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A Ploughman on His Legs is Higher than a Gentleman on His Knees”: The Representation of The Middling People in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s almanac

Pierre-François Peirano
p. 97-114


Les différents aphorismes, maximes et chroniques qui composent Poor Richard’s Almanac, écrit et publié de 1733 à 1758 par Benjamin Franklin sous le pseudonyme de Richard Saunders, ne se contentent pas de donner des conseils et des règles de conduite au lecteur. Un effet de miroir révèle une description très vivante de la « sagesse populaire » de l’époque, dans laquelle l’exaltation de la vertu, de la modestie et de l’application dans le travail joue un rôle prépondérant. Ainsi, les conseils donnés par Franklin rejoignent la notion de « médiocrité dorée », mais une attention particulière doit également être portée à l’idée de représentation, sans oublier le caractère social et philosophique du message délivré. En effet, ils contribuent, à travers le personnage de Saunders, à mettre au jour un projet cher à Franklin : celui de rendre la société (ou, plutôt, la société américaine) meilleure, tout en s’inspirant de principes ayant vu le jour en Europe.

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  • 1  Nathanael Ames actually published the first annual almanac in America in 1725. Named The Astronomi (...)

1American critic Walter Isaacson, who published a biography of Benjamin Franklin in 2003, wrote in one of the articles he has devoted to this father figure of the American nation: “Instead of replicating the rigid hereditary class system of England, America should have as its backbone, Franklin believed, a middle class whose success came from hard work” (Isaacson 2012). In addition to Franklin’s philosophical writings, autobiography and private correspondence, this belief is revealed – in theory, but with a wish for practical enforcement as well – in one of his best-known publications, Poor Richard’s Almanac. Under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders, Franklin published and sold this almanac from 1733 to 1758. Besides the usual astronomical and agricultural data of a traditional almanac of the time,1 Franklin inserted useful information, maxims and aphorisms, even adding literary selections at a later stage, not devoid of irony. All were supposed to reflect the wisdom of Richard Saunders and the propriety of the advice he gives to his readers – and, indirectly, to a wider reading public.

  • 2  In Horace’s ode entitled “The Golden Mean” (Book II: X), the first stanza reads: “You’ll live more (...)

2The almanac itself was thus an ideal means to convey and praise the “popular wisdom” of the time, but also to reflect, through the various kinds of advice given, Franklin’s perception of the “ordinary” colonists and his ambition to improve the colonial society of the time. Most of the advice concerns material comfort and wealth, in both literal and figurative senses of the word. “The Way To Wealth,” a compilation of previous maxims included in the 1758 almanac, is unambiguous in this respect, but studying Poor Richard’s Almanac from a social perspective leads to the hypothesis that the exaltation of the values and the common sense of the middling, industrious people could correspond to the “golden mean” as expressed by Horace in the famous ode.2 Franklin himself knew the works of Horace, and two volumes by the Latin poet, respectively published in 1718 and 1779, feature among the catalogue of the books he owned (Green 425-26). One may thus assume that he was aware of the model advocated by Horace, with its social and political consequences.

3However, to use a metaphor also to be found in the same poem, several reefs, or “fatal shores,” need to be avoided here. To speak of “social classes” in the eighteenth century verges on anachronism, all the more so as the British colonies differed from the metropolis in their social organization and as the society indirectly reflected in the almanac could be the result of several distorting reflections. Richard Saunders is a fictional character – as is his wife, Bridget – and the advice he gives takes on a universal character, escaping the shackles of any particular society and establishing further links with the European patterns of thought. Franklin, described by Gordon S. Wood as “the last of the colonists” (2004, 17), becomes, in this case, the heir to European writers who transformed morals into wisdom. However, Franklin himself remained attached to Pennsylvania, one of the most prosperous colonies in the eighteenth century (Van Ruymbeke 433), and his views on industry and social progress may not have extended to the whole of the British colonies. Despite the success of the almanac and the numerous copies sold, Franklin’s depiction of colonial society may have been different from the reality of the time.

