crown-appointed royal governor.

This goes against the colonial grain, as the other colonies were advocating for stronger legislatures and a weakened royal governor–colonial autonomy. Why the dichotomy? Franklin, first and foremost was a businessman in politics, and from his perspective thirteen often conflicting colonies precluded any real intercolonial trade, and stood in the way of effective defense and expansion into the American interior. Conversely, the arbitrariness of the Penn Frame and the family’s decision making priorities similarly impeded the economic growth of the province. That his advocacy of inter-colonial trade and shared policy action was contradictory to his desire to replace Penn Proprietary with a royal governor I will not argue. Franklin himself, at the last moment, became a strong proponent for American independence, but the forces and many of his Pennsylvania allies did not “drift to independence”, and in 1775 and 1776< Pennsylvania, the home of the Continental Congresses, was arguably about the last “state” willing to climb on board. It would take a “coup” led by outsiders–assisted by Franklin–to overthrow the Pennsylvania legislature.

Contemporary Americans are more likely to think of Franklin as a scientist-experimenter than a businessman. In the 1750’s so did Franklin and many/most of his contemporaries. He had in 1748 retired from his printing business (although it continued to provide his his daily paycheck) and had gravitated to science and experimentation. His success in that venture earned him international repute and a sort of celebrity status abroad and in Philadelphia. Lest we forget, however, Franklin spent more than thirty years as a full-time printer, built a printing business that extended to several other colonies, and was a leader in Pennsylvania. He was a wealthy man, and after 1750 was quite interested in business other than printing: venture capital and most critically western land speculation. He thought as a businessman, an early mercantilist-capitalist to be sure, but like Washington the line between business, personal profit and public action was not as clearly drawn as it is today. Conflict of interest, and nepotism, infested his political-policy decisions, and his fight with John/Thomas Penn had overtones of pique and personal affronts–not to mention policy differences that cost Franklin profits. Franklin entered Pennsylvania politics after 1748 (admittedly a fly on its walls as early as the 1730’s). Describing his motivation during the post-1748 period, Franklin saw it as a unceasing intrusion  into “philosophical studies and amusements” that he planned for his post-printing early retirement:

I preceded in my electrical experiments with great alacrity, but the publick, now considering me as a man of leisure, laid hold of me for their purposes, every part of our civil government, and almost at the same time, imposing some duty on me [99] Joseph E. Illick, Colonial Pennsylvania: a History (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), p. 196.

Franklin, a generation older than Washington, was more the politician by far than Washington. Both were successful in business, and both carried those skills and resources into their political lives. Franklin was more natural and effective, and comfortable, in politics than Washington ever was. Amazingly, however, given their personalities, Washington (aloof and humorless) proved the more charismatic, yet the reader ought to sense Franklin, the Privatist man on a white horse, owed much of his power and electoral success to his charismatic appeal to the general public, and especially to Philadelphia elites. In the late 1740’s Franklin played his version of the Roman Cincinnatus (as Washington did later), arriving in the nick of time to save Philadelphia-Pennsylvania from political stalemate and foreign invasion. That story will be told in this module. He had involved himself earlier in politics, for personal profit, but as an economic thinker as well. As a newspaper editor with an opinion page he had throughout his life commented on issues and politics, and like Will Rogers and Mark Twain, his various personae demonstrated his aptitude for journalistic intervention.

So what do I see Franklin offers this history?

  1. As an outsider, sort of, to the Quaker political culture that dominated the Pennsylvania policy system, Franklin was a political wildcatter approached matters differently than his Quaker fellow politicians. He was an political activist–Quakers being much more inclined to to withdraw from public life–and was sufficiently a Yankee Puritan to be willing to use government for larger ends, which was distinctly against the grain of Quakerism and the Penn Frames of Government. His activism seemed framed around specific issues and points of view, and unlike the few Quakers that ventured into political life, he could never be thought of as a professional politician, whose vision included a succession of public offices and institutional dominance. While not lacking in ego or power drive, there are few politicians I know that would be willing to leave the active political scene and go to London on a mission to remove the Proprietorship. Predictably much happened, not all to his interests, while he was gone. One has a hard time seeing Lyndon Johnson doing the same if he were given the opportunity.
  2. As to Franklin being an economic/community developer, I think the case can be made he was. We can see in Franklin’s activities and initiatives the use of structures, processes, and institutions associated with economic/community development. He was an innovator, and while he may or may not have the the “first”, he was both prominent and impactful,. His use of the “junto” is especially interesting to me. I think of it as a colonial forerunner of a not-for-profit organization. In his initial advocacy for paper money Franklin advocates for a government Loan Office as opposed to the Penn semi-private Proprietary Loan Office. The former  paper money through loans to individuals and businesses using a legislative appropriation that must be paid off at a predetermined year. This is an antecedent of a public revolving loan fund–used to achieve particular policy ends, but foremost to serve as a currency. a bill of credit which supplied the funds for the loan “fund”, is a colonial forerunner of our present-day tax exempt bond. Finally, as is the wont of politicians and activists from the budding Midlands political culture, we can see a strong willingness to engage in initiatives that cross over into community development: hospital, university, library to name a few. Finally, as the reader shall see, he will not meet the standards of contemporary left activists; his view of Indian relations, land jobbing, German immigrants, and his venture into slave-holding–and nepotism– no doubt deserve a monument  or two be toppled.

