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

Since the heady moment when he married Martha Custis in 1759, combining their estates into one of the preeminent holdings in northern Virginia, everything Washington touched had turned to brass. He had failed repeatedly to grow profitable tobacco crops. In London his leaf had acquired an unshakable reputation for mediocrity. Meanwhile the expenses of maintaining a great planter’s lifestyle, while keeping up a slave labor force and several plantations, had proved unrelenting. His own debtors — former comrades-in-arms who unhesitatingly touched him for loans, neighbors with whom he ran accounts, tenants who owed him rent — were slow to pay, and sometimes never did; yet he was too tightly bound by the expectations of gentlemanly behavior to refuse a loan when asked, or to press a debtor insistently when payment fell due. By 1763 Washington found himself deep in debt, doubting that he would ever extricate himself by growing tobacco, and casting about to find some way out of his predicament.

Fred Anderson
Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 - 1766 (2000)