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The best books on Benjamin Franklin

recommended by D.G. Hart

Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant by D.G. Hart

Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant
by D.G. Hart


The Founding Fathers of the United States were a remarkable bunch of people, but Benjamin Franklin might have been the most remarkable of them all. Coming from humble stock, he became a businessman, scientist, diplomat and politician—a giant of the Enlightenment. Historian D.G. Hart sheds some light on his character and background and puts him in his broader social and political context.

Interview by Benedict King

Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant by D.G. Hart

Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant
by D.G. Hart

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What story does your book, Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant, tell? What hole in Franklin studies was it trying to fill?

There’s so little left uncovered in studies of Franklin and of the Founders more generally. But this is part of a ‘spiritual biography’ series; it’s filling a gap in that series. They’re covering a lot of people who have already been covered elsewhere. The idea of a spiritual, rather than a religious biography, actually may capture Franklin better. I know another historian, Tommy Kidd has done a religious biography of Franklin for Yale. Franklin himself was a kind of believer, but he would fit, I think, contemporary ideas about being ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’.

Part of what I’ve thought was missing in treatments of Franklin was how he fits into Protestantism and the culture that Protestantism produced in the centuries after the Reformation. The book is bridging studies of Franklin and studies of Anglo-American culture, post-Reformation.

Was he a deist? Or was he a complete non-believer?

He was a deist and rented a pew for his wife Deborah at Christ Church in Philadelphia. And he attended some services there. He’s buried there in that church’s burial ground—America has fewer church burial grounds than in Europe. But he was a deist early on. Studies of deism can be a little peculiar because there was no membership required. It seems to be a category imposed on people.

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Franklin, early in his life had a radical phase. He was caught up in philosophical speculation, which people could count as deism. But he was a God-fearer. I really do believe that he was genuine about that, thinking that he was going to meet his rewards after death. So, he believed there was going to be some kind of reckoning. And he invokes Providence a lot, which so many of the founders did, so he’s not unusual in that regard. But I couldn’t say he was an unbeliever, in the way somebody else I’ve worked on, such as H.L. Mencken, the journalist and modernist literary critic, clearly was. Mencken was an agnostic and identified as such. He just could not come to believe in God. Period.

Who else is in this spiritual biography series?

John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson are the two I know about for sure. There will be more in the pipeline. I think Andrew Jackson is going to be in it.

Among the founding fathers, there were some who were openly committed Christians, others who were less so. Were any of them avowed atheists? The reason I ask is because there seems to be a big debate in United States politics at the moment around the Founding Fathers, and about what kind of country they thought they were founding.

Probably Jefferson comes the closest, I think, although this gets into questions of what was acceptable in public as well. My sense is that most of them were church-attending and would generally say the sorts of things you’d expect people to say about the churches. So, I don’t think there were any who were outright antagonistic to religion. The one person who might qualify as an atheist is Tom Paine. But I think even there, Americans read him differently than the English did. The English saw him much more as a radical because he has was anti-monarchy, but that didn’t really bother Americans as much. In what Paine wrote he was still interacting with scripture, and seeming to pay deference to it, although maybe coming up with novel interpretations.

I really don’t think there was much outright antagonism to religion. And, of course, there were many public statements about how, if you’re going to have a republican form of government and society you need virtue in the people and there are only so many resources for virtue. So, you look to the churches and say nice things about them.

Let’s move on to your Benjamin Franklin books. The first of the books is The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon Wood. Why have you chosen this one?

Well, Gordon Wood is just a great historian. I’ve enjoyed his work for such a long time. I leaned heavily on this book in writing my own, and he does a really good job with the creation of Franklin. ‘Americanization’ is a way of saying that Franklin went from being very much pro-British Empire, which he remained all the way down, even into the 1770s, hoping that independence wouldn’t have to happen. But as things turned out, while he was a diplomat in London, he saw a polarization between the colonies and the English during that time.

