Special interview: Nick Bunker, author of YOUNG BENJAMIN FRANKLIN – THE BIRTH OF INGENUITY

What else can one say about Ben Franklin? Quite a lot, I’ve found. Nick Bunker’s new biography is an astute, informative and thorough delight, and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to interview him. I had much more to address and ask about (Franklin’s remarkable ancestry, his inventions, his discoveries with the Leiden jar and electricity, his Junto club, the political conflicts he was involved in), but…for us time and Web space are finite.


DAVID: Honestly, I’m seldom curious about great persons’ early years, preferring to learn about them in their prime and beyond. However, your Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity is a delightful exception. Besides your research and attractive writing, I credit Franklin’s precocity, his eclecticism and ceaseless achievement – and his auspicious ancestry of Franklins who you say “strove always to be ingenious.” What inspired you to focus on his forebears and him as an up-and-comer rather than the sagacious owl everyone recognizes?

NICK: In my previous book, An Empire On The Edge, there were sections where I explored Franklin’s predicament in London in the 1770s, before and after the Boston Tea Party, as he became increasingly disillusioned with the British authorities and their clumsy, short-sighted policies towards their American colonies. Studying his correspondence, I found myself falling under Franklin’s spell. Then I read Stacy Schiff’s wonderful book A Great Improvisation, which deals with his diplomatic career in Paris after 1776. I began to wonder: could I write something similar, but focused on the other end of Benjamin Franklin’s life? I knew that his early years had been neglected by most biographers. This was partly because they were keen to skip forward to the great achievements of his maturity, and partly because of the scarcity of source material other than his own memoirs. I felt that I might be able to add value by producing new evidence about the young Franklin and his forebears, and by placing him and his family firmly in their historical setting. Which meant: seventeenth-century England and early eighteenth-century America.


DAVID: You say that our remembrance of Franklin as “the apostle of hard work, temperance, and self-control…is the way he hoped to be remembered.” History’s idealizing force added to his persona-construction made him synonymous with spit-shined virtue, inviting either genuflection or sneers, such as ever-iconoclastic Mark Twain mocking him as a fun-ruining pedagogue. Biographer Edmund Morgan says that Franklin “is not so easy to know as he sometimes seems to be” and that “he kept a kind of inner core of himself intact and unapproachable.” Similarly, you observe that “after a lifetime’s study of the man, scholars sometimes come away feeling that Franklin will always slip through our fingers.” Isn’t biographizing always how Citizen Kane’s Thompson put it: “playing with a jigsaw puzzle?” Do you feel that you know Franklin – or did he slip through your fingers as well?

NICK: I’m so pleased that you mention that marvelous film, Citizen Kane! Sometimes I did feel that I was like the reporter in the movie, looking for the secret of a man’s life. In the film, the director Orson Welles doesn’t just give us his newspaper tycoon, Charles Foster Kane, he also gives us American history, filled with conflict, unrest and dynamic social change, from the 1890s and the Spanish-American War until the eve of Pearl Harbor. So that although we never quite discover the secret of Mr. Kane, we do come away feeling that we know far more about the times in which he lived, and about how they felt to the human beings immersed in them.

In Young Benjamin Franklin, I’m writing about another ambitious, energetic, complex character who wanted to be part of every great new movement of his era, whether it had to with journalism and literature, or with frontier expansion, religion or science. I try to show Franklin and his family grappling with the issues of their period – my intention being that as we see their lives unfold, so gradually we come to understand more about him, about them, and about colonial America. I’ll leave it to readers to say whether or not I’ve been successful.


DAVID: Biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen fawningly describes Franklin as “one of those men who was born with a cheerful disposition” and claims that he didn’t have a “tragic sense of life,” which falls in line with your observation that “we think of Franklin as the master of the positive.” Because of this, spiteful D.H. Lawrence accused him of trying to futilely fence off the unpredictable wildness of our dark-forest souls. However, you perceive Franklin as pervious to “inner conflict” and having “an undercurrent of anxiety,” calling him “an oracle at peace with himself, or so it seemed.” What was “behind the mask of serenity,” to use of phrase of yours? Wasn’t fundamental pessimism necessary for the creation of the Augustinian U.S. Constitution, as opposed to, say, the rise of Saint Guillotine from the atrocious French Revolution’s Pelagian optimism? How might Franklin have reacted to beloved France’s eventual bloodgasm had he lived longer?

