The founding fathers were mostly cool. George Washington possessed discipline, discernment, and integrity, but seems aloof and was a bit too fond of fitted uniforms that displayed his muscular physique. Thomas Jefferson had a brilliant mind, wrote the Declaration of Independence, advocated a “wall” between religion and the state, and sent Lewis and Clark on their exploratory way, remained a slaveowner despite an emancipator sensibility. James Madison wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, defended religious freedom, successfully prosecuted the War of 1812, and married the sprightly, party-loving Dolly, but he too owned slaves. John Adams ferociously advocated independence, but presided as president over the oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts, which nullified free speech. Patrick Henry gave an inspiring “give me liberty or give me death” speech, but advocated state taxes to support Christian religion and opposed the Constitution because it abrogated states’ rights.
But for me, the founding father who is totally, florescently cool, is Benjamin Franklin. Why? Not because his unremitting industry enabled him to retire wealthy enough at 42 to pursue public projects; not because he invented bifocals, established a library, and discovered electricity; and not because he is on the hundred dollar bill. Benjamin Franklin is cool because he possessed a rare gift: the ability to laugh at himself.
Here’s one small example in an autobiography filled with such examples. At 16, Franklin adopted vegetarianism. Not long after, however, he was tempted by Cod. While on a voyage from Boston to New York, he is stranded due to lack of wind on a small island. Some of the others in his group begin fishing, catch some cod, and cook them over an open flame. Now Franklin considered eating fish “a kind of unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any injury that might justify the Slaughter.” However, he had always been “a great Lover of Fish,” and when the delicious smell of cod “came hot out of the Frying Pan,” he “balanc’d some time between Principle and Inclination,” until remembering “that when the Fish were opened,” he “saw smaller Fish taken out of their stomachs.” So, Franklin reasons, if the fish eat one another, he sees no reason why he “mayn’t eat” them. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature,” Franklin concludes, “since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
And right there, in that slippery watermelon seed of a rationalization and the deadpan conclusion he draws from it, we see Franklin’s coolness. Franklin is a man of the Enlightenment, an age that viewed reason as the means of human perfectability, yet he knows that reason can justify inclination over principle, appetite over precept. He knows that self-indulgence often suborns the best of intentions, that we are often bridled by our desires and led away from our moral resolutions, that the embodied senses can be smithy furnaces that render our ethics pliant. Long before Bohr and Heisenberg appeared on the scene, Franklin saw an uncertainty principle at work, in human nature itself. We are complex, sometimes self-deceiving, unfitted for moral absolutism. We are, as Alexander Pope says, “darkly wise, and rudely great”—The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.” Yet, Franklin can live with such irreconcilable aspects of human being, unshivved by the kind of guilt Augustine felt at stealing some pears from a neighbor’s tree, perfectly OK with the fact that we sometimes shadowbox with reason and experience a small fall from grace. And Franklin gives us this picture of human contradiction in a “the joke’s on me” spirit. It is a mini-sermon delivered not in the thunderous, apocalyptic tone of a jeremiad, but in an avuncular, good-natured tone of self-mockery. That’s cool.
But self-mockery, I think, is actually more than cool. It is necessary. People who can mock themselves understand that all assumptions about the world and our place and action in it are contingent and mutable. They will not be immobilized in rigid systems of belief, systems that induce anxiety when threatened, violence when violated. They will not resist the challenge to look honestly at themselves, will not resist the sallies of doubt about why they do what they do, think what they think, believe what they believe. They know that reason is flawed, that it rationalizes, that it succumbs to confirmation bias, and that it elevates and ennobles us only in proportion to the constancy of our willingness to place it under critique. This is what Franklin teaches. It is cool. It is important. Our capacity to live together and deliberate together, to find reciprocal trust in each other, to understand that human pursuits and perspectives are never reducible to one idea of what is absolutely, irrevocably, comprehensively good or true, depends on it.