U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Different, Deeper Laughter

Editor's Note

This is one in a series of posts examining The American Intellectual Tradition, 7th edition, a primary source anthology edited by David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper. You can find all posts in this series via this keyword/tag:  Hollinger and Capper.

This post examines some of the texts included in Volume I, Part Two: Republican Enlightenment.  Here are all the texts included in this section:

Benjamin Franklin, selection from The Autobiography (1784-88)

John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765)

Thomas Paine, selection from Common Sense (1776)

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Alexander Hamilton, “Constitutional Convention Speech on a Plan of Government” (1787)

“Brutus,” selection from “Essays of Brutus” (1787-88)

James Madison, The Federalist, Number 10 and Number 51 (1787-88)

Judith Sargent Murray, “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790)

John Adams, letters to Samuel Adams, October 18, 1790; and to Thomas Jefferson, November 15, 1813; April 19, 1817

Thomas Jefferson, selection from Notes on the State of Virginia (1787); letters to John Adams, October 28, 1813; to Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus, April 21, 1803; and to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814

Samuel Stanhope Smith, selection from An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (1810)

“Republican Enlightenment” begins with laughter.  At least it does for me.  I have yet to get through a single page of Ben Franklin’s autobiography, in whole or as it is excerpted in Hollinger and Capper, without laughing out loud.  I think that is the intended effect of Franklin’s work – to amuse the reader while also edifying him (or her).  We know that Franklin was the great wit and the great wag of his age – and he knew it too.  A first-person life story of that most remarkable person, that most remarkable life, would have to be funny, at least in places, in order to ring true.  And for Franklin, ringing true wasbeing true.  Sound and soundness went together.  How one came across to others was the most important consideration in a democratic society – I am using “democratic” here in the sense that James Kloppenberg has beautifully elucidated in Toward Democracy, a society based on an ethos of charity and mutual regard and a willingness to hear one another out.

An example…

On page 118 of the 7thedition of Hollinger and Capper, one encounters this gem of a sentence:  “It was about this time [1728, when Franklin was about 22 years old] that I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.”

Franklin must have been gently laughing at his younger self when he wrote that line some time in his sixties.  He had had a good life, and a very interesting one, but he certainly had not attained moral perfection.  If he were a Puritan or a Pietist, this might have deeply troubled him.  But he was neither of those things – just vaguely, cheerily supportive of Some Religious Sentiment or Other. (I’m paraphrasing his earlier explanation for why he was happy to donate to the building of any house of worship, whether he believed its doctrines or not.)  He knows he never attained perfection, and the reader knows it too, and so we chuckle together across the centuries, Ben and I, about the earnestness of youth and the pleasant memories that come with having notlived a morally perfect life. (Remember your William James:  “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things….”)

On the next page, Franklin lists out his moral program, consisting of thirteen virtues he had determined to practice until he attained perfection.  Every single time I get to virtue #13, I just throw back my head and howl. I know the punchline is coming, but it doesn’t matter.  It gets me every time:

13. Humility
Imitate Jesus and Socrates

That kills on so many levels. For one thing, to cultivate humility, Franklin decided he ought to model his life upon the two most admired and lauded figures in moral philosophy. SecondIy – and this is where he really kills – you’re not supposed to be like Jesus or Socrates; you’re just supposed to imitate them.  “Act well the part; there all your honor lies.”  For Franklin, authentic virtue comes not from the inside out, but from the outside in.  As he explains a couple of pages later, “But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavor made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it; As those who aim at perfect Writing by imitating the engraved Copies, tho’ they never reach the wish’d for Excellence of those Copies, their Hand is mended by the Endeavor, and is tolerable while it continues fair and legible” (123).  For Franklin, to attain virtue in a democratic society, it is enough that we find a way to be tolerableto one another, and that takes practice – especially for those of us who are most deeply convinced that our way of seeing things is the smartest, the best, the most reasonable way of seeing things.  (You know who you are; I know who I am.)

As Franklin explained, his list of virtues originally consisted of only twelve items.  He added number thirteen after “a Quaker Friend…kindly inform’d me that I was generally thought proud; that my Pride show’d itself frequently in Conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any Point, but was overbearing and rather insolent.”  Nobody in academe knows anybody like this, obviously, least of all when looking at the man (or woman) in the mirror.  So, Franklin continued, he decided to pay attention to how he argued with other people. He tone-policed himself.  He stopped being dogmatical in expression even when he just knewhe was absolutely right. And what were the results?