“It’s just so unlikely that that Franklin’s life would have turned out the way it did”

The common perception of Franklin by contemporary Americans, if they know history, is that he’s just associated with the founding of the country, and you don’t really see how he developed and the incredible emergence of this person who was close to the bottom of colonial society and who made this life for himself as a businessman, printer and editor, and who then retired at the young age of 42, while still owning the business and receiving income from it. Then he begins to dabble in politics, and eventually worked his way into Pennsylvania politics. He goes overseas to negotiate with the Penn family to try to get a better deal for the colony in North America. And that’s how he also begins to make connections for other kinds of diplomatic endeavors, which occupy much of the last two or three decades of his life.

It’s just so unlikely that that Franklin’s life would have turned out the way it did. And one of the reasons why I really enjoy studying and writing about history is that nothing is inevitable. It’s all accidental—although I don’t want to say it’s complete chance. Franklin would have said there was Providence involved, and I would agree with him as somebody who believes in God, but there are just so many surprises in the way history turns out. And the way Franklin turned out is surprising, and I think Wood really captures that well, as well as the evolution of Franklin’s own understanding of British North America and the possibilities of a new nation.

Excellent. And I think we can pick that theme up again in your next recommendation, which is Arthur Bernon-Tourtellot’s book, Benjamin Franklin: The Shaping of Genius. This is about his young life, isn’t it?

Yes, it is.

What case does this book make?

He was not a trained historian. He came to this book just as a writer of popular history. And he tells the story only up through Franklin leaving Boston, which is the prelude to what you would think of as the most important parts of Franklin’s life, which is his making it as a business man, his making it in Philadelphia, his success and then political career, and his scientific career.

It short circuits Franklin’s life, but he turns those early years into an amazing story. Tourtellot has a great eye for detail. He went deep into a lot of different source material for it. And so, just the description of Boston street life, the Franklin family home, Franklin’s father’s relationship with his Uncle Ben, who comes to visit and has a falling out with the family, his detail on Franklin’s mother’s family, the kinds of life going on in Boston, it’s all truly vivid. It’s just a great read. It really is.

Was Franklin recognized as an incredibly remarkable intellect from a very early age? Did his parents hothouse him, educationally? Or was he considered unremarkable at 17, when he left Boston, but flourished on his arrival in Philadelphia?

Boston, as least among those residents that were Puritans—and how you classify that as is a difficult question—was a remarkably literate, and at least by some standards, learned society. His father was bookish and had lots of books in the house. At least, that’s what Franklin recalled. His father didn’t have a formal education. There were the means for a formal education. Franklin’s parents, because Benjamin was the tenth child, wanted to make him a tithe to the church and send him into the ministry, as a gift to God, as it were. So he went to Latin school with the hopes of going to Harvard. But they also saw that he probably just didn’t have the religious devotion to do it. And so they pulled him out. It was also a way to save money, as well, although I’m not saying that was the only reason they did it.

“Franklin’s parents wanted to make him a tithe to the church and send him into the ministry… But they also saw that he probably just didn’t have the religious devotion to do it”

So I think they recognize him as capable of doing the work and capable of being that kind of, relatively elite member of Puritan society, which the clergy were. They were the best educated and it was pretty clear that he could do the work. My sense is that they did recognize his intellectual ability, and it’s hard for me to imagine they didn’t recognise his intellectual curiosity. He was curious about so much, so many moving pieces in the natural, human and social worlds. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve really come to like Franklin a lot. He’s just a fascinating figure in that regard. In short, I think his parents did recognize something, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much he stood out from other children or from other boys in that society.

Let’s move on to the next of your Benjamin Franklin books, David Hall’s The Puritans: A Transatlantic History. Tell us a bit about this one.

Hall’s story is about Puritanism, from roughly the beginning of efforts to reform the Church of England in the 1570s down to the Glorious Revolution. He does both sides of the Atlantic, which is, really well done. Too often studies of Puritanism isolate the European side from the North American side. He’s spent his career writing about early modern Protestantism, and he’s a great historian. I put this in there because he’s part of a recent recovery of Puritanism, at least by historians in the United States, that links the developments in North America to political developments in 17th-century England, Scotland and beyond.