NICK: We mustn’t try to make Benjamin Franklin a symbol for everything we mean by the word “America.” Nor should we see his early life as merely a prelude to the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of 1787. The young Franklin lived his life one week or one month at a time. He had to train as a printer, and then grind out his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, issue by issue, without knowing that one day there were would be a republic called the United States, or a civil war fought about slavery, or the great industrial nation that arose thereafter.

If Franklin’s soul contained an undercurrent of anxiety, and I certainly think it did, his insecurities had nothing specifically to do with his being an American. They arose from his profound awareness that whatever your origins – American, English, German, or any other – in the eighteenth-century failure, death and destitution might lie in wait around every corner. The 1700s were a cruel, treacherous period, “an age without a safety net,” as I put it in the book. I see Benjamin Franklin as a human being who sincerely felt that things did not have to be this way forever. And so he committed himself to the task of trying to make the lives of his fellow human beings less treacherous, less cruel, and more secure and happy. As for the question of how Franklin would have reacted to Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in Paris, he would have been horrified. And astonished too, as so many of his contemporaries were.


DAVID: Later in life Franklin publicly downplayed his former brash religious skepticism, since, as you put it, “for political reasons, he could not afford to be seen as a man who did not care for faith or conventional morality.” Hence his surfing on the fervent Great Awakening, during which, as he said, “it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious,” and his affiliation with heretical preacher Sam Hemphill and ranting Itinerant George Whitefield. Considering many American Forefathers’ unorthodoxy, including that of “conservative” Franklin-antagonist John Adams, how credible is the popular Judeo-Christian foundation notion? Why do you say that Franklin saw faith as “a force that might help to build and to preserve a republic?” Also, what changed between his determinist (bugglegum-David Hume?) Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity and, say, his Articles and Acts statement? What about his involvement in Freemasonry?

NICK: In the 21st century, when historians have already written scores of  books about the religious beliefs of the Founders, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone to be told that Franklin, Thomas Jefferson or John Adams were free-thinking people who didn’t subscribe to orthodox Christian theology. This is a matter of historical fact which by now ought to be well known. Nobody should find it shocking or paradoxical. What’s original in Young Benjamin Franklin is the way I trace the gradual evolution of his thinking about God, about faith, and about the role of religion in society, from his boyhood in Boston until he reached a sort of philosophical resting place in his middle age. Franklin did indeed have an atheist phase at about the age of eighteen or nineteen, when he was in London and writing the Dissertation that you mention. By the time he was 25 he had left this far behind him. Instead he developed his own synthetic religion, built from poetry, science and everyday benevolence, but including belief in a Creator.

What had changed? Freemasonry was certainly important for Franklin. This was because the Supreme Being whom the Masons revered was an ecumenical kind of deity with whom a future scientist could feel comfortable. But if I had to sum up Franklin’s religious thinking in a single word, I would call him a pragmatist. What the Great Awakening taught him was this: that strongly held religious faith – which in his period in America almost had to mean Christianity – was a permanent feature of the American scene. You couldn’t abolish it, even should you wish to. Instead you had to understand why faith mattered so much to so many people, and how it could help to minister to human well-being and to social justice.


DAVID: Though Ray Bradbury claimed that Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t about censorship but showed how “so much useless information” could glut a diverse, democratic people to the point of book repudiation, it is about censorship. Book-burning boss Beatty rejoices that “technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick” for the sake of mass happiness. Franklin’s “Apology for Printers,” stressing “that if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed,” seems to sum up today’s censorial “safe zones,” “trigger warnings” and political correctness. What do you think, and how would Franklin take our offense-obsessed society?