“The Covnersations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my Opinions, procur’d them a reader Reception less Contradiction; I had less Mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their Mistakes and join with me when I happen’d to be in the right. And this Mode, which I at first put on, with some violence to natural Inclination, became at length so easy and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these Fifty Years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical Expression escape me. And to this Habit (after my Character and Integrity) I think it principally owing, that I had early so much Weight with my Fellow Citizens…” (125).  If you want to persuade people to listen to you and work with you to achieve various ends, says Franklin, go easy on the harangues.  Shelve the absolutism.  Don’t make everything into a moralizing lecture.  Make yourself easy on the ears, and you’re more likely to be heard.

It’s pithy advice, it’s vapid advice in a way, and I of all people, who so often shift gears into prophetic mode (and even to consider it as a mode of address, not an ineradicable or inescapable identity, is to Franklinize my sense of self and voice) – I of all people am perhaps least qualified to expatiate on humility in discourse. (I take that back; Ben Franklin is less qualified than I am.)  Seriously, though — it has been less than twenty-four hours since someone has “heard a dogmatical Expression escape me.”  (He survived.) But that I find this something to joke about, rather than something to either be proud of or despair of – that’s the long reach, I think, of Franklin’s ethical vision of how one gets along in a democracy.

Can you take what’s truly important seriously enough to be able to laugh at yourself in your very seriousness?  Can you step outside of yourself, in the very moment of your most earnest exclamations, and consider how you must look and sound to others?  Can you laugh at yourself?  Can we laugh at ourselves?  To do so is to recognize the vast distance between who we are and who we might become together.  That is an ironic vision, and there’s nothing wrong with irony when we use it to good purpose – it is a scope, a sextant, a transit to measure our angle of approach not to perfection, but to something better.  The trick is to know when to stop and take our measure and laugh at our predicament, and when to put down our instruments and keep on going.

But irony – especially the irony that issues forth in laughter — gets tricky when we bring it to some texts, to some questions.  It seems unseemly, out of place.  Of what use is the distance that allows for laughter when we come to the writings of Thomas Jefferson?  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”  The words ring like a great bell through the centuries, the clarion call of equality in community.  But we set them alongside Notes on the State of Virginia, and they sound tinny and false as Jefferson enumerates all the “objections,” political, physical, and moral, to considering Black men and women as equals.  “Their griefs are transient….In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection….Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous….[N]ever yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration….Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry” (200-201).  Thus wrote one of the Founding Fathers of this country, who was father to a Black family as well as a white one.  There is not much to laugh at here.

And from what starting point would we measure the distance between seeming and being in Jefferson? What was true for him, and what truths dear to him, if any, did he cloak in language meant merely to gain a hearing? All of it?  Some of it? None of it?  Of what use is irony here?  If we are to read ideas in the context of other ideas, what is the salient idea, and what is the context?

During the Q&A after her keynote address last October at the S-USIH conference, I asked Annette Gordon-Reed how we should approach the relationship between Jefferson’s ideas and Jefferson’s life.  We read Notes on the State of Virginia alongside “The Declaration of Independence,” both flowing from Jefferson’s pen. (Yes, he had a little help on the Declaration – but we take those thoughts to be his thoughts.)  If we look at his ideas as written alongside his ideas as lived, can we get any closer to understanding Jefferson’s thought?  And what is that text?  Gordon-Reed replied that Jefferson laid out a rational argument (in his view) in Notes on the State of Virginia asserting the inferiority of Blacks to whites.  Did he really believe that?  Well, he regularly entrusted his properties, his landholdings, large segments of his business enterprise to Black members of his family.  While he was arguing that Blacks were inferior in reason and unoriginal in thinking, he was placing the equivalent of millions of dollars of wealth in their care.  So did he believe they were inferior or not?  And here Annette Gordon-Reed gave a sort of shrug.  And that was the answer.  The contradictions within Jefferson’s thought, within Jefferson’s life – these are not ever going to be sorted out or satisfactorily settled in a way that satisfactorily resolves them.

