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.
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.