It’s Mostly About The Benjamins

“Who do you root for in the French Revolution?”

Lisa and I were in Paris this summer, a trip my other website chronicled at some length. One morning we toured the Conciergerie, the prison where those condemned by the Revolution spent their final days. Considering all it commemorates–tyranny! revolution! heroism! terror! heads, and the cutting off thereof!–the Conciergerie is surprisingly dull. There are two ways for a museum to be interesting, I think. One is to offer genuine historical analysis: to put things in context, to make real connections between history and the objects on display, to teach visitors something new. The other is to pander to what visitors already think they know: cheering the heroes and hissing the villains, and maybe tossing in a nice laser light show or some gory wax mannequins. But the Conciergerie steadfastly refuses to do either. The stone cells where Marie-Antoinette, and later Robespierre, waited for the guillotine are just empty rooms now. Shuffling through them with a hundred other tourists does not evoke La Terreur so much as L’Ennui.

So in an attempt to liven up the proceedings, I asked Lisa, “Who do you root for in the French Revolution?” The Conciergerie offers no hints as to whether its curators’ sympathies lie with doomed aristocrats, brilliant philosophes, ruthless dictators, downtrodden peasants, or angry bourgeoisie. Dividing the past into good guys and bad guys almost never makes for good history, but it does pass the time. Lisa thought about it a bit and said, “Benjamin Franklin.”

Technically, our judges cannot accept that answer. Franklin was in France from 1776 to 1785, returning to Philadelphia four years before the French Revolution began. But it’s a good answer for a patriotic American like Lisa, and honestly, who doesn’t root for Ben Franklin? Statesman, publisher, scientist, inventor, playa, wizard, proud flatulator, and sage–Ben Franklin was cool.

Franklin is, as they say, so hot right now, with big new biographies out by Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, and Walter Isaacson. Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton have all had their moments in the sun, so we inevitably cycle back to Franklin. (Sorry, Elbridge Gerry. Maybe next time.) On the way to work today I heard an ad for a Ben Franklin biography on the History Channel or A&E with the slogan, I kid you not, “Ben Franklin… Catch the lightning!”

The French, certainly, loved Franklin. With his fur hat and his Poor Richard homilies, he was everything they imagined America to be. Or at least he knew how to play the part. He also loved the cosmopolitan whirl of pre-Revolutionary France, and apparently made out like a bandit in the Paris salons. The beautiful Madame Helvétius (to whom Fontenelle, at age 100, was moved to say, “Ah, madame, if I were only eighty again!”) took a liking to Franklin and scolded him for not coming to see her. “Madame, I am waiting until the nights become longer,” he said. (Take my word for it, in the 18th century that was pretty risqué.)

One teaching job I recently applied for required a short essay with the application about how you would teach some historical text of your choosing. I wrote about Franklin’s Autobiography, which I love teaching. What you’re reading here is all the stuff I wanted to put in that little essay but didn’t.

The Autobiography (the full text is here) is a great text for talking about 18th century America. First, this is because Franklin is so funny and clever and seemingly approachable. America’s spokesman in life, he now makes a fine ambassador from the 18th century to the 21st. He seems modern and understandable to present-day students in a way that few of his contemporaries do.

Second, Franklin seems–note my choice of verb–quintessentially American. There’s the famous section where Franklin decides to make himself morally perfect, and draws up a chart of all the virtues he wants to possess. All it will take to achieve perfection, he figures, is checking them off day by day: Monday he achieves temperance, Tuesday is frugality, Wednesday industry, Thursday sincerity, Friday cleanliness… “As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other,” he says. Bookstore shelves today groan with self-help volumes that promise exactly the same sort of methodical moral improvement, though they are rarely written with Franklin’s light touch or wit. But in the end, Franklin decides with a wink that it is better to look good than to be good. “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of these virtues,” he writes, “but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”

Third, the Autobiography reads like the original Horatio Alger story, the story of a penniless runaway who rose to dine with kings and help create a nation. (That reminds me: I heard some crazy stories about Horatio Alger the other day that I should probably share.) But finally, I love the Autobiography because it’s one big put on. That is, it’s not wholly untrue, but Franklin is incredibly slick, and the whole thing is very carefully crafted. Franklin knew the monsieurs and mademoiselles would go nuts for the aw-shucks Quaker in the big fur hat (he wasn’t really a Quaker, but he let everyone think he was) and he knows just what buttons to push in his autobiography too.

He actively and knowingly constructs an image for himself as “the first American,” and in so doing, he creates an image of America too. He writes his life story as if it took place in a secular, egalitarian society that didn’t actually exist at the time he was writing. He writes himself, in other words, into the still fictional country he is in the process of trying to make real. This ends up being an audacious act of self-creation, not only for Franklin, but for a whole vision of an America that had not yet come to be. In a sense, it’s social science fiction.

Grant Morrison called his 1990s comic book The Invisibles a magical hyper-sigil designed to make itself come true (nb: Grant Morrison says a lot of things). Whether or not that’s true of The Invisibles, it’s definitely true of Franklin’s Autobiography. Franklin’s story takes place in a non-feudal, non-aristocratic, largely non-religious America. It’s a fictional America that bears a passing resemblance to the real thing, but corresponds most remarkably to the ideal world imagined by the political philosophers of the Enlightenment. Yet it ultimately laid out a blueprint for what the United States would at least try to become.