Oftentimes the history of Puritanism in the US looks at, say, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the New England colonies in isolation from the British Isles. Perry Miller, who was another great historian, at Harvard, almost single handedly rescued Puritanism from the kinds of snipes that H.L. Mencken took at Puritans—Mencken famously defined Puritanism as the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy. That was a common perception of Puritanism, until maybe 1940 or so. And then, Miller burst onto the stage at Harvard, recovers Puritanism with a boatload of graduate students under him. They go out and they wind up weaving the Puritan narrative into the understanding of America, which is in the midst of the Cold War. And the way that they tell that narrative helps America keep going with the Cold War.

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It’s actually a very interesting story. An historian recently, called Abram van Engen has a book out called A City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, that refers to this creation of the Puritan narrative, and weaving it into the national narrative post-World War Two.

But what Hall does is look at it from a completely different perspective, not from a Cold War perspective, but from the 17th century, looking at what was happening in North America and how that was related to the politics and religion of 17th-century England and Scotland. And for that reason, it’s a great read, but it’s also a great background on Puritanism. And if you want to understand Puritanism and Franklin’s relationship to Puritanism, that’s an important book to consult.

Is it possible to identify things in Franklin’s personal culture or intellectual life that are specifically rooted in this Puritan background? Are there obvious things to point to?

A couple of examples. It’s a bit of a stretch to argue that Franklin is indebted to English Puritanism in some way, since he himself disavowed it. And it really left him cold, even though he held on to pieces about God, about the importance of doing good because there’d be a reckoning in the world to come. He held on to those sorts of things. But Puritanism was a very bookish culture and, and Franklin going into publishing and into print as much as he did was part of that Puritan inheritance. Even his interest in science could be part of it. There’s an old sociology of science scholar, Robert Merton, who has elaborated the so-called Puritan thesis about the origins of modern science being rooted in the culture of Puritanism in England. And I try to work that into understanding Franklin.

“Puritanism was a very bookish culture and, and Franklin going into publishing and into print as much as he did was part of that puritan inheritance. Even his interest in Science could be part of it”

Even his ideas about civic organizations and social order in Philadelphia, organizing libraries, hospitals, police, fire departments—you could argue that Franklin learned a lot of this from the civic culture of Puritans in Boston. Maybe he just intuited it by growing up in it, but those are the sorts of connections that I see, even though when it comes down to beliefs, they’re not there.

One other example I would use. One of his most published works is the autobiography. Puritans were famous for keeping journals and diaries of their lives, especially their relationship to God. And so I’ve speculated in the book, about whether Franklin was writing a secular version of a Puritan journal or diary, in writing his autobiography, the way does.

Let’s move on to your next Benjamin Franklin book, Henry May’s The Enlightenment in America.

Henry May, was a great intellectual historian of post-World War Two America. I have several good friends in academia who were students of Henry May as undergraduates, and I have other scholarly friends who knew him well as a colleague. My own claim to fame with Henry May, is that when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, I was the sommelier at the Harvard Faculty Club, which wasn’t the greatest of dining establishment—there were still rumors when I was there that they were serving horse, which they may have done during World War Two. But, anyway, May came to campus with a professor with whom I was studying, and they sat at a table. And so I was able to serve him wine.

Henry May was a great historian at University of California, Berkeley. This book was published in 1976. The story he tells has been carried on by many people. He told the story that the Enlightenment is not one thing. It is several things and it happens in different places, and at different times—in England, Scotland, France, Germany, North America. And it has different kinds of traditions, such as the moderate enlightenment of Newton, for instance, or the skeptical enlightenment, of Voltaire, the didactic enlightenment of the Scottish Enlightenment figures of Smith and the like.

May puts Franklin in the skeptical camp. I think he may emphasize that a little more than necessary. Because I think that in the revolutionary camp of the Enlightenment, there’s a utilitarian side and you really see that strain in Franklin. He was constantly thinking about how things worked, whether in the natural world, or the famous fireplace that he invented, or bifocals, or hospitals, or even colleges. He was not just a thinker, he was a tinkerer, his whole life and he tinkered with ideas as well. May is really useful for situating Franklin in that Enlightenment. Even though it’s almost 50 years old, it’s a very useful guide to thinking about the Enlightenment and how it unfolded in the United States.

And what does he say about the Founding Fathers? Did they see the founding of the United States as an Enlightenment project? 

