Benjamin Franklin's dark side is exposed in new book by UC Berkeley historian

by Pat McBroom

Berkeley -- Benjamin Franklin, beloved leader of the American Revolution whose face adorns the $100 bill and who first detected electricity in lightning by flying a kite in a storm, is believed to be a most rational man.

And he was -- except for the times when he wasn't.

Like other, more ordinary human beings, Franklin had a shadow side which a UC Berkeley historian has now explored in a new study of the American genius.

As dark sides go, Franklin's may not rank very high. But his benevolent, rational exterior cracked at least twice to show a towering capacity for anger and a failure of judgment that led to his being kicked temporarily out of the Pennsylvania Assembly, according to Robert Middlekauff, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley.

In his saddest shortcoming, Franklin's heart failed him completely in regard to his own son, whom he reared and then rejected after the War of Independence. William Franklin remained loyal to England during the Revolution and Franklin could never forgive what he viewed as a betrayal, said Middlekauff.

In his public life, according to the new study of Franklin's letters, the early American leader had a passionate hatred for Thomas Penn, son of the founder of Pennsylvania, which led him into serious political mistakes.

"Franklin was a hero and a winner most of the time," said Middlekauff, whose new book is titled, "Benjamin Franklin and his Enemies."

"He was one of the great scientists of the 18th century. He was also a writer, a businessman who started with nothing and retired wealthy at the age of 48, an artisan of first rank, a public benefactor, a diplomat, and a political leader of extraordinary talents," said Middlekauff. "But he possessed a passion that was for a time out of control."

Middlekauff's portrait deepens understanding of Franklin's emotional life, which has not been easily accessible to historians, partly because Franklin himself did not want to be completely known.

"Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly; men freely ford that see the shallows," Franklin wrote in "Poor Richard's Almanac," his famous compendium of wise advice and witty sayings.

The first crack explored by Middlekauff occurred in 1758 when Franklin discovered in a conversation with Thomas Penn that the man did not intend to honor rights established by his father, William Penn, for the people of Pennsylvania.

Penn's "laughing Insolence" horrified Franklin, who "conceived that moment a more cordial and thorough Contempt for him than I ever before felt for any Man living -- a Contempt that I cannot express in words."

Franklin called Penn a "low jockey" a terrible insult in the 18th century that referred to cheats and tricksters, and he spoke of a war in which the colony's proprietors including Penn would be "gibbeted up to rot and stink in the Nostrils of Posterity."

Franklin set out to take the goverance of Pennsylvania away from Penn, using methods that were completely foolish, said Middlekauff.

"He tried to convert the government from proprietary to royal, although neither the American people nor the British royal government was sympathetic," said Middlekauff.

"On the eve of the American Revolution, here is Franklin leading a movement to bring royal government to Pennsylvania, just when people are getting disenchanted with it," he said. In the Pennsylvania election of 1764, Franklin carried a petition calling for such a transfer of power. Few would sign it, nor did they reelect Franklin to the assembly that year.

"When your own anger carries you into a political action that is so extreme, and you persist despite all the evidence that it won't work, that shows passion at its worst," said Middlekauff.

"Behind that placid, bland surface, Franklin was somebody who did not want to be frustrated. When his nose was bloodied (by Penn), he responded by trying to take the government away," the historian said.

The Revolution eliminated Franklin's problem with Penn, but created a new and more agonizing one with his son who was the royal governor of New Jersey. William actively aided the British during the war and was imprisoned for years. Franklin never visited him during his confinement nor would he see him after the war when William wrote to his "Dear and Honored Father," hoping to revive a connection that had been "the pride and happiness of my life."

They did meet once, however, but after a brief, strained encounter in England in 1785, Franklin sailed for home and never laid eyes on his son again. Middlekauff believes Franklin expected his son to put aside his own principles and follow his father's path and could not forgive what seemed like a lack of filial duty.

"The fact they met at all suggests that some part of Franklin wanted a reconnection. But perhaps he wanted an apology more than he wanted reconcilation and William did not give him that." said Middlekauff. "In the end, Franklin's heart failed him."


For further information, contact Robert Middlekauff at (510) 658-1198 or leave a message with the Department of History at (510) 642-1971. The book, "Benjamin Franklin and his Enemies" can be obtained from Mary C. Bahr at the University of California Press, telephone: (510) 642-4562 or fax: (510) 643-7127.

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