Urbanities

Jerry Weinberger
Benjamin Franklin: City Slicker
The self-styled country mouse was in truth America’s first great urbanist.
Summer 2008
Franklin in the late 1770s, elegant and sophisticated.
anne-rosalie bocquet filleul/The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY
Franklin in the late 1770s, elegant and sophisticated

I’m tired of this dirty old city,” sang country-music great Merle Haggard, probably referring to his hometown of Bakersfield, California, southern anchor of the San Joaquin Valley:

Entirely too much work and never enough play.
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks.
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.
Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana . . .

Merle’s singing an old American tune here. From the Founders to Thoreau to modern Farm Aid concerts, Americans have been of two minds about the city and the country. For some, the city means progress, prosperity, and the development of mind and culture, and the country means the opposite. For others, the country means virtue, tradition, and freedom, and the city means the opposite.

Benjamin Franklin was reported to have said, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that his fellow Founders must “all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Hang together the Founders did. But they didn’t do so forever, and, after independence and a workable constitution, they soon divided (the vast complexities duly noted) on the issue of city versus country. On the one hand were the Federalist proponents of banks, commerce, manufactures, and cities; on the other, the Democratic-Republican proponents of Jefferson’s agrarian ideals.

Franklin didn’t live to see this division play out, but it’s my guess that he would have sided with the city, albeit with subtle reservations. Franklin is often referred to as “the first American.” That’s true enough. But you might go further, and say that Franklin was also America’s first city slicker.

Sure, Franklin often presented himself as a country mouse or a small-town boy bewildered in the big city. In his Autobiography, Franklin recounts his youthful flight from conservative Boston to more metropolitan Philadelphia. Grubby from his journey and almost broke, he cut a ridiculous figure as he walked into town in 1723. So disreputable was his appearance that he feared people would take him for a runaway apprentice (which, by the way, he was). Franklin describes how Sir William Keith, the colonial governor of Pennsylvania, later tricked him, “a poor ignorant boy,” into believing that letters of credit were forthcoming to him in London for the purchase of printing equipment. They weren’t, and in 1724 Franklin found himself high and dry in one of the biggest cities in the world.

Later in his career, in 1755, Franklin proved his competence in the countryside, leading a dangerous mission west of Philadelphia to build forts to guard against Indian predations during the French and Indian War. Still later, while serving as his country’s ambassador in Paris during the American Revolution, he affected the dress and manner of a simple Quaker: a dull coat and a fur cap atop stringy, unpowdered hair. The French ate it up. Franklin was the ultimate American: an unaffected, un-citified, and natural man. He even had some bad things to say about cities, recognizing the appeal of Africans’ and American Indians’ simpler lives.

But there’s no doubt that for Franklin, the good life meant life in the city. Franklin made his way by means of book learning, wit, social savvy, and ability to hobnob with the rich, famous, and powerful—all assets valued in urban society. As he describes himself in the Autobiography, the first of these took some hard work: he became at a very young age as learned as it was possible to be in his time. By the age of 16, and with the aid of only two years of formal education, he had read more widely in the literature of Western culture, including the thinkers of the Enlightenment, than most professors on a university campus today. He also taught himself to write, first by imitating favorite authors and the sophisticated style of the British Spectator, and then by developing his own brilliant and often comic literary voice.

So when Franklin, at 17, ran out on his printing indentures (a serious felony) and fled from Boston to Philadelphia, he was hardly the “poor ignorant boy” he purported to be. In fact, Franklin’s vibrant pen was what brought him to Keith’s attention—the governor had seen a letter the young man had written to his brother-in-law and was impressed by its elegant expression. Not long after, Franklin’s bookishness also drew the attention of New York’s governor, William Burnet, who invited him to spend a day at his house conversing about authors. As Franklin writes with delicious irony: “This was the second Governor who had done me the Honor to take Notice of me, which to a poor Boy like me was very pleasing.”

Young Franklin may have been left in the lurch in London, but that didn’t keep him from finding employment—in Samuel Palmer’s printing house—or from delighting in (and spending most of his money on) the city’s urbanities, especially books and “plays and other places of amusement.” Nor did it stop him from writing and printing a pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, which argued that virtue, vice, and free will are all illusions and that, as a consequence, no particular providence exists—no God, that is, who cares for individual human beings or punishes and rewards them for their behavior. (Franklin would later burn most of the copies of this scandalous tract, claiming it had “an ill tendency.”) The pamphlet shocked Palmer, who nevertheless noted, like Keith, that Franklin was “a young man of some ingenuity.” It eventually came to the attention of surgeon and philosopher William Lyons, who introduced its author to a club presided over by Bernard Mandeville of Fable of the Bees fame. Through Lyons, Franklin also met the mathematician and writer Henry Pemberton, who had edited the third edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia. Pemberton promised to introduce Franklin to Newton, but that connection, of which Franklin “was extremely desirous,” never worked out.

