01 October, 2008

The American Identity?

"The symbol at once of his city and his country" (Brogan, 97). So Hugh Brogan describes Benjamin Franklin in his discussion of the awakening of the American Revolution. Franklin appears as such a symbol repeatedly throughout Brogan's book: the iconic American, not necessarily at the forefront of every action but tirelessly involved in democratic activity, and always present as the standard by which Brogan defines the American character. His biography, accentuating his move from a strictly conventional upbringing to an enlightened, freethinking independence, serves for Brogan as a roadmap of the Revolution itself. Through the metamorphosis of his own character, Franklin becomes a prophet of the evolution of "the American people as such" (Brogan 167).

Franklin's life as recounted in Brogan's text is constructed of a series of small revolutions through which he attains to ever greater independence. Of solid Puritan stock, Franklin soon rejected that stern religion for a more mild deism, though Puritan culture still influenced him enough to preserve his strong sense of moral duty. Brogan describes Franklin as a "hedonistic Puritan" whose ability to set aside the more restrictive aspects of that religion illustrates the "extraordinary transformation that was threatening Puritanism in the eighteenth century" (Brogan, 97). After a brief apprenticeship to his brother, James, he threw off this restraint as well to begin "a rapid rise to great prosperity" in Philadelphia (Brogan, 97). "Middle class to the core," Franklin achieved each success by virtue of his own work - neither by superior birth nor by preexistent wealth. His "characteristically American practicality" was to some degree necessitated by this fact (Brogan, 97). In a society where popular acclaim bring about both fame and wealth, discoveries and inventions ought to be geared to the "masses" who will appreciate useful creations to any pure science or art, Brogan invites us to infer. The independent spirit he possessed often led him to initiate private movements to accomplish what "elsewhere was left to the authorities," and this habit as well he shared with this compatriots (Brogan, 97-8).

Such is the portrait Brogan presents of Franklin, and such is the model he offers for his account of the newly developed American identity. For Brogan this identity was forged in the disasters, sufferings, and triumphs of the war itself, though it had originated long before the fateful events of 1775 (Brogan, 167). If Franklin was the "prophet of the cult of rising in the world by hard work and honest worth," the war was the trial which proved to the ordinary American just how difficult the struggle to rise in the world as a nation would be (Brogan, 97). The industry and worth of Washington, who led a bedraggled group of patriots to victory over the world's most powerful empire, is a case in point of the spirit Franklin symbolized (Brogan, 170-71). War also heightened the fervor for independence throughout America by forcing the reality of revolution into every aspect of daily life. The heroism of young Andrew Jackson and thousands other young men like him was occasioned by the struggle, and their ardor for the cause kept alive by the example of men like Washington (Brogan, 184). Moreover, by "overturning... all the old political ways and means” the war demanded that any who would perhaps have preferred neutrality make a conscious decision for or against independence; the cause of liberty was thus popularized (Brogan, 168).

For Brogan, Franklin was a character at one with the common people of America: once a rebellious apprentice himself, his bid for freedom led to an independence as substantive as that which the agitation of mobs of "saucy boys" ultimately achieved. It seems immaterial to Brogan that his portrayal of the American mob as standing in sharp contrast to the popular image of a "uniquely discriminating, moderate, politically motivated mob" puts it into contrast as well with the character of Franklin (126). The legacy of rebellion itself, of throwing off the old order in favor of the new, formed the identity of the American people. The "apprenticeship of a statesman" succeeded in Franklin's life through his refusal to submit to the bonds of a restrictive society (Brogan, 99). Likewise the motley crew of "saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tars" was transformed into the mature American society that gave birth to the Constitution (John Adams, quoted in Brogan, 127). Revolution itself was the essence of the American character and its sustaining force by Brogan's view. It is unlikely, I believe, that Franklin would have agreed. Strong character needs to be based on something more than non-conformism, and freedom demands a strong character. "Only virtuous people," Franklin writes, "are capable of freedom" (Works of Benjamin Franklin, Sparks, 297). The admirable ethos born in eighteenth century America was connected to the people's spirit of independence, but had deeper roots than this alone. The early American's love of liberty was firmly planted in the basic conviction that "all men are created equal" and that justice laid out by our Creator gives each person the right to fight and die that these rights may endure.

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