Benjamin Franklin as Trickster

Barry O'Neill

For Friends of Franklin lunch, Mory's, New Haven, April 1998

What started me thinking about this topic was a book on historical myths about public policy issues. One current myth has it that the US almost made German its official language. The vote was taken at the Constitutional Convention, so the myth says -- and German lost to English by just one vote. The story isn't true, but most Germans I have met with a university background fully believe it. Here in the US it appears all over the internet, and the book, recently published, Europe, a History by Oxford historian Norman Davies, asserts it.

There is a version of this myth where it was Greek that almost became the official language. Many Greeks know it -- I'm told that any taxi driver in Athens will attest to it -- and there's another respectable history book, this one written at the University of Virginia, saying it is true, that it was Greek that missed becoming the official language by one vote.

The Greek version identifies who cast the deciding vote in favour of English -- it was Benjamin Franklin. Why Benjamin Franklin? Why not Washington or Charles Pinckney or someone? What do people see in him, that they gave him this role in the myth?

Our university motto is "lux et veritas," but sometimes lux comes from falsehood (lux et fictus). We can only ask this question, "Why Benjamin Franklin?" because the official-language story is false. If it were true, it would have nothing to say about people's attitude to Franklin. But since the event never happened, it becomes kind of a Rorschach test for the public view of him.

So I looked into this question and was led to the idea of Benjamin Franklin as a trickster. Many people helped me. I'd like to thank all the Franklin Papers crew -- Ellen Cohn, Barbara Oberg, Kate Ohno, Jonathan Dull, Leslie Lindenauer, Claude Lopez and Karen Duval -- and David gave me some excellent tips. (I'd also like to congratulate Barbara for her election to the APS.)

The premise is that when we think of the lives of historical figures, we treat these as more than a succession of the actions they took. We have various molds we apply to them that interpret their lives. One is an heroic leader, another is tragic. There is one archetype I believe people are applying to Franklin. It is very common idea -- one appears in many cultures -- the idea of the trickster. I claim that later generations have interpreted Franklin under its influence. Even if people have not heard any trickster stories or folklore, still, whatever led cultures across the world to invent the trickster, the same forces led Americans to interpret Franklin in this way.

So I'll state what the trickster is, then show how we have come to see him in this way.


In many countries, in their folklore and mythology, the same kind of character, the trickster, arises. The trickster is more than someone who goes around playing jokes. He is defined by a group of characteristics, having at least some of them, and maybe all.

HE IS TRICKY, IRREVERENT: He plays tricks. He'll try them on anyone. He'll mock the most honored ideas in the society. He takes on disguises, in fact he often becomes different beings.

HE HAS HUMAN FAULTS: He has bad traits -- he is greedy, rude, overly talkative, curious, impetuous. He has great appetites. He's unrestrained by social norms -- sometimes he's associated with excrement or flatulence or sexual excess or gluttony.

HE IS INCONSISTENT: His personal character seems to vary constantly, like the people on the soap operas: from one tale to the next he can be intelligent then stupid, loyal then disloyal. His luck is inconsistent too -- when he tries his tricks, sometimes he wins and sometimes he loses. .

HE IS LIMINAL BUT IMPORTANT: He seems to be at the edge of society. He doesn't live anywhere -- always wandering. But his pranks change society. He sometimes possesses magic. Often he lives at the start of a society, and communicates with heaven, and by this connection he brings to society its important elements: the sun, fire, tools, or death.


The traditional examples are from Native American culture -- Coyote or Raven or Hare. In France it's Reynard the Fox. There are many African tricksters -- Ananse the spider in Ashanti, Legba or Ishu who is more of a person. Loki in Norse mythology and Prometheus in Greek mythology would count as tricksters.

The best modern example is Harpo Marx, although we have Bugs Bunny, or maybe even Hawkeye on MASH, but they aren't full tricksters -- they have fewer of the characteristics on the list. Tricksters, one claim goes, are strongest in societies where people hunt for their food -- pitting humans against animals puts them in a frame of mind to see their prey as tricksters.

Many of these modern American tricksters play tricks and that is about all. But Franklin does more. I'm going to claim that he is unusual among American types in possessing the properties on the list, and especially unusual in having the last property above, of connecting up to the heavens and bringing tools back to society.

St. Joseph upside-down.

