Discuss the extent to which the writings of Benjamin Franklin can be seen to represent and/or undermine the idea of an American character Franklin although achieving much and gaining vast fame in his lifetime, has surpassed his reputation in death "" leaving scores of academics and critics to pore over his legacy, analysing his many written works and inventions to get to the heart of his character. Moreover, this character is one of the most celebrated and prolific in American history; according to Charles Sanford, Franklin is "perceived as the national character "" more representative than [George] Washington or [Abraham] Lincoln"Ã¯Â¿Â½ . Therefore I believe, that by principally examining Franklin's feted autobiography, one can investigate how and why a young runaway printer from Boston managed to become the "first true global celebrity"Ã¯Â¿Â½ . A personality who is remembered as not only indicative of, but creator of the American character.
It is widely noted that Americans, for the last three centuries have been taught to admire material success, the "frontier"Ã¯Â¿Â½ perhaps providing the economic basis for this lesson.
Max Weber, in his essay "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism"Ã¯Â¿Â½, argues that Puritanism is at the root of the developing capitalist society, the model upon which modern America is based. Franklin, emerging as a key figure of the Enlightenment, is no exception to America's continual appetite to accumulate wealth but actively encourages and stands for living by "industry and frugality"Ã¯Â¿Â½ . Often praised for his shrewd, self-disciplined strength and bold curiosity , Franklin was the personal embodiment of the conditions of capitalist success and the representation of the American Dream: to rise from obscurity and poverty to a life of wealth, comfort and notoriety in the dogged "pursuit of happiness"Ã¯Â¿Â½.
Yet, although defining the paradigm of America's success in representation and reputation, I find Franklin to symbolise in his penny-pinching ways and fanatical practicality, a perhaps unpraiseworthy aspect of New World inhabitants. To realise that Franklin was particularly pedantic in his methods is unavoidable when analysing the somewhat puritanical, moralistic, self-righteous nature he assumed in life, often reflected in his work. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his arduous task of compiling and living by the "thirteen virtues"Ã¯Â¿Â½ "" designed for the self-improvement of his character.
An earlier indication of this arcane behaviour can be found in the first part of Franklin's renowned autobiography. Presenting the appearance of being carefree and nonchalant in youth, Franklin reformed quickly in externals. In the public sphere, he began to depict the form of a hardworking entrepreneurial figure, simple in his content to speak through his paper and almanac. Not without a sense of self-satisfied success, he recalled: "In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances of the contrary. I dressed plain and was seen at no places of idle diversion"ÃÂ¦never went out fishing or shooting"ÃÂ¦gave no scandal"ÃÂ¦and I went on swimmingly."Ã¯Â¿Â½ This is telling of Franklin's acute awareness of the importance of public image (like any self-respecting American businessman or politician in modern times). Alongside shaping the portrayal of his working self, Franklin also made attempts to shake off the reputation he acquired as an atheist and "infidel"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Conscious of the unpopular label potentially detracting from any influence and importance he may later have, Franklin left Boston swiftly in 1723. Becoming a confirmed Deist later on in life, it appears that his questioning of the hierarchy of the constitutional church is an aspect of his personality perhaps undermining the national American character; both Tocqueville and Bryce agreed in calling the Americans the most moralistic and religious people on Earth "" yet Franklin is recognized to tailor his religious beliefs to suit his mode of thinking. He considered religion very much to be a matter of ethics and concluded "that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man"Ã¯Â¿Â½ and thus "God helps them that help themselves"Ã¯Â¿Â½.
By some critics belief, Franklin "was an out and out agnostic"Ã¯Â¿Â½, his "lack of interest in spiritual things allowed him to make a religion of babbittry"Ã¯Â¿Â½ . Despite this, it is apparent that this "great Yankee father"Ã¯Â¿Â½ retained the soul of a Puritan. Although it could be argued that Franklin had indeed an ambiguous relationship with religion, I feel he was a classic deist with great respect for the usefulness of the Bible: studied analysis of his writings, especially sections from Poor Richard's Almanac, often sound like devotional literature - filled with scriptural quotations and allusions, usually from the Proverbs. Moreover, Franklin's quest to enhance and perfect his character not only illustrates his sheer determination, emphasis on self-improvement and sense of high moral worth, but perhaps also points to the early influence of Mather's "Essays to do Good"Ã¯Â¿Â½ in his lifetime; removing the doubt of Franklin's supposed non-belief in religious virtues.
However, having examined the many exhaustive stories accounted in Franklin's autobiography, I could not help but feel an element of hypocrisy surrounding the purportedly "great and eminent benefactor to mankind"Ã¯Â¿Â½ . His list of "erratum"Ã¯Â¿Â½, including escaping slyly from indentures with his brother, carrying the large sum of Vernon's debt and "under no Religious Restraints"Ã¯Â¿Â½ attempting to seduce his friend, Ralph's girlfriend are possibly symptomatic of Franklin's duplicitous nature. It is made evident to the reader that Franklin's moral values too, are vulnerable to corruptibility. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that as Franklin himself recorded these events with such a grave seriousness and almost parodying sense of regret, his faults serve the purpose in presenting to his audience a fallible character that can be related to by the common man.