In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes his youthful conversion to a vegetarian diet, but in Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation, the corpulent old man arrives on the shores of France in 1776 ill from eating beef. Franklin, Schiff writes, “blamed that diet for the boils that had erupted over every inch of his upper torso, including his scalp. He was dotted with scabs.” Schiff doesn’t explain whether the 71-year-old was a liar and a carnivore or if he was just taking one for his team, anti-tax insurgents who were losing their revolution quickly. Franklin had been dispatched on a classified mission, but scrofulous—and with two grandsons in tow—he hardly looked the part of a secret agent when he landed.
Heavy on false modesty Franklin’s Autobiography assumes the guise of an average life. Yet the outlines Franklin kept for his manuscript—left uncompleted when he died in 1790—hint at the sort of exotic climes found in a Graham Greene entertainment. Sentences tease, then brake on a dime: “The money for Vernon. The governor’s deceit. Collins not finding employment goes to Barbados much in my debt.” Schiff tells the story of the four cryptic words—”To France. Treaty, etc.,”—with which one version of these notes ends.
Franklin the diplomat eventually succeeded in acquiring the guns, troops, and dollars essential to England’s defeat. In Schiff’s bland account, however, our man in Versailles bides his time first. For more than 400 pages, Schiff puts in deep relief a tedious frieze of minor historical anecdotes. Together these scenes don’t add up to a three-dimensional Ben, let alone the intrepid scientist who nabbed lightning with a kite.
Which at the time was how most Europeans thought of him, Philip Dray reminds us in the insightful Stealing God’s Thunder. Franklin’s treatise on electricity had been a bestseller two decades earlier, translated into French, German, and Italian. And according to Dray, some Britons worried that during his wartime French sojourn Franklin “might use his uncanny skill to command thunder to send some sort of electrical apocalypse across the English Channel.”
Ironically, Franklin’s experiments—which proved that lightning was electricity and could be diverted by a metal rod—were meant to correct just these kinds of superstitions. The idea that lightning bolts were retribution loosed from the heavens had transcultural origins in myth which persisted. For example, as Dray notes, a young German law student who was nearly struck by lightning in 1505 believed he had received a signal from his Creator. A month later that student, Martin Luther, abandoned his studies to join a monastery.
Even though Newton’s discovery that the physical world operated under identifiable laws had already sparked a nascent Enlightenment, many of Franklin’s contemporaries in Europe looked suspiciously upon modern science’s explanations. So did people in colonial America, where evangelist Jonathan Edwards had initiated a counter-Enlightenment known as the Great Awakening. For the enemies of science, the Puritan faithful especially, all variety of calamities were an expression of God’s will.
Born just nine years after the Salem witch trials, Franklin was by any standard of his day a progressive. A deist, he believed in God, but also believed in reason. Though he respected religion’s place in making the social fabric cohere, the one time he had taken a stab at regular churchgoing, in 1728, he balked. Organized faith, Franklin said, “serv’d principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another.”
Dray argues deftly that Franklin’s accomplishments in science and politics testify to his indomitable curiosity. This was a self-educated man, as gluttonous for knowledge as Faust. For too long now, his life has been a textbook lesson: See, children, how far a solid work ethic will take you from humble beginnings. (Fitzgerald used him as a model for Gatsby.) We’re overdue for a popular revision. Franklin was an intellectual. He had an open mind, and when he discovered he had made a mistake, he changed his views. Though he had traded in slaves, Franklin became an outspoken detractor of slavery, and bequeathed the bulk of his estate to his daughter and her husband on the condition that they freed their servant.
Dray’s conclusion disappoints, dwelling on Franklin’s spirituality and avoiding comparisons to the present culture war between rational thought and fundamentalist Christianity. Franklin is the Founding Father the Age of Dubya needs, and neither Schiff’s colorless negotiator or Dray’s enlightened moderate will suffice. We deserve instead the political radical who warned: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”