Still, young Franklin understood the game of making connections, so crucial to thriving in the city. When he had sailed from Philadelphia to London, for instance, he had taken with him a small purse made of asbestos. In a letter dated June 2, 1725, he wrote to the great naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, offering it for sale. If Sloane had any inclination to buy it, Franklin said, he could let him know “by a line directed to me at the Golden Fan.” Franklin’s move paid off: he got to meet the famous Sloane at his house in Bloomsbury, got to see Sloane’s natural-history collection, and was paid handsomely for the purse, which is now in the British Museum. (In the Autobiography, Franklin immodestly omits his active role in making this connection, saying that Sloane had somehow heard about the purse and spontaneously approached him to buy it.)

Franklin energetically kept up the networking when he got back to Philadelphia in 1726. Sometimes the connection was with someone older and wealthy and powerful, such as the famous lawyer Andrew Hamilton, speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Hamilton took a shine to Franklin and steered important public printing jobs his way. Sometimes the connections were with bright people his own age, such as Robert Grace, “a young Gentleman of some Fortune, generous & witty, a lover of Punning and his Friends,” and William Coleman, “who had the coolest clearest Head, the best Heart, and the exactest Morals, of almost any Man I ever met with.” Without a loan from Grace and Coleman, Franklin would have missed the chance to buy the printing firm with which he eventually made his fortune. On other occasions, the connection came (again) through something Franklin wrote, as when his pamphlet favoring paper money landed him the job of printing the dough after the assembly signed on to the idea, or through a position, as when his appointment as the assembly’s clerk led to yet more jobs printing public documents.

Franklin also exhibited psychological skills far beyond any mere country bumpkin’s. Seeking a second term as clerk, for instance, he was opposed by a rich and talented new assembly member who proposed a different candidate for the post. Franklin won the job, but he didn’t like the threat that the member would pose to his pocketbook in the future. Rather than gaining the man’s favor by paying servile respect, however, Franklin wrote a note asking to borrow “a certain very scarce and curious book” that he knew the rich man owned. The man sent the book immediately. Franklin read it and returned it a week later with another note, this one “expressing strongly” his “sense of the favor.” The assemblyman “ever afterwards manifested a readiness” to serve Franklin and remained a lifelong friend. It was another instance, Franklin believed, of the truth that “he that hath once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” Now that’s city slick.

By the time Franklin was rich enough to retire from printing—in 1748, at the age of 42—his political, philosophical, and scientific careers were well under way. A decade later, he was Doctor Franklin, the second most famous scientist in the world after Newton. He returned to London in 1757 as an agent for the assembly and would spend all but eight of his remaining 33 years either there or in Paris. He became a regular figure in London’s club scene and ran with an intellectual set that included such luminaries as Joseph Priestly, James Boswell, and David Hume. His residence on Craven Street soon emerged as a center of diplomacy, a gathering place for intellectuals, and a cutting-edge scientific laboratory. (The house, adjacent to Charing Cross, has been restored, and one can visit it today.) Franklin’s correspondence made it clear that he loved London and relished the friends and acquaintances that he could—and did—make there.

The same proved true for Paris, where Franklin worked tirelessly to persuade the French monarchy to bankrupt itself in support of a republican revolution in America. Franklin took the city by storm: he became rock-star famous and made groupies of the cream of Parisian society. In 1779, he wrote to his daughter that his face was now as well-known in Paris as the man in the moon’s, so common were the medallions, pictures, and prints of his “phiz.” He was now something of a god—“I-dol-ized,” he observed, not mentioning that some who doubted his divinity painted that phiz on the inside of chamber pots. Among the doubters was John Adams, who couldn’t stand Old Ben, in part because he was too much at home in Paris. Franklin had no religion, Adams said later to the French statesman François Barbé-Marbois, and “all the atheists, deists, and libertines, as well as the philosophers and ladies, are in his train—another Voltaire.”

As in London, Franklin relished the social and intellectual life of the city, and enjoyed even more his saucy relationships with its young ladies, such as Madame Brillon, and its older ones, such as Madame Helvétius, widow of the famed philosophe, to whom he unsuccessfully proposed. The ladies loved him, too. To see why, spend some time with Anne-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul’s famous portrait of Franklin (which you can do if you go to the traveling Franklin tercentenary exhibition—or see above). It captures the attractiveness that he must have exuded to the beautiful and intelligent women around him. He’s sexy, he’s got gorgeous blue eyes, there’s just the hint of an ironic smile, and he’s in dishabille.

Indeed, Franklin preferred his life in the big cities abroad to life back home in Philadelphia with his plodding wife, Deborah, who died in 1774 while Franklin was in London. In one revealing bagatelle sent to Madame Helvétius, Franklin suggested marriage to the elegant and witty widow by way of a joke at his late wife’s expense—describing her as up in heaven and teamed up romantically with none other than the dead philosophe. But nobody’s perfect, and city gents as slick and gifted as Franklin sometimes do prefer downtown to down home.

