chapter  10
12 Pages

The Patron Saint of Civility?

Benjamin Franklin and the Problems of Civil Discourse
WithSteven C. Bullock

When he was 25, Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay about “divisions” and “confusion” within public life. To confront “parties” that sought selfish gain, Franklin proposed a society of broad-minded people that sought the good of everyone. Such a “United Party for Virtue” could change the world. Franklin thought so highly of these youthful “Observations” that he added them to his Autobiography in 1788, over 50 years later. The problem of civil discourse—of encouraging productive cooperation in the public realm rather than paralyzing contention—formed a continuing issue in Franklin’s life. This chapter examines Franklin’s attempt to deal with the problem of public civility. Looking at several periods in his life, this piece notes how Franklin faced a series of contentious issues; how he drew upon (and helped spread) the cultural ideals of politeness that sought to deal with these contentions; and finally how he adapted his own attitudes and behavior to become, in Thomas Jefferson’s assessment, “the most amiable of men in society.”