In his latest book, Pulitzer Prize–winning professor Edward J. Larson examines the unexpected and unlikely—yet highly functional—partnership between two of America’s most notable founding fathers
Benjamin Franklin was known in the prerevolution era as an urban intellectual who humbly served the communities from which he came with an admirable humanistic approach. George Washington was known for his solemn reverence and aristocratic nature, ever steadfast in his duty to country. In the early days of our nation’s founding, they forged a partnership that provides an exemplary case study in teamwork. In Franklin and Washington: A Founding Partnership, Ed Larson, the Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law and University Professor of History at Pepperdine, offers a dual biography that illuminates the previously unexplored dynamic between the “two indispensable authors of American independence.”
What fascinated you about Franklin and Washington’s relationship?
This book was my personal intellectual challenge as a lifelong student of leadership. I challenged myself to examine how these two people worked together effectively. Nobody has really looked at the circumstances under which they met and how they were connected. No one has ever analyzed them together at all.
If you look at joint biographies, they tend to be based on two people at odds with one another or people operating in some sort of a hierarchical relationship, with one helping the other. Much has been written about Washington and Hamiliton or Jefferson and Madison or Lincoln and his team of rivals. This book examines the relationship between two people of enormous stature who operated together, not in any way taking orders from the other, but working toward a common goal. Those sorts of relationships do exist.
A great example from the last century would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. One didn’t work for the other, and it’s hard to imagine how the allies would have won the war without both of their contributions. Britain wouldn’t have held up without Churchill. Churchill needed Roosevelt, and Roosevelt needed him. They were both essential, and they were both independent. It’s not always possible to have a working relationship among equals because egos don’t always allow it. It did in that case and it did in the case of Franklin and Washington.
Why haven’t many historians studied how Franklin and Washington worked together in practice?
I think because they are so different, from their personalities to their social identities. Franklin was from the north, a printer and inventor who grew up in an urban environment. He escaped indentured servitude in Massachusetts for a better life in Pennsylvania. He viewed himself as middle class and called himself a “middling man” even though he became very rich. Washington, though he wasn’t always a member of the elite class, always viewed himself as colonial gentry. He was not a person of the people. That is partly because of the nature of Pennsylvania versus the nature of Virginia. They just seemed so different that people did not associate them. They were never in a hierarchical relationship. They were always working in parallel.
How would you describe their different leadership styles?
Franklin led from below and Washington led from above. That was apparent during the French and Indian War. Franklin’s troops adored him. His wife would prepare food, and he would pass it out to the men. He would sleep among them. He didn’t care for pomp and circumstance and insisted on giving his men the glory. He would sneak out of the house to avoid being accompanied by armed guards when visiting them. When he would come out, the troops paraded around him because they loved him so much.
In contrast to Franklin, Washington liked formality and ceremony. He enjoyed wearing fancy uniforms. Washington’s men respected him, and, of course he was brilliant, but they didn’t like him. He was a harsh disciplinarian. But they respected him because he made good judgments.
How did Franklin and Washington work together to be successful at accomplishing their individual and collective goals?
The three times they worked together, they had a shared goal. During the French and Indian War, their goal was to overthrow and defeat the French and take over Fort Duquesne, which is present-day Pittsburgh. During the Revolutionary War, they both, before they got back together at the Second Continental Congress, independently had decided on sovereignty for the colonies before many others had gotten that far. While they both had supported reconciliation with England, by 1774 they came around to the view (held earlier by John Adams) that America should be independent of England. That was a radical step. So when they got together, they already had a shared goal, and the only question became executing it. Because they both liked to listen and they both respected others’ opinions, it wasn’t hard to work together. They had the exact same end in mind.
Another trait they held in common was a willingness to compromise on means but not on ends. Whatever they did, they were always open to doing it any way that would work and to hearing each other out. They both believed in reason and in facts and were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment period. Neither of them was partisan, and that made it easier for them to cooperate since they weren’t wedded to their means. The chemistry just worked.
We can’t ignore the fact that Washington and Franklin differed significantly in their backgrounds and views yet worked together almost seamlessly. How can their legacy be applied to the division we see in today’s society?
People are creatures of their time. But people can change, and that is one thing that we can take from them. Franklin and Washington also demonstrate that ideas matter. They both were motivated by ideas—of independence and individual liberty and individual responsibility. They believed in reason and facts. They both believed in this sense of republican virtue that is ultimately that people should rule, but that people require leaders, and they were willing to devote an enormous amount of their time to being leaders.
They also both had a sense of responsibility and duty. At the height of his success, Franklin had more money than he could ever use and basically let others manage the business, which continued to generate money. He went into public service and joined the city council and the colonial legislature and later became the representative of the colony in London where he did a whole lot of public service work.
Washington left his home for nine years during the revolution to be the commander in chief and never came back. He served that entire time without pay. Neither of them accepted payment for their services. Franklin gave his money to veterans, and Washington just didn’t take any payment. Those are traits that can be applied to some of the issues we’re facing today.
The book’s synopsis touches on the idea that our current government is still challenged by the things Franklin and Washington set in motion, for example, the electoral college. How can looking at the origins of this initiative help us view its value today?
If you better understand why something was created, such as the electoral college, for example, you can better understand how or why it may function or malfunction today. Franklin thought the president should be elected directly by the people. Washington believed the electoral college would empower states that had a broad franchise. Half of the people living in the South were slaves, so they weren’t allowed to vote. In Pennsylvania, nobody was a slave, and in neighboring New Jersey, women were allowed to vote. Think of all the votes that would have given the north.
Franklin decided that something like the electoral college was a necessary concession to make because the election process was not one of the essential items to him. He thought it was necessary to concede to it so the Constitution would be enacted, and then he would think about how it could be fixed later. That was the way he always thought: get what you can and then fix it later. He was a tinkerer. That was just the way he operated. But neither Franklin nor Washington would’ve thought that the Constitution would have lasted this long without more fundamental reform. Both of them viewed it as an answer for then, not an answer for all time.
If readers walk away with one thing after reading this book, what would you want that to be?
That leadership requires listening. It requires having a goal. But working with others to get to a goal requires compromise. Maybe it means adjusting the goal after gathering more evidence and more knowledge, which requires being open, listening, and working with others. Both of them were magnificent at working with other people to make the world better for society as a whole. Washington and Franklin were two clever people who were willing to sacrifice for the common good. And while they themselves profited, they did so, inevitably, by making the pie bigger for everyone.