Ben Franklin and Virtuous Citizenship

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Ben Franklin and Virtuous Citizenship

Politics and Community in the American Revolution

From: Footprints of Freedom: Bowers Museum, 2011
History Standards: 11.1
Students analyze the significant events in the founding of the nation and its attempts to realize the philosophy of government described in the Declaration of Independence.

  1. Describe the Enlightenment and the rise of democratic ideas as the context in which the nation was founded.

  2. Analyze the ideological origins of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers' philosophy of divinely bestowed unalienable natural rights, the debates on the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, and the addition of the Bill of Rights.

CCSS Standards: Reading, 11-12

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

5. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

6. Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

8. Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

9. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Writing, Grade 11-12

2. Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.

4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

8. Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the specific task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.

9. Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Guiding Question:

  1. What was the significance of “virtue” to Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers?

  2. How did the idea of virtue reflect larger political philosophies of the day?

  3. How did the rhetoric of virtue inform opposition to the British monarchy and thus, contribute to the revolutionary war effort?

  4. How inclusive was Franklin’s vision of political life?

  5. What form of government did Franklin and the founders establish? Is that the same as or different from our present American democracy?

Overview of Lesson:


Although certainly an exceptional figure, in many ways Benjamin Franklin represented the men of his day. By examining his life—even outside of politics—we can see the values and philosophies that shaped the early nation and our modern American political institutions. Franklin is perhaps most well known for his celebration of personal virtue and self-improvement with his belief that “…without virtue, man can have no happiness in this world.” While many historians attribute Franklin’s famous list of “13 virtues” (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility) to the legacy of the Puritan forefathers (shorn of religious intent), Franklin’s pursuit of character and esteem likewise reflects prevailing political philosophies that circulated in the colonial world. Indeed, his emphasis on virtue (vs. corruption and indulgence) fits with the Founding Father’s intellectual interests in the classical republic ideals yet also exposes the limits of the seemingly egalitarian political order.


  1. Opening Exercise: Ask students to define “virtue” and explore its importance in American life today. Perhaps make a list of attributes associated with virtue on the board.

  2. Developing a central concept: Ask students to consider how the idea of “virtue” was important in the revolutionary era. Explain that you will examine the life of Benjamin Franklin to understand how vital such a concept was to the Founding Fathers.

  3. Context: Break students into groups and have them read introduction and/or then explore Bowers on-line exhibit “Civic Visions” (either individually as a whole class) at

What is important is that they understand that Benjamin Franklin’s life exemplified the “virtue of virtue” and primacy of contributing to the common good. Most notably, Franklin sought to improve himself and his community through the establishment of Philadelphia’s and Pennsylvania’s first library, firefighting brigade, university, militia, hospital, and insurance company. Such institutions certainly advanced the common good and enriched civic life.

  1. Source Analysis: Have groups read through Franklin’s 13 Virtues (Source 1) analyze the Fire Mark (Source 2) and answer the questions that follow connecting his virtues to this contributions to colonial society.

  2. Further Source analysis and Political Implications: Next, have students read Cato’s Letters and the Excerpt from Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Proceed with the questions that follow each. For Cato’s Letters, discuss the Enlightenment context of “virtue” as coming from an interest in classical republicanism. Explain that men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams and Franklin himself read the writings of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in Cato’s Letters (1720-1723)—a treatise that invoked the tenets of classical Rome as a critique of British monarchical tyranny and corruption. According to this celebrated tradition of classical Rome, liberty in a republic could only be realized when citizens were virtuous—meaning they were willing to sacrifice personal interests for the good of the larger community. Gordon’s excerpt further explains that to be completely “virtuous” also meant free from material interests or dependence—any monetary interests would corrupt one’s ability to participate in public life. Thus, integrity, virtue, and disinterestedness was at the center of public life and, according to Franklin and his contemporaries, would allow citizens to forfeit all selfish concerns for the good of the body politic. In addition to condemning the prevailing political order and objections to the corruption, luxury and indulgence of the British king, classical republicanism offered a political model to prevent the abuse of power and liberties through the separation of powers. Franklin likewise believed the domain of political office should be reserved for “gentlemen”—those retired from monetary pursuits. As a true “republican”, he did not engage in military or political office until he had retired from his work as a printer and had acquired sufficient material wealth to ensure “disinterest” in public administration. Accordingly, Franklin’s seemingly egalitarian theories of self-improvement and virtue had its limits.

  3. Conclude with discussion that even though Franklin’s life demonstrates the remarkable capacity for mobility in the American colonies, inclusion into the aristocratic elite, and specifically the political process was nonetheless dependent upon virtue and economic independence. Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers had did not believe in an inclusive democratic political process open to all. Rather, they asserted the classical ideals of Rome, and advocated a restricted political body, open to citizens who could demonstrate requisite characteristics of virtue and material independence. Finally end with a discussion about politics today i.e. how different democracy is from a republic and significantly—discuss the role of virtue in modern day politics. Ask students to reconsider their definition of virtue and create a written response comparing contemporary definitions and understandings of virtue to the held by Ben Franklin and the Founding Fathers. In their written responses, students should include evidence from the primary and secondary sources to support their analysis.

Source 1: Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography

1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation.

2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.

3. Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.

4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.

5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.

6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.

11. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; Never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

12. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates

Temperance: sensible control of the things you say and do, especially the amount of alcohol you drink


Resolve: to make a definite decision to do something
Industry: the fact of working hard

deceit-lying, or behavior that makes someone believe something untrue

Forebear: to refrain; hold back
habitation: a house or place to live in

Chastity-the principle of not having sex with anyone, but your husband or wife

venery: lust or desire
trifle: something unimportant or not valuable


  1. Which of Franklin’s virtues do you think is most important?

  2. Is his list concerned more with private or public virtue?

  3. How well does Franklin’s life exemplify his 13 Virtues?

  4. How does Franklin’s creation of a lending library fit with his 13 Virtues?

Source 2 Philadelphia Contributionship fire mark, 1752-1753

  1. What does the image exemplify about Franklin’s beliefs of virtue?

  1. Why would the establishment of a fire regiment be an especially potent symbol of Franklin’s notions of virtue and community?

Source 3: Excerpts from John Trenchard & Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters, 1720 – 1723

Unlimited power is so wild and monstrous a thing, that however natural it be to desire it, it is as natural to oppose it; nor ought it to be trusted with any mortal man, be his intentions ever so upright: For, besides that he will never care to part with it, he will rarely dare… We know, by infinite examples and experience, that men possessed of power, rather than part with it, will do any thing, even the worst and the blackest, to keep it; and scarce ever any man upon earth went out of it as long as he could carry every thing his own way in it; and when he could not, he resigned. I doubt that there is not one exception in the world to this rule; and that Dioclesian, Charles V, and even Sulla, laid down their power out of pique and discontent, and from opposition and disappointment…

The Romans, who knew this evil, having suffered by it, provided wise remedies against it; and when one ordinary power grew too great, checked it with another. Thus the office and power of the tribunes was set up to balance that of the consuls, and to protect the populace against the insolence, pride, and intrenchments of the nobility: And when the authority of the tribunes grew too formidable, a good expedient was found out to restrain it; for in any turbulent or factious design of the tribunes, the protest or dissent of any one of them made void the purposes and proceedings of all the rest. And both the consuls and tribunes were chosen only for a year.

Thus the Romans preserved their liberty by limiting the time and power of their magistrates, and by making them answerable afterwards for their behaviour in it: And besides all this, there lay from the magistrates an appeal to the people; a power which, however great, they generally used with eminent modesty and mercy; and, like the people of other nations, sinned much seldomer than their governors. Indeed, in any publick disorder, or misfortune, the people are scarce ever in the fault; but far on the other side, suffer often, with a criminal patience, the sore evils brought wantonly or foolishly upon them by others, whom they pay dear to prevent them.

infinite-endless, many

resigned: to leave one’s job or to calmly accept a situation that is bad, but cannot be changed
pique: a feeling of being annoyed or upset

tribune: an official in ancient Rome who was elected by the ordinary people to protect their rights

insolence: rudeness or disrespect in behavior or speech

intrenchments-power that is firmly established

factious: given to divisions

dissent: disagreement

magistrates: judge or one who works in court of law

wantonly: without regard

for what is right, reckless


  1. What does Cato’s Letters say about the nature of power?

  2. Who do you think is the subject of such a complaint about unlimited power (hint: think about causes of the American Revolution)?

  3. What is the proposed solution to absolute power?

  4. How does Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues compare with Cato’s descriptions of the British Monarchy?

  5. In Cato’s letters, what ideal political systems might protect against tyranny and the abuse of power?

  6. How do you see that manifest in American political institutions?

Source 4 Excerpts from Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution

“According to the classical republican tradition, man was by nature a political being, a citizen who achieved his greatest moral fulfillment by participating in a self-governing republic…Liberty was realized when the citizens were virtuous—that is, willing to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the community, including without pecuniary rewards. This virtue could be found on in a republic of equal, active, and independent citizens. To be completely virtuous citizens, men—never women…had to be free from dependence and from the petty interest of the marketplace. Any loss of independence and virtue was corruption…Republics demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man’s desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force, by patronage or honor. In republics, however, each man must somehow be persuaded to sacrifice his personal desires, his luxuries, for the sake of the public good… Without virtue and self-sacrifice republics would fall apart. “(105)

“…ultimately the most enlightened of that enlightened age believed that the secret of good government and the protection of popular liberty lay in ensuring that good men—men of character and disinterestedness—wielded power. In the end there was no substitute for classical republican virtue in the society’s rulers; and everyone on the political spectrum paid at least lip service to the need for it. But no one paid more attention to this need for virtue than did members of that generation of North American colonial leaders who came of age during the middle decades of the eighteenths century.” (109)

republic: a country governed by elected representatives of the people, and led by a president, not a king or queen
pecuniary: a country governed by elected representatives of the people, and led by a president, not a king or queen

patronage: a system by which someone in a powerful position gives people help or important jobs in return for their support

disinterestedness: not concerned with gaining an material advantage from something

1. According to the passage, how was liberty achieved in society and government?
2. What is one of the most important features of cultivating virtue for public office? Are such qualifications open to all? What does that say about the founding father’s visions of the nation’s early political body?
3. How does faith in “self-improvement” reflect the revolutionary ideals? How might such a belief diverge from British notions of aristocracy? I.e. is one “born with” virtue or can it be acquired? Still, how limited is the acquisition of “virtue” (for the sake of public office?)
Which do you feel is the most quintessentially “American” virtue? What role do you think virtue plays in politics today?

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