4Despite this possible distortion, the maxims given should be read as plain moral advice, in a similar way to the recurrent messages conveyed in Horace’s odes. The various personae used by Franklin give a somewhat inaccurate picture of reality, but clinging to the universality and the truthfulness of the maxims may provide a guideline against any misunderstanding. So this image, although possibly deceptive, provides capital information on the lot of the middling people in the British colonies. It also reveals Franklin’s goals and wishes for an improved society or, should we say, an improved “American” society, even if the inspiration for some of his maxims was drawn from Greek or English authors and if, to quote one of his maxims, “the Golden Age never was the present Age” (Poor Richard’s Almanac 1749, 511).

5This article dwells on the description of the “ideal” behaviour of the common people as conveyed in the various sections of the almanac, which evolved in the course of time: from 1748 onwards, it became Poor Richard Improved and included additional sections also worthy of interest. Furthermore, the social implications of Franklin’s maxims – abounding in wit as well as literary craft – and the links with a European tradition stemming from Antiquity have rarely been studied. The legitimate reference to the “golden mean” raises the following question: how did Franklin use this model to promote his vision of an improved society? Paradoxes are not absent from the picture, as reaching the state of the “golden mean” could prove an obstacle to further improvement and an increase in wealth, according to the Protestant work ethic. Besides, the paradoxical nature of the advice given, both rooted in colonial society and taking on a universal character, could lead to a distinction between an “improving” society (that of eighteenth-century America) and an “improved” one (once improvements have actually been achieved). To answer the afore-mentioned question, the lively description of popular wisdom will first be examined, followed by the exaltation of virtue, as both play a capital role in conveying the image of humble, industrious, honest and well-to-do middling people. Lastly, the emphasis will be laid on the paradoxical character of the “golden mean” and its social and philosophical consequences, particularly on the American soil, considered by Franklin as the ideal ground for the rise of an improved society.

Poor Richard’s Almanac: a lively description of “popular wisdom”

6An initial paradox should be highlighted: the maxims supposed to enable one to reach a better social condition were given – in the first issues of the almanac at least – by a poverty-stricken man, who thus did not obey those rules, or was misled by them. From the outset, Richard Saunders defined himself as such a man: “I am excessive poor” (1733, 445). He often recalled his state at the end of the prefaces, for instance, “Courteous and kind Reader, / Your poor Friend and Servant, / R. Saunders (1734, 450), and later included his fellow citizens in this category: “and Poor Richard’s Success, has produced ye a Poor Will, and a Poor Robin; and no doubt Poor John, &c., will follow, and we shall all be in Name what some Folks say we are already in Fact, A Parcel of poor Almanack Makers” (1742, 481). This did not prevent him from giving advice on how to grow wealthier and improve one’s material well-being. His reiterated goal remains to benefit the public: “This is the Twelfth Year that I have in this Way laboured for the Benefit – of Whom? – of the Publick, if you’ll be so good-natured as to believe it” (1744, 491). In this respect, several maxims from the first issues of the almanac can be quoted: “Reader, I wish thee Health, Wealth, Happiness, / And may kind Heaven thy Year’s Industry bless” (1735, 435); “Hearty Wishes for your Welfare” (1745, 494). In the course of time, other sections were added to the almanac as it became a more and more popular publication. Several of them deserve particular attention, such as “Hints for those that would be Rich” (1737), “How to get Riches” (1749) or “On Saving Money” (1756), “The Way to Wealth” crowning the whole in 1758. Despite their titles, such pieces of advice do not completely fulfil the initial goals: they aim at improving society and boil down to an exaltation of popular wisdom and common sense that echoes the idea of the “golden mean,” which could be defined in the following way: provided they are satisfied with their lot and can eke out a modest, but comfortable living, the common people should seek for nothing else and, should they be poor, just strive to reach such a goal. In “How to get Riches” for example, some of the precepts given are simple guidelines to reach a wealthier condition: “Nor trivial Loss, nor trivial Gain despise; / Molehills, if often heap’d, to Mountains rise” (1737, 464). This exaltation is not devoid of irony and criticism – even of subversion – and Franklin, through Saunders, often recalls the fundamental equality between men, whatever their ways of life or their titles, and the paradox of the idea of wealth itself:

An innocent Plowman is more worthy than a vicious Prince. (1734, 451)
Poverty, Poetry, and new Titles of Honour, make Men ridiculous. (1736, 460)
Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it. (1736, 461)
The greatest monarch on the proudest throne, is oblig’d to sit upon his own arse. (1737, 463)

  • 3  Even though this theory generally applies to the works of later philosophers such as Jeremy Bentha (...)

