The following is part of a series of posts on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American history.
In June of 1757, the fifty one year-old Benjamin Franklin crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the second time in his life to begin a new career as a lobbyist representing the colony of Pennsylvania (as well as New Jersey, Georgia and Massachusetts) in London. Before leaving America, the retired printer wrote a valedictory essay, “The Way to Wealth.” Franklin had himself won wealth as a publisher of almanacs, a commonly produced publication in colonial America, appealing to printers because they were cheap, timely, and popular. Because he writes with such disarming simplicity, it’s worth quoting his autobiography on his experience in the business:
In 1732 I first published my Almanack, under the name of Richard Saunders; it was continued by me about twenty-five years, commonly called "Poor Richard's Almanac." I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such demand that I reaped considerable profit from it, vending annually near ten thousand. And observing that it was generally read, scarce any neighborhood in the province being without it, I considered it as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who brought scarcely any other books. I therefore filled all the little spaces that occurred between the remarkable days in the calendar with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality as the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue; it being more difficult for a man in want to act always honestly as, to use here one of those proverbs, it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.
“The Way to Wealth,” published in 1758, was in effect Poor Richard’s Greatest Hits. The essay was a string of classic aphorisms like “There are no gains, without pains”; “little strokes fell great oaks”; and “the eye of a master will do more work than both his hands.”
Actually, precisely because much of it reads like a list, it’s easy to overlook the deceptive simplicity of “The Way to Wealth,” which is in fact a document of marvelous complexity. Its framing device is “the harangue of a wise old man to the people attending an Auction,” to the narrator. Nevertheless, it begins on a note of self-congratulation. “I have heard that nothing gives an author so great pleasure as to find his Works respectfully quoted by other learned authors,” Saunders says, wryly noting that his competitors have somehow managed to be “very sparing in their Applauses.” Fortunately, however, he happened to pause near a merchant venue, where “a plain clean old man” was dispensing the thrifty wit and wisdom of Poor Richard to a crowd of listeners.
As Saunders narrates it, the ending of the story is not entirely satisfactory – or, at any rate, expected. When the old man, named Father Abraham, is finished with his disquisition, Saunders notes “the people heard it, and approved the Doctrine, and immediately practiced the contrary, just as if it had been a Sermon” (a little dig at religious morality here). Still, he concludes, “The frequent Mention he made of me must have tired anyone else, but my Vanity was wonderfully delighted with it.” He acknowledges “that not a tenth Part of the Wisdom was my own which he ascribed to me, but rather the Gleanings I had made of the Sense of all Ages and Nations.” But he decides to benefit himself from the wisdom he has purveyed to others: “I resolved to be the better for the Echo of it; and though I had first determined to buy the stuff of a new Coat, I went away resolved to wear my old one a little longer.” He signs off “as ever, Thine to serve thee, RICHARD SAUNDERS.”
Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: A fictive crowd is responding to a fictive speaker quoting a fictive writer – more like a fictive admitted plagiarist – who is moved to take his own advice, recorded in a piece penned by a man named Benjamin Franklin. (To complicate matters still further, there was an actual Richard Saunders who published almanacs in the seventeenth century, who Franklin adopted as an alter ego.) We could call Franklin a fiction writer, but that somehow doesn’t capture the elusive essence of a man who was both real and recognizable – his personality leaps off the page here and elsewhere centuries later – and who repeatedly over the course of his life reinvented himself. You might say Franklin was the first self-remade man in American history.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to call him a self-made men. Franklin has long been known, and lionized, as the patron saint of American capitalism, a role he played to the hilt as a young man. The key word here is role; Franklin was acutely aware of the difference between appearance and reality, and leveraged them for maximum effect, as when he made a show of carting rolls of printing paper in a wheelbarrow down the streets of Philadelphia, rather than having a hired hand do it. [Isaacson 54] But Franklin’s sense of self-invention went well beyond the world of commerce, evident in his decision to wear a fur cap as an American diplomat in Paris, because he knew it pleased the French to think of him as the embodiment of the frontiersman.  After 1759 his friends in the scientific community knew him as “Dr. Franklin,” but his degree was an honorary one from the University of St. Andrew in Scotland, and Franklin was always more of the technological tinkerer than the pure scientist.
Don’t get me wrong: Franklin was truly a remarkable man, one with an exceptionally wide range of skills, social ones prominent among them. My point is that he seems eerily prescient in his postmodern self-awareness, an aptitude he exploited to maximum effect over the course of his lifetime and in the autobiography he addressed to a son from whom he would be tragically estranged in the last fifteen years of his life (Governor William Franklin of New Jersey sided with the Tories in the American Revolution). No history of the self-made man could ever credibly been written without featuring the sage of Philadelphia as the founding father of a national myth. To a great extent that’s because he was the first great master of the modern media in American history.
But for all his elasticity, Franklin finally and decisively embodies a specific version of the self-made man. He’s neither a spiritual figure like Roger Williams – indeed, one of the more notable aspects of Franklin’s career is the way in which he bent the precepts of a Puritan childhood in the service of avowedly secular aims – nor a prophet of the soil like Jefferson. For sure, he’s a vibrant archetype in the rise of American capitalism. But it’s a particular kind of capitalism: mercantile capitalism, as opposed to industrial capitalism or finance capitalism. Franklin is the apogee of the entrepreneur on a human scale, a hands-on exemplar of private enterprise –
– and, more to my point here, public enterprise. This is an aspect of the self-made man that has been too easily overlooked. Even in the phase of his life where he was most focused on making a living, Franklin was engaged in a deeply social line of work: (“as ever, Thine to serve thee”). His gaze was fixed on neither hearth nor heaven, but rather on the public square. He worked hard to become rich, but that was a means to an end: making enough money to retire (in his early forties) and focus full-time on the civic pursuits that had been a big part of his life all along, among them science, philanthropy, politics, and diplomacy. Yes: Franklin was a businessman. But that’s never all he was. His life marked the arrival of the golden age of the self-made man, an era of expansion in terms of what the concept meant and who could pursue this particular form of happiness.
Next: Franklin as city boy