I'll give an example of a trickster who came from Africa to middle-class mainstream America. His experiences show the forces at work in such a migration. Somewhat unlike Bugs, Harpo or Hawkeye, he has his magic but has lost his interesting in playing tricks.

What do you do when you just can't sell your house? Perhaps some of you know. You get a statue of St. Joseph and do what? In your yard -- bury it upside down. There are many success stories of desperate people succeeding, of buyers showing up thanks to St. Joseph.

A good estimate, based on St. Joseph statue production, is that over a million statues a year are sold for this purpose. (I can imagine archaeologists a thousand years from now digging these things up. This custom is based on oral transmission, so they wouldn't get much help understanding them from religious records or the daily papers.)

Here's an example of a plastic statue you can send away for -- I get it by sending to an internet site -- since it's plastic it's reusable. The packet contains instructions including a prayer. Also the encouraging words on the back, "Faith can Move Mountains -- and Homes."

Where did this practice come from? It's not just Catholics -- it's Protestants and even Jews too. One of the secretaries at the School of Management, who is Italian, and who asked me to loan her this statue after my talk, said the custom came from Italy. Another claim is that it started in Spain: St. Theresa of Avila. I've also read it is from the monasteries Germany.

These claimed origins are all false. They don't explain the remarkable clue that St. Joseph is buried upside down. Some middle Americans would be shocked to know the truth. In fact the custom came from Africa, via the Caribbean and probably Mexico. Elegua is a trickster of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, sometimes called Eshu or Legba. He starts conflicts among people if they don't appease him. His image is always in markets and especially if people make business deals they had better recognize him.

He came to the New World and is part of the Santeria religion here in the Americas. Statues like this one are sold in all the major North American cities with a Mexican or Central American population. I got this one in a very large store in Los Angeles that specializes in Santeria and related magic -- it is so large people are given shopping carts.

Here's another version of Elegua that a priestess in Toronto Canada made for me. This statue is buried upsidedown at a crossroads, to get the spirit of Elegua to enter it -- that's what she did with this one. Elegua has multiple personalities -- like a good trickster he's inconsistent. One of Elegua's personas travels around with his wife, who causes car crashes, so he can drink the blood. (My friend in Toronto assured me that the spirit who entered it was not this one, it was a playful one.) You put Elegua at the entrance to your house or office, usually out of sight, to play tricks on people that come to do you harm.

How did Elegua become St. Joseph? As part of coopting and adjusting to the Christian religion, every African power in santeria has a corresponding saint. Robert Thompson of the Art Department loaned me this chart showing this. Elegua's is St. Anthony. The sister of one of my students, who from Mexico, buried a statue of St. Anthony upside down, to bring her a boy friend. If that doesn't work you dig him up and beat him on the feet. Now American city dwellers are burying St. Joseph to bring them a house.

In some older practices around burying St. Joseph, you told him you would only let him up when he brings a buyer. There has been a drift to greater respect -- nowadays people are encouraged not to bury him upside down. Elegua was a real trickster but one can trace the custom and see him turned slowly into a saint. Perhaps soon he won't be buried at all.

So here's a trickster coming to America and getting transformed. He keeps the trait of a connection with heaven, But he lost his playfulness -- there aren't many jokester saints.

What is interesting about Franklin, I'll claim, is that even in America, he kept both his interest in pranks and his power over magic.


Let me draw out the definition of a trickster -- here is one characterization from a well-known article by Mac Linscott Ricketts. The author wasn't thinking of Franklin at all, but as I read this definition listing off the traits of the trickster, you might think of him.

" He is the maker of the earth and/or . . . the one who changes the chaotic myth world into the ordered creation of today; he is the slayer of monsters, the thief of daylight, fire water, and the like for the benefit of man; he is the teacher of cultural skills and customs; but he is also a prankster who is grossly erotic, insatiably hungry, inordinately vain, deceitful and cunning toward friends as well as foes; a restless wanderer upon the face of the earth; and a blunderer who is often the victim of his owns tricks and follies."

Now I'll list some of the traditional trickster traits, and show how our view of Franklin sees him as having them, to a considerable degree.


The first is playing tricks. No question here. Franklin would use them to mock pompous people. He made up some verses that sounded like scripture, and stuck them in his bible, then he read from it as if they were the real thing. Everyone acted as if they recognized that verse.