7This wish could also reflect the economic context of the time, as the British colonies of America experienced growth in the first half of the eighteenth century. Pennsylvania was no exception. The development of industrial and commercial activities led, almost naturally, to a praise of commerce that, in Franklin’s eyes, was also coupled with Utilitarianism.3 In the analysis by Max Weber, for whom Franklin was one of the exemplars of this ideology, maxims and rules of moral conduct are no exception and moderation underpins such a model:

Now, all Franklin’s moral attitudes are coloured with utilitarianism. Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues. A logical deduction from this would be that where, for instance, the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose, that would suffice, and an unnecessary surplus of this virtue would evidently appear to Franklin’s eyes as unproductive waste. (Weber 17)

  • 4  These figures are generally accepted as correct (van Ruymbeke 440, for example).

8A few years after Poor Richard, Franklin mentioned this need in his Autobiography, underlining that the benefit was a mutual one: “I endeavour’d to make [the almanac] both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such Demand that I reap’d considerable profit from it, vending annually near ten Thousand” (Autobiography 79).4 Even though the Autobiography gave an image of Benjamin Franklin that did not totally correspond to reality – the author’s intentions could thus be questioned –, the benefit of the doubt has to prevail as regards the maxims and the advice given, in the same way as Max Weber did not question the sincerity of Franklin in the Autobiography (Weber 18). In the almanac itself, the need to benefit the fictional character of Saunders was recalled as well: “[My wife] has threatened more than once to burn all my Books and Rattling-Traps (as she calls my Instruments) if I do not make some profitable Use of them for the Good of my Family” (1733, 445).

9The need to improve the lot of the common people so that they reach an idealized state close to the “golden mean” is constantly hinted at, particularly through the praise of trading activities. Such ideas were already deep-rooted in the British colonies of America. William Bradford’s Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the Plantation Setled at Plimouth (1622) was a founding text in this respect and Franklin could be considered as his rightful heir:

No man e’er was glorious, who was not laborious. (1734, 451)
The noblest question in the world is What Good may I do in it? (1737, 462)
Drive thy business; let not that drive thee. (1738, 467)
He that hath a Trade, hath an Estate. (1742, 483)
Drive thy Business, or it will drive thee. (1744, 491)
He that has a Trade, has an Office of Profit and Honour. (1756, 547)

10Trading and professional activities are thus praised as the indispensable condition to a humble, yet comfortable way of life. From this praise follows the condemnation of idleness and laziness, often considered from a religious perspective, but also from a social one, through the use of comparisons and metaphors that, as in fables, make the maxim pleasant to read and catch the reader’s attention, appealing to his/her conscience:

All things are easy to Industry, / All things difficult to Sloth. (1734, 451)
There are lazy Minds as well as lazy Bodies. (1740, 476)
He that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night. (1742, 483)
A Plowman on his Legs is higher than a Gentleman on his Knees. (1746, 497)
Idleness is the Dead Sea, that swallows all Virtues: Be active in business, that Temptation may miss her Aim: The Bird that sits, is easily shot. (1757, 551)

11Almost logically, even the importance of theoretical learning is played down in a witty maxim: “Most of the Learning in use, is of no great Use” (1749, 513).

12Therefore, those maxims cannot but reinforce the status of Richard Saunders as a persona, a somewhat artificial character behind whose thin mask appear the features of Benjamin Franklin, despite all the efforts made to present him as a real character: his relations with his wife, his friends or even his opponents are often related in the successive prefaces. Giving more credit and substance to the almanac and its maxims was, of course, indispensable to convey its explicit and implicit messages, the most striking one being the exaltation of virtue, the touchstone of the “golden mean.”

