The Magazine

Lights of Philadelphia

Benjamin Franklin introduces the modern world to the New World.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By PATRICK ALLITT
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Benjamin Franklin is a biographer’s dream. Successful, long-lived, articulate, witty, and saucy, he wrote about nearly all his activities and left a well-marked documentary trail. He made such a vivid impression on his American, French, and British contemporaries that dozens of them wrote about him, too. No wonder new biographies of him have appeared in every decade since his death in 1790. Most are highly complimentary, depicting a hard-working and high-minded man—ingenious, patriotic, and unselfish. A handful of contrarians, notably Herman Melville, D. H. Lawrence, and a few Communists (who regarded him as the prototype capitalist personality), have taken against him; but they are very much the exception.

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Is there anything left to say about Franklin? In this profoundly likable new book, Jonathan Lyons—a member of the pro-Franklin faction—answers “Yes.” He singles out the practical groups and citizens’ organizations to which Franklin belonged, from his 20s right through until his 80s. What these groups had in common was a dedication to “useful knowledge.” After a flirtation with philosophical abstractions in his teens, says Lyons, Franklin came down to earth and became the first great American pragmatist. Knowledge for itself was never enough, in his view: It must be put to use.

Colonial Philadelphia was the biggest city on the Atlantic seaboard through most of the 18th century, but its intellectual life was pretty thin when the young Franklin came to town, after escaping from an unhappy apprenticeship at his brother’s printing works in Boston. A few years later, in 1727, after establishing a printing business of his own, Franklin founded the Junto, a club of his fellow workingmen, the “leather aprons” who play the leading role in Lyons’s tale. The group’s 12 members discussed new projects at weekly meetings, did Sunday calisthenics once each month, and hummed along to their club song.

From the 1720s to the 1770s, the Junto and many subsequent groups like it campaigned successfully for the introduction of paper money in Pennsylvania, along with the founding of a library, a fire department, a fire insurance scheme, a philosophical society, a city hospital, an academy, an improved plan for street repair, and a militia to protect the Quaker colony. This was the Enlightenment in action. Where some biographers have treated Franklin as a solitary genius, Lyons emphasizes the collaborative role of these organizations. Franklin was usually the leader, but many of the other leather aprons played important supporting roles.

The idea of these societies came from England. As a teenager on his first visit to London, Franklin had frequented the coffeehouses, many of which doubled as political or entrepreneurial discussion clubs. The era’s leading useful knowledge group was the Royal Society, founded in 1660. Its guiding principles were those of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who had sought to turn intellectual life away from the authority of the ancients—from theology and metaphysics—and toward a new unity of theory and practice. Among the Royal Society’s early luminaries were John Locke and William Penn; but its single brightest star was Sir Isaac Newton: physicist, mathematician, and hardworking head of the Royal Mint.

At first it seemed unlikely that the threadbare colonials could rival so lofty an organization as the Royal Society, but Franklin’s electrical experiments—one of which demonstrated that lightning is, in fact, electrical—and his invention of workable lightning conductors made a huge impression on the Royal Society. The group honored Franklin by making him the first American recipient of its annual Copley Medal, in 1753, and then gave him membership in the society itself, as did its French counterpart, the Académie des Sciences. For the rest of his life, Franklin was a scientific celebrity throughout Europe. 

Lyons introduces several of Franklin’s Pennsylvania contemporaries, members of the useful knowledge societies. One, John Bartram, a Quaker farmer’s son, blended scientific farming with botany. His experiments with crop rotations and fertilizers were decades ahead of their time, as was his research into the medicinal properties of plants. He undertook journeys to frontier districts in search of hitherto unknown plants. Among the European collectors who valued his specimens was the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. In one of many letters of praise and encouragement, Linnaeus described Bartram as “the greatest natural botanist in the world.” 

A second contemporary was Benjamin Rush, a pioneering doctor who later became surgeon-general of the Continental Army. Rush, too, was raised on a farm, but studied in Edinburgh, then home of Adam Smith and David Hume and one of the centers of Enlightenment education. Rush was an effective physician by the standards of his time, an ardent supporter of the Revolution, a foe of education in the classical languages, and a devotee of experimental research. He helped Thomas Paine find a publisher for the revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense (1776) that provoked the Declaration of Independence. 

