Hillsdale College has a growing list of free college-level classes online. Right now I’m into History 102, American Heritage, and lesson three is “Enlightenment and Natural Rights.” The lecturer is Hillsdale history professor Terrence Moore. He shares with us stories of the life of Benjamin Franklin as a kind of exemplification of the American Enlightenment.
image from Wikipedia
Ben Franklin’s life is always enlightening to learn about. I enjoyed the biography The Real Benjamin Franklin[i] some years ago. He was a marvel of creative thought and energy, as well as good humor. So the review of Franklin was interesting in itself. But there were connections made in the lecture that I think are worth looking at, especially in our day.
This is from the introduction:
Franklin was important in creating the American character and also the American ideas of self-government. And Franklin always started at the bottom, from the bottom up, you might say. He would form a library based on his friends’ needing books. He would conduct scientific experiments just with his friends that ended up being profoundly important in the history of electricity. Franklin never thought for a minute to write London for a grant to help him buy his jars and his kite and his key. Franklin never thought about writing London to deliver a bunch of books for free for these poor colonists. He scraped together what books he had with his friends, and that became a library. And they didn’t need an overarching directive from London telling them what to do.
If you look at the list of things that Franklin created, that in some cases had never been created before, even in London, you see that a native genius with a lot of freedom and with belief in oneself and one’s capacities of self-government can lead to great things.
We see some particularly American virtues in Franklin. He wasn’t content to be stuck in anything he didn’t enjoy. On a second or third try at apprenticeship, he learned the printing trade. When, at 17 years of age, he disagreed with his master (who was his older brother), he left Boston and showed up in Philadelphia. And worked his way up from the bottom—always confident that he could succeed.
He saw things that could be improved, and did something about them. He wasn’t a loner; he studied with other young tradesmen who also didn’t get to go to college, covering everything a college could have given them. When he had a good idea, he recruited others to his view, using the media and his own persuasive skill.
He grew, and learned, and flourished, and improved. And so did Philadelphia. And so did the American colonies. As Professor Moore says,
The larger point I wish to make is that Franklin’s many activities in Philadelphia were a microcosm of what was then taking place throughout the colonies, what we might call an apprenticeship in self-government. In fact, this apprenticeship of colonial Americans had been going on for some time. But in its later stages, as seen in the life of Franklin, the apprentice was beginning to surpass the skills of the master. The improvements and growth taking place in American civil society, unrecognized and unwelcomed by the mother country, would prepare the colonists to declare independence and go on to create a more perfect union.
Among Franklin’s scientific studies included what we now call demographics. He observed the growth rate of the colonies, as compared to the mother country, and realized that eventually there would be more Englishmen in the colonies than in Britain. He wasn’t, at that point, a revolutionary; he hoped there would be Englishmen smart enough to recognize the situation, and who would see the value of a mostly self-governing transatlantic empire.
But there were reasons that wouldn’t happen, mainly having to do with Britain’s, and all of Europe’s, premise of aristocracy.
It was assumed that men and women of birth were superior to those of humbler origin. The American colonies were populated overwhelmingly by men and women who did not have a social edge in their home countries, by younger sons of gentlemen, by the lesser gentry, by the various religious refugees, by what were called the middling sort of merchants and other professionals, and by artificers and servants.
Americans had the ability to rise—as high as their efforts and ingenuity could take them.
[Franklin] once said that in America, a man becomes known not for who his is—that is, what his name is, or his social pedigree—but by what he can do…. In Britain, to get anything done, no matter how worthy a cause or project, you almost always needed aristocratic patronage. In Philadelphia, as Franklin showed time and time again, all you needed was a good idea, some common sense, and a lot of hard work.
That sounds quintessentially American.
When the lecture started talking about the Enlightenment, I wasn’t sure exactly what that referred to. In Wikipedia, it is, in short: “an era from the 1650s to the 1780s in which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority.”
The Enlightenment had a different flavor in the American colonies, embodied by Benjamin Franklin. Kind of like Franklin’s self-education, there was an energy, a freshness, and an excitement to use the discovered truths to improve personal human lives. Not so much in Europe:
Whereas enlightened political and moral ideas were being generated by great European thinkers, those in charge of European institutions did not always take these new discoveries of old truths to heart. The Americans did.
Terrence Moore uses a drawing of a neoclassic structure, with the pillars representing parts of thought, to describe the American Enlightenment. Think of the architecture of Thomas Jefferson.
The neoclassicism shows that the American revolutionaries did not consider themselves to be inventing something new, but rather discovering things that had always been true though mankind had not always been able or eager to know them.
In Europe there was more skepticism, even cynicism, and a tendency to throw out essentials of a civil society—mainly religion. That was not so in America. Both continents move toward an increase in science, but we need to define that term, because it’s different from what comes immediately to mind:
We must be careful with this word, since in the 18th Century the term science still meant knowledge in systematic inquiry generally. It was not confined to research in the physical world. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, for example, set out to create a science of man; that is, an account of human and human activity in its social, political, and economic spheres.
This more than anything caught my attention here at the Spherical Model. How about that? What we’re about here is the science of man.
So, science, for Franklin and most educated Americans, studied both human and physical inquiries, as hobbyists, but also offering valuable discoveries. Moore reminds us that the foundation of scientific study was the great Isaac Newton. And that is a key point:
The importance of being Newtonians is that American colonists, and later the founders, thought of the universe as an ordered, balanced cosmos created by a benevolent deity who governed according to fixed and discoverable laws, “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” as Jefferson put it.
How vital Newton’s conception of the physical universe was may not be clear until you realize that the nation’s first progressive president, Woodrow Wilson, abandoned the authority of the Constitution by saying it was “accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.” In other words, the balanced world of Newton, in which natural laws were predictable, and in which men, by implication, could lead lives reasonably, was either a figment or fairytale compared to the survivalist nature of Darwin’s world, wholly indifferent to man’s well-being. Who, then, should remain faithful to a fixed constitution when mankind must continually reinvent himself just to remain alive? That was how the progressives thought, not the founding fathers.
That explains a lot. Progressivism (not to be confused with actual progress) has a hateful prejudice against the past, no matter how true and instructive. So there’s an assumption among them that the Constitution is irrelevant, just because it was created in the past. And they don’t believe in principles, so they throw them out for whatever new thing they want to try.
I remember a science class that introduced Einstein’s relativity. The teacher explained that there are situations in which Einstein’s physics are more accurate than Newtonian physics—such as when approaching the speed of light. But in normal circumstances, Newtonian physics is accurate enough for our typical human purposes. I don’t know enough to know if that is true. But the point is, Einstein’s theories added to, rather than wiping out, Newtonian theories of the physical world. So I’d assert that, if there were truth to Darwin’s theories, they would add to, not wipe out, known and ever useful truths.
So far, this covers only about 2/3 of the lecture. Much of the rest covers the four pillars of the American Enlightenment: religious liberty, political liberty, economic liberty, and moral responsibility. We could spend a full day on each of those; in fact, from time to time we have done so.
For now, it will do to be grateful that our heritage proves so many eternal truths: freedom, combined with self-control and moral responsibility, leads to growth, success, ingenuity, and human thriving. People like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson lived the proof.