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The Politics of Ambition: A New Look at Benjamin Franklin's Career MARC EGNAL Mostwriting on the personality and career of Benjamin Franklin has rested on the assumption that his Autobiography and other public tracts present a reasonably accurateportrayal of the man. Critics have found in the memoirs the hallmarks of acomplexpersonality, and have enumerated a now familiar set of traits. One set ofqualities Franklin underscored in the Autobiography, the almanacs, and elsewhere is hard work and frugality. "I mention this industry the more particularly and the more freely," he notes in the memoirs, "though it seems to be talking in myown praise, that those of my posterity who shall read it, may know the use of that virtue when they see its effects in my favour throughout this relation." 1 Equally notable is the printer's dedication to civic virtue. After discussing the cityand provincial offices to which he was chosen, he observes: "They were still more pleasing as being so many spontaneous testimonies of the public's good opinion and by me entirely unsolicited." 2 In addition, Franklin's self-portrait makes clear his wiliness, inventiveness, humor, and human frailty. Disputes amongscholars over the printer's nature all too often have turned on the question ofweighting these components. 3 A reexamination of Franklin's worldly progress suggests that this "first of Americans" had another side not depicted in his better known writing. The Autobiography, while seeming to paint Franklin complete with blemishes, ambitions , and self-interested behavior, ignores one of the chief means of his ascent: the calculated, and often unprincipled, search for higher office and increased personal power. While this quest for position at times harmonized with or at least did not interfere with the high-minded causes he espoused, in other cases ambition and virtue clashed. And repeatedly Franklin compromised his principlesto further his personal ends. Ifwe take as our criteria the private morality and serviceto the state which Franklin espoused, his career contains far more serious transgressions than the "errata" he confesses to in his memoirs. Explaining the printer's rise in the world is a task fraught with difficulties. Despite his extensive correspondence and public writings, the details of much of his life remain hidden; frequently we must thread a path between clues and conjecture. "Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly," was adviceFranklin took to heart. Franklin conceals from the reader the memorials he submitted, the money he spent, and the elaborate plans he laid to secure various positions. Also he turns us away from important episodes in which the public interest was subordinated to his personal ambitions. Perhaps the prime example THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO. 2, FALL 1975 of Franklin's quiet but expansive ambition was his quest, lasting from 1755to 1768, for the governorship of Pennsylvania. His ambitions during this periodalthough rarely confessed - left a distinct and often unflattering imprint on his other actions. The rereading of Franklin's career that follows is frankly a construct . But hopefully this portrait, which at points relies on deduction to bridge gaps and which repeatedly contradicts Franklin's own account of his life, will bring us closer to knowing a complex and often secretive man. To begin with, it must be granted that, as with other myths, there was an element of truth in the one Franklin created. Young Franklin evidently was a hard-working printer. He succeeded in Philadelphia while Samuel Keimer, an older, less disciplined craftsman, went into bankruptcy. After he retired from active printing in 1748, Franklin became a diligent administrator and an able legislator. And Franklin did show a strong public spirit, both in his promotion of various projects in Philadelphia, and by his stand on larger issues. He had a well worked out view of empire, and was concerned to enlarge the powers of the colonial legislatures. Franklin's contribution in these areas has been justly emphasized , by the printer himself and by later writers. 4 But granting some truth to the myth is not to endorse it wholeheartedly. There is another important and less flattering side to Ben's activities, one that has been minimized or ignored by Franklin...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 151-164
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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