Yesterday, while reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, my attention was thrice grasped by a single concept. I took note of Franklin’s reverence for his father, from childhood into old age. First, there is the inscription Franklin wrote for his parents’ grave.
Josiah Franklin, and Abiah his wife, lie here interred. They lived lovingly together in wedlock fifty-five years. Without an estate, or any gainful employment, by constant labour and industry, with God’s blessing, they maintained a large family comfortably, and brought up thirteen children and seven grandchildren reputably. From this instance, reader, be encouraged to diligence in they calling, and distrust not Providence. He was a pious and prudent man; she, a discreet and virtuous woman. Their youngest son, in filial regard to their memory, places this stone.Autobiography, 16 (Classics Club, 1941)
In his later years, Franklin considered his father a faithful head of the household, pious, prudent, and diligent enough in these matters to warrant public mention.
Second, there is the account of his early ambition for poetry. Franklin wrote a ballad called The Lighthouse Tragedy, which “sold wonderfully” in his city. “This flattered my vanity,” Franklin explains, “but my father discouraged me by ridiculing my performances and telling me verse-makers were generally beggars. So I escaped being a poet, most probably a very bad one” (Autobiography, 20).
How Franklin’s father dissuaded him from pursuing poetry from childhood, we cannot say more than is provided. We do not know whether his father sinned against his son in frustration and/or anger. We do not know if Franklin immediately received the criticism well or poorly. However, we do know that, in his later years, Franklin seems to have acknowledged the wisdom of his father – and, more importantly, in his early years, he acted upon the wisdom of his father, regardless of whether or not he agreed with it.
Third, there is the account of his beginning disputations. Franklin exchanged argumentative letters with a friend on the topic of women’s education. His father found the letters, read them, and critiqued Franklin’s rhetoric.
Three or four letters of a side had passed when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing… I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method, and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remarks and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing and determined to endeavor at improvement.Autobiography, 21
This third passage in Autobiography explains, not simply what Franklin thought in his later years, but what disposition he maintained in his youth. We may first note the manner in which Franklin Sr. critiqued his son. He did so “without entering into the discussion” (i.e. without taking a side in the argument at hand). Also, his criticism was constructive, for he praised his son’s grammatical work. This implies that Franklin Sr. leveled his critique from a posture of sincere concern and care for Benjamin.
Young Benjamin Franklin listened to his father and saw that his advice was sound. He then set himself about the task of becoming a better writer and debater. This was a demonstration of humility, but also a clear instance of respect between son and father. The father did what he was supposed to do: train his boy to become a man. The son did what he was supposed to do: listen to the instruction of his father.
Fathers Everywhere and Nowhere
How often do we see fathers villainized in movies and television shows? Wisdom rests in the passions of youth, American culture would have us believe. God says differently (Job 12:12-13; Proverbs 16:31).
The principle atrocity is that fathers have seemingly bought into the lie of youthful wisdom. Hannah Montana’s Dad has submitted to her instruction. Patriarchs across the nation have admitted themselves to the schooling wards of tweedledee and tweedledum. It is a self-admittance because no one else in the home has that authority – and of course, that makes it all the more embarrassing.
So the consequence is fatherhood lost among fathers. There are fathers everywhere, in the sense of base procreation. Yet, there are fathers nowhere, in the sense of righteousness. I am reminded of this modern predicament by the reverence in which Benjamin Franklin held his father, and the deference he gave to his judgment in youth.
In this narrow respect, I call for Franklin Fathers. We need fathers who have themselves learned submission to fathers. We need heads of households who have humbled themselves under heads of households. Wilson’s comment, though in a slightly broader context, fits well here: “We have males who have begotten more males, but we do not have many true fathers…. Fathers who discipline must themselves be under discipline.” (Future Men, 33)
For those of us who failed the Franklin Father test in youth, there is still hope for faithful fatherhood. We may, by the grace of God, repent. We may renew our commitment to God, as Joshua called the patriarchs of Israel to do: “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 24:23).