The forefathers of our country were not known for their emotional clarity. Neither were they known for expressing publicly their private sense of self. Those who became known at all were known for their hard work and dedication to the public causes meant to benefit the common good. We can perceive them only through our own eyes, much changed by the passage of time.
It is not for us to judge them, but to seek to understand as we hope that those who come after us will seek to understand us. The writings that historical figures have left us reveal their lives in guarded ways, in styles they had been taught were good and proper. If we search closely we may know something of what went on in their inmost hearts. John Woolman sat beside Newbegun Creek and listened quietly for Truth to "open the way to speak a little in much plainness and simplicity" (467). We must listen for Truth to "open the way" in these autobiographical materials. If we can keep ourselves from jumping to conclusions and remember that personal truth is always relative to the person experiencing it, then we may hear Truth speaking and in some "little" way know our ancestors.
In their autobiographical writings, Benjamin Franklin and John Woolman each wrote from personal perspectives that reveal the sense of self at which they had arrived at the time of writing. Both speak in formal language that seems to create distance between author and reader. Products of their times, they did not reveal intimate personal details with ease, as is common today with the proliferation of scandal sheets and pulp fiction.
If we look closely we can find in Franklin a sense of pride in how he contributes to the shaping of his times and a sense of deep caring for the son to whom he addresses his writings. We must, however, look beyond the prose style of which he was so proud to the Truth that lies beneath, for Franklin's words are shaped by the teachings of his time, molded more, for our ears in ways of obfuscation than of clarity.
Every word must pass through the sieve of mind before the sauce is served. John Woolman's self revelations are of a vastly different nature, pouring forth from a purer pitcher in service to God and fellow man rather than country.
Both men were self educated and both contributed greatly to the public thought processes of their time. Woolman was a major influence in the anti-slavery movement in the Quaker community which quietly provided a philosophical basis upon which our national concepts of liberty were founded, and Franklin in a much more public way, put unending energy into self-improvement and self enlightenment with the end result of contributing vastly to the public good and providing inspiration to multitudes. Both offered moral influence to their countrymen. Franklin was more self-conscious in his influence and became a well-known figure in the world at large. He perhaps knew something of the contribution he was making to society and the place he would have in history. Woolman's intent was simply to live according to his own conscience and express his inner convictions to those close to him in the Society of Friends. It was not his intent to reach the larger world, yet once his writings finally became known, this obscure figure reveals himself more deeply and personally than the famous Franklin.
Woolman, scarcely known beyond the narrow circle of his Quaker religion, appears to have been a figure who aspired only to live his life in the image of Christ. He writes with incredible humility. The self he shows us is one entirely dedicated to God. There is nothing contrived about him. The purity of his heart shines through the formal language he had learned for himself from the only teachers available. Woolman's beautiful simplicity of thought derives from the beauty of his soul. A self educated tailor, he writes in a style unlike Franklin's, not filtered through mind, but straight from his dedicated heart. His motivation and his moral qualities are clearly present in his words. Christlike, his modest soul, grounded in a religion based on love of all God's creatures has no interest in playing a large role or getting credit for what he does. He is a man, who loves Truth more than money.
Franklin is a well-known figure, a sophisticated and ambitious international figure in the early days of our country. His autobiography is famous, yet it doesn't tell us much of his inner life. Woolman is largely unknown and had no ambition to be a public figure, yet his personal presence is more deeply felt in his words.
Woolman speaks of the "inward life" (460) and often uses the word "heart," which does not stand out in the writings of Franklin. Woolman's utterance: "the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learn to exercise true justice and goodness, not only toward all men but also toward the brute creatures," is spoken with undoubtable sincerity. For Woolman, "the mind was moved on an inward principle" (460) versus Franklin, whose mind moved on an outward principle. Woolman's purpose in life was to love God, "in all his manifestations in the visible world" (460) while from what Franklin reveals, his external career, his rise from "poverty and obscurity" to "a state of affluence and some degree of celebrity in the world," was of primary concern. Thus we can only say that we do not know the Truth of what went on in Franklin's inner life.
Woolman reveals himself much more openly:
While I silently ponder on that change wrought in me, I find no language equal to it nor any means to convey to another a clear idea of it. I looked upon the work of God in this visible creation and an awfulness covered me; my heart was tender and often contrite, and a universal love to my fellow creatures increased in me (460)
Woolman expresses a felt sense of mystery in the face of human life whereas Franklin looks largely to the mind for solutions. We do glimpse his feelings occasionally but mostly when he is angry or in disagreement with father or brother. Don't hear a lot about love from Franklin. Woolman prays for "humility and self-denial" (461) Franklin seeks adulation. Woolman's heart is "often enlarged" as he feels "a tender compassion" for others (461). Woolman finds "inward peace" with his Quaker brethren (464). Woolman finds that acting contrary to present outward interest from a motive of divine love and in regard to truth and righteousness, and thereby incurring the resentment of people, opens the way to a treasure better than silver and to a friendship exceeding the friendship of men (465).
Franklin is intent upon making "great progress" (366) in the world whereas Woolman says, " I felt a stop in my mind" when "the road to large business appeared open" (465). Content "with a plain way of living," Woolman believes that "Truth did not require me to engage in much cumbrous affairs." He wants to sell only "really useful" things not what pleases "the vain mind in people." 465 Living by the precept taught by the prophet Jeremiah: "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not" (467). Woolman attributes his efficacy in speaking to "divine goodness," Franklin to his own hard work, saying "Prose writing has been of great Use to me in the Course of my Life and was a principal Means of my Advancement" (377). At Quaker meetings Woolman, his "heart being deeply engaged," is "drawn forth into a fervent labour amongst them" (467). He tells of a Quaker resisting war taxes who feels "a sympathy" with him in "meeting" and "found a freedom" to discover if others would join him in resistance (468).
Franklin's tone differs considerable from Woolman's. Compare his pride in his success, "Having emerg'd from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a State of Affluence and some Degree of Reputation in the World..." with Woolman who cares not at all for Reputation in the World. Franklin believes his example "fit to be imitated" (370). Woolman would ask others to think of imitating Christ or Divine Love, not himself. Franklin says he owes his happiness to "kind Providence" (370), and hopes for continued "Happiness" (371). Franklin gives thanks for his "Success" and says he believes in a "Power" who can bless us "even in our afflictions" (371). When Woolman bows to God's will there can be no doubt that it is without condition. With Franklin no such surety is felt. His faith seems to be much more rhetorical than real. This however may be an unfair conclusion, as Woolman is so much more open in revealing his inward heart than is Franklin.
Woolman's self is based entirely on his relationship with God. Franklin has a relationship with God, but it is not…