Interview: Benjamin Franklin

Posted on 09/01/04

Poor Richard's Influence

J. A. Leo Lemay is the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Professor of English at the University of Delaware. He was named the Distinguished Scholar of Early American Literature by the Early American Literature Group of the Modern Language Association, as well as a John Guggenheim Fellow by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has written seven books and edited nine on early American history and literature, including Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective. The first two volumes of his projected seven-volume biography of Franklin have recently been published. Rosalind Remer, Executive Director of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Commission and an early American historian, recently spoke with Leo Lemay about Franklin's views on thrift.

Rosalind Remer: I thought we would pursue two angles with regard to Franklin and thrift. One is the historical angle, that is, how thrift came to be a formative characteristic in Franklin's life. I guess we come to know something about that from his autobiography but you must also know about it from his other writings. The second part would be a consideration of how thrift has come to be associated with Franklin in the generations after his death. So, if you want to start with the first part, the question would be: What role did thrift, as a character trait, play in the formation of Franklin's early character?

Leo Lemay: Well, as you know, Franklin celebrates middle-class virtues. As a young man especially, it was necessary for him to be frugal, to try to amass some money, which he gradually did. But it was a long process, and so he celebrates the middle-class virtues that got him there. Now, in his day, of course, these ideas are revolutionary. That is, in The Way to Wealth and in his presentation of himself in the Autobiography [of Benjamin Franklin], he portrays a social world that doesn't exist. That is, the world that exists is one that idealizes gentlemen. It idealizes the lack of labor, and certainly the lack of any physical labor. A gentleman inherits his money and lives without doing anything. This is the general idea, not only in England, and to some degree in America, but in the Western world as a whole in the eighteenth century. There are a few people who disagreed with that ideal and Franklin, of course, was among them.

The Way to Wealth appealed to the French intellectuals, to the aristocrats of France. To those who were thinking that there should be some different and better system, The Way to Wealth pointed it out. It was a way for the normal person, through industry and frugality, to attain a life of freedom and independence.

Of course, it's important to keep in mind that in the eighteenth century you were imprisoned for debt. Franklin's would-be patron, Sir William Keith, the governor of Pennsylvania for seven years from the 1720s to early 1730s, was constantly on the verge of debt because he spent too much all the time.

RR: So you think Franklin was really trying to counter that model?

LL: Yes. And he knew that model extremely well. Keith wound up then in debtors' prison and died there in London's Old Bailey. So this negative example is one that was all around you. That is, people were commonly imprisoned for debt. Now Keith, of course, was in prison for large amounts of debt and he earned more money by far than most people. He would have been certainly in the top 10 percent of the earners in the eighteenth century. But he wasn't frugal at all.

Keith promised Franklin he would set him up in business when he returned from London and promised Franklin a line of credit in London. But when Franklin traveled to London he was told that Keith had no credit to give.

RR: So how important was it to Franklin that he managed in that case to sort of skirt the dangers of credit and debt? Did his views on thrift correlate with the idea of not becoming indebted?

LL: Absolutely, and that's what he advised time and again to all of his younger friends who started up in business. Not only did he try to avoid debt as much as possible, but also to avoid giving credit. A normal printer, like Benjamin Franklin, wound up being owed at least one-third of what he made. That is, if you sold a newspaper back then, you know, it was sold on credit and people often wouldn't pay. And, of course, you could ultimately prosecute them, but that was an expensive process.

So Franklin was always advising people to be frugal and to be industrious. And he forwarded the idea that work is noble. Work is good. Labor, the usefulness of someone contributing to society, is absolutely good. To be useful is much better than to be wealthy. He praised that from the very beginning to the end of his life. He praised it in the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1776. He praised it in Information for Those Who Would Remove to America in 1784. And all of this, in the eighteenth century, is absolutely unusual. It was in contradiction with the normal ideas of wealth, gentility, and behavior of the eighteenth century.

RR: Were there other people writing like this or was he really out there in front?

LL: Well, there were always some people writing like it. His childhood role model, the Reverend John Wise, was the most popular minister of his day in America. And he was the great leader of the Old Charter party. Wise, a charity boy at Harvard and a son of an indentured servant, was a brilliant guy. He told the Royal Governor that he would not pay the taxes excepting those levied by his own representatives. No taxation without representation.

Wise was the hero, politically, of Massachusetts and was someone who prized work and prized the farmer. Wise's position was somewhat unusual. Franklin surely knew him. Franklin very probably had something to do with the printing of his tract, which urged that paper money be established. And Franklin, of course, does the same thing later for Pennsylvania, and generally, he continues the kinds of attitudes that Wise portrayed. Both Franklin and Wise, then, wrote in favor of the common man and wanting the common man to be self-sufficient. It was more about the utility of what people did. When people came to America, they were asked what can you do, not who they knew or who they were.

RR: Was there a connection between thrift and religion?

LL: No, I don't really think so.

RR: So, why was John Wise writing about this?

LL: It was something more general to Puritans. Puritans generally prized thrift. However, that's generally true of Protestants and, for that matter, of Christianity.

RR: Did Franklin have a particularly Puritan take on thrift?