I think he would put different figures in different camps depending on their politics. Jefferson would go in the revolutionary camp, but Adams would go much more in the moderate or didactic camp, with his concern for order. I think the book helps to explain the arguments of different Founding Fathers and the arguments and different emphases they made about forging the new nation.

Finally, for the last of your Benjamin Franklin books we have Alan Tully’s William Penn’s Legacy: Politics and Social Structure in Provincial Pennsylvania 1726-1755.

Yes. For me, Tully is a fascinating read, because his book puts the Pennsylvania Colony and its political struggles in perspective, and allows readers to situate Franklin in that setting. I leaned on it heavily for a couple of chapters when it came to trying to explain Pennsylvania politics, say from the 1740s, down to the founding of the United States, especially where Franklin was involved.

But it’s of interest before that. You have these different kinds of colonies in America with either royal charters, or proprietary colonies where a family like the Penns would have a charter from the king, but they could run their colony in some ways independently of the government’s apparatus. And that created all sorts of struggles in Pennsylvania, when the governor of Pennsylvania Colony is insisting on certain views, and the legislature wants other things from the proprietors. And a conflict between the executive branch and the legislative branch of the government follows. That, in some ways sets into motion tensions similar to those between say, the monarchy and parliament, or even the British government and the legislature.

“Franklin may have been a dissembler, or insincere in some ways. And that characterizes his diplomacy also in London and Paris at times”

Those political dynamics are very useful to understand. But Tully also explores the different kinds of Protestants in particular—although there were also Jews and Roman Catholics in the colony. Penn set it up so there was great religious freedom, unlike other colonies that were either Anglican or Puritan. And, what wound up happening is that oftentimes the political polarization in Pennsylvania mapped onto different strains of Protestantism, with the Quaker Party being one group but with Presbyterians, reformed Lutherans, and more traditional Protestant groups, going with the Proprietary Party. Franklin was in the mix of that trying to situate himself with those groups.

In the French and Indian War (or Seven Years War), which takes place between 1756 and 1763, which is a major turning point in relations between France and Britain, Britain gained control of a big swathe of North America after victory. The Quakers were ambivalent about that war, because they are pacifists and they were in this difficult situation of asking how they should defend a colony while holding on to Quaker beliefs at the same time?

Franklin is really good at negotiating the Quaker interests with other groups and he may have been a dissembler, or insincere in some ways. And that characterizes his diplomacy also in London and Paris at times. But he was pretty good at reading people and getting things done. So that’s the reason why I think that book is so useful.

What’s his present day reputation in the United States?

He’s out of the news, in large measure. There’s not a lot written about Franklin these days. But during the anti-slavery protests surrounding various monuments last summer, at the University of Pennsylvania, where the main administrative building is called Franklin Hall, they didn’t demand that his statue be taken down.

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There’s also a statue on campus of George Whitefield, the evangelist, Anglican priest, famous for the first Great Awakening, who went back on his views of slavery to introduce slavery into Georgia. He used slaves to help with his orphanage in Georgia. The University of Pennsylvania decided during the controversy to take the Whitefield statue down. But they also decided to keep Franklin up, even though Franklin had slaves at one point in his life, and even traveled to London with those slaves. But he was later a president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, toward the end of his life.

I think if you want to think about the American character, the American can-do spirit. Franklin embodies that America. When students in my courses encounter Franklin, they encounter somebody who explains a lot about the way America works. And there’s a way in which Franklin’s writing about Philadelphian and American politics or about family life captures something about the way American society works. And so in that way, he’s evergreen.

Interview by Benedict King

May 19, 2021

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D.G. Hart

D.G. Hart

is a native of suburban Philadelphia and teaches history at Hillsdale College.  He trained in U.S. history at Johns Hopkins University and is the author and editor of twenty books about religion, politics, and higher education in America.  He lives with his wife, Ann, and three cats in Hillsdale, Michigan.

D.G. Hart

D.G. Hart

is a native of suburban Philadelphia and teaches history at Hillsdale College.  He trained in U.S. history at Johns Hopkins University and is the author and editor of twenty books about religion, politics, and higher education in America.  He lives with his wife, Ann, and three cats in Hillsdale, Michigan.