Benjamin Franklin was considered a virtuous man in his day. Franklin’s friend, Benjamin Vaughan, praised him for his “…frugality, diligence and temperance, …modesty and …disinterestedness” (58). “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” demonstrates the emphasis Franklin placed on virtue through the implementation and practice of his thirteen virtues and the way he presented himself to others. However, closer examination discloses seeming contradictions in Franklin’s virtuous character. Perhaps one of the most glaring contradictions is found in his support of a plagiarizing preacher, who, ironically, is advocating virtuous living. Why would Franklin, a man so intent upon promoting virtuous living, support repeated acts of plagiarism? Plagiarism is, after all, stealing someone’s ideas and using them as your own, which is a form of lying. Was Franklin using the end—the preacher’s advocacy of virtuous living—to justify the means—plagiarism of others’ sermons? While Franklin’s choice to support this preacher’s ministry may seem hypocritical, if we examine Franklin’s views on virtue, we will find that Franklin’s support was clearly within the bounds of his moral principles and not a breach of virtue.
The situation unfolds with the arrival of an Irish Presbyterian preacher named Hemphill. It is apparent Franklin was impressed with Hemphill’s intelligent and eloquent presentation of his sermons, for he wrote, “[he] delivered with a good voice, and apparently extempore, most excellent discourses…” (77). Franklin attended and enjoyed Hemphill’s sermons because “…they had little of the dogmatical kind, but inculcated strongly the practice of virtue…” (77). Since Franklin ardently advocated virtuous living and disliked doctrinal sermons, it is not surprising that Hemphill had a “…zealous partisan…” in Benjamin Franklin (77). However, not everyone agreed with Franklin’s impression of Hemphill. Some disagreed with Hemphill’s doctrine, and so the church was divided between Hemphill’s supporters and detractors. Franklin and other supporters campaigned ardently in favor of Hemphill.
However, Hemphill was not what he seemed. Hemphill’s supporters were soon disappointed; Franklin writes,
One of our adversaries having heard him preach a sermon that was much admired, thought he had somewhere read the sermon before, or at least a part of it. On search, he found that part quoted at length, in one of the British Reviews…. This detection gave many of our party disgust, who accordingly abandoned his cause…. I stuck by him, however, as I rather approv’d his giving us good sermons compos’d by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture…. (77)
It is in this text that we find this seeming contradiction of Franklin’s character. Franklin supports, and even condones, Hemphill’s plagiarism! Franklin even goes so far as to say that he prefers to hear a good plagiarized sermon to a poor original one. Franklin’s campaign for virtue seems to be on the verge of being discredited through the promotion of vice. Yet, perhaps it is not as endangered as it might appear at first glance.
In order to discover whether Franklin’s support of plagiarism was actually a break with virtue, we must discover what his ideas about virtue were. Franklin was brought up as a Presbyterian, and even though he rejected Christian doctrine early in life, his views on religion and virtue reflected Judeo-Christian influence. Franklin was a Deist, but he thought Deism was somewhat weak because “…tho’ it might be true, [it] was not very useful” (43). Usefulness was of utmost importance to Franklin and, perhaps, a metaphorical balance on which all virtues, actions and words were weighed. Throughout his autobiography Franklin implied that if something was not useful, especially in elevating others’ esteem of him, it was not beneficial. So Franklin created his own religion based on virtues he believed to be useful. As he says, “I grew convinc’d that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I form’d written resolutions…to practice them ever while I lived” (43-44). Franklin’s desire was to become morally perfect, and he created a list of thirteen virtues in order to help him achieve this goal.
In Franklin’s list of virtues, only one of them really applies to this situation, and that is sincerity. On this subject Franklin says, “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly” (65). While it is plain that Hemphill was deceitful, it can be argued that it wasn’t done maliciously. Hemphill was not seeking to hurt those he preached to. In fact, he was trying to help them lead better lives through the institution of virtue. It is entirely possible that Franklin did not view Hemphill’s deceit as detrimental to his listeners. Instead, Franklin believed that hearing about the importance of virtuous living was useful and beneficial to Hemphill’s listeners, thus allowing him to support Hemphill in spite of his breach of trust.
However, discussing this situation only as a question of whether Franklin acted within the bounds of his moral code or not would be discussing it incompletely. I believe that Franklin was actually using this illustration to show readers the importance of reputation and ethos, not to question his own character. In this way, it is not so important that Franklin backed a plagiarizer. Instead, it is important to focus on the idea that no matter how good and virtuous one’s message is, allowing one’s character to be defamed is detrimental one’s message. Franklin believed it was of utmost importance to cultivate a respectable image. Hemphill’s breach of ethical conduct destroyed his message of virtuous living and disgusted his followers who then abandoned him (77). Franklin repeatedly uses other illustrations to demonstrate the importance of ethos. He suggests that if the evangelist George Whitefield “…had never written any thing, he would have left behind him a much more numerous and important sect, and his reputation might…have been still growing, even after his death” (85). Franklin says that Whitefield’s theological writings detracted from his powerful and popular personality and hurt his ministry. Through these anecdotes Franklin warns his readers of the consequences of not keeping up appearances.
So we see that Franklin did not view his support of Hemphill as a lack of virtue. Franklin welcomed Hemphill’s message as a promotion of his ideas about virtuous living and a breath of fresh air from preachers’ usual emphasis on doctrine. He stood by Hemphill because he believed strongly in the message Hemphill preached and saw no wrong in the message itself, not because he supported the vice of plagiarism. So Benjamin Franklin’s character is not marred by this account. This narrative is not a reflection of Franklin’s character; it is, instead, an argument for cultivating and maintaining a solid, honorable ethos.
Word Count: 1,104
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