Finally, in a point to be developed in a later module, Franklin in his role as a private Cincinnatus-like “calvary to the rescue” charismatic hero, will be an element of the Midlands political culture which really takes shape after his 1751 appearance in politics. The argument advanced thus far is Pennsylvania’s purely Quaker political culture was almost “anti-political”, certainly anti-activist government with a very strong tilt to individualism and private initiative. Political stalemate, to the point of paralysis, was the usual fate from controversial issues, perceived as anti-Quaker (pacifism and oath-taking), and as we have discovered, stalemate and paralysis did little to affect the popularity and electoral success of the dominant Quaker Party. If Penn’s Frames of Government lasted so long–a hundred years–is testimony that fractured and fragmented low tax government, so long as it allowed individuals to access its debate readily, was all that abhorrent to the average Quaker voter. As we shall discover, the way out of stasis and paralysis was the entry of a private Cincinnatus non politician to find a solution. Franklin will not be the last of these cavalry to the rescue charismatic heroes.

Brief Introduction and Characterization–AN INSERT INTO THE BOOK–NOT PART OF THE MODULE

Franklin’s background was urban. Raised and lived  thru his early teenage years in Boston, he was trained as a printer. an “artisan”, who learned his trade through a family apprenticeship. Born in 1706, twenty-five years before the other “old man” Founding Father, George Washington. It is not clear the two ever met before 1774, although they certainly knew of each other. Unalike in temperament, they shared several important characteristics, not the least each was very successful businessmen, and that included serious ventures in western land development. Franklin, during the French and Indian War, was at General Braddock’s HQ in 1755, and may have seen Washington there, but I am not aware they actually met. Upon their meeting at the First Continental Congress, they did become sincere “friends” as fellow political leaders of the Revolution.

Franklin had some formal schooling, unlike Washington, but both were principally self-educated. That makes Franklin’s intellectual and educational achievements all the more impressive. He functioned very well in the worlds of science-experiment, economic theory, and political-philosophical thought. Franklin by the time he seriously entered Pennsylvania professional politics after 1748, Franklin was already well-known in Philadelphia and in London, by the time he lived in-Paris (1776) he was a bit of celebrity. At that point, he was not thought of as a businessman–and his career as a Founding Father did little to sharpen that image. That is unfortunate for this history. For those who read in detail about Franklin, one would easily describe him as a Renaissance Man, but one could also use the word “gadfly”–a brilliant and creative gadfly–but a person who wandered into a vast number of experiences and investigations. His involvement in business made him money, but, and he seldom missed an opportunity to make money (exception being he never filed for a patent so his inventions and experiments were available to all). His in depth involvement in his printing business, however, did not involve him the intimate details of management or printing mechanics or invention. He arguably established a cross-colony network of printing/newspapers that could be considered America’s first chain newspaper, but in operation he always shared responsibilities with an editor that handled the day-to-day.

Renaissance man, proto-scientist-intellectual, Franklin in this history is an institution-builder, an activist whose constituency is Philadelphia’s elite. We cannot forget his generation; he was twenty-five years older than most of his Founding Father contemporaries. Certainly,he was of the Enlightenment without doubt, but he did not “learn” his enlightenment from books like Jefferson; rather it came from his own inner drive and light. Franklin did what he did, instinctively, and from his experience he developed his concepts. Franklin overlapped Washington in many skill sets, values, beliefs and priorities–but the two are different in key aspects, an example Franklin could overlap Washington’s developing Mainstream ED business and western development growth. But Franklin could do business with Sam Adams-Thomas Young, and his policy instincts pull him in directions that Benjamin Rush and Coxe were to follow. Whether the latter was his Yankee Puritan upbring, or socialization within the Quaker-inspired Philadelphia elite I do not know, but Franklin unlike Washington could deal with the “people” aspect of economic development–if only through elites, not as a agitator. His writings were his catalyst,-and his medium was working through elites for social-political ends. Franklin was a renaissance man of economic development.

