Thoughts on the Polymaths of the Revolution

Reading the Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin for the first time I was struck by the huge generational difference between Franklin and that other polymath of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson.

Franklin’s formative years are the twenties — the 1720s. This is the decade he arrives in Philadelphia, makes a misguided excursion to London, sets up his own printing shop, creates with his friends a weekly discussion group (the Junto), founds the first lending library in the colonies, and marries. During the time of the French and Indian War (the 1750s) he is already retired, and becoming world famous for his experiments in electricity.

In an environment where practicality is rewarded, Franklin’s strivings are all practical. He wants to improve himself, improve his town, and contribute to England by helping to grow a colony. He also wants to become known for doing so.

Jefferson, on the other hand, is shaped by the sixties — the 1760s. The war with France is over. Britain has ejected the French from North America. Yet with one uncertainty resolved, what should have been a decade of stability is instead anything but. The colonial economy is in a shambles. The mother country is mired in debt and needs to find ways to raise money. Indeed, by fits and starts it is trying to figure out how to manage an empire. A series of revenue-raising laws begin, as does reaction by the colonists.

Where Franklin had but two years of formal schooling and started doing, Jefferson continued as a student until he was 24, receiving his law degree in 1767.

Jefferson, like Franklin, is eminently curious — and will make his mark in political philosophy, natural history, colonial history, architecture, politics, and more — but less practical. In 1768 he starts his lifelong building enterprise atop Monticello, where there is no natural water, but what comes from rain or is hauled up by his slaves. (He will live with his family for much of his life in what is essentially a housing construction zone.) Jefferson also wanted to contribute, and to be known for it, but his decade of striving was largely educational, an apprenticeship for greatness, to quote the biographer Fawn Brodie.

Then in 1774, out of the gate, he becomes famous and treasonous at once for A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson is 31, an idealist, and a radical. Franklin, now one of the most famous men in the world, and, at 68, old enough to be Jefferson’s grandfather, doffed practicality — and his own security — took up idealism, and soon embarked on the political career for which he is readily remembered and revered today.

JDN | 21-Sep-2011

From 1778, the British army and navy were additionally overstretched in a global war against France, and later against Spain and Holland. From Blenheim in 1704 to Waterloo in 1815, Britain won the majority of its victories in alliance with other countries in Europe.... In the American war, on the other hand, Britain was at a great disadvantage because it had no allies and was opposed by much of the rest of Europe in the League of Armed Neutrality (1780). Spain and France were able to concentrate upon building up their navies whose combined strength outnumbered the Royal Navy and Britain faced the most serious invasion threat since the Spanish Armada in 1588.... In consequence of the expansion of the war, the priorities of the British government were diverted from the war in America.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy
The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (2013)