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Benjamin Franklin, American Parvenu

The root of the matter is a peculiar sense of the self, at once buoyant and practical, visionary and manipulative. To make a self - such is the audacious undertaking that brings one into a world of masks and roles and shape- shifters, that requires one to manipulate beliefs and impressions, that elevates technical facility and gives one the heady sense of playing a game. The central document of such self making is Franklin’s Autobiography.

Gary Lindberg, The Confidence Man in American Literature

Get what you can, and what you get, hold; ‘Tis the stone that will turn all your lead into gold.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) not only figures prominently in the myth of the Founding Fathers (cf. chapter 4) but has also typified the self-made man in American culture. As an autodidact who became one of the most respected Americans of his time (and beyond), he has often been considered the homo americanus par excellence, and has been called “a model representative of the American Dream” (Huang and Mulford, “Benjamin Franklin” 147) and “a liberal capitalist hero” (Newman, “Benjamin Franklin” 173). His writings have been extraordinarily popular, especially his Poor Richard’s Almanack, of which 10.000 copies were printed each year from 1732 to 1758 and which by 1850 had been printed more than eighty times (cf. Huang and Mulford, “Benjamin Franklin” 150), and his Autobiography, which was published posthumously in English in 1793; both texts immediately turned into bestsellers, household names, and canonical material, and can be considered advice literature providing guidance on how to rise from “Obscurity” to “some Degree of Reputation in the World” (Franklin, Autobiography 1). Ever since the publication of Franklin’s memoirs, “autobiography has been the authoritative mode within which to imagine the self-made man” (Decker, Made in xxvii). Structured in four parts, they were composed by the author at different times in his life but never finished. Part one covers the first 21 years of his life in Boston and Philadelphia and narrates his childhood in poverty, his apprenticeship as a printer, his first journey to London, his marriage to Deborah Read, and his first professional success as a printer in Philadelphia. Part two is short and consists mostly of a self-improvement scheme that Franklin purportedly practiced on a daily basis; this “famous system of moral book keeping” (Cawelti, Apostles 20) has been quoted and emulated many times and reveals the didacticism of the text. In part three, Franklin says much about his achievements, among them the publication of his almanac, his study of foreign languages, and his initiatives in public affairs; this part ends with another journey to London on behalf of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly. Part four is again brief and recounts his affairs in London; overall, Franklin’s text thus is a relatively disparate genre-mix. As a success story which recounts the life of a printer’s apprentice who becomes an internationally recognized statesman due to his “industry” and “frugality” (Autobiography 67), it displays the author’s modest origins as a dimension of his virtue rather than seeking to hide them, and thus also recodes ‘old-world’ resentments against social upstarts and ‘parvenus’ into evidence and manifestations of greater liberty, equality, and social justice in America (cf. Weber, Protestant Ethic 57).

Even if some of the advice doled out by Franklin is tongue-in-cheek, he certainly represents an optimistic version of the American Dream of upward social mobility. His Autobiography has been received much in the vein of a success manual; the American frontiersman Davy Crockett apparently consulted it during the Battle of the Alamo (cf. Parini, Promised Land 79), and banker Thomas Mellon also speaks of having read the autobiography at a young and impressionable age and declares this experience “the turning point of my life”

(qtd. in Wyllie, Self-Made Man 15). In the 20th century, it has been referenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby (1925) as well as by Dale Carnegie in his 1936 bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People. In addition, “Franklin was a self-made man in far more than a literal sense: how he constructed and presented himself, and the ways in which such performances succeeded and failed, reveal a great deal about life and society in eighteenth- century British North America” (Newman, “Benjamin Franklin” 162). Franklin’s self-fashioning celebrates individualism and free will against a deterministic social order, but it also affirms that everyone is responsible for their own fate and success in life: self-improvement and self-perfectability loom large in his texts, which were and still are part of US school curricula.

Franklin’s audiences past and present read his ideas about the synergetic fusion of a paling Protestant religiosity (Franklin was a deist) and a Calvinist work ethic as enabling and fuelling a capitalist economy that promises individual and collective gain and well-being - the defense of capitalism is, time and again, the tacit subtext of the narratives of self-made men. It is this blend of religious ideas and economic aspects that the German sociologist Max Weber discusses prominently in his description of what he calls the Protestant Ethic in his book of the same title. According to Weber, Franklin embodies the new type of the homo americanus that has been molded in and advances the “spirit of capitalism” (cf. ibid.). This spirit - which Weber identifies in the North American colonies as early as 1632 (cf. ibid. 46) - is brought forth by Puritanism as well as by the economic development of the colonies, which together turned people into economic subjects (“Wirtschaftssubjekte”) on the basis of an increasingly secularized logic of work-discipline, which, however, still took material wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Over time, though, success was less and less defined in religious terms, and instead became a kind of ‘sublime’ of the social world, a way of distinguishing one’s self (cf. Helmstetter, “Viel Erfolg” 706). Self-improvement, in Franklin’s and in Weber’s argument, involves competition as well as processes of selection, but whereas Franklin sees “the necessity of a self-selecting and self- disciplining elite” (Cawelti, Apostles 14) and trusts the cultural and economic elite to work for the greater public good, Weber’s retrospective reconstruction of the capitalist ‘type’ is much more skeptical.

Even as Franklin’s writings are often seen as embodying the era and zeitgeist of the early republic, it becomes clear upon closer inspection that they also gloss over serious developments which ensued during Franklin’s lifetime:

During his [Franklin’s] lifetime wealth inequality rose in American towns and cities, and the economic security of craftsmen and unskilled labourers diminished. By the late eigh?teenth century the traditional route to competency and independence that many working men had dreamed of, and which Franklin and some others had travelled, had become increasingly difficult. (Newman, “Benjamin Franklin” 167)

Thus, Franklin’s success can in and of itself be considered an exception to the rule; whereas he personified the self-made man in no uncertain terms, his reception is often strongly decontextualized and smoothes out many contradictions that mark his historical persona, his time, and his idealism. Defining individual gain in terms of the greater common good clearly ignores the tension between two very different kinds of interest.

 
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