All of which brings me to add a layer to political culture, a brief insight into the culture of political elites. Thus far I have not gone out of my way to add meat to the bones of the political cultures of elites. Other than asserting there are at least two levels of political culture, a mass-based political culture, and a culture of elites. I don’t think I overdid my discussion of Tidewater political culture in terms of its being an elite-based political culture–never a mass-based one (which BTW will be a major distinction between Tidewater and Deep South political cultures)–but in the end I hope the reader captured its core argument that it was the culture of Virginia’s planter oligopoly, and not the overarching culture of Virginians. In Quaker political culture, especially after it integrated the German into it, the Midlands culture is the Tidewater antithesis, the anti-elite average man political culture.


First his early Pennsylvania years were as a start up printer, entrepreneur and arguably Philadelphia’s foremost commentator of human affairs, even humor. His newspaper complex, the Gazette and his printing business, were the core of his wealth and success. He enlarged that business to include partnerships in many other colonial big cities, and hence exhibited his extraordinary ability to think beyond a colonial border, in this case to a multi-colony marketplace. He traveled often, abroad (living in London as a printer apprentice for several years–a story that involves Pennsylvania’s Governor Keith), and networking was natural. Unlike many Philadelphia entrepreneurs, Franklin seldom stuck to his own business “knitting” and crossed occupations, something that being a newspaper editor facilitated. He always dabbled in political commentary, and Poor Richard reminds me much of Samuel Clemens characters. Upon his venture into politics, Franklin was a middle-age forties.

In Franklin we see yet another (Free) Mason. He would be Pennsylvania’s Grand Master. Freemasonry played a core role in the elite culture that framed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitutional Convention and at least until 1792, the Federalists. Washington too was a Freemason. When he laid the cornerstone for the capitol building, he included masonic materials, and as we mentioned in his discussion, the masons promoted his  Washington D.C. land sales with a parade and fireworks. Franklin also used Freemason contacts as his business Rolodex. The key to freemasonry, and federalist elite politics, however, is much less the sharing of common viewpoints, shared system of beliefs or anything of the sort. Masons would be both federalists and anti-federalists–but with few exceptions they were also elites supporting American independence. The Indians of the Boston Tea Party, including Revere, changed into Indian garb at the Masonic Lodge. Masons were the common association meeting ground of colonial, anti-British elites; by 1800 there was an estimated 350 active masons lodges, and they were found in every colony, and certainly in urban centers of any size.

Washington used the Masons for his land development business; Franklin was way more eclectic. He used them to forge his juntos. In France he joined a Parisian Lodge; while in London he also joined a lodge. He became a freemason in 1731 (?) and was Pennsylvania’s Grand Master by 1735. In 1752 he was placed on a committee to build the first Lodge Building (in Philadelphia) in the United States. In any event, freemasons played a large role in the development of a colonial American federalist elite. It was an elite version of the more populist Sons of Liberty. Franklin was pretty explicit in his motivation for joining–and I include it here to support my inclusion of freemasonry as a legitimate association that played a great role in coalition-formation, and less a role in policy-making. The below quote is taken from Franklin’s letter to his mother–who was not happy with his joining freemasonry:

I assured her that they are in general a very harmless sort of people, and have no principles or practices that are inconsistent with religion and good manners. He respected his Brothers for their peaceful ways, strong morals and dedication to self-betterment [who believed] in the Great Father [Deism] and worked towards a universal Brotherhood of all mankind [99] John Dicklie, the Craft (Public Affairs, 2020); https://freemasoninformation.com/2015/01/illustrious-brother-ben-franklin-and-freemasonry/; https:/www.azuremasada.org/founding-fathers; http://projects.leadr.msu.edu/uniontodisunion/exhibits/show/freemasons-and-the-murder-of-w/freemason-and-the-founding-fat;  https://www.masonicworld.com/education/articles/THE-IMPACT-OF-MASONRY-ON-THE-CONSTITUTIONAL-CONVENTIONhm;  https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/freemasonry/freemasonry-in-colonial-america/.

