Last winter, it occurred to me that Benjamin Franklin might have been kind of a jerk. I had holed myself up in the university library to work on my senior thesis, and was hoping to locate some latter-day Franklins in whom I could see the personality of the real Ben in action. But instead, I kept turning up jerks. The type of people who ran every campus organization and were in the process of starting up twelve more, who put your “information” into their Blackberries before they even got your full name, who referred to themselves as “poets” and “philosophers” in total seriousness.
The fact that no one likes these kinds of people hardly precludes the possibility that they are Franklin’s true heirs. The real Ben Franklin was not universally adored by his peers either. Contemporaries like John Adams thought him slippery and opportunistic. In the years since his death, his readers have found him to be variously self-righteous, puritanical, greedy, elitist, materialistic, and shamelessly self-promoting.
He seems like the type of guy who might have a lot of Facebook friends who, upon further questioning, would admit that they only accepted his friend request because they didn’t want to offend him. He was influential enough to warrant placating. But he was effective. An exemplary achiever, Franklin founded institutions that changed the fabric of American society and contributed to American politics in crucial ways. The main thing was not that he was a good guy, but that he was a great man.
Against all these accusations (and to some, no doubt, he is guilty as charged), America persists in adoring him. And our admiration is not limited to Franklin’s scientific or political accomplishments. In fact, aside from a brief mention in fifth-grade history crediting him with discovering electricity (he actually discovered charge), Franklin’s public career is usually overshadowed by his charismatic persona and the moral advice offered in his Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanack. An entire self-help industry has grown up around reformulating Franklin’s bootstrap ethic into advice for the socially and financially insecure. But if Franklin was actually a huge jerk, then what business do we have telling people to be more like him if they want to succeed?
It’s possible though that the mystery of Franklin’s character — whether he was the kind of guy you’d want to confide your secrets to or stick your neck out for — is beside the point. Perhaps it was not our private lives that Franklin aimed to enhance with his own example. After all, all of Franklin’s descriptions of private life, including his famous art of virtue, lead ultimately into public life. Even his correspondence runs this way — seemingly personal, but deliberately written for eventual public consumption.
Franklin led a consummately political life, not just as a politician, but in almost every other respect — as a writer, a diplomat, a philosopher, and a philanthropist. In all likelihood, Franklin has little to tell us about achieving familial bliss, establishing intimate friendships, or achieving philosophical or divine transcendence. In overlooking the politics of the Autobiography, readers who seek a way of life in Franklin’s example are bound to come up short. At best, they will find Max Weber’s self-interested capitalist, at worst, D.H. Lawrence’s soulless automaton. But those seeking advice for navigating American public life may find themselves in luck.
Nowhere is the confusion over the public nature of Franklin’s advice more evident than in his stories about friendship. Midway through his Autobiography, as Franklin is chronicling his rise in colonial politics, he pauses to relate a story about an up-and-coming member of the Pennsylvania Assembly who had snubbed him. Seeking to win the Assemblyman over, but trying not to appear servile, Franklin asked him if he could borrow a “certain scarce and curious book” from his library. The Assemblyman obliged, Franklin thanked him, and the next time the two men met, the Assemblyman spoke to Franklin for the first time, and the two “became great friends.” Franklin draws out a lesson from this story in the memorable proverb: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
The proverb is counterintuitive, but its plausibility registers immediately. It explains, for example, the general eagerness of Americans to give strangers the time, or to direct lost travelers. Indeed, in a 1969 study, psychologists Jon Jecker and David Landy, affirmed that people are more likely to think well of a stranger who has asked them for a personal favor than someone who has done them one. The phenomenon has been aptly named the Ben Franklin Effect.
The Ben Franklin Effect is also highlighted in Dale Carnegie’s shrewd 1936 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, a thinly disguised reworking of Franklin’s Autobiography to meet the needs of twentieth-century business culture, and one of the earliest and most successful examples of self-help literature. Carnegie understood that the technique of asking for a favor is effective because, rather than being a burden, it is a subtle form of flattery; Franklin’s request to look at his enemy’s copy of a rare book was a request that played to the Assemblyman’s intellectual and scholarly pretensions, and “gave him a feeling of importance.” Carnegie cautions his readers that the technique is far less effective when the favor requested is not tailored to the potential friend’s individual aspirations. Do not, Carnegie warns, go around asking strangers for money.
