148 Chapter Five: The Age of Experiments Near the very end of “Part Three” of his Autobiography, Franklin

, in the last expository digression of the text, recalls that the captain of the ship carrying him to London bragged that his vessel could travel as fast as thirteen knots an hour. A fellow captain, also traveling as a passenger, disputed the possibility of a ship traveling that fast. Measurements were taken; the ship was found to be traveling thirteen knots, and the second captain admitted to his mistake. Franklin comments that: the above fact I give for the sake of the following observation. It has been remarked as an imperfection in the art of ship-building that it can never be known till she is tried, whether a new ship will or will not be a good sailor…I apprehend this may be partially occasioned by the different opinions of seamen…each has his system. And the same vessel, laden by the judgments and orders of one captain shall sail better or worse than when by the orders of another. Besides, it scarce ever happens that a ship is formed, fitted for the sea and sailed by the same person. One man builds the hull, another riggs her, a third lades and sails her. No one of these has the advantage of knowing all the ideas and experience of the others and therefore cannot draw just conclusions from a combination of the whole344. This confused state of affairs resembles the epistemological confusion warned of by Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Just as each captain in Franklin’s episode associates different ideas with the different parts of the ship, each individual,

In both cases. as in the case of the ship builders. can have a separate set of associations between words and ideas. while a word could have one meaning to one speaker. One person builds one part of the ship in isolation from another who builds a different part of the ship. first to determine the most proper form of the hull…next the best dimensions and proper place for the masts then the form and quantity of the sail…and lastly the disposition of her landing. and such a set accurately made and combined would be of great use345. No one captain. communication is facilitated by normalized and regulated discourse. Franklin argues that a standard set of measurements is needed to ensure communication between captains and shipbuilders. there is no normative practice to regulate meaning within a group. The solution that Franklin proposes for this epistemological quandary is that: a set of experiments might be instituted. Just as Locke argued that a standard lexicon of definition must be established to enable communication among individuals.149 according to Locke. It is the model of the . This is the age of experiments. It is Franklin’s method for finding the normalized form for communication and for fixing the lexicon that is most instructive here: the experiment. The rigging has one meaning for one captain. An “accurate” set of definitions would allow meaningful communication. can be sure of what another might mean by the same word. or speaker. The problem is exacerbated if. and a different meaning to a different speaker. and no conclusions can be drawn. No one individual can get a sense of the whole. and another for a different captain. As a result no one can clearly communicate their meaning.

In the community of science. agreed that his internal understanding. This example is further evidence of the importance of the community of science to Franklin’s thinking and his manner for resolving disputes. or two different ways of understanding something. The experiment allows two different viewpoints. and the methods of the community of science informed all of his writing. the experiment can be repeated. the dispute is resolved by observing the evidence. as a modern reader might think of the eighteenth century. that knowledge and its justifications had to be public. the entire dispute was resolved publicly. publicly. again. was wrong. First. after observing the log-line being cast and the speed measured. with the same results occurring again and again. in order for knowledge to be considered valid. Second. of the community of science that allows normalized communication to occur. it provided a method for reaching agreement. Third. the validity claim of each captain can be tested. Indeed. and thus become a part of a shared method of communication. the second captain. but as “the age of experiments”. to be publicly aired and rationally reconciled. For example. especially The Autobiography. The model of the community of science was one of the main influences on Franklin’s way of understanding both language and society. in the face of public. enact several of the key practices of the community of science. external evidence. for establishing definitions all could accept. The American revolution and the new American republic were not so much the result of political . after publicly stating their positions. The community of science provided Franklin with a model of finding and accepting common ground between people. Every individual could determine the validity of a position for themselves. It is revealing that Franklin refers to his age not as the age of revolutions. the behavior of the two captains in this episode.150 experiment.

Imitation is much closer to a process of selfauthorship and self-creation. Franklin’s entire life.151 radicalism but of political reason. and its result replicated.” That his life story was an experiment means of course that its validity could be tested. had been an experiment. each unique individual could find a . Throughout The Autobiography. Franklin shows that imitation is acquiring a communally approved method. as well as to shape the self. it allows the individual a voice to help shape communal norms. The concept of imitation is a reoccurring theme throughout Franklin’s work. Franklin’s method of life is “fit to be imitated” (1307). The Autobiography itself is a record of “a set of experiments” to find the best models of communication and community. In these epistolary moments. The American experiment was the result of public. This conclusion recalls the epistolary opening of both “Part One” and the letters bridging “Part One” and “Part Two”. It should be no surprise that this episode is the last expository digression Franklin makes in the text. social reason. but once that method has been acquired. Indeed. The idea was that many individuals could use the same “proper” means to achieve their specific individuality. To think of Franklin’s imitation as simple copying or rote repetition is to miss the subtlety of Franklin’s thought. His posterity may achieve the same results by acquiring the same means and methods. His life was an experiment in using language and in structuring community. as recounted in The Autobiography.the “best form for the hull”from Franklin’s testing of communication in “Part One” to his arguing in favor of The Constitution in “Part Three. Franklin’s life is presented as a method that can be acquired and repeated. As long as the “means” they used to express themselves were republican and dialogic. as well as in his earlier writings.