The “golden mean” as a status for humble and virtuous people

13“Virtue and a Trade, are a Child’s best Portion” (1753, 538) is a maxim that leads us from popular wisdom to a more precise view of the “golden mean.” Virtue must first be applied to the individual, then to society, as various maxims praise self-improvement and the need to tame one’s instincts and passions:

Let thy vices die before thee. (1738, 467)
Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices. (1738, 468)
A Man in a Passion rides a mad Horse. (1749, 511)
Be at War with your Vices, at peace with your Neighbours, and let every New-Year find you a better Man. (1755, 543)

14However, the link with social improvement is established from the start: “No longer virtuous no longer free; is a Maxim as true with regard to a private Person as a
Commonwealth” (1739, 472). Warning against all sorts of excess benefits not only the individual, but society as a whole, and virtue is considered as an indispensable quality:

He is ill cloth’d, who is bare of Virtue. (1733, 447)
The thrifty maxim of the wary Dutch, / Is to save all the Money they can touch. (1734, 451)
Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.
(1735, 457)
You may be more happy than Princes, if you will be more virtuous.
(1738, 467)
What more valuable than Gold? Diamonds. Than Diamonds? Virtue. (1751, 526)
Virtue may not always make a Face handsome, but Vice will certainly make it ugly. (1758, 559)

15In this respect, the accumulation of wealth plays a crucial role and, from 1733 to 1758, a host of maxims advise the “courteous” or “kind” reader to keep a virtuous balance between poverty and excessive wealth, the drawbacks of both conditions being pointed out and condemned alike:

Light purse, heavy heart. (1733, 447)
He does not possess Wealth, it possesses him. (1734, 453)
The poor man must walk to get meat for his stomach, the rich man to get a stomach to his meat. (1735, 456)
I have never seen the Philosopher’s Stone that turns lead into Gold, but I have known the pursuit of it turn a Man’s Gold into Lead. (1738, 468)
Great Beauty, great strength, & great Riches, are really & truly of no great Use; a right Heart exceeds all. (1739, 472)
He who multiplies Riches multiplies Cares. (1744, 491)
A light purse is a heavy Curse. (1745, 493)

  • 5  In this case, the use of “middle-class” is slightly anachronistic.

16This idea recalls Horace’s ode. For Saunders (and Franklin), the ideal social state is represented as standing halfway between the two ends of the spectrum and similar images are used. While Horace reads “Whoever takes delight in the golden mean, / Safely avoids the squalor of a shabby house, / And, soberly, avoids the regal palace / That incites envy,” one of the maxims in Poor Richard’s Almanac goes: “A little House well fill’d, a little Field well till’d, and a little Wife well will’d, are great Riches” (1735, 458). The words used suggest the early influence of Agrarianism and of French philosophers such as Quesnay and Turgot. To them, a nation of well-to-do, almost “middle-class” landowners was the remedy for the corruption flourishing within the populous cities.5 In America, Franklin and Jefferson became the spearheads of this social model, which did not conflict with the development of commerce and also stemmed from Antiquity, as Henry F. May remarks: “All that was necessary, according to some of the last generation of philosophes – Mably, Turgot, Raynal, and others – was for America to […] maintain the innocence and virtue associated with the early Roman republic and best exemplified by the venerable Franklin” (177). The behaviour of the individual is the key to the improvement of society and virtue itself takes various forms, whether it be a noble attitude, thrift or temperance. Gold provides another link with Horace in the last of these maxims:

If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the Philosophers-Stone. (1736, 461)
No better relation than a prudent & faithful Friend. (1737, 465)
If thou hast Wit & Learning, add to it Wisdom and Modesty. (1738, 469)
Beware of little Expences, a small Leak will sink a great Ship. (1745, 496)
A true great Man will neither trample on a Worm, nor sneak to an Emperor. (1746, 497)
Get what you can, and what you get, hold; / ‘Tis the Stone that will turn all your Lead into Gold. (1756, 546)

17Such maxims are in keeping with the moral conduct advocated by Franklin elsewhere. In his Autobiography, a list of essential virtues is drawn. Temperance comes first and moderation is ranked ninth:

1. Temperance.
Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.
9. Moderation.
Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve. (
Autobiography 67)

18Poor Richard’s Almanac thus gives rules of conduct that correspond to the very definition of “mediocrity” and its etymology. Stemming from the Latin mediocris or medius, meaning “medium,” it refers, in social terms, to the middling sort of people, neither poor nor rich, who are described as the most virtuous, fortunate and laudable in a given society. In this sense, Benjamin Franklin is the heir to a tradition originating from Antiquity and some of his advice may be the moral of a fable. “An Egg to day is better than a Hen to-morrow” (1734, 453) echoes Aesop’s fable “The Fisherman and the Little Fish” and its final lines, often translated into English as “one possession is better than two promises” or “A fish in the pan is worth two in the pond” (Aesop 113). Once again, these maxims preach moderation and warn against potential greed – so, indirectly, against excess. Given the nature of the work, the moral dimension of the various maxims should be emphasized, so establishing further links with Horace’s intentions in his odes: indeed, the poet praised, in turn, virtues like friendship, faithfulness and moderation, from a didactic perspective (Perret 105).

