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Benjamin Franklin’s Political Arithmetic – 2

A second excerpt from the
Libraries' Dibner Library lecture publication, Benjamin Franklin's Political Arithmetic: A Materialist View of Humanity by Joyce E. Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. If you would like to receive
the lecture in print, please contact the Dibner Library. If you missed the first installment, or can't wait for the next one, you may also view the PDF.


Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, Œuvres de M. Franklin, Docteur des loix…, 1773

Benjamin Franklin's Political Arithmetic: A Materialist View of Humanity

by Joyce E. Chaplin

All in all, Franklin gave the impression that he considered men and women to be comparable to animals, as creatures endowed only with sensate bodies, not moral souls. Indeed, he stated that "every Creature must be equally esteem'd by the Creator." That was deeply repellent to most of his contemporaries, and the fact that Franklin assaulted conventional arguments for the immortality of the soul and the likelihood of an afterlife would not have consoled readers who hoped that these were the very things that differentiated them from all other natural beings. In his final paragraph, Franklin jeeringly anticipated one possible response to his arguments: "'What! bring ourselves down to an Equality with the Beasts of the Field! with the meanest part of the Creation! 'Tis insufferable!'" To which Franklin answered, "Truth will be Truth tho' it sometimes prove mortifying and distasteful."

Those were Franklin's last words on the matter, which he then followed with the emblem of the print-shop under the same motto vitam mortuis reddo that had opened Wollaston's essay. The picture made Franklin's satirical object apparent, as well as his desire to reverse or even upend the Christian tradition. Which dead bodies did he think could be restored to life? Did he mean to imply, on his final page, that animals were as likely to be resurrected as humans or (equally offensive to the orthodox) that humans were no more likely than animals to achieve an afterlife? Works that were not nearly as materialist as Franklin's got their authors imprisoned. To escape prosecution, Franklin printed neither his name nor the name of the print-shop on his pamphlet. (The dedicatee, James Ralph, was surely relieved that Franklin indicated him only by the initials "J. R.") Author and printer could not be traced, and thus eluded the authorities.

Bold at age nineteen, when he paid his London master to have 100 copies of the satirical work printed, Franklin later lost his nerve. He never publicly restated the materialist philosophy of his Dissertation. He instead became outspoken in his acceptance of the argument from design, the idea that the creation was so wondrous and complex that it had to be the handiwork of a Supreme Being. He also publicly accepted the orthodox belief that the human soul would survive death, a fate denied to all other earthly beings. In his 1728 "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion," written three years after he had published the Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, he emphasized that God had "created Man, bestowing Life and Reason, and plac'd him in Dignity superior to thy other earthly Creatures."

Franklin claimed to have burned all but one copy of his Dissertation. Seven of the hundred copies are known to have survived, however-not bad for an early eighteenth-century print run of that size-so Franklin was not as assiduous as he asserted. (Whether he knew it or not, a subsequent edition of 1733 came out in Dublin, so the circulation of his parody was if anything increasing.) His claim to have destroyed his juvenilia nevertheless shows his effort to distance himself from it. In his memoirs, Franklin took care to describe the work as an "Erratum," a printer's term for an error in composition, and Franklin's term for the great errors of his life. As has often been noted, this definition of error hints at Franklin's assumption that his mistakes were correctible, things he could easily change in the next draft.

Stay tuned for our next installment! —Elizabeth Periale

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