The historian Robert Darnton has a lovely essay (and book) called George Washington’s False Teeth in which he argues that American historians and others have not always recognized the strangeness of the 18th century to our own time. “The taste for strangeness does not suit the favorite flavors of history in the United States,” he writes. We are inclined to see the Founding Fathers as prescient visionaries of all the United States would become, basically 18th-century Dear Abby’s that we can return to for advice on each new debate or crisis we encounter. Apprehending the Autobiography as a kind of speculative fiction restores some of that strangeness. It’s a reminder of how distant the 18th century is from the 21st, and how radical the ideas of the Enlightenment once were. It helps us to see the American Revolution and the French as unexpected and even unlikely events, and to think of democracy and individualism both in America and elsewhere as strange and often fragile constructions that have to be imagined into being, rather than as the inevitable unfolding of historical destinies. What seems most familiar to us in the Autobiography is often what is most fictional. Objects in Franklin’s world are more distant than they appear.

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On the day in Paris we went to the Conciergerie, Lisa and I also toured Notre Dame and the Ste. Chapelle. Notre Dame is bigger and grander, of course, but Ste. Chapelle may have more of a visceral impact. It’s an immense, vaulted space, largely empty, lined with huge, magnificent stained glass windows of unbelievable intricacy. In all the cathedrals we visited in France, I kept thinking about the amount of craft and effort put into details like the top panels of these stained glass windows, way up high where almost nobody but the original makers will ever appreciate or even see them. (Except their God, if you like.)

Ste. Chapelle is not really a cathedral. It’s actually a trophy case, built by Louis IX in the 1240s to house his collection of religious relics, which included, allegedly, Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Louis bought it from the Emperor of Constantinople in 1238 for some outlandish sum of money, and why would the Emperor of Constaninople lie about a thing like that? So now I have an image of Louis IX gloating over his poly-bagged religious collectibles like the comic store clerk on The Simpsons. “Ahem. Please do not touch the crown of thorns. It is priceless and fragile. You may look at this foam trucker cap from the 15th century instead. The inscription is in Latin. It says, ‘Damn Seagulls.'”

Anyway, Ste. Chapelle was damaged during the Revolution and the Crown of Thorns briefly disappeared. (It’s at Notre Dame now, but is only displayed on special occasions.) And as soon as I hear that, I can’t help it: a demented alt.historical action movie starts unspooling in my mind:

Benjamin Franklin is our hero, because you can’t have a demented action movie without an American hero, and the Crown of Thorns is the MacGuffin that everybody is after. (What’s a MacGuffin?) I like the idea of Franklin, rationalist and deist, having to capture this classic artifact of monarchism and papism. But actually, Franklin by 1789 was a bit long in the tooth to be an action hero. OK, Thomas Jefferson or the Marquis de Lafayette can be the hero, and Ben can be the old mentor. (Ben Obi-Wan Franklin, so to speak.) Now I’m seeing gravelly-voiced Kris Kristofferson in the role. He’s the leader of the Claves Lux (the Keys of Light), a secret society devoted to liberty and freedom from superstition, named for the keys they string onto kites in order to communicate across the Atlantic via phlogistonic lightning bolts.

There actually is a demented action movie out right now featuring Ben Franklin, sort of. It’s called National Treasure, but Ken Hite pegs it pretty accurately as The Ben Franklin Code. Ken is, as many people reading this already know, the king of freewheeling historical speculation of the sort I’m indulging in here. His own riff on Ben Franklin is great but, alas, available to paid subscribers of the gaming magazine Pyramid only. You can, however, go to Ken’s LiveJournal to read the real ending to National Treasure, suppressed by the Great Templar Conspiracy, and to chuckle at the following killer line:

If you, dear viewer, are planning any sort of operation, be it a quest to destroy a Ring of Power, the theft of a silvery briefcase, a 00 spy network, a quixotic treasure hunt, or whatever, just don’t hire Sean Bean. It won’t end well for you. Some day, they should make a movie that only has Sean Bean and Gene Hackman in it, and we could watch them betray each other recursively for 110 minutes.

Speaking of Sean Bean, my movie needs a villain. Well, I remember from Tom Standage’s fun little book on the subject that Ben Franklin, a chess master, was defeated by the Turk, the wooden chess-playing automaton that delighted and mystified Enlightenment Europe. The Turk was a hoax, of course, but not in my movie, he isn’t. Now the Turk is the mechanical mastermind behind the Illuminati, or the Rosicrucians, or something similarly beloved by conspiracy nuts, manipulating the crown princes of Europe like the pawns on his wooden chessboard. What diabolical scheme for the Crown of Thorns does this oaken Ottoman harbor in his clockwork heart???

So I’m trying to work the Babylonian Captivity and the Antipope into my movie too (we also went to Avignon on this trip), and I’ve just arrived in my head at the climactic scene where the Dark Pimpernel’s headless zombie Hessians combine to form… um, I dunno, a giant headless zombie Hessian, when Lisa says, “What are you thinking about?” And I realize we’ve walked through about five arrondissements. She often asks me that when I’m lost in some ridiculous reverie like this. I’m happy to share, and she’s good natured about listening, but man, where do you start? My Ben Franklin action movie, like the stained glass at Ste. Chapelle, shall remain a work of art appreciated only by its maker. (Except that the stained glass at Ste. Chapelle exists.)

So, who do you root for in the French Revolution?

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I almost forgot one more bit of recent Franklin ephemera: this story about a modern-day Franklin impersonator running into some true-blue patriots, courtesy of my friend Jess.