The conservatism of Benjamin Franklin

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted April 23, 2001

Benjamin FranklinWhen I was young, the local very conservative bookstore was called the Benjamin Franklin Bookshoppe. The ideals espoused by the American revolutionary in his Autobiography represent the best avowal of the American values treasured by conservatives as clearly as ever achieved by any of our statesmen cum men of letters. .But I wonder how much sympathy Ben would have for modern conservativism, or modern liberalism, or, for that matter, any tendency in modern American politics.

For one thing, there's his take on religion.

I esteemed the essentials ... in all the religions we had in our country. I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of respect as I found them more or less mixed with other articles without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, [articles which] served principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another.
Franklin abhorred rudeness, tendentiousness and self-promotion in public discourse.
I grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions the consequences of which they did not forsee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved. I continued this method some few years but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence, never using when I advance anything which may possibly be disputed the words, "certainly," "undoubtedly," or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, "I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so or so," "It appears to me," or "I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons," ... And as the chief ends of conversation are to inform, or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning and sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us.
Franklin, a lifelong journalist, had no taste for attack-dog partisan journalism.
Many of our printers make no scruple of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of duels, and are moreover so indiscreet as to print scurrilous reflections on the government of neighbouring states and even on the conduct of our best national allies ... These things I mention as a caution to young printers, that they may be encouraged not to pollute their presses ... but refuse steadily, as they may see by my example that such a course of conduct will not on the whole be injurious to their interests.
Franklin, the most accomplished diplomat of the young republic, had no use for grandstanding in public affairs.
The objections and reluctances I met with ... made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting one's self as the proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one's reputation in the smallest degree above that of one's neighbours when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project.
The most astonishing thing about American politics of our times is the venemous tone of the discourse.  Franklin knew how keep his perspective.
There are Natural Duties which precede political ones, and cannot be extinguish'd by them.
It seems to me that if the twentieth century proved any political point, it proved that purity of ideology is no guarantee of good government. One only has to look at the dismal record of dictatorships to see the disaster wrought in nations where compromise becomes impossible. In an era of increasingly heated ideological wrangling it would perhaps do Americans of every persuasion good to practice the conservatism of Franklin, a conservatism well-founded in natural law and in the duty of civility and accomodation towards one's fellow citizens.

Jack Woehr is lucky to have a wife clever enough to point out to him all the occasions upon which he falls short of Franklin's exhortations.

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