Benjamin Franklin and the American Philosophy

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, on January 1706. Little more than two years younger than Jonathan Edwards, that may have been the only point on which he was close to Edwards. The youngest son among his father’s 17 children, Franklin was quick enough mentally, that Josiah Franklin paid to have the boy put to the grammar school at eight years of age, with the view towards devoting young Benjamin to the service of the Church. That lasted for only a year.

In 1718, young Benjamin was apprentice to his older brother James, a printer. Printers occupy an unusual place in the intellectual history of early America. If the clergy were the aristocrats of the mind, printers were its men of all work; since printers lived by publishing newspapers, almanacs and books. They were not supported by a salary paid by compulsory taxes the way the clergy were, they had to sell their own products. And in order to make a profit from that, they had to be well-read themselves, so that they could pick up from European book sellers things likely to sell in America, or publish works which they were confident will sell in their own shops.

Printers were a unique class, they had one foot in the world of tradesmen who worked with their hands and the other foot in the literate world of transatlantic books and periodicals.

The insider’s view of the world of the printers inclined them to skepticism, even when they even may had some profits from selling religious books. Into this world, Benjamin Franklin fit like a hand to a glove.

While working for his brother, he perpetrated the first of his many literary hoaxes by submitting a series of letters to Cotton Mather in particular and Harvard College in general. James Franklin unwillingly published these letters, and then, when he discovered that it was his brother who had actually written them, fired young Benjamin, who left the town. On October 6th 1723, he arrived to Philadelphia.

Franklin set up his own printing shop, and by the 1730’s, he began issuing a highly popular newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He won very profitable printing contracts from the Pennsylvania assembly. He invested in a series of franchise print shops in Indianapolis, Savannah, Newcastle, New London and Boston. He issued a successful annual almanac, Poor Richard's Almanack. He even wangled the unofficial designation as George Whitefield’s printer of choice, thereby earning a fortune from the sales of Whitefield’s journals and other books.

Looking for a New Religion

At age 42, Benjamin Franklin was wealthy enough to commission the painting of his portrait and to turn the printing business to a partner, so that he could devote himself to the philosophical interests which had increasingly come to dominate his attention.

Benjamin Franklin always nursed something of the bitterness that often accompanies people who are aware of their intellectual talents, but who had been stopped by circumstances from cultivating them. The wealth he had earned in printing now gave him that chance. He was determined to show how much better he could manage on his own. He taught himself languages, he won appointments to political offices. He founded the club which became the American Philosophical Society, the library which became the Library Company, and the school which became the Academy of Philadelphia.

He tried to attend the city’s Presbyterian Church, as the closest thing to the Congregationalism in which he had been raised in Boston; but he had no time for the polemic arguments of the minister, Jedediah Andrews. What Franklin really wanted to hear was about moral principles, and so not hearing that from Jedediah Andrews, he stayed at home and devised his own version of rational Enlightened religion.

Benjamin the Scientist and Inventor

But what gained Franklin the international notice he really craved, were his experiments in electricity. Electricity was, so to speak, a mysterious force in the Enlightenment. Isaac Newton defined the motion of the universe as the action, not of qualities within substances or divine decrees, but of a force: gravity. It was a force that was impersonal, and which was capable of being computed mathematically. Electricity was a good candidate for a second such force, specially after Newton’s disciple, Francis Hauksbee, was able to generate electrical bursts by rubbing glass.

Unlike gravity, generating electricity by means of a friction machine was a lot more of fun. Franklin was captivated by electricity from the first time he saw one of these demonstrations in 1746. But his interests pointed beyond entertainment to real science. In 1747, Franklin sent a series of letters to the Royal Society in London, demonstrating that lighting was in fact a form of electricity. This was actually a pretty serious assertion, because lighting was regarded in this overwhelmingly agricultural society as a mysterious and capricious force at best, and even a sign of divine wrath.

Redefining lighting as electricity instantly downgraded it to the level of a natural force, and made it potentially as manipulable as gravity. Partly, this satisfied Franklin’s skeptical religious reflexes. It also gave him the satisfaction of having tumbled to a scientific insight almost as significant as Newton’s about gravity.

But the Royal Society ignored his letters and his pretensions to gentlemanly science. Franklin was forced to work around the Royal Society in order to get recognition, by publishing “Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin” in April 1751. The book eventually went through five editions, and translations into Italian, French and German. Nothing, said Joseph Priestley, was ever written upon the subject of electricity which was more generally read and admired in all parts of Europe than these letters.

Almost as an afterthought, in 1752, Franklin published an account of a further experiment with lightening and electricity, flying a kite with a key in a thunder storm, to demonstrate that lightening could be drawn naturally like any other form of electricity. There is no evidence that Franklin actually attempted this experiment himself, and with a good reason, because anyone who reflects for a moment such an experiment, would realize that this is a very direct way of getting oneself killed. In fact, the famous kite and key experiment may have merely been Franklin’s way of suggesting one of the various means by which the members of the Royal Society could all electrocute themselves.