NICK: I’m a historian and biographer, not a columnist. As for Benjamin Franklin, well, the very young, argumentative, journalistic Franklin, who enjoyed upsetting people in his brother’s newspaper, The New England Courant, would find today’s polarized United States a very appealing environment. He’d have endless opportunities for satire and for controversial copy. He wouldn’t hesitate to offend his readers, and he’d happily switch back and forth between sides if he felt so inclined. The mature Dr Franklin – scientist, diplomat, and politician – would be a very different story. If the grownup Franklin returned to the USA in 2018, he wouldn’t be surprised to find people angrily divided about so many issues, political or otherwise, because he was fully accustomed to that in his own epoch. But he would be disappointed – especially by the lack of civility in the public arena.


DAVID: In regard to what is one of my favorite focuses in the book, you say that “perhaps the most difficult problem to face [for] anyone who writes about Franklin” is the dearth of information about his wife Deborah, who’s certainly short-shrifted in his autobiography. Young Benjamin Franklin admirably gives Deborah her due, such as in this passage that addresses Franklin’s rude spousal etceterization:

With those hasty “etceteras,” Franklin dismissed the woman he had chosen as his partner. Then he hurried on to write about himself, telling us next to nothing about Deborah. He also made a curious omission. He forgot to mention this: she kept his firm’s accounts.

Franklin certainly wasn’t frigid, so was this a purely practical marriage? Also, for someone scarcely fleshed out, Deborah is covered quite a lot in your book. How did you go about investigating her?

NICK: As a historian, one simply has to do one’s best. And so I looked for evidence about Deborah wherever I thought it might be found, whether in English records relating to her family, in contemporary books or newspapers, or in archives or other material in Philadelphia. The important things are persistence and context. If you stop thinking of Deborah Read Franklin as simply the great man’s partner, and instead you see her as someone with her own forebears and cultural heritage, her own friends and her own career and beliefs, then the scope of the inquiry widens and the range of relevant material expands as well. Her marriage to Benjamin? Close and affectionate until the 1750s, but practical too. And then, after 1757 – and this is a statement of the obvious – their relationship became increasingly remote, as Franklin became in effect an adopted English citizen during his two long spells of residence in London.


DAVID: Franklin took to heart Daniel Defoe’s “ingenuity and improvement” prescription for aspiring achievers, and, as you observe, he was fortunate to have matured during a long period of peace and flourishment. In contrast, Twain said “anybody could have done it” in regard to Franklin’s Philadelphia success. Would Franklin be considered as extraordinarily extraordinary had he not been involved in the American Revolution: instead revered as, say, “the American heir to Sir Isaac Newton,” to quote your book?

NICK: Preparation. That’s the additional item you’ve forgotten to mention. Mark Twain was suggesting that Franklin was simply lucky enough to be in the right place (Philadelphia) at the right time: the 1730s and 1740s, when the city and the colony around it were on a roll. But what this leaves out is Franklin’s very determined efforts to educate and train himself, as a printer and man of letters, and as a physicist. For example: long before he began his experiments with electricity at the end of 1746, Franklin had studied the best scientific textbooks and journal articles from Europe. Having read so widely and so deeply, he already knew that electricity was a subject of fundamental importance. Hence Franklin’s mounting excitement as he found himself solving electrical problems that his predecessors – including Newton – had been unable to resolve.


DAVID: Once again, it’s worth airing D.H. Lawrence’s anti-Ben ire. “In the depths of his own underconsciousness he hated England,” he ranted, “he hated Europe…He wanted to be American.” Aside from the fact that Franklin was an overt Francophile, he had a persistent hope for compromise with Great Britain until relatively late. A crucial passage from your book: “Franklin would come to believe that this union of talents could only occur in a democratic republic, cut loose from the empire. Only in a free America would it be truly recognized that virtue, invention, and the arts depended on each other.”

Would it be acceptable to say that America was one of Franklin’s greatest inventions, if not the greatest?

NICK: I would put prefer to put it like this. Yes, Benjamin Franklin did help to invent America – but he could only do so because America had invented him. What do I mean by that? It’s explained in my book.


David Herrle