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Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

Alan Houston
Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego

Monday, December 8, 4:00 p.m.
Sterling Memorial Library Lecture Hall, 130 Wall Street
Free and open to the public - Reception to follow

Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement (Yale University Press, 2008) is a comprehensive reinterpretation of Franklin’s social and political thought. For over two centuries Franklin, with his homespun wit, practical intelligence and commitment to thrift and industry, has been cast as “the first American.” Ironically, Franklin’s identification with American traits and values has obscured his intellectual accomplishments. Though Franklin’s practical context was North America, the intellectual world he inhabited was cosmopolitan. Houston will argue that Franklin actively participated in key eighteenth-century debates over the rise of the modern commercial republic. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Franklin’s interventions took the form of practical proposals and incidental tracts, not abstract arguments and philosophical analyses. To capture Franklin’s ideas, this study innovates in three ways: it extends the intellectual horizon within which Franklin is located beyond North America to include Great Britain and Europe; it treats Franklin as a public intellectual, consciously contributing to both learned controversies and civic policies; and it pays careful attention to the theoretical significance of Franklin’s practical ideas and actions.

Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement is part of the Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History, a series dedicated to the history and culture of the long eighteenth-century, from 1688 to 1837 and published by Yale University Press.

Alan Houston is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. A graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard University, his research focuses on early-modern political thought in Europe and America. He is the author of Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America (Princeton), and co-editor, with Steve Pincus, of A Nation Transformed: England After the Restoration (Cambridge). He edited a collection of Benjamin Franklin’s political writings for Cambridge University Press and his monograph, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement, has just been published by Yale. Houston has been a fellow in the Society of Fellows, Columbia University, and the Center for Human Values, Princeton University. He has also received major fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Philosophical Society.