Realism and Idealism 4

So Franklin’s slack behavior became an adroit maneuver—half contrived, half the lucky product of his casual ways—which strengthened France’s support of America while it inhibited Britain’s war effort.
Franklin could not have been more Machiavellian, shrewder in playing both ends off against the middle, or more skillful in exploit¬ing the balance of power. But America’s great historical moments— and the establishment of the nation’s independence was the greatest of all—have occurred when realism and idealism have been com-bined, and no one knew this better than Franklin. Fie knew that America had a unique and powerful meaning for the enlightened reformers of France, and that he himself, his very existence, was the embodiment, the palpable expression, of that meaning.
British North America had long been the subject of intense scrutiny by European thinkers—partly out of interest in the effect of environment on human development, but mainly out of the need for proof of what a society of Europeans would be like if the burdens of European establishments were radically reformed or eliminated: if powerful established churches, with their priesthoods and wealth and inquisitions, were eliminated; if feudal landowning, which gave great wealth, leisure, and power to a few and guaranteed poverty for the masses, were abolished; and if oppressive economies, bound down by medieval restrictions and encumbrances, were rationalized and modernized. In America the enlightened reformers believed they had found the answers, and answers that gave the lie to conservatives who argued that the powerful institutions of the ancien regime alone protected Europe from barbarism, that if the structure of civilization as it was known were eliminated the result would not be Elysium but savagery. America, the philosophes, and especially Voltaire, said, was there to prove the opposite. And the very embodiment of America, hence of the idealistic hopes of the Enlightenment, was Franklin—a backwoods autodidact, nature’s philosopher, who had become one of the world’s great scientists, belletrists, and diplomats. Everything about him was important, and especially his manner and physical appearance, which in themselves, as Franklin knew very well, became a vital part of the Enlightenment’s reform ideology. Gradu¬ally over the years—by a remarkable process of symbolic accom¬modation—his physical image, represented in many forms, shifted to express these aspirations, his own as well as those of Europe’s philosophes.
He had always been conscious of his image and its meaning, and had knowingly shaped it—not cynically, not to deceive, but sponta¬neously, to express his own view of himself as his roles developed and his activities expanded. Like most self-made men, he was aware of himself and knew the effect he was having—and never more so than when he moved, with increasing confidence, into the Parisian core of the enlightened world.
He had not always had such access, and he responded with the heightened zest of the once-deprived. In the sixteen years he had spent in England as agent for various American constituencies he had circulated among the intelligentsia and the middle-class literati – printers, newspaper writers, clerics, merchants, scientists, and free thinkers: he was at home in the Club of Honest Whigs and the Royal Society. But the ruling aristocracy, the power brokers, and the leaders of high fashion had been beyond his reach. One of the most famous men of his day, accomplished in science, letters, and politics, and quietly dignified, but without wealth, or rank, or power, he had been obliged to hang about the antechambers of the great, soliciting audiences. Twice he had been cruelly humiliated—by the secretary of state for the colonies, who rejected his credentials and went out of his way to insult him, and, notoriously, by the solicitor general in a public denunciation in the Privy Council, during which Franklin stood mute and which he left burning with anger and frus¬tration. But now, in Paris, the world had changed. It was he who was solicited, not only by the publicists and literati but also by the rich, the noble, the leaders of fashion, at times by men of power. He responded happily, joyously, spontaneously—reaching, as he did, a new level of self-realization, which he expressed not only verbally but visually.
Visual portrayals of his self-awareness were nothing new. Thirty years earlier he had first presented himself visually, in a portrait that expresses accurately his sense of his earliest achievements. Painted by the self-taught mariner-artist Robert Feke around 1746, when Franklin had just retired from business to devote himself to sci-ence and public affairs, it conveys perfectly the calm, self-confident, unostentatious persona of the successful small businessman. The coat and waistcoat are dark and inconspicuous, the hat is stiffly held in the crook of the elbow, the linen, prominently displayed, is only modestly stylish, and the wig, though clearly a sign of respectability, is a rather old-fashioned cap of brown curls each of which is high¬lighted to give a burnished, somewhat glowing appearance. There is no adornment; the pursed lips are expressionless; no message is con-veyed except that the sitter has arrived. Even the background is silent: featureless gray clouds and empty hills vaguely fill out the pic¬ture. The one mildly dramatic feature- the rather elegant, delicately pointing fingers of the right hand, curiously reminiscent of statues of the winged Mercury—seems out of place, incongruous in this calm, erect figure of bourgeois stolidity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*