The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 13. His Morals
Franklin set himself in youth to the study of “moral perfection,” and the work which only great public business prevented his leaving as his literary monument was to have been a treatise on the “art of virtue.” His merits, however, in both the theory and practice of the moral life have been seriously called in question. It is alleged that his standards were low and that he did not live up to them. It must be conceded on the one hand that he had a natural son who became governor of New Jersey, and on the other hand that industry and frugality, which most of us place among the minor, he placed among the major virtues. When one has referred the “errata” of his adolescence to animal spirits, “free thinking,” and bad company; and when one has explained certain laxities of his maturity by alluding to the indulgent temper of the French society in which he then lived; one may as well candidly admit that St. Francis made chastity a more conspicuous jewel in his crown of virtues than did Dr. Franklin. And when one has pointed out that the prudential philosophy of Poor Richard’s Almanac was rather a collection of popular wisdom than an original contribution; and when one has called attention to the special reasons for magnifying economic virtues in a community of impecunious colonists and pioneers; one may as well frankly acknowledge that there is nothing in the precepts of the great printer to shake a man’s egotism like the shattering paradoxes of the Beatitudes nor like the Christian Morals of Sir Thomas Browne to make his heart elate. Franklin had nothing of what pietists call a “realizing sense” of sin or of the need for mystical regeneration and justification—faculties so richly present in his contemporary Jonathan Edwards. His cool calculating reason, having surveyed the fiery battleground of the Puritan conscience, reported that things are properly forbidden because hurtful, not hurtful because forbidden. Guided by this utilitarian principle, he simplified his religion and elaborated his morality. His system included much more than maxims of thrift and prudent self-regard, and to insinuate that he set up wealth as the summum bonum is a sheer libel. He commended diligence in business as the means to a competency; he commended a competency as a safeguard to virtue; and he commended virtue as the prerequisite to happiness. The temple that he reared to Moral Perfection was built of thirteen stones: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity, and humility—the last added on the advice of a Quaker. He wrought upon the structure with the method of a monk and he recorded his progress with the regularity of a bookkeeper. The presiding spirit in the edifice, which made it something more than a private oratory, was a rational and active benevolence towards his fellow-mortals in every quarter of the earth. The wide-reaching friendliness in Franklin may be distinguished in two ways from the roseate humanitarian enthusiasm in the Savoyard Vicar. It was not begotten by a theory of “natural goodness” nor fostered by millennial expectations, but was born of sober experience with the utility of good will in establishing satisfactory and fruitful relations among men. It found expression not in rhetorical periods but in numberless practical means and measures for ameliorating the human lot. By no mystical intuition but by the common light of reason the “prudential philosopher” discovered and acted upon the truth that the greatest happiness that can come to a man in this world is to devote the full strength of body and mind to the service of his fellow-men. Judged either by his principles or by his performance, Franklin’s moral breadth and moral elevation have been absurdly under-estimated.