Annette Gordon-Reed’s judgment on the matter, while not infallible, is certainly authoritative. And here, at last, irony breaks into a smile.  How ironic – how beautifully ironic – that perhaps the greatest authority on Jefferson’s thought and life is a Black woman scholar from east Texas who holds an endowed chair at Harvard.  Annette Gordon-Reed neither idolizes Jefferson nor demonizes Jefferson. Instead, she understands him.  She knows him, she knows his life, she knows his mind as much as any person could save perhaps Jefferson himself.  In many ways, she knows him better than he knew or ever could have known himself, because she can stand (as good historians do) on the outside looking in and on the inside looking out.  No historian has rendered Jefferson more completely.

This fact is not an occasion for humor, not simply a joke at Jefferson’s expense — for Annette Gordon-Reed is no joke, and well-crafted history is no joke either.  But set this truth, this world, alongside all that Jefferson thought or knew, and the distance between them is an irony whose end is joy.

And joy calls forth a different, deeper laughter.

May all our histories end at last in joy.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I liked this well-crafted post.

    I assume that people teaching this section of the Hollinger/Capper book (and perhaps Ben is going to address this in his next post) at least mention that the U.S. ‘republican enlightenment’ has to be seen in the context of some contemporary European trends of thought.

    As one smallish example, the notion that the spread of commerce and commercial society would lead to peace among countries, an idea put forward by numerous French (and other) writers in the eighteenth century, had some influence even on George Washington, whom one perhaps more usually thinks of as more “hard-headed” (given e.g. the line in his Farewell Address about choosing “peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel”).

    But earlier, in a 1788 letter to François-Jean de Chastellux (author of Essay on Public Happiness, 1772), Washington had expressed the hope that “the manly [sic] employment of agriculture and the humanizing benefits of commerce would supersede the waste of war and the rage of conquest; that the swords might be turned into plough-shares, the spears into pruning hooks, and, as the Scripture expresses it, ‘the nations learn war no more.'”

    Two hundred thirty years after Washington wrote that letter, the U.S. has hundreds of military bases all over the world, a Pentagon that divides up virtually the entire world into military “commands,” and a military budget that dwarfs those of the next seven or eight countries combined. It’s also true that, at least until the last half-decade or so, the amount and intensity of armed conflict worldwide had been declining in an apparently non-cyclical fashion (a trend of no comfort to those who happened, and happen, to live in areas of intense conflict).

    Suffice to say that there is still a way to go before George Washington’s hope expressed in his letter to Chastellux is realized and this aspect of history ends “in joy.”

    • P.s. hat tips (i.e., sources):

      For the G. Washington letter to Chastellux: David A. Bell, The First Total War (2007), p. 74.

      For the line from Washington’s Farewell Address: Walter Lippmann, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943), where it is used as the epigraph.

  2. Louis, thanks for this comment. I’m glad the post turned out well, but it went in a different direction than I was expecting. My original title was “Playing It Straight,” and the texts I intended to pair with Franklin’s Autobiography were Abigail Adams’s letter to John to “remember the Ladies” and John Adams’s reply. It has seemed to me that people reading John Adams’s reply miss the playfulness of the correspondence, and J. Adams’s invocation of a topsy-turvy reign of misrule is a bit more tongue-in-cheek than most readers tend to recognize. But of course, what does it matter if John was teasing Abigail about the proper place of women (and others lower than on the social order than free white men of property), rather than lecturing Abigail? The humor does not affect the meaning, or at least the end, of the argument, which was resolved (at least between those two) by pointedly not remembering the ladies (and others) in any way that recognized them as political agents. But it wasn’t until I had finished writing the Franklin section that I realized I would need to talk not about John Adams, but about Thomas Jefferson.

    I think the Kloppenberg book does a fine job of situating American enlightenment thinkers within a broader stream of international intellectual discourse about republicanism and democracy. (Also, John Adams gets a much more sympathetic read — deservedly so, I think — than is often the case.)

    As to teaching this sourcebook, I know how I was taught it, but have yet to try to teach it myself. I’m waiting to hear back from two potential employers with whom I’ve had Skype and/or in-person interviews. If one of them hires me, maybe I’ll assign this as a textbook for the survey next year. If neither of them hires me, then I guess I won’t be teaching any more.

    That last sentence just about kills me. That would hurt, something awful.

    So — fingers crossed.

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