Before concluding that Franklin was just a super-gifted social butterfly, though, remember that the reform work he did for the cities he lived in was as important as any in the century. Franklin didn’t just like the big city; he also cared for it. Much of his work was cultural: in Philadelphia, he started an intellectual society, the Junto; set up the first lending library; and—famously until this day—was the driving force for the foundation of the University of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophical Society. And in Paris, Franklin printed and circulated American state constitutions for the sake of political enlightenment. He also lent his shoulder to the wheel of medical progress, allowing a royal commission to use his Passy residence for the blind experiments that disproved the theory of animal magnetism and so proved its inventor and proponent, Franz Mesmer, to whom huge sums were paid by rich patients, a quack. In a letter to the physician La Sablière de la Condamine, Franklin ascribed Mesmer’s success to “there being so many disorders which cure themselves and such a disposition in mankind to deceive themselves and one another on these occasions.” Which wasn’t to say that such quackery might not have its uses, Franklin said, for in every rich city there are a lot of hypochondriacs. If they stopped gulping medicines for the sake of being cured by the doctor’s finger or an iron rod, “they may possibly find good effects though they mistake the cause.”

But Franklin also labored to reduce the two greatest dangers of city life at the time: fire and disease. In 1736, he wrote and published an article on the common causes of fires, and he organized Philadelphia’s first volunteer fire department. (This was long before his monumental invention of the lightning rod—the better to prevent fires in the first place.) And in 1751, he saw a plan through the Pennsylvania Assembly—by way of some legislative shenanigans and the invention of the matching grant—to build the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. In an essay supporting the project, Franklin extolled economies of scale, pointing out the concentration of talent and the medical innovation that attend the big-city hospital. (I’d bet that the best place to get sick is still in or near a big city, not in rural or small-town America.)

Another urban inconvenience: Philadelphia was dark at night. The problem, Franklin figured out, was that the city’s ill-designed streetlamps, supplied from England, became useless in a single evening from accumulated soot and broke too easily when cleaned—as had to be done daily. Franklin designed a new lamp with better ventilation and removable panes of glass that made for easy cleaning and easy replacement. Philadelphia nights grew brighter. And the city could be dangerous at night as well, so Franklin proposed a reform, eventually effected, of its inefficient and corrupt constabulary.

And then there were the dirty old sidewalks that sent Merle Haggard packing off to the middle of Montana. Not long before he left Philadelphia for London in 1757, Franklin, “by talking and writing on the subject,” was able to improve the paving in Jersey Market—the other streets in the city still being unpaved, quagmires in the wet and dusty in the dry—only to find that both shoes and wheels, muddied as they were from getting to the market, would soon cover the new paving with “mire” dropped by horses. So he spurred a collective effort to pay for cleaning the market. The episode led to a bill, eventually successful, that Franklin introduced in the assembly for paving all the city’s streets.

Sophisticated London’s streets weren’t all that tidy, either. In the Autobiography, Franklin relates a proposal for cleaning them that he sent to his friend John Fothergill. The proposal was ingenious: clean the streets each morning before the shops open (the objection to daily cleaning was that the dust would fly into houses and shops), use special sleds that drain water from the sludge, and, whenever possible, use a central gutter for collecting the filth rather than gutters on the side of the street. With a single gutter, Franklin argued, the runoff from the rain creates a current twice as strong as a side gutter’s and sufficient to wash away the accumulated muck.

Franklin observes that some people may think these matters trifling. While it’s true, he says, that dust blown into a single shop or an eye isn’t a very big deal, “yet the great Number of instances in a populous City, and its frequent Repetitions give it Weight & Consequence.” It’s not right, then, “to censure very severely those who bestow some of Attention to Affairs of this seemingly low Nature.” It’s clear that Franklin would have agreed with Rudy Giuliani about New York’s once-broken windows.

Franklin and Giuliani have another thing in common. In 1764, during Franklin’s two-year return from London, Philadelphia was menaced by a violent lower-class mob, furious at what they viewed as neglect of their defense against Indian predations. Defying proclamations by John Penn—the governor and a political enemy of Franklin’s—the mob went on a murderous rampage against peaceful and defenseless Indians and then threatened to march on Philadelphia to kill the Indians under protection in the city.

Response to the affair divided along class lines: the Quaker and Anglican parties (including Franklin) backed the Indians, while the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and urban and border-dwelling poor took the mob’s side. Facing an imminent disaster, the panicked governor lost his head and ran for help to Franklin, who took over the whole affair—rallying public opinion in the city, forging an armed force to confront the mob, and joining the delegation that persuaded the rabble not to move on the city. Had Franklin been in New York City on September 11, 2001, it’s easy to imagine him calming, guiding, and comforting his fellow citizens.

America the Beautiful” has lots to say about our spacious skies, waves of grain, and purple mountains, but just one ridiculous thing about our cities: that their alabaster gleam is undimmed by human tears. The reference here is to the White City of the 1892–93 Chicago World’s Fair. No tears? The Windy City’s mayor, Carter Harrison, was assassinated a few days before the fair closed, America’s first lunatic serial killer was on the loose in Chicago, and the White City itself burned in 1894, most likely at an arsonist’s hands. The song’s urban optimism, then, seems just as blind as Merle Haggard’s urban pessimism. Or so Ben Franklin—who loved the metropolis, warts and all—would surely believe.

Jerry Weinberger is a professor of political science at Michigan State University, director of the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought.

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