Why did Benjamin Franklin, loyal subject of the British Crown, join the American Revolution and become a patriot? That, after all, was not the path taken by his own son William, the last colonial governor of New Jersey. William Franklin was a Loyalist imprisoned by the Revolutionaries for his stand; afterwards, he went into exile in London where he died in 1813. The irreconcilable break between the Franklin generations represents the very real split amongst the colonialists—yet it was the elder, not the younger, who broke away and became an American.
Until 1774, Benjamin Franklin seemed to have a pretty good relationship with British imperial power. He had connections, a post as deputy post-master for the colonies, and the ear of George III’s prime minister. But perhaps his English friends had not been reading his Poor Richard’s Almanack closely. As William Pencak argues, Franklin’s almanac, first published in 1732, suggests that his Whiggish liberalism was apparent from the beginning. The seeds of revolt were buried deep.
Almanacs were among the most popular publications in both Britain and its colonies, second only to the Bible and other religious works. Franklin’s was an annual collection of “proverbs, anecdotes, astrological charts, and miscellaneous information,” but others highlighted celebrities and freaks like the National Inquirer. In Philadelphia, Franklin competed with five other almanac publishers. His, published until 1758, would grow to have the greatest intercolonial circulation of all, with print runs up to 10,000.
Speaking in the voice of “Poor” Richard Saunders, Franklin famously urged his readers to be virtuous, diligent, and frugal, “early to bed and early to rise.” He also, Pencak writes, “proclaimed the superiority of the common man” and urged them “to assume roles in the ‘public sphere’ and shape their own destinies.” The use of the epithet “poor” signaled Franklin’s appeal to ordinary folk. The almanac was his vehicle for spreading the Whig critique of the imperial system amongst his fellow colonials. Pencak argues that by linking “colony and metropolis, city and farm, and the elite with the common people” Franklin’s annual played a key role in transmitting political ideas from the heart of metropolitan England.
Here are some of Franklin’s pithy jabs from the almanacs: “The Greatest Monarch on the proudest Throne, is oblig’d to sit upon his own Arse.” “An innocent Plowman is more worthy than a vicious Prince.” “The King’s Cheese is half wasted in pairings; but no matter, ’tis made of the people’s milk.”
Benjamin Franklin was the “most populist of the Founding Fathers,” but reserved his faith in the “common man” to precisely that: women had no place in the public sphere. He became an abolitionist only in 1787, three years before his death, although he had previously freed the two men he had owned. The dream of the republic of virtuous common men was still much constrained by its times.