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
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.


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.”