A Great Improvisation is Ms. Schiff’s aptly named oeuvre, and
the Franklin she profiles in her book is at the height of his diplomatic powers.
He is also 70 years old when his American-in-Paris mission begins.
Three decades earlier, when Franklin was a well-known and relatively young printer
in Philadelphia, he had published Cicero’s De Senectute ("On Aging"). It
became the first work of classical literature printed in America. (Franklin retitled
the work M.T. Cicero’s Cato Major or His Discourse of Old Age. We followed
Franklin’s lead in the Levenger Press edition, retitling the book On a Life Well
But why would Franklin choose Cicero to publish? And why the ancient Roman’s treatise
In this exclusive interview, Ms. Schiff,
a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and Guggenheim Fellow, explains the importance
of Cicero and his age to Franklin and his fellow revolutionary thinkers.
Levenger Press: One reason we published this new
edition of De Senectute was because we felt its message would resonate
with the generation now coming to grips with elderly parents and other ineluctable
facts of aging. But Franklin was only 38 when he published his edition in 1744.
What would have been his motivation?
Stacy M. Schiff: Franklin’s attraction
to the essay was similar to yours; he knew a fine piece of writing when he saw one.
(My favorite line, for those of us who can’t find our cell phones: "And as for memory
failing," observed Cicero, 22 centuries before microchips, "I have never heard of
an old man who forgot where he hid his treasure.") He admired - and emulated - the
clarity of Cicero’s prose; to his mind Cicero’s letters set the gold standard. And
Franklin knew his market. An uplifting tract on old age is a winning proposition
in any century.
LP: Did Franklin ever quote from the work?
"Franklin knew his market.
An uplifiting tract on old age is a winning proposition in any century."
SMS: That Franklin remained familiar with
the text is clear from his response to the Paris appointment, in l776. On agreeing
to set sail as an elderly man, on a fool’s errand, across a winter ocean thick with
enemy cruisers, he neatly paraphrased Cicero: "You can but take my life, and of
that there is now so little left that it is not to be regarded."
LP: What was the attraction for Franklin and the
other founding fathers with the ancients of Greece and Rome? Why would such a young
country look to works so far in the past?
SMS: The founding fathers were wholly steeped
in classical literature, with Cicero as the perennial favorite. It is impossible
to overestimate the importance of those texts to the early American curriculum.
No eighteenth-century American went to college without having mastered Greek and
Latin translation; parsing Cicero was a prerequisite for university admission. Cato
himself [the protagonist in De Senectute] was so familiar that a colleague
once dismissed the stern John Adams as someone who believed himself "Cato incarnate."
Washington was so taken by Cato’s example that he arranged for a play about him
to be performed for the troops, at Valley Forge.
LP: What did all these revolutionaries see in Cicero
as far as the democracy they were trying to formulate?
Setting sail for Paris at
the age of 70, Franklin paraphrased Cicero: "You can but take my life, and of that
there is now so little left that it is not to be regarded."
SMS: The founding fathers had no better
place to look than the Greco-Roman world for establishing a republic. Remember that
a republican government seemed a preposterous thing at the time; monarchies made
up the eighteenth-century world. There was little precedent for the American experiment,
nearly as little for a republic that had endured.
LP: At what age would Franklin and his contemporaries
have considered themselves old?
SMS: An eighteenth-century man was old
in his 50s. Franklin was 70 on July 4, l776; he had already outlived most of his
generation. By the time he returned from France in l785 he had every reason to feel
that he had "intruded himself into the company of posterity." The sense that he
had accomplished all he had set out to do was liberating; as Cato had it, the old
man has "memory and a rich store of blessings laid up."
LP: You say in your book that "Franklin may well
have been crowned the modern Cicero [among others] with the French." Why?
"The founding fathers were
wholly steeped in classical literature, with Cicero as the perennial favorite. They
had no better place to look than the Greco-Roman world for establishing a republic."
SMS: There was fervor - you might almost
say a religion - in Enlightenment France for men of reason. Simply dressed,
a renowned scientist and a republican icon, Franklin was quickly promoted to the
ranks of the ancient greats. He wasn’t simply Cicero; he was Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras
bundled into one.
And he cannily traded on the power ascribed to the threadbare,
straightforward Cato. The Roman statesman could have served as Franklin’s model
in the majestic drawing rooms of Paris: "The consciousness of his own innate worth
and unshaken integrity renders him calm and undaunted in the presence of the most
great and powerful, and upon the most extraordinary occasions. . . He always speaks
the thing he means, which he is never afraid or ashamed to do."
"Cicero could have served
as Franklin’s model in the majestic drawing rooms of Paris."
LP: In De Senectute Cicero writes, "Nothing
remains to us, but what results from past good and virtuous actions." Do you think
that the shrewd, wily Franklin would agree with that?
SMS: Toward the end of his life Franklin
wrote that he had plenty of enemies as an ambassador, but none as a man. He prided
(and I think consoled) himself with that thought. He had an easy conscience. Which
he used, I might add, to justify various misdemeanors.
LP: In what ways did Cicero resonate with Franklin?
SMS: When he published De Senectute,
Franklin could have had no idea he would become a kind of poster boy for Cato’s
brand of eternal spring. He was as active as an old man as he had been in his youth;
his memory was as agile as ever; he retained a taste for sensual pleasures; he found
"being in the neighborhood of death" liberating. He well recognized that he had
accomplished the greatest act of his life as an old man. And he did so for precisely
the reasons Cato had advertised: He was beyond ambition. He had already proved himself.
He saw parallels,
opportunities, that were invisible to his younger colleagues.
He had a patience no other American revolutionary - all young enough to be his
children or grandchildren - could rival. And as did Cato, he wore his old age
"He had a different experience
on one front, however. Franklin did not find age a safe haven from youthful passions."
He had a different experience on one front, however. Cato
applauded old age as a safe haven from youthful passions. Franklin did not find
it so, as he made clear to a Frenchwoman: "For 60 years now, masculine and feminine
things - and I am not talking about modes and tenses - have been giving
me a lot of trouble. I used to hope that at the age of 80 I would be free of all
that. But here I am, four times 19, which is mighty close to 80, and those French
feminines are still bothering me."
LP: John Adams, David McCullough tells
us, read De Senectute throughout his life. What do you think Franklin thought
SMS: Franklin knew well that Adams was
among the best read of Americans; it was something Adams never let anyone forget.
Being mischievous, Franklin might have answered your question with a few lines from
De Senectute: "It is said that people when they grow in years become more
fretful, peevish, ill-tempered and disagreeable, and you may add covetous, too;
but as I have said, these are the faults of character, and not of old age."