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New Rivals for Jefferson

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

The Two Franklins: Fathers of American Democracy. By Bernard Fay. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.50. Honest John Adams. By Gilbert Chinard. Boston; Little, Brown and Company. $3.75.

In the great stream of history, the annals of the United States scarcely make a ripple. It is inevitable, therefore, that few foreigners should concern themselves with writing those annals. That the French, however, should take some interest in our Revolutionary Period is natural.

This interest is typified by the recent appearance of two biographies of that era from the pens of Franco-American scholars. Bernard Fay’s “The Two Franklins” and Gilbert Chinard’s “Honest John Adams” have as their central theme the rise of the democratic movement in America. “It is a strange reflection,” says Chinard, “on the attitude of democracies towards their great men that America should have exalted two born aristocrats from Virginia and failed to recognize in John Adams, the descendant of humble and honest folk, a striking illustration of the principle of ‘equal opportunities,’ and the symbol of a new social order.” Professor Fay looks upon Benjamin Franklin as the inspiration of American democracy and upon his grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, as its organizer.

Thomas Jefferson could hardly have had more amusing rivals raised up for the fatherhood of American democracy. John Adams was, by birth and bearing, a commoner, but by principle an aristocrat, and he was honest enough to admit the facts as to the first and last categories, and to suspect them as to the second. It is hard to say what Benjamin Franklin may have been. The one certain thing is that he had no principles of any kind. He canted much about virtue and piety, but among “The Last Sayings of ‘Poor Richard’ ” Fay chronicles the following: “One must be virtuous because such is the greatest wisdom; one must be wise because such is the greatest cleverness; one must be clever because such is our interest. . . . Be wise and virtuous so as to deceive your enemies and never to be deceived yourself.” This was the creed of “The First Civilized American,” and the French flavor is pronounced. As for Benjamin Franklin Bache, he founded the Philadelphia “Aurora,” and deserves such credit as is due for being one of that coterie of editors who introduced personal invective and the language of billingsgate into American politics.

Four years ago Professor Fay brought out an admirable biography of Benjamin Franklin. The present work evidently grew out of that successful venture, but it does not enhance the reputation of its author. It was his object to study the rise of American democracy from the point of view of the newspaper press, but the popular biographical form appealed to him and he made the mistake of selecting it. Through the first half of the book the shadow of Benjamin Franklin hovers benignly over the boyish figure of his grandson. Nothing is added to our knowledge of the aged philosopher, and the atmospheric detail selected for the portrayal of the childish life of “Benny” becomes distinctly annoying because of its meaninglessness. When one reads that “Alexander and Benny and the canaries understood one another,” he begins to wonder whether he is reading history or fiction or what. The one merit of this part of the work is that Benny exists as a person. In the latter half of the book, with the Benign Influence removed and Benny become an adult and a printer, the personality disappears completely behind a press and a newspaper. The streets and the mobs and the Democratic Society of Philadelphia now become the realities. William Cobbett, alias “Porcupine,” and Bache’s greatest rival for the favor of the mob, eclipses his enemy in point of reality. “He was a sergeant major in the King of England’s army. He was a fat man. He was sandy, with little, steel-blue eyes such as whitebait have. He had coarse hands and a ruddy, clear complexion such as you sometimes see in peasants. His small, oval head, on top of his fat, massive body, gave you no hint of anything but a brute. But, when he looked at you, you got quite a shock from the lightning that flashed in his eyes.” Though there are many vivid passages, a tendency toward fine writing is evident, and a neat phrase often distorts fact.

In his assessment of characters, Professor Fay is by no means convincing. Benjamin Franklin is a demigod, Benny Bache is a knight-errant, fighting for righteousness and truth, and there are no others to compare with these two of the house of Poor Richard. In speaking of Hamilton, the author says: ” . . . he hated Thomas Jefferson. He could forgive the crowd for being base, a thief for his theft, a fool for his folly, a poor man for his poverty; but how could he forgive a great man for being a liar?” John Adams was a time-server as well as Jefferson, and Washington was a man of wood. The historian will hardly be called upon to take the work seriously.

Gilbert Chinard’s “John Adams” is of an altogether different brew. The striving for literary effect is much less keen, but the quest for actuality is far keener. While apparently desiring to present Adams in a sympathetic manner, the biographer does not hesitate to throw the light of criticism upon him at every turn, and the picture is not always flattering. An ungainly boy who decided to study Latin because it was easier than ditch-digging, a young lawyer who preferred the profits of the profession to profitless public employment, a diplomat without diplomacy, and a statesman who never appeared to have a program, John Adams would seem to have been a great man in spite of himself. Yet his merits, though not sparkling, were real. By dint of hard work he made a true scholar of himself, and he had an unpopular philosophy of politics which he did not hesitate to proclaim to his practical disadvantage. Honesty was no common virtue, and intellectual and moral courage made him a man of parts.

In the presence of Washington, his superior, Adams could never breathe quite freely. He was not above a certain New England bigotry and jealousy which he betrayed when writing to his wife after the surrender of Burgoyne. “Congress will appoint,” he said, “a thanksgiving; and one cause of it ought to be that the glory of turning the tide of arms is not immediately due to the Commander in Chief nor to southern troops.” On the other hand, his relations with Jefferson, who treated him with deference and took the lead in magnanimity, do credit to the memories of both men.

A pointed commentary upon our history is furnished by the picture presented in these pages of partisans and mobs shouting themselves hoarse in 1796 over the rival pretensions of England and France, of Jefferson and Adams, while the two leaders maintained friendly relations and a judicial attitude toward foreign affairs. The people had not yet infused their spirit into their rulers.


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