19To go further, it may even be said that the various astronomical data were aimed at instructing the popular masses, in order to help them reach another form of the “golden mean,” a balance between ignorance and too much erudition, whose shortcomings were mentioned earlier. Franklin himself pointed out this need in another passage from his Autobiography devoted to Poor Richard’s Almanac: “And observing that it was generally read, scarce any Neighbourhood in the Province being without it, I consider’d it as a proper Vehicle for conveying Instruction among the common People, who bought scarce any other Books” (Autobiography 79). In 1751, the introduction to astrology or the thorough presentation of the microscope perfectly reflect this wish and also constitute a fundamental paradox, as it was established that Franklin also despised astrology: “Poor Richard was an astrologer, and his creator had a very genuine contempt for astrological study of the stars” (Zuckerman 29). However, the hypothesis that the views of an “enlightened man” were different from those of the common people could account for the discrepancy. Through Saunders, Franklin addresses another category of people and the message conveyed by his persona is thus different from the thoughts of the author himself.

  • 6  Poor Richard Improved was the name of the supplement to Poor Richard’s Almanac.

20Passages commemorating the death of outstanding figures such as Copernicus, Newton and Cromwell, inserted in Poor Richard Improved from 1748 onwards,6 also deserve close attention. For Franklin, they provide the opportunity to praise the qualities and virtues of the person and to set an example to his readers. Three extracts are most revealing. First, Joseph Addison: “The 19th of this month, 1719, died the celebrated Joseph Addison, Esq.; aged 47, whose writings have contributed more to the improvement of the minds of the British nation, and polishing their manners, than those of any other English pen whatever” (1748, 505). Then, Martin Luther, seen as a paragon of temperance: “On the 18th of this month, anno 1546 died that famous reformer Luther. […] He was remarkably temperate in meat and drink. […] Cicero says, there was never any great man who was not an industrious man; to which may, perhaps, be added, There was never any industrious man who was not a temperate man” (1749, 514). Lastly, in the extract celebrating Oliver Cromwell, the example of his son Richard gives way to the implicit praise of plain living:

His son Richard succeeded him, but being of an easy peaceable disposition, he soon descended from that lofty station, and became a private man, living, unmolested, to a good old age. […] Oliver was once about to remove to New-England, his goods being on shipboard; but somewhat alter’d his mind. There he would doubtless have risen to be a Select Man, perhaps a Governor; and then might have had 100 of Indian corn per Annum, the salary of a governor of that then small colony in those days. (1748, 507)

21Through Cromwell’s imaginary voyage to New England, the specificity of colonial society is stressed, as if modesty or, rather, “mediocrity,” characterized life on the American continent.

22In The Enlightenment in America, Henry F. May writes that in the British colonies, the “Moderate Enlightenment” rested upon the search for the ideal of moderation. In addition to the example of Franklin, he also quotes William Livingston’s Independent Reflector. The role played by both men in the popularization of this ideal and the rise of a new social order thus seems complementary:

One thing that is clear is that differences in rank were taken for granted by nearly all eighteenth-century Englishmen, including those living in America, to a degree which contemporary Americans find hard to imagine. William Livingston’s Independent Reflector, the gadfly of privilege in New York, paused between attacks on corrupt local bigwigs to point out the importance of observing just distinctions. He appealed to the ideals of balance and order so much loved by the Moderate Enlightenment. […] Colonial publishing shows the immediate influence of two familiar and opposite kinds of people: the New England minister and the eclectic publisher-printer-bookseller whose most famous exemplar is Franklin. (May 27-35)

23Throughout his public life, Franklin himself made attempts at improving the material conditions of some American colonies, as he held such responsibilities as Justice of the Peace for Pennsylvania or Member of the Pennsylvania Assembly at the turn of the 1750s. Yet on a personal level, he constantly sought for wealth and, in his latter years, drew considerable profits from land speculation during the American Revolution. He was, according to Michael Zuckerman, “hardly the first colonist to achieve affluence in the New World” (8). Beyond the “golden mean,” he ended up as a man of great wealth, a paradox that could contradict the very message conveyed in the various maxims, although it must not be forgotten that Saunders is not Franklin. Poor Richard’s Almanac may be a facet of Franklin’s activity and versatility, but such a hypothesis links it to a real wish for social improvement in the colonies. However, does the advice given not contradict this search, in the sense that the common people should just be content with the status of the “golden mean,” and nothing higher? The following point therefore deals with the social and philosophical consequences of the notion.

