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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Houston, noting that most of the critics focus focus on Poor Richard's Almanac and Franklin's autobiography, answers that Franklin is not to be identified with "Poor Richard," nor can Franklin's thought and interests be accurately estimated by those who know him only by those two works. Houston's implicit answer is this book-length portrait of Franklin "as a public intellectual" writing to persuade rather than to reflect. For Houston, Franklin's actions and goals are at least as important as his writings in understanding his thought, and the writings are to be understood mainly in relation to their usefulness in achieving a practical end rather than as ends in themselves.

Houston's portrait of Franklin's eventful life certainly makes it clear that the narrow view of Franklin as "Poor Richard" is a caricature. Yet the effort to claim a distinctive philosophy for Franklin as a proponent of "the politics of improvement" requires that, sooner or later, one identifies the standard according to which improvement is judged. Houston repeatedly offers "utility" as the standard of judgment. Thus, Franklin sees that the ability of human beings to work together "rests on utility, on the ability of men and women, or colonies and states, to be useful to each other."

For Franklin "utility was the goal" in every area of life, so much so that "the value of an opinion or conjecture was determined by its utility." Yet the problem with "utility" as a standard is that one is still left asking: useful for what? Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism offers quantities of pleasure and pain as the ultimate terms for judging usefulness, but there is no evidence that Franklin was committed to an early version of Bentham's madly reductive, though consistent, philosophy.

Houston does not attempt to explicate Franklin's ultimate terms directly, but the indirect answer suggested by this book as a whole is that Franklin simply accepted the values of the "commercial society" of his time and sought to make improvements within its framework when and where possible.

Houston thus leaves open the question as to whether Franklin's acceptance of those values was based on an unthinking failure to question, or the result of thoughtful analysis. Possibly Franklin accepted the values of commercial society in much the same spirit in which he accepted the final draft of the Constitution--not because of any certainty about its goodness but skepticism about the superiority of the alternatives: "Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best."

This view is supported by Jerry Weinberger's recent Benjamin Franklin Unmasked (2005), which contends that, in contrast to Houston's emphasis on "what Franklin did as well as said," the "philosophical Franklin was the real Franklin." Weinberger's close analysis of Franklin's writings presents Franklin as "a radical and nondogmatic skeptic" who never stopped questioning all things, including his own critiques.

Though Houston and Weinberger use different methods to understand Franklin, their conclusions about his attitudes are quite similar. Weinberger would agree with Houston that "Franklin had a 'projecting public Spirit' and conceived of his activities using the concept of improvement and the language of commercial society." Similiarly, Houston would agree with Weinberger that Franklin's representative Americanism does not lie in his "American idealism" but rather in his being the "American as practical booster, example of the second chance and the clean slate, and enthusiast for modernity--liberty, invention, and opportunity for those born with nothing but their brains."

And if commercial society can still encourage "liberty, invention, and opportunity," Houston may well be right to offer Franklin's unpretentious "politics of improvement" as a plausible alternative to seductive calls for a politics of transformation.

James Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.