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.
- 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.↩
- Franklin was 45 and Ray was 20.↩
- 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?↩
- See oh-so-sly reference to modern politics in my introduction to Sincerity.