Benjamin Franklin and American Literature

The secularization of life in New England, which went on concurrently with the decline of the clergy in social power, was incidental to colonial growth.  The practical force of the people had always been strong; material prosperity increased and a powerful class of merchants grew up; public questions multiplied in variety and gained in importance.  The affairs of the world had definitely obtained the upper hand.  The new spirit found its representative in the great figure of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who, born in Boston, early emigrated to Philadelphia, an act which in itself may be thought to forecast the transfer of the centre of interest to the west and south and specifically to that city where the congress was to sit.  Franklin was a printer, and the books he circulated are an index to the uses of reading in his generation.  Practical works, such as almanacs, were plentiful, and it is characteristic that Franklin’s name is, in literature, first associated with Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732). 

The literature of the 18th century outside of New England continued to be constituted of works of exploration, description, colonial affairs, with some sprinkling of crude science and doctrines of wealth; but it yields no distinguished names or remembered titles.  Franklin’s character subsumes the spirit of it.  In him thrift and benevolence were main constituents; scientific curiosity of a useful sort and invention distinguished him; after he had secured a competence, public interests filled his mature years.  In him was the focus of the federating impulses of the time, and as the representative of the colonies in England and during the Revolution in France, he was in his proper place as the greatest citizen of his country.  He was, first of men, broadly interested in all the colonies, and in his mind the future began to be comprehended in its true perspective and scale; and for these reasons to him properly belongs the title of “the first American.” The type of his character set forth in the Autobiography (1817) was profoundly American and prophetic of the plain people’s ideal of success in a democracy.  It is by his character and career rather than by his works or even by his great public services that he is remembered; he is a type of the citizen- man.  Older than his companions, and plain while they were of an aristocratic stamp, he greatens over them in the popular mind as age greatens over youth; but it was these companions who were to lay the foundations of the political literature of America. 

With the increasing political life lawyers as a class had naturally come into prominence as spokesmen and debaters.  A young generation of orators sprang up, of whom James Otis (1725-1783) in the north, and Patrick Henry (1736-1799) in the south, were the most brilliant; and a group of statesmen, of whom the most notable were Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), James Madison (1751-1836), and Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), held the political direction of the times; in the speeches and state-papers of these orators and statesmen and their fellows the political literature of the colonies came to hold the first place.  The chief memorials of this literature are The Declaration of Independence (1776), The Federalist (1788), a treatise on the principles of free government, and Washington’s Addresses (1789-1793-1796).  Thus politics became, in succession to exploration and religion, the most important literary element in the latter half of the 18th century.


This is taken from American Literature.





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