Colonial Drunk Texting. by Will Ringland

If you're going to abuse one virtue, can you couch it successful usabe of another? In reading through Franklin's letters tonight, I found a rather funny letter send to William Strahan in 1784.

Strahan was friend to Franklin. He attended parliament and published summaries of debates and laws passing. These summaries made their way to the colonies where Franklin would republish them as was typical to spread news in the day.

In the late 1700s, England is turmoil. The revolutionary war and abolishment of slavery had English citizens demonstrating for further rights, better representation in parliament. Strahan wrote letters to Franklin complaining and decrying the tumult.

Franklin, ever the caring friend, wrote back poking fun at England as they moved further away from Monarchy which America had just done.

I suspect that Franklin grew pretty sour over it as Strahan became an anti-revolutionary over time.

In a response to Strahan, a Franklin pulls no punches,

In my humble Opinion the Root of the Evil lies, not so much in too long or too unequally chosen Parliaments, as in the enormous Salaries, Emoluments, and Patronage of your Great Offices; and that you will never be at rest till they are all abolish’d, and every Place of Honour made, at the same time, in stead of a Place of Profit...

We have some Remains of Affection for you, and shall always be ready to receive and take care of you in case of Distress. So, if you have not Sense and Virtue enough left to govern yourselves, e’en dissolve your present old crazy Constitution, and send Members to Congress. (emphasis his)

Pretty forward, no? Though this may be a good exercise in Sincerity, it's hardly a good show on Moderation or Tranquility. And, he ends with this,

You will say my Advice smells of Madeira. You are right. This foolish Letter is mere Chit-chat between ourselves, over the second Bottle: If therefore you show it to any body (except our indulgent Friends Dagge and Lady Strahan) I will positively Solless you.

Yours ever most affectionately,


Oh yes. Temperance be damned, it's always a good idea to drunk write your friends. I wonder if he mailed it immediately or woke the next day still thinking sending this was a good idea.

Bounds for Sincerity by Will Ringland

Bounds of Sincerity

When Franklin considered his own virtuous achievements in his autobiography, he only mentioned Order as particularly vexing,

“Order, too, with regard to places for things, papers, etc., I found extreamly difficult to acquire. I had not been early accustomed to it, and, having an exceeding good memory, I was not so sensible of the inconvenience attending want of method. This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt…”

But I wonder if he had an unrecognized problem with sincerity. Franklin, held in the common wisdom as a lecherous man, was a flirt (1). The most famous of his flirtations was with Catherine Greene (nee Ray) which started in 1751 (2). Franklin played a sharp edge between fatherly and flirtation in almost all his letters. in his first, Franklin asks of Ray to “…preserve a cautious Conduct, and put no Confidance in Men. Be prudent, …for which End it is necessary to shun Men, and take care to guard against their Deceits.” In his second (3) letter to Ray in 1755 however, Franklin just… well....

”But since you promis’d to send me Kisses in that Wind, and I find you as good as your Word, ’tis to me the gayest Wind that blows, and gives me the best Spirits. I write this during a N. East Storm of Snow, the greatest we have had this Winter: Your Favours come mixd with the Snowy Fleeces which are pure as your Virgin Innocence, white as your lovely Bosom…” - Letter to Catherine Ray, March 4th, 1755

Quite the difference in tone and it impresses upon me curiosity over Franklin’s beliefs on sincerity. He states that sincerity in business is the best way to conduct as an honest and forthright engagement in business engenders trust and begets further business. One cannot exist in a society bereft of trust lest ill-intended men take advantage of the multitudes (4).

What I did not note before is that he relates sincerity to business with men specifically. And I tend to believe that Franklin, who made his life, fortune and fame with words, does not choose his words, even in personal correspondence, lightly. So, given the state of equality in colonial America and assuming we can agree that Franklin as purposeful in his words, this can mean a few things.
1. He uses the facile, and still frequently used, idiom for “men” to stand for people. 2. He believed that sincerity only mattered in business. 3. He really did just mean men.

I fear that “men” as synecdoche for society was less about men representing the whole but more than men were considered the whole itself. It may be idiomatic, and likely was in the 18th century too, I just think leaving out women was specifically intended.