The social and philosophical aspects of Poor Richard’s Almanac

24In Poor Richard’s Almanac, the exaltation of activity, virtue and moderation remains paradoxical, as the advice just gives the idea of a goal to be reached, while the actual and practical results may never come. The titles of various sections express this ambiguity: “How to get Riches,” “The Way to Wealth.” Such an idea blurs the general picture and one could wonder whether the state of the “golden mean” is not fragile and precarious, constantly threatened by excess of various kinds, if not a myth. Or would the implicit message be: “people should endeavour to grow richer, but remain in their initial social condition”? In this sense, the impetus or the hope to grow richer could have more importance than reaching wealth itself: “Hope of gain / Lessens pain” (1734, 450), or “Nothing humbler than Ambition, when it is about to climb” (1753, 537). The image of the philosopher’s stone is often used to praise the notion of content, indispensable to achieve the state of the “golden mean”: “Content is the Philosopher’s Stone, that turns all it touches into Gold” (1758, 557). Other maxims give more substance to this hypothesis, underlining the fragile balance on which the “golden mean” rests:

The poor have little, beggars none, the rich too much, enough not one. (1733, 447)
Content and Riches seldom meet together, / Riches take thou, contentment I had rather. (1743, 488)
Wealth and Content are not always Bed-fellows. (1749, 513)
Content makes poor men rich; Discontent makes rich Men poor.
(1749, 514)

25The difficulty, the impossibility even, of reaching such a state is underlined: “Who is wise? He that learns from every One. / Who is powerful? He that governs his Passions. / Who is rich? He that is content. / Who is that? Nobody” (1755, 542). Given these difficulties, “mediocrity” is once again promoted as the ideal means of organizing society, while a gradual approach is often privileged to introduce it: “Sudden Power is apt to be insolent, Sudden Liberty saucy; that behaves best which has grown gradually” (1753, 538).

26The implicit message remains the same throughout the almanac, but the character of Richard Saunders rises from the afore-mentioned state of poverty to material comfort and well-being, as if he benefited both from the success of his almanac and from his own advice and industry. This mise en abyme of elevation to the condition of the “golden mean” is to be found in numerous passages from the prefaces in which Richard informs the reader of his gradual ascending the social ladder: “Your kind and charitable Assistance last Year, in purchasing so large an Impression of my Almanacks, has made my Circumstances much more easy in the World, and requires my grateful Acknowledgement” (1734, 449). More than a decade later, he writes: “I lead an easy Life” (1746, 496). Another passage, supposedly written by Mistress Saunders, further accounts for this, as she claims that “My good Man set out last Week for Potowmack, to visit an old Stargazer of his Acquaintance, and see about a little Place for us to settle and end our Days on” (1738, 466). The use of the adjective “little” once again sheds light on their being part of the “golden mean” – they are owners, but not of a large house – and establishes further links with Horace’s ode. In the preface to the 1758 volume, Richard Saunders also underlines his satisfaction when hearing his maxims repeated by the people and quoted by learned authors, as if content, more than material comfort, was the indispensable condition of happiness. It is perhaps no coincidence that Franklin, who grew wealthier as his various publications enjoyed considerable success, ceased writing the almanac at this point, ending the “way to material and intellectual wealth” of his fictional character in such a satisfactory manner.

