CHAPTER 12. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AND THE CODIFICATION OF AMERICAN CULTURE

The Great Awakening weakened strict puritanical religion in America. This weakening, in turn, opened the society to new ideas. And the new ideas that came flooding in were those of the Enlightenment. In turn, these ideas further weakened the overly strict puritanism in America. Reformers used the ideas of the Enlightenment to help tame the spiritual dimension so that a burgeoning American capitalism could come to the fore. The American reformers, however, kept the moralistic spirit of puritanism.

This chapter relates how Benjamin Franklin brought together the themes of racism, laissez-faire capitalism, and puritanical moralism into the equality-of-opportunity thesis. The overwhelmingly important feature of the equality-of-opportunity thesis is its racism, which basically accounts for the appeal of the repulsive and brutal doctrines of laissez-faire capitalism, Puritanism, and moralism.

Religion Modified by the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment represented a rupture with medieval thought and brought the Western world into the modern capitalist period. Associated with this intellectual movement was the rise of both rationalism and science. Sir Isaac Newton's revelation of a harmonious and self-regulating universe deeply impressed many thinkers. The world view of these men became virtually mechanistic in the sense that natural law regulated the universe. Consequently, they rejected the belief that the world ran on a miraculous basis, wherein God intervened in the system to change it.

One of the new faiths that expressed this contemporary world view was deism. Deists believed that God was the great engineer who stood aside with swelled pride to look at His works. Among American deists were such men as John Adams of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison of Virginia. These new ideas so dominated the intellectual atmosphere in the thirteen colonies that the Declaration of Independence reads like an Enlightenment tract.

Laissez-Faire Philosophy

A key component of the Enlightenment was its belief in laissez- faire economics. In the eighteenth century a number of economic thinkers stressed that government should not interfere in the economy. These ideas began with the French physiocrats who, while maintaining the wrongheaded view that agriculture was the only source of wealth in a nation, believed that government should let people alone. In 1758 the prominent physiocrat Dr. Francois Quesnay advocated free trade. This school of thought even originated the term laissez-faire. Coming from a different point of view, in 1766 the Frenchman Turgot published his Thoughts on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth, which anticipated a good deal of the ground that Adam Smith later covered.

In Great Britain a center of the Enlightenment was in Scotland at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. One of the outstanding spokesmen of the so-called Scottish philosophers was David Hume (1711-1776). He developed a theory that emphasized economic freedom and the necessity of social hierarchy. Influenced by Hume, Adam Smith (1723-1790) was another outstanding Scottish philosopher. Like Hume, he believed in both freedom and hierarchy. In 1776 he published the bible of the laissez-faire movement: The Wealth of Nations.

The Scottish philosophers believed in natural law. This included a belief that in a state of nature all human beings are free and equal. Although stressing freedom and equality, these philosophers believed that hierarchy is necessary for the successful performance of the economy.

What most American conservatives have forgotten about laissez- faire economics is that an important corollary was that there must be no restrictions on the mobility of labor (see Raphael 1985:74-75; Miller 1981). Both Hume and Smith attacked various monopolies in Britain as artificial restraints on the economy. Smith, for instance, criticized the restriction on the number of apprentices, believing this limited the supply of labor for skilled occupations.

In this stress on both the need for hierarchy and the importance of removing restraints blocking people's movement up and down the economic ladder can be seen the duality of American political culture. The philosophy can be either liberal or conservative depending on whether the proponent stresses the need for order or the need for fewer restrictions.

American Adoption of Laissez-Faire

The lack of a nobility culture, the existence of slavery and racism, and easy access to land created in the thirteen colonies a growing sense that Americans were different from the British. While desiring greater liberty from the British, Americans also wanted to have a conservative philosophy that meshed with their conservative, racial tripartite society. The laissez-faire philosophy fit the bill. It emphasized all those aspects the freedom-seeking Americans wanted: natural human rights, freedom, liberty, and equality, while still being compatible with racism.

The laissez-faire philosophy seemed almost tailor-made for the thirteen colonies. The philosophy fit perfectly with the newly modified Puritanism and the increasingly influential reformed religions. In a sense it was a secularized version of Puritanism. The chosen in this philosophy were those who worked toward or were already at the top of the social hierarchy. Indeed, the laissez- faire philosophy matched so well with American religion and American capitalism that the Scottish Philosophy of Religion (known first as Common Sense Realism) became the chief philosophical support to American Protestantism during the first two-thirds of the 1800s (Ahlstrom 1972).

Franklin and Laissez-Faire

The man most responsible for stating the basic beliefs of the newly developing nation was Benjamin Franklin. This learned man was a voluminous correspondent, who knew almost all the key intellectuals in the thirteen colonies, Great Britain, and France. Moreover, he was a personal friend of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. When Adam Smith went to London in April 1773 to revise the manuscript for his soon-to-be-famous book, he read each chapter to Franklin. Indeed, the American gave Smith a great deal of valuable information about the thirteen colonies.

Benjamin Franklin's personal views represented the nation's developing civil religion to an amazing extent. In fact, there was a parallel between the change in Franklin's overall philosophy and America's religious development where the right-wing religions were modified by left-wing religious ideas. Franklin was originally from Boston. This man of great passion found the ways of the Puritans far too inhibiting for his personal tastes. So he came to Philadelphia which provided him with more personal freedom. For twenty-five years he published many of his ideas in his Poor Richard's Almanack. Poor Richard became the spokesman for the developing American culture. The Almanack contained many sayings that exhorted the colonists to be industrious and frugal. In many ways it was a restatement of the Puritan ethic of capitalism and salvation, but with a healthy dose of skepticism regarding moral do-gooders. It sold phenomenally in the colonies: ten thousand copies a year or roughly one for every hundred people in the colonies; in all, more than a quarter of a million copies.