David Rittenhouse was a third of these men, little known today, but as famous as Franklin during his lifetime. Another farmer’s son, he had such an enthusiasm for mathematics that he would chalk equations on his plow handles while following his horse up and down the furrows. He became an instrument maker and developed a reputation for crafting accurate clocks, barometers, and thermometers. His masterpiece, however, was an orrery, a working model of the solar system so accurate in its placement and rotation of the sun, planets, and moons that it could be used to chart their relative positions 5,000 years back into the past or forward into the future. It caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and set off a bidding war among covetous collectors. When, during the Revolution, Rittenhouse put his mind to such practical tasks as keeping the state solvent, Thomas Jefferson fretted that this genius’s talents were being wasted on mere politics.

The greatest moment for collaborative American science came in 1769, when the planet Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun. It had happened before, in 1761, and the leather aprons had done what they could to record it, though their experimental methods were imperfect and their readings inaccurate. Recognizing that there would be no second chance after 1769—or, at least, not for more than another century—they established dozens of observation posts and made sure their instruments were perfectly calibrated. Rittenhouse got so excited that, at the climactic moment, he fainted. Nevertheless, his teams made such accurate readings that their estimate of the Earth’s distance from the Sun has remained essentially unchanged since.

A few years after this event, the Revolution began. Lyons suggests that geographical remoteness between Great Britain and the colonies, a spirit of religious independence fostered by the Great Awakening, and pragmatic work done by the societies for useful knowledge all played a role in preparing the colonists to rebel. During the war itself, he believes, Americans exhibited the qualities Franklin had nurtured, showing themselves to be flexible, adaptable, and pragmatic.

This unity of theory and practice evolved into something of a national principle, one that emphasized the practical demands of the workshop, the powder mill, the battlefield, and the naval yard over the disciplined requirements of the classroom, or the unbending demands of scientific theory.

Though well written and full of interesting anecdotes, The Society for Useful Knowledge exaggerates Anglo-American antagonisms. Lyons, perhaps to create an enhanced sense of drama, or to anticipate the impending Revolution, declares periodically that the haughty British scientific elite looked down their noses at the humble Americans, and scanted their achievements. His own stories, however, contradict the claim: Occasional slights were offset by generous tributes to the Americans’ achievements. As Lyons admits, the British lionized Franklin. John Bartram’s 40-year correspondence with Peter Collinson, a London merchant and fellow botanist, certainly reveals moments of irritability on both sides, but is easily superseded by expressions of mutual esteem and gratitude. Collinson himself predicted a magnificent future for American science.

Eighteenth-century Britain was a class-bound society, but it too was brimming with hands-on societies of practical men. Lyons is wrong when he claims that America witnessed “the rise of an independent .  .  . artisan class, something lacking at the time in Europe.” Independent artisans in Britain jump-started the Industrial Revolution. Among their useful knowledge groups was the Lunar Society, whose best-known members were James Watt, who made crucial improvements to the Newcomen steam engine, and Josiah Wedgwood, the pioneer of industrial-scale pottery manufacture. They were as eager as Franklin and his circle to blend theory and practice. Indeed, Franklin himself visited the group twice, in 1758 and 1760, and corresponded regularly with some of its members. What Lyons shows, almost despite himself, is the essential similarity of British and American attempts to put good ideas to work.

A smaller fault is Lyons’s claim that among the later achievements of America’s practical men was the invention of the steam locomotive. In fact, it was developed first by Richard Trevithick of Cornwall, England, and was then perfected by George and Robert Stephenson, a father and son team from Northumberland. Their railway between Liverpool and Manchester was the world’s first to achieve average speeds of 30 miles per hour. These caveats aside, however, Lyons has done a fine job in giving us a glimpse not just of Franklin the virtuoso but of the world in which he lived and worked, his contemporaries, and their enthusiasms.

Patrick Allitt, professor of history at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History.