27The evolution in the well-being of Richard Saunders and his family indirectly leads one to enquire whether Poor Richard’s Almanac, more than being a reflection of Franklin’s view on colonial society and the ways to improve it, does not conceal a thorough social and political project. Franklin himself did not directly allude to it in his subsequent writings, but Horace’s expression of the “golden mean” could actually suggest this hypothesis. The Latin poet borrowed this idea from Greek philosophy, particularly from Aristotle, who defined virtues as a “middle state” between two extremes (Nicomachean Ethics 44). Without establishing a direct link between Aristotle and Franklin, the “golden mean” could be erected as a model of society in the political sense of the term. Whatever the society, this would guarantee the well-being of individuals and their inclusion in the social order. In the British colonies, the means to achieve it could be virtue and a prosperous economy. The conditions in which Franklin compiled “The Way to Wealth” in 1757 are highly revealing; on a voyage to England to represent the grievances of Pennsylvania against the Crown and the Proprietors, he imagined an old man, Father Abraham, addressing an auction in a speech drawn almost entirely from Poor Richard’s maxims over the past twenty-five years. Reiterating them could thus be an indirect means to show the true way to achieve wealth and economic growth, through the praise of the ideal of the “golden mean,” a path from which the colonies had been led astray by King and Parliament. In a broader perspective, Poor Richard’s Almanac praises the opportunities offered in the New World to any industrious and virtuous person. Through the progress already achieved, the differences between America and Europe play a fundamental role in this vision of a possibly improved society. The New World remained, to Franklin, the ideal ground on which to give birth to a deeply virtuous society, even though it was originally inspired by European principles. Those advocated by the “Moderate Enlightenment,” leading to social order, were peculiar to colonial society, as previously recalled in the quotation by May. The status of Franklin, the “first American” and the “last colonist,” is confirmed as the individual and social implications of the “golden mean” gain more strength: “No American pointed the way to the domestication of European dreams as evocatively as Benjamin Franklin” (Zuckerman 7).

  • 7  Élise Marienstras develops this point: “ il aurait été vain de vouloir recréer une civilisation de (...)

28Given the fictitious nature of the character of Richard Saunders, whom Franklin revelled in criticizing through his writings, and the events that chequered the life of the real Benjamin Franklin, the point of view given in the almanac may be described as that of an “outsider.” However, critical distance is played down, once again, by the universal character of maxims that could apply to any society and, in the New World more than anywhere else, would be synonymous with the hope of building a more virtuous society. As Horace wrote his odes during the reign of Augustus, which seemed to herald a new and flourishing age for the Roman Empire, Franklin’s own conception of time and awareness of the European heritage may thus explain the various pieces of advice given in Poor Richard’s Almanac.7 In a similar way, auspicious times may lie ahead for America and one cannot help thinking of the lines written a few decades later by Hector St. John de Crèvecœur in the famous extract from Letters From an American Farmer now known as “What is an American?”: “The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe” (267). Once again, this could be evidence that the “golden mean” was to be found in America, even if the tone of the letter may be described as over-enthusiastic.


29As has been shown, Franklin’s didactic approach in his praise of wisdom and virtue does share common points with the notion of the “golden mean” in society. Poor Richard’s Almanac could even be considered, given its success, as a means of popularising this model among the common people, hence the various supplementary sections added over the years, consistently praising virtue, moderation and a “mediocre” status in the Latin sense of the term, i.e., standing “in the middle” and avoiding excess in every domain, the individual’s behaviour being linked to the well-being of a commonwealth. Franklin probably did not go as far as Silas Deane, who, according to Thomas Jefferson, wished that “an ocean of fire” would separate Europe from America (1044), but the prefaces and maxims to be found in Poor Richard’s Almanac indirectly contributed to highlight the specificity of American society. Although writing the almanac came to an end in 1758, social organization and the material living conditions of the American nation remained one of Franklin’s main concerns. He strove to promote a particular image of life in the newly independent United States through the praise of its political system: “By the mid-eighties Franklin could write to correspondents abroad that whatever faults there were in the Americans’ constitutions were being rapidly corrected” (Wood 1998, 432). He was deeply influenced by the ideal of the “golden mean” when, in 1784, he wrote in Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, a work drafted in France:

The Truth is, that tho’ there are in that Country few People so miserable as the Poor of Europe, there are also very few that in Europe would be called rich: it is rather a happy Mediocrity that prevails. There are few great Proprietors of the Soil, and few Tenants; most People cultivate their own Lands, or follow some Handicraft or Merchandise. (Information 235)

30Coming shortly after the end of the American Revolution, such a statement, suggesting the influence of Agrarianism, reveals the specificity of American society, in which the ideal of the “golden mean” is proposed as a model: the need to reach a more egalitarian form of social organization is based on a middling sort of people. The model praised was a nation of small landowners, thus revealing that the need to reach a more egalitarian form of social organization was most acute after the independence of the fledgling United States.

