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.

Benjamin Franklin, 1778/79 — by Anne-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul

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 in 1786, painted in England by Mather Brown

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

The unattractive truth was that the arrival of the provisional treaty ending the war in April 1783 made the Continental Army superfluous, and the sooner it disappeared, the better. Congress eventually voted to provide full pay for five years for officers in lieu of half pay for life, but doing so was a purely rhetorical exercise, since there was no money in the federal coffers to pay anyone. Even that meaningless commitment generated widespread criticism, especially in New England, where returning officers were greeted with newspaper editorials describing them as blood-beaked vultures feeding at the public trough. At least in retrospect, the dissolution of the Continental Army in the spring of 1783 was one of the most poignant scenes in American history, as the men who had stayed the course and won the war were ushered off without pay, with paper pensions and only grudging recognition of their service.

Joseph J. Ellis
The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783—1789 (2015)