LL: I don't think there was one. It's a glib generalization of the twentieth century to think so, but clearly it's not something Puritan historians talk about. The New England theology of seventeenth and eighteenth century doesn't talk specifically about thrift.

RR: I'm wondering what stories from Franklin's youth you think most capture his early ideas about thrift, or the way that thrift was formative to his character?

LL: Franklin proposed the Society for the Free and Easy, around 1730, when he's in his mid-twenties. The Society would have members go through hard work to be free from debt. Being free from debt meant that they could be free to do other kinds of things they wanted to do with their lives. Also, in The Way to Wealth, Franklin said you should preserve your freedom, maintain your independence, be industrious and free, be frugal and free. To be thrifty was to prepare to be free.

RR: Are there other stories in his childhood that may have led to this thrifty outlook?

LL: There is a story in the Autobiography about his buying a whistle as a young boy.

He told this to his French friends in the early 1780s. He said that when he was a boy he was given some money to buy a present and he went down the street and he saw another little boy with a whistle. The boy was whistling on it and Franklin liked the sound so much that he gave him all the money he had - ten cents or something - for the whistle. When he got home, everyone made fun of him because it should have cost four cents, not ten cents. He was very upset and made it into a little moral about not paying too much. It became a lesson about people paying too much for any number of things, whether it was power or anything else.

RR: I have always wondered if it was just something about Franklin that he was always looking to draw moral conclusions or lessons, or was that just a typical eighteenth-century thing to do?

LL: An eighteenth-century thing to do. On the other hand, it was certainly characteristic of almanacs, so when you see Poor Richard or any of the things you see come out of Poor Richard, including The Way to Wealth, you see that. His Autobiography was addressed to his son, to make it into something like a typical eighteenth century etiquette book - how to behave, how to do things. That's what he is saying by putting it into the form he did. Later, he added the date to strengthen the appearance of it being a letter to his son. It was meant for someone who was a youth, even though his son was by that time already a successful royal governor. So, it really wasn't meant for him.

RR: Was Franklin himself, in your view, a thrifty man?

LL: Yes. He was absolutely thrifty as a young man. And when he wrote the "Busy Body Papers," Franklin's former boss Samuel Keimer felt himself attacked in it and replied by trying to make
fun of Franklin. Keimer refers to Franklin wearing an old threadbare, secondhand, great big coat. And that's in effect what Poor Richard does at the end of The Way to Wealth: he goes away resolved to wear his old coat a little longer.

RR: So far you've been talking about thrift as a means to self-improvement and preventing indebtedness and to produce a state of individual freedom, but what about thrift as a social characteristic? Was there an aspect of Franklin's thrift that relates to his civic activities?

LL: They are related. In the list of virtues that talks about spending money, he says, basically, "Don't spend money except to do good for others." So, the idea that spending money to help others is fine - just don't waste it.

RR: I was thinking, for instance, of the formation of the Library Company - the idea of the young men of Franklin's acquaintance pooling their money to buy books from England. That was a kind of thriftiness, but also a way to collectively be thrifty and therefore, get more.

LL: Exactly. Franklin functioned a lot with associations - getting other people to do what he wanted to see done. There's a lot more you can accomplish that way than by yourself. In a way, it's perfect because no single person gives a lot of money for the Library Company, but collectively, it is a great deal. Each one of them is being thrifty, but they're making collectively a great investment.

RR: To get to the second theme I'd like to cover, let's talk about the idea of thriftiness as an essential part of his legacy. Why do you think Americans have come to think of him as almost synonymous with thrift?

LL: Well, it's true! It's mainly because of the Autobiography and The Way to Wealth. These are great popular works. And everyone knew them in the nineteenth century. Society in the nineteenth century prized hard work, prized the fact that individuals could transform themselves. That was what Franklin was saying in the eighteenth century.

Society at large in the nineteenth century seemed to take a special interest in the idea of the self-made man and the possibility of transforming yourself. These are ideas that are implicit in egalitarianism. The focus on popular education in the nineteenth century is one effect of this. Even portraits in the nineteenth century tended to feature people doing something related to their work, things that are obviously useful. This would have been very unusual in the eighteenth century. In a way, Franklin is the eighteenth century progenitor of this characteristic of the nineteenth century.

RR: Were there portraits of Franklin painted while he was at work in his trade or are more of them from when he has already "arrived"?

LL: The portraits were commissioned by others. Even his friends sometimes tried to ennoble him: they tried to make him fancy, which ran counter to Franklin's own sense of himself. We know this, by the way, from the words that began his will, "Benjamin Franklin, Printer." When his wife writes him for the first time, after he's in England, she calls him "The Honorable," and he tells her, "Don't call me 'the honorable,' just plain Mr. Franklin."

RR: How did Franklin compare to the other Founders in terms of his thriftiness?

LL: When Jefferson went on his first diplomatic mission, he bought very expensive china. Franklin instead bought very inexpensive china. In another instance, while he was abroad, Franklin was getting too caught up in processing passports and things, so he went out and bought a little press and printed the passports and forms himself.

RR: Any further thoughts on Franklin and thrift?

LL: As American society became less stratified in the nineteenth century, it was to some extent as a result of understanding thrift as an important value, and that was partly thanks to Franklin.