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Primary sources

Aesop. The Fables of Aesop. Ed. Edward J. Detmold. London: Calla, 2014.

Aristote. Éthique à Nicomaque. Œuvres. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, 2014.

Bradford, William. Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the Plantation Setled at Plimouth. [1622]. New York: Dover, 2006.

Crèvecœur, Hector St. John de. Letters from an American Farmer. [1782]. Ed. Albert E. Stone. London: Penguin, 1981.

Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography. [1793]. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall. New York: Norton, 1986.

Franklin, Benjamin. Information to Those Who Would Remove to America. [1784]. Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York: The Library of America, 2005. 235-43.

Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richard’s Almanac. [1733-58]. Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York: The Library of America, 2005. 441-564.

Horace. “The Golden Mean.” Odes, Book II: X.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Letter to Eldbrige Gerry,” 13 May 1797. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: The Library of America, 1984.

Secondary sources

Green, James, ed. Poor Richard’s Books: An Exhibition of Books Owned by Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1990.

Isaacson, Walter. “The America Ben Franklin Saw.” 21 November 2012.

Marienstras, Élise. “Les modalités du temps chez Benjamin Franklin”. Transatlantica 2 | 2009, “Benjamin Franklin / Richard Powers”.

May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America. Oxford: OUP, 1976.

Perret, Jacques. Horace. Paris: Hatier, 1959.

Van Ruymbeke, Bertrand. L’Amérique avant les Etats-Unis : Une histoire de l’Amérique anglaise, 1497-1776. Paris: Flammarion, 2013.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [1904-05, 1930]. Tr. Talcott Parsons. London: Routledge, 2005.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina P., 1998.

Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Zuckerman, Michael. “Enlightenment and Identity: Franklin, Work, and Play.” Transatlantica, 2 | 2009, “Benjamin Franklin / Richard Powers”.

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1  Nathanael Ames actually published the first annual almanac in America in 1725. Named The Astronomical Diary and Almanac, it included tide charts and solar table calculations.

2  In Horace’s ode entitled “The Golden Mean” (Book II: X), the first stanza reads: “You’ll live more virtuously, my Murena, / By not setting out to sea, while you’re in dread / Of the storm, or hugging fatal shores / Too closely, either.”

3  Even though this theory generally applies to the works of later philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill, the early influence of Utilitarianism can, indeed, be spotted in numerous pamphlets and essays by Franklin, such as A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain (1725) or Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc. (1751).

4  These figures are generally accepted as correct (van Ruymbeke 440, for example).

5  In this case, the use of “middle-class” is slightly anachronistic.

6  Poor Richard Improved was the name of the supplement to Poor Richard’s Almanac.

7  Élise Marienstras develops this point: “ il aurait été vain de vouloir recréer une civilisation de progrès dans la neuve Amérique si, pour créer une nation semblable aux autres, et même supérieure, les ‘pèlerins’ puis les révolutionnaires avaient effacé tout passé et s’étaient totalement déplacés hors du temps historique. Les inventeurs de la nation américaine, loin de jouer les sauvages perdus dans la nature des premiers temps, se réclament des Lumières, au zénith de la civilisation européenne. Tout en participant au mouvement de la ‘table rase’ révolutionnaire, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, ces deux derniers empressés dans les salons parisiens, assidus dans leur correspondance avec les philosophes du Vieux monde, se gardent donc bien de renier le grand moment historique des Lumières et d’en dissocier la naissance de la nation américaine. C’est ainsi que le ‘moment’ Franklin concorde avec le ‘moment’ éclairé de l’humanité et avec le ‘moment’ historique de l’Amérique par lequel les États-Unis naissent en révolution. John Adams et Benjamin Franklin relèvent à maintes reprises que cette nation a eu la chance de voir le jour à ‘l’ère de raison’ ” (10).

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Pierre-François Peirano, « A Ploughman on His Legs is Higher than a Gentleman on His Knees”: The Representation of The Middling People in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s almanac »XVII-XVIII, 72 | 2015, 97-114.

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Pierre-François Peirano, « A Ploughman on His Legs is Higher than a Gentleman on His Knees”: The Representation of The Middling People in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s almanac »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 72 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2016, consulté le 27 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Pierre-François Peirano

Université de Toulon / LERMA (EA 853), Aix-Marseille Université

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