Because readers of the Autobiography have long been charmed by its clever advice for the individual striver hoping to climb the ladder of success, they — like Dale Carnegie — have primarily regarded its instructions as insights into the psychology of the achiever, and in doing so, have largely overlooked the broader political purpose of Franklin’s proverbs. Yet Franklin’s proverbs reflect his vision for the new nation being founded as he wrote his Autobiography. They are the memorable and portable fragments of a wide-ranging political philosophy that was intended to redefine political life in light of the leveled social world of the colonies and the rise of commerce.
What Carnegie and others who read Gilded Age capitalism into the Autobiography miss is Franklin’s effort to channel precisely that atomistic worldview which glorifies the individual seeking security and private comfort against the impersonal forces of capitalism into public life. As Jerry Weinberger has pointed out, “Franklin’s listed virtues are perfections of the self. But for Franklin, the perfections of the self make one capable of…‘doing good to man.’”
If Franklin’s Autobiography is a guide to anything, it is not to getting rich as a poor man, but to becoming a political actor for the vast majority of men who have no experience or education in politics. Franklin inherited a world — embodied in the raucous, clamoring Philadelphia of the Autobiography — where Old World aristocratic hierarchies no longer existed, and an alternative to the rigid social relations that defined political life in Europe was needed to adjust to the new reality and avoid its most dangerous pitfalls.
The proverb, “He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged” deftly reverses the traditional understanding of social hierarchy and dependence. Rather than admitting his lower status — appearing “servile,” as Franklin put it — by offering the hostile Assemblyman gifts or doing him favors, he approached him as an intellectual peer, someone who too had heard of the “scarce and curious book.” In doing so, he placed learning at the center of their relationship, and relegated wealth and birth to secondary considerations. This strategy represented an opportunity for ambitious men, who lacked the economic resources to curry favor with elites, to enter politics on equal footing with those already established in it.
The strategy also explains Franklin’s emphasis on networking, service, and self-improvement as vital means to getting ahead. Shortly after his return to Philadelphia in 1726, Franklin organized the Junto as part social club, part debate society for the “mutual improvement” of its socially climbing members. The members were tradesmen of middling social stature looking to get ahead, and the purpose of the Junto was at once to network the members into Philadelphia society, and to improve their minds and manners so that they would be capable of holding their own in it. Their learning and character were meant to compensate for their lowly origins.
Undertakings too large for a single individual who earned his living through daily employment became possible through larger civic associations whose members were connected by feelings of goodwill and mutual benefit. Franklin found that he could maintain commitment to the public good among mercenary men by creating a sense of camaraderie among equals to replace the obligation of gentlemen to their dependents. Such friendly camaraderie worked as a kind of social glue in a commercial society where men had no natural ties to each other through blood or land, and Franklin’s own beginnings in Philadelphia as a 17-year-old runaway with no relations or acquaintances illustrate just how relevant the problem was, even as early as 1723.
But this sort of camaraderie should not be mistaken for the kind of relationship that is founded on private love, or the virtue-friendship of philosophers portrayed in Aristotle’s Ethics. Franklin singled out the Assemblyman because he predicted that the man would soon have “great influence in the House,” not because he seemed like a pleasant fellow who would make a good confidant. The result of Franklin’s efforts was “great civility,” but not great intimacy. It was a relationship based in the mutual respect that stems from joint participation in political life, and in many cases trumps partisan disagreement, like the storied friendship between Jefferson and Adams, or the collegiality that has traditionally defined the U.S. Senate.
A political life based on camaraderie between the governors and the governed assumes a society with broad opportunities for mobility, in which the experience of political action is widespread. To that end, Franklin went to great lengths to rouse Philadelphians out of their private slumbers, and afford them the experience of civic life. When the Junto proved a success, and received more requests for membership than it could handle, Franklin decided against enlarging the existing club, and instead suggested that the current members should “form a subordinate Club” largely independent of the existing Junto. Rather than a top-down hierarchy, Franklin sought to expand the association through decentralization. Like asking an important enemy for a favor, this impulse to refuse control and level hierarchies was a counterintuitive form of self-promotion which, at the same time, diffused the experience of leadership, and put those who would otherwise be Franklin’s inferiors on equal footing with him.
