Having just finished a remarkably good biography of Ben Franklin (by H.W. Brands), I had two different columns out this week about different things we can learn from him these days. The first, for CFIF, noted his insightful thoughts on economics.
The great and wise Franklin, sounding much like an 18th Century Jack Kemp, wrote a fascinating response in 1784 in answer to an English editor accusing Americans of predilections towards luxury. Franklin, despite his own personal frugality, argued that a taste for luxury might not be a bad thing.
“Is not the hope of being one day able to purchase and enjoy luxuries a great spur to labour and industry? May not luxury, therefore, produce more than it consumes?”….
[And Franklin questioned] “the English statutes for the maintenance of the poor. Franklin asked himself whether these laws had not instilled in the poor “a dependence that very much lessens the care of providing against the wants of old age.” He did not question the morality of aiding the poor, only the efficacy. “To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity; ’tis Godlike, but if we provide encouragements for laziness, and supports for folly, may it not be found fighting against the order of God and nature…?”
The other column, for the University of Mobile’s Center for Leadership, detailed more of Franklin’s amazing accomplishments. But, although this is far from an unknown passage, it still bears repeating:
One of Franklin’s most famous speeches from that convention, when tempers were at their worst and the whole proceedings in danger of collapse, bears repeating.
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?
If space had permitted, I would have written much more on Franklin’s notion of “republican [small ‘r’] virtue.” It is a concept we need to revitalize.