Tuesday, November 16, 2021

D. G. Hart's "Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant"

D. G. Hart is Distinguished Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College. His publications include American Catholic: The Politics of Faith During the Cold War (2020), Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken (2016), and Calvinism: A History (2013).

Hart applied the “Page 99 Test” to his newest book, Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant is about marriage. It contains one paragraph in which Franklin, who had a preference for younger women throughout his life, recommends older women over younger ones. “Debauching a virgin” could ruin a woman “for life.” But sex with older women avoided “the hazard of children.”

This page is actually more about the book than readily meets the eye. Although people remember Franklin best for his achievements as a successful publisher and editor, adept colonial political figure, and world-renowned scientist and inventor, he was also, as the book attempts to show, a dissenter from social conventions even as he lived within those norms. It is also important to add that this compliance was good-natured. The subtitle, “cultural Protestant,” points to the many ways in which Franklin participated in a culture that Protestantism was partly responsible for cultivating in the English-speaking world. The importance of hard work, the value of literacy, the rise of cities as locales of middle-class life, attention to the mechanics of the natural world apart from supernatural considerations – these were some of the features of colonial American society that English Protestants had fostered. Franklin fit in well in this society and even spurred improvements, even though he was only nominally a Protestant himself. This same dynamic applies to Franklin’s relations with women. The father of an illegitimate child who secured a marriage in part to make his life respectable, Franklin’s relationship to Deborah was a bit of a mismatch (especially as Ben achieved greater status). Yet, he saw the benefits of domestic life (including children – a son who died as a child and a daughter upon whom he doted) and recommended it even as he mocked in a good natured way the conventions that surrounded relations between men and women.

That playful and witty side of Franklin applied to almost everything he encountered and pursued. At the root of this quality was an unquenchable curiosity about the world – about print, weather, politics, women. Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant strives to do justice to that remarkable side of the man even as he worked within the religious and intellectual constraints of the society he inhabited.
Learn more about Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue