Citizen Ben's 7 Great Virtues

He was the most remarkable of the founding fathers: in his time, he was America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, humorist and business strategist. In this second annual chapter in TIME's Making o


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    A methodical and wry man, Franklin loved making lists. He made lists of rules for his tradesmen's club, of synonyms for being drunk, of maxims for matrimonial happiness and of reasons to choose an older woman as a mistress. Most famously, as a young man, he made a list of personal virtues that he determined should define his life. Following his method, we can get a glimpse of his influence on the American character by looking at the seven defining virtues and traits that he, more than anyone, helped to imprint onto our national fabric.


    At age 12, Franklin became an apprentice at the printshop of his older brother James, who tended to be quite tough as a master. "I fancy his harsh and tyrannical treatment of me," Franklin later speculated, had the effect of "impressing me with that aversion to arbitrary power that has stuck to me through my whole life." That was a bit unfair to poor James, whose newspaper in Boston was the first feisty and independent publication in the colonies and who taught young Benjamin how to be cheeky about establishment authority.

    Franklin knew that his brother would never knowingly print his pieces. So one night he invented a pseudonym, disguised his handwriting and slipped an essay under the printing-house door. The cadre of his brother's friends who gathered the next day lauded the anonymous submission, and Franklin had the "exquisite pleasure" of listening as they decided to feature it on the front page of the next issue.

    The literary character Franklin invented was a triumph of imagination. Silence Dogood was a slightly prudish widow from a rural area, created by a spunky unmarried Boston 16-year-old who had never spent a night outside of the city. He imbued Mrs. Dogood with that spirited aversion to tyranny that he would help to make part of the American character. "I am," she wrote, "a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power. I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country; and the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly." It was as good a description of the real Benjamin Franklin--and, indeed, of a typical American--as is likely to be found anywhere.

    Franklin used Mrs. Dogood to attack the theocratic rule of the Puritan establishment and the link between church and state that was then the very foundation of Massachusetts government. At one point she asks, "Whether a Commonwealth suffers more by hypocritical pretenders to religion or by the openly profane?" Unsurprisingly, she concludes the former is worse, and singles out the Governor, a minister who had become a politician, as an example. "The most dangerous hypocrite in a Commonwealth is one who leaves the gospel for the sake of the law. A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under color of law."

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