Written Work by Graham T. Baden
Through the eighteenth century, colonial Americans perceived themselves in ways not dissimilar to their British counterparts. By profession, religion, and class, just as in much of the world, colonists found a framework on which they could construct their communities. Before the continental colonies could assert their difference through the Declaration of Independence, though, an uniquely American identity had to first be imagined. In the years leading up to the turn of the nineteenth century, Benjamin Franklin witnessed the growth of an independent spirit within Britain’s thirteen American colonies. Franklin is perhaps the best place to begin a study of the fashioning of American culture for he is, by many biographers, referred to as “the First American.” The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin provides a glimpse into the ways colonists used print, commerce, and ideology to fashion for themselves an identity that was both specific, and separate, from their peers across the Atlantic.
The eighteenth century was a time of great spiritual awakening in colonial America. While not all the colonies were founded by seekers of religious freedom, all saw themselves first in relation to God. Puritans, Quakers, and Anglicans found a home in North America, as well as an influx of other immigrant religions. These groups, often sharing similar ideologies, vied for space and dominance in a land that did not have one established state religion. Where France had the Roman Catholic Church, and Britain had the Church of England, the American colonies housed multiple state religions. The colonies’ population grew as quickly as the number of religious sects within them. Especially in the middle colonies, places like New York, Pennsylvania, and further south in the Chesapeake, where religious toleration was a necessity for the dense population, religious ideologies became an apt tether with which to bind communities. (Taylor, p. 342) Churches sprang up to fill the spaces left vacant by established religious denominations, and all believed theirs to be the one true doctrine.
Benjamin Franklin found the many dogmatic options trying. His peers, finding his “Principles of Religion” unsettling, made him suffer from a young age. (Masur, p. 57) Franklin’s principles were indeed a bit off-beat, however, even in our modern world. He practiced vegetarianism regularly as a young man, abstaining from a diet of flesh during the Lenten season, and regarded the eating of “Animal Food” as distasteful.(Masur, p. 56) Standing on the shoulders of many great thinkers before him, Franklin was “a thorough Deist,”(Masur, p. 73) doubting many of the established revelations of the church. (Masur, p. 40-43) In his autobiography, he wrote of the dry and unedifying sermons that blared out argumentatively, serving “rather to make us Presbyterians than good Citizens.” (Masur, p. 94) As “all the world grew religious,” (Masur, p. 114) Franklin avoided the banter of bickering denominations. He felt that the competing doctrines should practice modesty more becoming of christianity, and that “predominance should not be given to any sect.” (Masur, p. 123-125)
As the land grew more populous, and rival sects suffered from too much conflict and too little leadership, the religious revivalism had led to social disorder. Young rebels saw in the Great Awakening, “the shift away from unconditional obedience,” Richard Goodbeer says in his Sexual Revolution in Early America. (Goodbeer, p. 237) This declaration of religious liberty allowed for some of the first cries for freedom and independence. The first American Great Awakening saw the renewal of Christian faith across the colonies, but challenged established dogmas of exclusionist communities. The colonies had become a region of religious plurality. Diversity was then as it is now, a recognizable American religious identity.
In many ways, Franklin embodied the “Puritan Work Ethic” that has epitomized American culture since the American Revolution. His puritanical social values, inscribed on him from a young age in Boston, his perpetual search for perfection, and his heartfelt desire to rid himself of pride, are foundational tenets of modern American Protestantism. His ideological principles, and prideful independence, are echoed in the heart of the American Dream. One wonders if the ideologies of the Protestant Working Man were embodied by Franklin, or are merely a mimicry of the principles he championed.
In Franklin’s autobiography, religious dogma is not the only method of stratification named. Throughout his life, Benjamin Franklin found himself praised, offered or denied opportunity, and judged by his profession. Colonial Americans often realized and judged themselves in relation to others by trade. For many colonists, trade was only a short step away from caste, though. The bonded labor system, stretching from slave to apprentice, subjugated some segments of the colonial population and allowed for the propagation of others. While displaced Africans were sequestered to a narrow citizenship as slaves, others freed from bondage upon completion of their service, “fanned out seeking their own land”… “and accelerated the development of seaport cities and the settlement of the backcountry.” (Masur, p. 2) Upon becoming free, and venturing into the bustling economy of the colonies, indentured servants sought new professions. The trades available to them depended often on circumstance and did not offer much mobility, though, either upwards or horizontally. One thing that did offer some mobility, however, was education.