Franklin inscribed this model in much of the descriptions of his civic projects in “Part Three.152 place in the community. The logic of replication applied to society as well as individuals. employing the same method as the original experiment. For Franklin. As a result of the constant lending and repayment “It is hoped that no part of the money will at any time be dead…but be . textualized in The Autobiography. As a result. Like much of Franklin’s thinking. this concept grew out of the method of the discourse of science. As noted. The truth of republicanism would lie in the ability of any individual to acquire and apply its methods and gain similar results. The institutions of society could also be replicated and grow. Franklin left two thousand pounds to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia with the instructions that small loans be made to young married men setting out on a trade. and with good moral character. it needed to be replicated. a central way to establish the validity or “truthfulness” of a claim or experiment was its ability to be duplicated. the experiment was accepted as valid. onto the very future of the nation. Franklin applied the same manner of thinking to the republican experiment. the idea that the republican character could be replicated was one of the prime proofs of its validity. The loans were to bear low interest. Enlightenment scientific discourse was both reasonable and communally designed. Franklin’s codicil attempted to write his model of social and individual growth. or true. thus expanding the republic. If an experiment could be duplicated at various locations by various individuals.” Franklin’s logic of replication was also a major component of his famous will. I have termed this process Franklin’s logic of replication. but were to be repaid back to the treasuries of the respective cities. Added to his will in June of 1789. which is more a theory of growth than of copying. For republicanism to be valid.

” Franklin estimated that at the end of two hundred years. The republic would continue to grow. Writing came to be seen as one of the central binding forces of a community. the written word was the primary form of communication. The influence of that model was one of the main reasons Franklin selected the epistolary format to begin both “Part One” and “Part Two” of The Autobiography. The other model Franklin applied to his understanding of community and communication was the model of the republic of letters. but because of the properties attributed to writing by the republic of letters and the discourse of science. the funds would total four million pounds. . Franklin discovered that there were fundamental differences between the communication models employed by the aristocrats in England. as long as the communal values were borrowed by new citizens who then repaid into the general fund of communal good. Structuring this difference using the terminology dialogic/republican and monologic/aristocratic. Writing was a central metaphor to Franklin’s thought because in the enlightenment. The plan allowed Franklin one last opportunity to impose his model of society on America. and in radical circles. and by participants in the republic of letters. at which time the cities would be free to use the money for projects benefiting the public good. as Alexander Wedderburn so insightfully remarked in his assassination of Franklin’s character during the Hutchinson letter affair. writing engendered a far different society than the feudal/aristocratic relations dominant at the time. writing was seen as emancipating. demonstrates that Franklin believed that the republican model of communication was the proper basis for a republican model of society and community.153 continually augmented by the interest.

and even the conveniences of common living. or to borrow Habermas’ term. The republic of letters believed in expanding the public sphere. participation was open to all as long as they consented to the norms of the community. came the belief in a public. . Thus. while at the same time giving each individual a chance to publicly express their reason and individuality. Key to the conception of both the community of science and the republic of letters was the idea that both communities had open membership. morals. Franklin’s conception of selfauthorship germinated in this soil. For invention and improvement are prolific. and beget more of their kind346. Franklin was able to envision a society based on reasonable assent rather than on feudal coercion. creating a sense of equality between both positions in the communication chain. Franklin expanded on his idea of the progressive character of history: I have been long impressed with the same sentiments you so well express of the growing felicity of mankind. by the invention and acquisition of new and useful utensils and instruments. The republic of letters provided Franklin with another viable alternative to the aristocratic organization of society. the public sphere. In a 1788 letter to the Reverend John Lathrop. from the improvements in philosophy. open. that I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. Along with this mutual sense of recognition and equality. dialogue became a central virtue.154 Republican/dialogic concepts of writing centered on the reciprocal nature of writing. As a result of this egalitarian reciprocity. and rational community of writers and readers. bringing more and more individuals into the conversation. Ideally. politics.

And for Franklin. were written into the various parts of The Autobiography. in a corner of Christ Church cemetery reads simply “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin. it was writing. and the grounding of those fields in social reason instead of theology. it was the actual inscription on his tombstone that best drives home his republican. in Franklin’s mind. Franklin would not demarcate himself from his fellow citizens. to find Franklin’s political and philosophic ideas couched in metaphors of writing throughout The Autobiography. would serve as an example of republican and enlightenment principles. or superstition. daily living. where he again couched his life in images of writing. Franklin had learned. coercion. and contributed to.” There was to be no monument or estate to act as a seat of pilgrimage or remembrance. enlightenment beliefs. His death. Indeed. The unadorned gravestone. It is no surprise. like his life. learned in his earliest writings. and politics. In death. and politics. It was to the reciprocal. dialogic principles. . Models for acquiring improvements in philosophy. as understood and implemented through common.” Through his life-long interaction with the enlightenment discourses of the republic of letters and the discourse of science. allowing republican communities to “beget more of their kind. in many ways. then. that greatly contributed to progress. that Franklin stayed true to till the end of his life. articulates Franklin’s view of life as expressed in his Autobiography. And those improvements kept replicating. the improvements in philosophy. In his last letter to his sister Jane Mecom. morals. the progress in those fields was directly related to his understanding of writing and communication. While much has been written of the epitaph he wrote for himself in 1728. morals. science. as in life. and the changing definition and public role attributed to writing.155 This letter.

. his conversation would not end. Franklin had inscribed his belief in civic equality as the basis of republicanism. preserved for all eternity. For Franklin knew that as long as his readers could relate to him as an equal. will be sufficient to distinguish me from my grandson”347. In his last written act.156 written just months before his death. Franklin reminded her that “the word Excellency does not belong to me. and Dr.

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