Franklin and The American Philosophical Society

Franklin was not the only Philadelphian who founded the city’s love of science. He was not, in fact, even the most influential of them, largely because, after 1757, Franklin spent most of the next 20 years in England and Europe, acting as agent and representative for Pennsylvania and the other colonies in London. The real center of Philadelphia’s Enlightenment would be the American Philosophical Society, modeled on a private club Franklin had once organized, the Junto, and now revivified as a colonial scientific society. Twice a month, between October and May; and once a month during the summer, members of the American Philosophical Society, who totaled 251 by 1769, met in Philadelphia to hear scientific papers read, participate in discussions of scientific subjects, and to look over new books received for the Society’s library.

First among equals in the American Philosophical Society was Ebenezer Kinnersley, a one time Baptist minister who criticized the Awakening and its "preaching of terror" in favor of a religion of reason, and who became Franklin’s chief apprentice as a scientific and electrical experimenter. Francis Allison, take another case, was an anti-revivalist Presbyterian minister who “may stand against enthusiasm and wild disorders that are likely to destroy religion and even ruin our churches”.

Two prominent physicians also stood out from the membership of the APS, William Shippen and Benjamin Rush, both of whom were trained in the very epicenter of the Scottish Enlightenment, the University of Edimburg.

But the most talented of all Philadelphians was the shy mathematician and instrument maker, David Rittenhouse, who joined the APS in 1768; and who was theorist enough to solve the problem of determining from a few observations the orbit of a comet, and also mechanic enough to make with his own hands a telescope. There was a man after Benjamin Franklin’s own heart. When the APS joined, in the single greatest scientific experiment of the Enlightenment, the worldwide sighting of the sun’s transit of Venus in 1769, it was Rittenhouse who was commissioned to build the astronomical clock necessary to time the transit.

It has been easy to mistake Kinnersley and the others as mere extensions of Franklin’s interest, or to assume that like Rittenhouse, they were all dedicated to the enterprise of reducing the universe to mere clockwork. But in fact, there was a serious parting of the ways between Franklin and the rest of the Philadelphian Enlightenment. That parting of the ways occurred principally on the subject of religion.

Franklin’s Deism and the Religion of Philadelphia

Benjamin Franklin was, at best, a Deist. Deism was the Enlightenment’s shorthand way of describing someone who rejected traditional Christianity as irrational, but who retained belief in some sort of deity, who could be defined in reasonable terms and does not interfere with the operation of Isaac Newton’s laws. Franklin himself defined his own Deism in terms of five highly minimalistic principles.

  • That there is one god who made all things.
  • He governs the world by his providence.
  • He ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer and thanksgiving; but that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.
  • The soul is immortal.
  • God will reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.

The Philadelphian Enlightenment, however, had a much more expansive view of religion than Benjamin Franklin. For Kinnersley, the purpose of science was to dispel superstition, but also to open the path to an accurate appreciation of God’s glory.

Francis Allison taught that God actively directed the nature, powers, orders, changes and connections of all things, and will never allow the universe to spiral down into the vortex of what Allison called blind chance.

Like the Scottish Enlightenment, Philadelphia’s religion was balanced between nature and grace. Natural law was held and understood to explain a great deal, but it did not explain everything; just as by the same token, the Bible, as God’s revelation of his purposes, explained a great deal but not with absolute certainty. Divine revelation and religious intuition formed the first principles of human knowledge, but a second step into scientific experiment and investigation was needed to confirm and expand upon that grace.

The Philadelphian Enlightenment embraced a mix of faith and skepticism, of nature and grace. Once again, this offers us the image of Puritanism and the Enlightenment stirring the intellectual history of America.

The Decline of Philadelphia

Philadelphia might had a better chance of making Philadelphia’s Enlightenment into America’s philosophy, had it not been for the battering Philadelphia received during the Revolution. Occupied by the British in 1777, and then trampled over by radical Revolution mobs in the 1780’s, many of the institution and individuals on which Philadelphia’s Enlightenment had rested, either disappeared or reappeared diminished.

Benjamin Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1775, but only to be sent a year later to France to bring the French to Revolutionary’s Americas aid. He did not return for a decade, and he died in 1790.

Rittenhouse died in 1796, having been passed over by the APS for the delivery of Franklin’s eulogy. Benjamin Rush died in 1813, after furiously trying to persuade Philadelphians that the recurring yellow fever epidemics were best cured by purging and bleeding. Somehow they never made the connection with those clouds of mosquitoes.

The APS itself met only intermittently during revolutionary crisis, and they stopped meeting altogether after 1776 for the duration of the war. The Academy of Philadelphia was shut down by the revolutionaries, and the university operated by the Pennsylvania legislature was erected in its place not until 1790. Philadelphia, which had functioned as the political center of America as its revolutionary capital, and then as its capital under the new Constitution from 1790 to 1800, lost that title and lost that central political position in American affairs to the new Federal District of Columbia. By 1800, Philadelphia’s Enlightenment, if not exactly over, was certainly moribund. The task of making the spirit of Puritanism and the Enlightenment work together now fell to other hands.