In classically Franklinian fashion, every organization that began as an opportunity merely for personal betterment and socializing ended up propelling its members into public life. Five years after its founding, the Junto became the medium through which Franklin reformed Philadelphia’s night watch and founded its fire company, and its original members went on to prominent positions in the city. The same organizational model based on political camaraderie underlies almost all of Franklin’s public activities. The connection between business, civic projects, and politics is very clear for Franklin, who spent most of his life moving with ease between these realms. In his Albany Plan of Union of 1754, for example, he outlined an organization along the lines of the Junto made up of colonies rather than individuals. The same principles of mutual benefit, joint decision-making, and representation governed both organizations. Similarly, his efforts to equip General Braddock’s army in 1755 were built on the understanding of fundraising and solicitation he acquired from years of ventures like the Pennsylvania Hospital. What Franklin attempted to show was how the private individual could be gradually drawn into public life by appealing to an increasingly broader set of attachments — the home and family, the city, the nation. Franklin sought to demonstrate that “properly understood, there is truly no tension between virtue and self-interest,” and all civic engagements, be they commercial, local, or political, were seen by Franklin to tend towards one essential end — the increase of “conveniences and necessities of life.”
Franklin’s aim was not to destroy the gentlemanly ideal (though rarely the reality by the eighteenth century) of British parliamentary politics, but to unearth it from under the rubble of the old aristocratic order. Nonetheless, as Gordon Wood has argued in his biography of Franklin, he was no proto-Jacksonian; even as he edited his Autobiography in the years after the Revolution, his view of popular rule was hardly enthusiastic. He wanted the realm of civic action open to those without inherited rank or wealth, but the proverb about asking favors belies as much about his elitism as his opposition to entrenched hierarchies.
It is no accident that Franklin chose a rare book rather than a recommendation for a tailor or a good ale-house to ask from the Assemblyman. He wanted to demonstrate the cultivation and extensive learning that made it possible for him to know the existence and value of the Assemblyman’s book and that, by extension, would make him worthy of respect. No average man off the street could know or appreciate what Franklin could. So while Franklin worked to prop open the door to politics to those previously excluded from it by dint of unlucky birth, he was hardly interested in throwing open the gates to all. Some proof of merit was necessary, and self-education and improvement became incumbent on each individual to pursue.
The stipulation that the political aspirant must have something to show for himself — success in business, learning, ingenuity — created common ground among men whose work was to oppose each other. They may have been political opponents, but they shared at least a sense of special worthiness for the job that inclined them to respect one another. Franklin was no stranger to intense partisan rivalry; he was a vociferous opponent of the Proprietary Party in the Colonial Assembly, and spearheaded the divisive 1764 effort to convert Pennsylvania into a royal colony. Nonetheless, he remained on good terms with William Allen, the head of the Proprietary party, and the two cooperated on several public projects.
While the Ben Franklin Effect works, it need not always work. Though we may be naturally susceptible to flattery, in another day and age, we might be trained to rebuff the presumptuous requests of our social inferiors, and expect them to grovel before us if they want our goodwill. The fact that we are not reveals more about the oil that greases the cogs of democracy than it does about the roots of human nature. But where Franklin’s challenge was to show that effective politics could exist without the trappings of aristocratic hierarchy, perhaps the challenge since Tocqueville has been to protect Franklin’s gentlemanly equality against the encroachment of vulgarity, mediocrity, and apathetic individualism.
While we remain inclined to divide ourselves and the world into public and private halves, we increasingly reserve friendship, with all its associations of intimacy and tenderness, for private life. We may believe it is safer there, sheltered from the dissembling and acrimony of politics. Indeed, it is with this assumption that Franklin’s advice for dealing with other people is approached by readers like Dale Carnegie. But as Aristotle suggested in the Ethics, friendship has a public face, for “Friendship seems to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship.”
If Franklin seems like the tool with the 3,000 Facebook friends you shook hands with at a happy hour last week, it is only because friendship has all but ceased to be a way of describing the public relationships we experience in civic life. We can label such relationships inauthentic or watered-down versions of true friendship, but we do so at our own peril. Institutions and formal procedures make partisan politics possible, but they cannot replace the mutual respect of men if such politics hopes to flourish. The Autobiography is an effort to persuade private men — through wit, charm, and example — to enter public life. But underneath the lighthearted story of tricking an enemy into friendship lies a grave warning about just how much hinges on such political camaraderie.
Rita Koganzon is a writer living in Washington, D.C.