The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VI. Franklin

§ 1. Franklin’s Training

IN a respectful and indeed laudatory notice of Franklin for The Edinburgh Review of July, 1806, Lord Jeffrey employed the case of the “uneducated tradesman of America” to support his contention that “regular education is unfavourable to vigour or originality of understanding.” Franklin attained his eminence, so runs the argument, without academical instruction, with only casual reading, without the benefit of association with men of letters, and “in a society where there was no relish and no encouragement for literature.” This statement of Franklin’s educational opportunities is manifestly inadequate; but it so pleasantly flatters our long-standing pride in our selfmade men that we are loath to challenge it. The hero presented to the schoolboy and preserved in popular tradition is still an “uneducated tradesman of America”: a runaway Boston printer walking up Market Street in Philadelphia with his three puffy rolls; directing his fellow shopkeepers the way to wealth; sharply inquiring of extravagant neighbours whether they have not paid too much for their whistle; flying his kite in a thunderstorm; by a happy combination of curiosity and luck making important contributions to science; and, to add the last lustre to his name, by a happy combination of industry and frugality making his fortune. This picturesque and racy figure is obviously a product of provincial America, the first great Yankee with all the strong lineaments of the type: hardness, shrewdness, ingenuity, practical sense, frugality, industry, self-reliance. The conception of the man here suggested is perhaps sound enough so far as it goes, being derived mainly from facts supplied by Franklin himself in the one book through which he has secured an eternal life in literature. But the popular notion of his personality thus derived is incomplete, because the Autobiography, ending at the year 1757, contains no record of the thirty-three years which developed a competent provincial into an able, cultivated, and imposing man of the world.

The Franklin now discoverable in the ten volumes of his complete works is one of the most widely and thoroughly cultivated men of his age. He had not, to be sure, a university training, but he had what serves quite as well: sharp appetite and large capacity for learning, abundance of books, extensive travel, important participation in great events, and association through a long term of years with the most eminent men of three nations. In touch as printer and publisher with the classic and current literature produced at home and imported from abroad, he becomes in Philadelphia almost as good a “Queen Anne’s man” as Swift or Defoe. His scientific investigations bring him into correspondence with fellow-workers in England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, and Spain. Entering upon public life, he is forced into co-operation or conflict with the leading politicians, diplomats, and statesmen of Europe. In his native land he has known men like Cotton Mather, Whitefield, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin West, Ezra Stiles, Noah Webster, Jay, Adams, Jefferson, and Washington. In England, where his affections strike such deep root that he considers establishing there his permanent abode, he is in relationship, more or less intimate, with Mandeville, Paine, Priestley, Price, Adam Smith, Robertson, Hume, Joseph Banks, Bishop Watson, Bishop Shipley, Lord Kames, Lord Shelburne, Lord Howe, Burke, and Chatham. Among Frenchmen he numbers on his list of admiring friends Vergennes, Lafayette, Mirabeau, Turgot, Quesnay, La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Condorcet, Lavoisier, Buffon, D’Alembert, Robesoierre, and Voltaire. It is absurd to speak of one who has been subjected to the moulding of such forces as a product of the provinces. All Eurpore has wrought upon and metamorphosed the Yankee printer. The man whom Voltaire kisses is a statesman, a philosopher, a friend of mankind, and a favourite son of the eighteenth century. With no softening of his patriotic fibre or loss of his Yankee tang, he has acquired all the common culture and most of the master characteristics of the Age of Enlightenment—up to the point where the French Revolution injected into it a drop of madness: its emancipation from authority, its regard for reason and nature, its social consciousness, its progressiveness, its tolerance, its cosmopolitanism, and its bland philanthropy. Now this man deserves his large place in our literary history not so much by virtue of his writings, which had little immediate influence upon belles-lettres, as by virtue of his acts and ideas, which helped liberate and liberalize America. To describe his most important work is to recite the story of his life.