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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    When he formed his discussion club of fellow tradesmen, known as the Junto, Franklin's first rule was to display humility in conversation. America was to become, as Tocqueville would later point out, a nation of joiners and club formers, and Franklin was the first and foremost of the breed. And although civil and political discourse has been coarsened in recent years, there is still a tradition of Rotary Clubs and high-minded councils dedicated to discussing the common good without resorting to partisan fervor. Franklin decreed that Junto members should put forth their ideas through suggestions and questions, using (or at least feigning) naive curiosity to avoid contradicting people in a manner that could give offense. "All expressions of positiveness in opinion or of direct contradiction were," he recalled, "prohibited under small pecuniary penalties." It was a style he would urge upon the Constitutional Convention 60 years later, and he would wryly say of disputing: "Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh."

    In a newspaper piece called "On Conversation," which he wrote shortly after forming the Junto, Franklin stressed the importance of deferring--or at least giving the appearance of deferring--to others. Otherwise, even the smartest comments would "occasion envy and disgust." His secret for how to win friends and influence people read like an early Dale Carnegie course: "Would you win the hearts of others, you must not seem to vie with them, but to admire them. Give them every opportunity of displaying their own qualifications, and when you have indulged their vanity, they will praise you in turn and prefer you above others... Such is the vanity of mankind that minding what others say is a much surer way of pleasing them than talking well ourselves."

    When he decided to use his Junto to launch the first subscription lending library in America, he realized that a show of humility would make it easier to raise funds. If he claimed the idea as his own, it would provoke jealousy. So he put himself, he said, "as much as I could out of sight" and gave credit for the idea to his friends. This method worked so well that "I ever after practiced it on such occasions." People will eventually give you the credit, he noted, if you don't try to claim it at the time. "The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid."

    President Bush, during his 2000 campaign, spoke of the need for America to have a little more humility in its dealings with the world. Sept. 11 changed that, and America felt the need to become more assertive. Nevertheless, Franklin would likely raise, in a gentle questioning way, whether it might make sense now to display just a bit of humility, or at least the appearance of it on occasion.


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