Politics, as Ben Franklin said and practiced it, is the art of compromise. It is a working toward the best that can be done given a variety of views on any given complex subject. It’s not about posturing, or pandering to special interests, or pretending to be a defender of the truth. It’s about doing the most good that can be done under the circumstances. Franklin not only knew this, he was a successful politician on behalf of his fledgling country precisely because he knew this. This involved being willing to compromise, and not get everything one could want in a particular situation or with a particular piece of legislation. Learning was not to be sought for its own sake, nor even just to glorify God. What should be cultivated in education is “an inclination joined with an ability to serve, mankind, one’s country, friends, and family…That….should be the great aim and end of all learning” (p. 147). Franklin was such a middle class promoter that he clearly was uncomfortable with the country being run either by an aristocracy, particularly by the rich, or by what was called the rabble. All aspiring, able, young persons should be educated and encouraged to do something that contributes to the greater good— to public service. He would have agreed with Kennedy when he said “ask not what your country can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your country”.
This is not to say that Franklin did not have some firm ethical principles— over the course of his life he became more and more opposed to slavery and favored abolition. Of course he was not alone— John Wesley was adamantly opposed to the slave trade. And Franklin didn’t like racism any better than he liked slavery. His feelings about American Indians, for example, were largely positive. He told the humorous story of how some commissioners in Massachusetts invited some young Indian men to attend Harvard for free for three years. The chiefs however complained that when they returned, “they were absolutely good for nothing, being neither acquainted with the true methods for killing deer, catching beaver, or surprising an enemy.” The chief offered instead to educate a dozen or so white children in the ways of the Indians, and so “make men of them” (p. 153).It is interesting that Franklin worked long and hard to stave off the Revolutionary war, through many negotiations with the British in London. But when he could see the handwriting on the wall, he was all in on supporting independence. His original preference was that America have freedom including no taxation without representation, but be part of the British Empire. His pragmatism set him apart from some of the firebrands like John and Samuel Adams who wanted to demonize the British rulers. He wrote to Adams during the Revolutionary War: “I have never known a peace made, even the most advantageous, that was not censured as inadequate…. Blessed are the peacemakers is, I suppose to be understood in the other world, for in this world they are frequently cursed.” (p. 398).
I have not really dealt with Franklin’s many remarkable inventions of various sorts, and scientific experiments, for which he became world famous, as there is a wealth of other great material in Isaacson’s biography of Franklin, and frankly, our modern politicians would do well to read it, and emulate much of Franklins political praxis.
While Ben Franklin was confident in his own remarkable abilities, he actually was also quite self-effacing and humble in many ways. Throughout his life he saw his primary profession as being a printer…. hence it is appropriate to end with his self-written epitaph….
“The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(like the cover of an old book,
It’s contents worn out,
and stripped of its lettering and gilding)
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be lost:
For it will (as he believed) appear once more,
Revised and corrected
By the Author.” (p..470).