Benjamin Vaughan, having received a draft of Part I of Franklin’s autobiography, wrote to him, encouraging him to “invite all wise me to become like yourself; and other men to become wise.” To Vaughan, Benjamin Franklin was a perfect colonial example of self-education. For the good of a rising people, he was asked to finish his autobiography, so he might set an example by his drive and dedication to social improvement. (Masur, p. 86-90) Education is an important feature of Franklin’s autobiography. He often cites it as the cause for social progress, both in the home and in the marketplace. While he encouraged the forming of social clubs, and hosted his own salons of peer review, (Masur, p. 76-77) he found that, especially through the study of writing and language, education facilitated communication and manners of practical use. He even promoted the education of young women, so they might raise their families as educated mothers. (Masur, p. 106-110)
Being a printer by trade, something akin to a modern day copywriter, Franklin was naturally biased toward the importance of print media. His brother James printed one of the first newspapers in America, The New England Courant.(Masur, p. 42) Newspapers, frequently regarded as a popular cultural vehicle, had long been forbidden in the British Colonies, the crown fearing the papers might foment sedition and popular rebellion.(Taylor, p. 304) Learning prose by mimicking the style of the popular English newspapers of his day, Franklin went on to publish his own newspaper in 1729, after purchasing The Pennsylvania Gazette. The paper would both give him the means to focus his attention to writing, and provide a vessel with which to spread communication and instruction. (Masur, p. 4) Through popular newspapers and the growth of colonial print culture, regions that had long been divided, shared news and culture. Their diverse identities coalesced to become an integrated American one. By 1775, there were twenty eight newspapers circulating within the colonies, each of them contributing the the solidification of a shared American community.
As many scholars have stated, material culture is often the easiest way for a community to identify and define itself. In pre-revolutionary America, trade flourished and the general quality of life was on the rise. The increased amounts of disposable income available to the colonists allowed for the purchase of items that had previously been coveted luxuries. Furniture, fine porcelain, and fashion became essential as ownership of these aristocratic symbols were drawn within reach. Colonists perceived their identities by a class structure that was not so much based on wealth as it was the image of wealth. The poise and fashion of a genteel aristocrat could be mimicked and exaggerated, and in pre-revolutionary America, those European fashions bordered on the outrageous.
Early American culture had been allowed to grow separately in the diverse colonies. Colonists could be known to have lived in Boston, yet seen London more times than they had seen Philadelphia. For lack of proper transport, and the disjointed nature of colonial politics, disparate and distinct cultures had arisen throughout the colonies. Often, early American cultures shared more in common with Europe than they did with each other. As new generations were born in the colonies, and especially after their’ integration during the Commonwealth at the end of the seventeenth century, Americans began to have one important factor in common. All colonial Americans shared common economic issues, even when they were frustrated by their lack of shared currency. (Masur, p. 47, 51, 81) The colonists had common experiences, grievances, and frustrations because of their common consumer practices. American consumer culture, though it was based on the purchase of British goods, fostered the growth of an identity that was altogether American, rather than British.
Benjamin Franklin was a paradoxical fellow. While he spoke against excess and championed frugality in the Almanacs of Poor Richard, he was known in his prime to have dressed in every part the dandy. He appreciated the social value of calculating a formulaic facade, (Masur, p. 5) and when he wasn’t arrayed in silk regalia, he dressed himself to play the part of the rough, independent pioneer; an American visionary. He dressed plainly, his autobiography states, in the first half of the eighteenth century,(Masur, p. 82) and he was quick to judge his wife Deborah Read for buying expensive china,(Masur, p. 93) but by 1775 on his return to Philadelphia, he brought with him a luggage of 128 crates. (Masur, p. 5) The revenues from Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac— a text that helped to define an American ethos of frugality and determination– made him a well-to-do man, prone to pomp and circumstance.
Benjamin Franklin, the man of letters, the author, scientist, and statesman, is in every way an embodiment of the prototypical American. His critics, in due course, found franklin to be the embodiment of everything disdainful in American culture. His hypocritical treatises and unequivocal pride caused derision from scholars like D.H. Lawrence and Max Weber. (Waldsteicher, 2011) His lascivious way with women and appetite for fine dining were glossed over in autobiographical tales of his later life. If Franklin was to be a humble patriot, he would be the most humble, frugal, and hard working patriot the nation had ever known!
It is easy to say that Benjamin Franklin epitomized the spirit of the early American. His wit, tenacity, and determination brought him from rags to the literal pinnacle of American society. He was the man that the fledgeling nation chose to represent them, even when he was of great age. He was the man that so many Americans trusted and looked up to, for insights as small as a penny and as great as a nation. The ideologies he espoused in his Almanacs did not simply describe the traits becoming of a colonial citizen, they defined them. Benjamin Franklin did not merely embody the image of the American Citizen, he provided for it an ideal model.
Many thanks to Dr. Patricia Cleary
Godbeer, Richard. Sexual Revolutions in Early America. Edited by Joan E. Cashin et al. Gender Relations in the American Experience. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002
Masur, Louis P. ed. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: With Related Documents. 2nd ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.
Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. Edited by Eric Foner. The Penguin History of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
Walstreicher, David. ed. A Companion to Benjamin Franklin. New York: Wiley/Blackwell, 2011.