That leaves the possibility that Franklin considered sincerity only useful or necessary to moral perfection in business and/or that sincerity was only to be applied to men. And I think both of these are true. Throughout his letters to both his wife and Ray, Franklin alternates from father to flirt to feint-less critic but rarely interacts with them in an equal way. It is as if he is presenting a role, or separate face, in his writings to women.

But, concurrent with this, Franklin did hold his wife in esteem as a business partner, “she proved a good and faithful helpmate, assisted me much by attending the shop; we throve together, and have ever mutually endeavour'd to make each other happy.” Though these words are part of his autobiography, the beginning of which states,

“I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first. So I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accidents and events of it for others more favourable.”

Ye who writes his own biography may correct your own faults.

Which, further, makes me wonder at sincerity in his whole biography.

Still, if is virtue had boundaries, that is his own choice. Personally, I have extended sincerity to all my interactions as best I could this week. There’s an interesting dilemma in sincerity as one relates to one’s self that I’v been attempting to unpack, maybe more on that later; but in short, this virtue has been the most impactful one in this project.

  1. A well documented one at that. He wrote hundreds of letters over the years, many to young women he befriended and, a good set of those, tried to bed while still married to his wife. There is also no evidence that he ever hd an extramarital affairs even while surrounded by fawning French nobles.

  2. Franklin was 45 and Ray was 20.

  3. Published. The first letter was in 1751 then a gap of 4 years before this letter. Who knows what palpable prurience was lost in those years?

  4. See oh-so-sly reference to modern politics in my introduction to Sincerity.

Sincerity by Will Ringland

Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly (1).

Sincerity today is used more to mean “earnestness” rather than honesty with ones self or others. When describing interaction , we attribute sincerity to the strength of belief behind an individual’s speech - they really mean that, they are being authentic. Not necessarily honest, but a person is representing their feelings with appropriate emphasis.

Earnestness is an intensity that invokes an angle or intent - persuasion. It smacks of an attempt to make another believe you. Speaking in an earnest manner is not about what you believe but is about what you want others to believe (2). Earnestness is certainly useful, especially when trying to persuade people, but it is a more a tool than a way of being. One who is being earnest is not necessary one who is being honest

Earnestness is not necessarily truth or integrity.

I grew convinc'd that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I form'd written resolutions, which still remain in my journal book, to practice them ever while I lived.
- Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, chapter IX

Where are we when we can no longer trust other people to have integrity (3)? The root of sincerity is honesty. One who is sincere is being truthful and genuine in their approach to life. The sincere person says what they mean, follows their own directions, and understands their motivations for their thoughts.

    1. Be honest in thought, speech, and deed.
I think Franklin touches on this in the second part of his description for sincerity: think innocently and justly. He’s saying that we should believe that others are being genuine too, that we must assume that a person is acting in accordance with their best interests. Where those best interests seem to interact negatively with ours, it is our duty to understand the justness of those actions.
    2. Believe that people speak and act in their best interest.
If what a person is saying or doing seems un-thruthful or unjust, the sincere person will seek to understand rather than assume what they are interpreting a person’s motivations is truth. The reality is that we are not mind readers and we cannot know what a person is really thinking without asking. When presented with an action we do not understand, the sincere person seeks to understand first before forming conclusions.
    3. Where speech or action seems unjust, seek to understand motivation including your own.

If we would just stop and ask people what they mean or why they’re doing something, interaction would be so much easier. Actions that appear unjust may be reasonable if you understand why a person is doing it. An action me be unjust until a person understands what effects it may have. People don’t have all the information in all situations and we cannot assume for omnipotence. Further, an act that provides a person some gain is not inherently unjust if it does not provide you with equal gain. Actions can be mutually, and unequally, beneficial without diminishing a person (4).

So. Sincerity is more complicated than straight honesty. It’s being honest with the belief that people are inherently good and who are not seeking to diminish you. In the event that it feels like some one is not being honest or is trying to harm you, it is integral to understand that motivation before drawing conclusions.

Sincerity is being honest while understanding people are human.

  1. The qualification of “hurtful” deceit bugs me. The implication is that deceit that does not hurt a person is no problem suggests that honesty should have limits in application. Honesty is more important that situational utility.

  2. Modern politics are about earnestness more than sincerity. Sincerity loses races because politics isn’t about what you believe in as much as it is about a party’s platform.

  3. See 1 above.

  4. Equality is not justice nor do all things need to be equal when thy are unequal to begin with.