There is a point to this seeming Freemason digression: Franklin was not a Quaker, and he was not especially sympathetic to many Quaker values, and not comfortable with much of the politics and political values that he saw in Quaker Pennsylvania. I believe his tendencies display more Yankee-Puritan values and inclinations, but he fit in very well at Philadelphia coffee houses, and in its elite society. Like many a Westerner today, not being native born may have set him apart, but did not impair his integration into the Philadelphia way of life. His business career was his own and he forged meaningful friendships with many a Quaker, almost all the powerful ones, but his relationship with the Penn Proprietary, and the Penn family were, let’s say, “complicated”-antagonistic on a good day, and totally opposed enemies on a normal day. As time went on, the latter tone was victorious.

There has been much discussion by Pennsylvania historians regarding Franklin’s motivation for entering 1751 political life as an “independent” allied with the Quaker Party. Franklin did “dance to his own music”, and was not a tool of the Quaker Party leadership, and that he developed his own network (Joseph Galloway being the most significant) is undoubtedly correct. I will contend that Franklin’s chief source of electoral-relevant power was his charismatic hold on Pennsylvania elites and the general electorate. That power relationship was personal and based on Franklin’s non political reputation and experience, and no doubt an assessment of his character and personality which was possible to develop in what today would be thought of as “small town or coffee house politics”. His natural tendency was not to burn bridges but to maintain some semblance of a relationship.

As I insinuated in the above paragraph Franklin’s own positions, such as his feelings about the Germans, were not congruent with Quaker culture nor Quaker Party official tolerance. In that regard, Franklin, if anything, more reflected the attitudes and dispositions of the Philadelphia Anglican commercial elite and Pennsylvania entrepreneurial community. That from time to time we can see a egalitarian tendency in his politics–and definitely will see it after 1774, he was never really an egalitarian in his politics before then. His personal abolitionism came late in life, and even in these years, Franklin owned household slaves. Not surprisingly then, we find in Franklin that his politics were complex, changeable, but were comfortably within the British Whig traditions–until of course 1774 or so. We also shall see characteristic of the temper of the times that public-private  conflict of interest was blurred, and that Franklin was never adverse to using public action for personal benefit. In this regard he is no saint, nor is he an egregious sinner. His late 1760’s involvement in western land development, a story we shall tell, is amazing (at least to me), and is every bit as self-serving as Washington’s use of Dinwiddie’s veteran land grants. As we have already discovered, Franklin had no qualms in advocating the use of paper money, and then when successful, accepting a government contract to print it. Economic development brings out the best in all of us.

Early concerns of Franklin by Pennsylvania historians centered around his antipathy to the Penn Proprietary. It appears Franklin was drawn into political life in the late 1740’s by events and opportunities–not an obsession against the Penn sole proprietorship. Until 1755 or so, he did work with Thomas Penn and his key allies both on private projects like the hospital, but also in policy-making. [99] for a very detailed reconstruction of this question see James M. Hutson, “Benjamin Franklin and Pennsylvania Politics, 1751-1755: A Reappraisal” (the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 93, Issue 3, (July, 1969), pp. 313-15. That the highest levels of the Proprietary, while exhibiting some restraint publicly, did not hold Franklin in great regard privately suggests to me there was little going on behind the scenes. There is some evidence, in my modest opinion (sincere), that the antipathy deepened after the Paxton Brothers affair (1765), but the irreparable break was around 1755 (to be discussed in this module).

In any case, as we shall see in 1755 the break was as complete as one can imagine, as Franklin went to London to lobby Parliament, Privy Council and whoever was pertinent to replace the Proprietary with a royal governor. I take the position Franklin was never comfortable with the Proprietary, but as a businessman-politician always tended to maintain personal relationships and a balanced or moderate political relationship with as many of the rich and powerful Pennsylvania elites as he could. As we shall see in the module, Franklin in his pre-1755 years continued juggling his many “balls in the air”. He pursued a civic agenda during his period, a period where several of his Community Development initiatives consumed much attention. His experimentation and scientific endeavors also continued throughout the first half of the decade, and as we shall see his appointment as Deputy Postmaster General of North America really tore into his schedule, and diverted his attention. Franklin in this early period was not a full-time legislator–although as we see it also consumed much attention and time.