- Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies
In Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies, Robert Middlekauff stresses what he calls the “organizing animosities” of Franklin’s political life—the anger Franklin inspired and sometimes felt as his career evolved from Thomas Penn’s provincial antagonist in Pennsylvania affairs to an implacable enemy of the British empire. The familiar strictures of D. H. Lawrence or Mark Twain, Middlekauff observes, are mild in comparison with the eighteenth-century assaults that Franklin evoked. William Smith, Richard Peters, and Robert Hunter Morris regularly slandered Franklin as a conspiratorial demagogue, “delirious with rage” at the refusal of William Penn to assume a fair share of the tax burden to support Pennsylvania’s defense. Later in Franklin’s life, a series of British ministers and American diplomats treated him with varying mixtures of scorn, jealousy, and suspicion. Ralph Izard, the American commissioner to Tuscany in 1777, declared Franklin to be “as great a Villain as ever breathed,” a master of “Art, cunning, and Hypocricy” (164). What emerges most vividly from Middlekauff’s account of eighteenth-century political passions is not Franklin’s participation in these rancorous feelings so much as his comparative restraint. Though Middlekauff insists that Franklin’s own feelings at various points in his life verged on the obsessive, the uncontrollable, or the violent, he offers little textual evidence to support this judgment. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies begins with a splendid chapter on Franklin’s lifelong capacity for sustained friendship, which subsequent assertions regarding his susceptibility to crippling anger are never able to displace. Middlekauff’s predicament grows especially acute in his account of Franklin’s dealings with John Adams between 1778 and 1783, when Adams joined Franklin in France, first as a member of the American diplomatic commission and, later, as a colleague during peace negotiations with Britain. As readers of Joseph Ellis’s Passionate Sage will recall, with the possible exception of his remarkable marriage, John Adams did not have untroubled personal relationships. His encounter with Benjamin Franklin was no exception. Franklin was [End Page 585] much too intimate with the French foreign minister Vergennes for Adams’s taste, and Vergennes, in turn, favored Franklin with confidences that aroused Adams’s distrust. By 1779 Adams was referring to Franklin as the “Old Conjuror,” a less than convincing basis for Middlekauff’s claim that Adams felt “poisonous” feelings for Franklin. The Adams-Franklin relationship is much less richly documented than the Adams-Jefferson antagonism and rapprochement, but it shares some of the complexity of that pairing, a complexity to which the categorical term “enemy” seems misapplied. Middlekauff offers a necessary corrective to twentieth-century readers who conclude, on the basis of the subtle self-portrait in the Autobiography, that Franklin lived an emotionally impoverished life. That misreading of the Autobiography is also, Middlekauff argues, a misreading of history. But the counterevidence he assembles has less to do with pervasive animosities than with a moving summation of Franklin’s extraordinary impact upon his friends and his unflagging aptitude for friendship, even in the midst of an angry world.