Home » Spring 2014 » Paper Money and the American Dream: Benjamin Franklin’s Rise to Public Fame

Paper Money and the American Dream: Benjamin Franklin’s Rise to Public Fame

April 7, 2014 3:55 pm Category: Spring 2014 A+ / A-

By James Hastings

The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin follows one of America’s most influential thinkers as he creates his own success. Throughout the entirety of part one, Franklin displays countless examples of personal virtue as well as the progression of his public identity. Most everyone would agree that Franklin’s life depicts one of the most successful individuals in American history, attributing the cause of his success to hard work, outstanding moral character, and adequate education. Though all of these elements contribute heavily to his success, the increase in printing of paper currency that minimizes the necessity of credit in the new American economy is commonly overlooked in Franklin’s story, even though it plays a big part in establishing his public prosperity. While Franklin’s private success is largely attributed to his personal virtue, his story illustrates the strength of the public economic system in the United States in order to provide an image of the American dream based on both private diligence and a public system that rewards hard work.

Franklin proves the superiority of increasing paper currency by giving tangible examples of public progress. Early on in the passage, he points out that all of Philadelphia benefits from the creation of more paper currency, stating, “the first small sum struck in 1723 had done much good by increasing the trade, employment, and number of inhabitants in the providence” (Franklin 49). These tangible signs of economic growth continually increase each other in a cyclical manner. Unlike credit, paper currency delivers rewards instantly, making trade and employment more efficient practices. If a “small sum” of paper currency could yield “much good” publicly, then the system has potential to expand the economy when applied to a large scale. A good public system gives the individual more control over his own destiny, as seen in Franklin’s personal life. Moreover, diminishing credit in Philadelphia’s economy also reduces debt, allowing individuals to prosper on their own terms.

Through Franklin’s avoidance of debt, we find that not all symbolic value is equal. While ten dollars borrowed is numerically equal to ten dollars earned, credit is much less efficient in completing a transaction because it complicates the ownership of property agreed upon in the exchange. Removing credit removes such ambiguity of ownership in a more direct, efficient process. Franklin stresses the importance of avoiding credit when he states, “thus being esteem’d an industrious, thriving young man, and paying duly for what I bought, the merchants who imported stationary solicited my custom” (Franklin 49). Franklin gains public recognition for his diligent work, which adds to his prosperity. He sets an example to avoid debt by “paying duly” instead of relying on credit to satisfy his needs. By working hard and avoiding debt, Franklin gains an advantage over his competitors.

Franklin shows a fundamental problem with the credit system as it creates too large a wealth disparity between the rich and poor, which is solved by printing more currency. Both credit and paper money contain symbolic value, but credit proves to be less effective in growing the American economy. Franklin illustrates this through the shortcomings of his competitor: “In the mean time, Keimer’s credit and business declining daily, he was at last forc’d to sell his printing-house to satisfy his creditors. He went to Barbados, and there lived some years in very poor circumstances” (Franklin 51). Unlike Franklin, Keimer places trust in the credit system that eventually leads to his demise. While at the mercy of creditors, he has less control over his own destiny, as he needs to “satisfy his creditors.” Franklin works under a system that minimizes the necessity of credit, allowing him to keep his business operational and generate income.

Private diligence eventually brings Franklin to the public sphere of government, furthering his self-made success in the American system. This is not an instant occurrence, but comes after gradual reinforcement made possible by paper currency. After gaining recognition for his skill in print, Franklin becomes entrusted with “the printing of the laws and votes of that government, which continu’d in my hands as long as I follow’d the business” (Franklin 50). This is just a small step in Franklins journey to public esteem, but proves to be very useful in the long run by giving him experience in the field of lawmaking. It is important to note that he mixes the language of law and business here, as it shows the necessary connection of the two in the American system. To establish an economy in which the individual’s private work determines success, the governing body needs people like Franklin who understand the benefits of the American Dream.

A paycheck offers instantaneous gratification for hard work, which is why the increase in paper currency is instrumental to Franklin’s success. He demonstrates the importance of small accomplishments adding up to grand success when stating, “small things appear great to those in small circumstances; and these to me, were really great advantages, as they were great encouragements” (Franklin 50). Modest increments of tangible success encourage Franklin to continue in his diligent work. Without the mass production of paper currency, this phenomenon would be much less significant. The word “circumstances” highlights the flexibility of paper currency as opposed to credit, in that credit is unable to adapt to new circumstances in the way money can.

As Franklin progresses through his professional career, he shows the importance of private virtue in a public figure. He states, “I began gradually to pay off the debt I was under for the printing house. In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary” (Franklin 50). This statement stresses the importance of integrity for a public figure. The best way to appear virtuous is to really be virtuous according to Franklin. In terms of the American Dream, Franklin shows that private hard work pays off in ones public image. Though it is possible to take a shortcut to public esteem by deception of character, it is not as reliable as establishing true private virtue. By avoiding debt and establishing private virtue, he demonstrates the path to public success in this new American economy.

Along with providing an exemplary model of an American businessman, Franklin also exhibits the antithesis of American prosperity through David Henry. Franklin describes Henry, “he was very proud, dress’d like a gentleman, liv’d expensively, took much diversion and pleasure abroad, ran in debt, and neglected his business” (Franklin 51). Franklin reveals his bias toward this man when he calls him a rival, which raises questions about the validity of his description of Henry. However, Franklin is not trying to accurately describe the true character of Henry, but instead aims to depict the antithesis of American values through a single person. Henry embodies what Franklin believes to be fatal vices in the American economy–pride and extravagance. Regardless of Franklin’s bias, Henry represents the pre-American idea of success created by the British. Franklin is able to reinforce his status of American prosperity by juxtaposing two different symbolic models of business: one that values pride while accumulating debt and one that practices private virtue and frugality.

Through his private practices, Franklin’s story illustrates a public paradigm for the American dream that is the product of American economic thought. The definition of success Franklin embodies has authority because it has been proven to work in the American economy. Moreover, it will go on to epitomize the grand concept of the American Dream. Franklin’s prestige is not only the result of his private virtue and immaculate work ethic, but depends on an economic system that rewards such elements. Without more paper currency, Franklin would not have been able to accomplish what he did. When “there was a cry from the people for more paper money,” Franklin took the opportunity to fulfill their wishes (Franklin 49). What results is more than just private success, but also the establishment of a national identity that defines American values still today.

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