The Magazine

Dr. Franklin's Remedy

Improvement, not transformation, in a practical world.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By JAMES SEATON
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Benjamin Franklin and

the Politics of Improvement

by Alan Houston

Yale, 336 pp., $35

Celebrated in popular culture, Benjamin Franklin has gotten short shrift from academics in recent decades, according to Alan Houston. In Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement he argues that Franklin has been neglected by historians and political scientists because he was "neither a 'classical republican' nor a 'Lockean liberal.'" Franklin, that is, did not base his political philosophy on Locke's theory of the social contract nor did he accept the guiding notion of what intellectual historians have come to call "classical republicanism," the idea that "a stable and successful polity rested on moral purity and selfless devotion to the commonwealth."

Houston suggests that the dominance of these two categories is explained not only by their explanatory value for the past but their popularity among academics as answers to our current dilemmas: "To some, the central task facing contemporary Americans is preserving the nation's liberal heritage; to others, only the revival of long-dormant republican ideals can return the polity to good health."

What Houston calls Franklin's "politics of improvement" lacks both the principled commitment to individual rights of Lockean liberalism and the appeal to traditional moral standards of classical republicanism. Instead, argues Houston, Franklin "spoke the language of improvement: of profit and gain, progress and perfection, increase and expansion, benefit and amelioration." His vocabulary, if not suited to making high-minded moral claims, was an effective tool in persuading groups and individuals to work together in public or private enterprises.

Franklin spoke "the language of commercial society," and Houston stakes his claim to Franklin's relevance on "the simple fact that he and we live in commercial societies, in which cooperative relationships are (or ought to be) based on the ability of men and women to respond to each other's needs and interests."

There is something refreshing about a professor of political science, especially one from the University of California at San Diego where
Herbert Marcuse once held forth, declaring without evident dismay that it is a "simple fact" that we, like Franklin, live in a "commercial society." Houston commends a Benjamin Franklin who wasted no time lamenting the supremacy of commerce in his world but instead "focused his attention on the possibilities and pitfalls of that world."

Houston's Franklin provides little guidance for those who wish to leave "commercial society" behind in search of a world where there are no more rich or poor. If, however, we are interested in learning how to negotiate and even improve the world we actually live in, then Franklin's relevance is clear: "As long as we share [the world of commercial society] with him, we will find meaning in his ideas and actions."

Houston acknowledges Franklin's reputation has suffered not only from academic neglect but also from the disdain of literary types such as Nathaniel
Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and D. H. Lawrence. Hawthorne, anticipating Max Weber, found that Franklin's Poor Richard was "all about getting money, or saving it." Twain described Poor Richard's advice as "inspired flights of malignity" against boys, offering as a prime example the maxim Early to bed and early to rise / Make a man healthy, wealthy and wise: "As if it were any object to a boy to be healthy and wealthy and wise on such terms."
Lawrence sneered at Franklin's view of the self and his plans for self-improvement: "The soul of man is a vast forest, and all Benjamin intended was a neat back garden."

Houston does not mention Van Wyck Brooks's designation of Franklin as the quintessential American "lowbrow" whose focus on "unmitigated practice" was matched by the "unmitigated theory" of Jonathan Edwards, Brooks's quintessential "highbrow." In his influential manifesto America's Coming-of-Age (1915), Brooks argued that Franklin and Edwards between them had shaped a culture in which theory and practice remained walled off from one another.