In 1757 on his way to France, Franklin gathered the most popular of his sayings and put them in a new version of the Almanack. This was later printed as The Way to Wealth. This publication has gone through some thirteen hundred editions. It emphasized thrift, hard work, enterprise, and independence. These were the key means to salvation and success.

The basic virtues that Franklin held so dear were those of laissez-faire capitalism. And with the stress on capitalism, there was less concern for other important aspects of life, such as the liberal arts, but who cared about these things when there was so much money to be made in the new country.

Franklin and Racism

In addition to providing the basis for a national culture, laissez-faire capitalism complemented the American racist system. Benjamin Franklin was, as we all are, a prisoner of his own times. And among the important ideas of his times were the underlying racial fears of Americans. If we can show that in the great man's 033 works there was a subtle racism, this will illustrate how the American middle class of colonial days was very worried by the black caste. We do so in the overall context of Franklin's concern about the increasing number of German immigrants.

The early history of the colonies reveals a population dominated by the English. There were certainly other groups, the Scots, Welsh, and Irish, the Dutch, Swedes, and Finns, the French, Germans, Swiss, and Jews, but the English predominated. This began to change in the eighteenth century. Hofstadter (1971) writes that by the time of the revolution half the population south of New England was non-English. The Germans and Scots-Irish came between 1710 and 1740, and more Scots-Irish and Scots came in large numbers from the 1760s to the outbreak of the revolution.

This immigration stirred some nativist reactions. Not surprisingly, the greatest concern with immigration was in Pennsylvania which had, on the eve of the revolution, about one-third German in its population. Franklin wanted the Germans in western Pennsylvania to be better distributed in the nation and to mix more with the English. He worried that the new German immigrants would threaten the English language and English liberties, and so he insisted on Anglo-conformity as the model of immigration, demanding that the new immigrants conform to English ways.

Wright (1986:83) quotes the great philosopher and inventor as saying, "Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements and, by herding together, establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them?"

Franklin's ideas were standard for the day; in fact, standard for any day in the United States (see Gordon 1964:89-91). Worries about immigration were shared by many of the founding fathers (see Gordon 1964). George Washington did not want to encourage immigration and certainly did not want to see concentrated geographic settlement of any one group because he thought this would lead to the preservation of separate values. Even the liberal Thomas Jefferson worried about the impact on American liberty of the influx of immigrants from countries dominated by absolute monarchies.

Although immigration was a number one worry with Franklin, it is illuminating to see how he couched his arguments to oppose it, for he phrased them in terms of skin color. That racism was very much on the mind of this foremost American spokesman for the capitalist ethic is clearly shown by his concern that America could be swamped by nonwhites (see Wright 1986:82-83). Franklin opposed the Quaker pacifism that he felt put at risk the people of the Pennsylvania frontier. In the face of what he regarded as the unshakeable obstinacy of the Quakers on this matter, plus the selfishness of the merchant class, he wrote that the common people of Pennsylvania would have to set up their own voluntary defense associations. In a pamphlet entitled Plain Truth, published in 1747, he went out of his way to assuage the fears of the pacifists that armed groups would be a threat to the social order. Rather, he noted (quoted by Wright 033 1986:78) that the real threat to the society came not from these troops but from "licentious privateers": "your persons, fortunes, wives, and daughters, shall be subject to the wanton and unbridled rage, rapine, and lust of Negroes, mulattos and others, the vilest and most abandoned of mankind." Thus did Franklin use race explicitly as a bogeyman in his arguments. Continuing his argument, Franklin wrote that the non-English immigrants were not "purely white." He maintained that the Germans, Russians, and Swedes were of a swarthy complexion. Furthermore, only the Saxons and the English constituted the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. This concern with skin color caused him to ask (quoted in Wright 1986:83): "Why increase the sons of Africa by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawnys, of increasing the lovely white and red?"

This concern with the importation of blacks was partly based on the belief in the racial inferiority of blacks. In 1758 an English philanthropic society established a school for blacks in Philadelphia. In 1763 Franklin visited the school and remarked (cited in Zilversmit 1967:26-27) that the experience gave him "a higher opinion of the Natural Capacities of the black Race." Obviously, Franklin had a low opinion of the natural intelligence of blacks.

Benjamin Franklin and Moralism

Even though Franklin was a Deist, Puritanism had a deep effect on his thought. This is apparent in the many sayings he selected from the popular culture of the time, including "God helps them that help themselves" and "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." But it is the moralism hidden in the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism that is the real source of moralism. If the market is a free and just one, then those unsuccessful in the game of economic competition have only themselves to blame for their plight (i.e., if they cannot blame it on personal circumstances). In this philosophy failure is personalized with the assumption that "there must be something wrong" with the complaining person.

Above and beyond the economic source of moralism, Puritanism is an independent source of moralism. Puritanical attitudes lead one to condemn as immoral all sorts of behavior that should be considered private. The United States is world famous for labeling as deviant and criminalizing those activities "without victims," such as prostitution, homosexuality, and drug addiction (to name just a few). Americans have traditionally been very reluctant to accept a more medical and scientific view of deviance. This moralism is also reflected in the work of American social scientists who take a sociological determinist view of human behavior. This attitude leads to moralist positions as it argues that ultimately the deviant is responsible for his or her problems, since all activities can be corrected either through personal will or by seeking help from social work or educational institutions.

 

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