He engaged in famous literary hoaxes: his travel descriptions of America -- whales chasing salmon down the St. Lawrence, he claimed. There is no sight of nature so striking to the traveller, he wrote, as the leap of the great whale up the Falls of Niagara.

His most successful literary hoax was Polly Baker's Speech, the young woman here in Connecticut who was to be whipped for bearing bastard children, till she argued her way out of it by pure logic. That one travelled to England, France, and across Europe to Russia. It was believed well into this century -- a textbook on family sociology retold it as fact as late as 1945.


Tricksters love disguises. Loki changed himself into a horse and then into a salmon.

In his writings Franklin took on other personas. This was his regular way of doing satire. Some of them involved signing a madeup name, but some were attempts to suggest the people were real.

In the first prose he wrote that still survives, he took on the character of the holy widow, Silence Dogood. He got it published by a trick, of course, slipping it anonymously under the door of his brother's newspaper office. In The Way to Wealth he was Father Abraham. What others are there? In one case he took on the identity of numerous entities and wrote in their language: in a bagatelle he takes on the character of the flies buzzing around his house who make a petition to Madame Helvetius.

Of course he was Poor Richard Saunders, and he seemed to really enjoy being this fellow. Mrs. Poor Richard was later invented. She took over the almanac one year, and crossed out parts of her husband's introduction, changing it to be more positive to women. She also crossed out some of the rainy weather, so the ladies could hang out their washing.

[Another example: Franklin's piece justifying the enslavement of Christians.]

Poor Richard complained that some people didn't believe he existed -- but I know very well that I exist, he said, I walk and eat and so on. According to Poor Richard, if you want to know who doesn't exist it's Titan Leeds! This was a real person, a rival printer. Poor Richard prophesied his death, then claimed it had happened, and kept boasting about his prediction, even though the fellow kept protesting that he was still alive. Here's an imaginary character stealing the reality of a real one. At one point, Poor Richard comments that no doubt you all think I've become rich by now with this Almanac, but I'm not getting rich at all -- it's my printer -- he's taking most of the profits from me. The printer of course was Franklin. Franklin's imaginary character was now attacking its creator -- a "Franklinstein."

So tricks, especially disguises, are common in trickster tales and in Franklin's life.


Another characteristic of tricksters is their contradictory personal traits. Their attributes keep switching between opposites. Coyote is both intelligent and foolish, greedy and generous, and so on. One Irish trickster, in a tale called O'Donnell's Kern, plays wonderful music in one place, then in the next court can't play a note.

As to Franklin, there seems to be constant disagreement about what his traits were. Some of the historical articles talk about the "man of masks," or "Dr. Janis". Carl Van Doran's biography portrays him as a dedicated statesman, but an historian David Morgan has just published a book, The Deceitful Dr. Franklin. Another one, Cecil Curry goes farther to argue that he was a British spy -- codename Moses, #72.

There's lots of evidence of his toleration. But in spite of that there is the widespread rumor, believed today especially in Eastern Europe and the Arabic countries, that he made an anti-semitic speech at the Constitutional Conventional. Claude Lopez described it in a recent article in the New Republic.

There is the myth that on his deathbed he ordered a crucifix to be placed in front of him so he could see Jesus on the cross when he died. The person who started this one was Parson Weems, the same one who invented Washington chopping down the cherry tree. When Weems made up things about Washington they underlined what people already thought of him. For Franklin, he changed him into something he clearly and consistently wasn't, a believer in revelation and Jesus Christ. He dared to do this because of the duality in our view of Franklin's character.

Some of his faults are contradictory, like those in trickster tales. Franklin in the popular mind seems to switch between a schemer and a blunderer, bold and timid. I remember one stand-up comedian who planned to impersonate Franklin in his act, and Claude Lopez urging not to make him into an oaf, like so many others had. Stan Freberg's famous comedy sketch has him thinking of feeble excuses not to sign the Declaration of Independence. "But George Washington signed it." "That's old George -- talks up a storm through those wooden teeth, but when it comes to putting his name on the old line-a-rooney. . . " Isn't this very odd, that someone of his famous accomplishments is now often portrayed as a blunderer?


Another characteristic was prodigious appetites. Coyote the trickster is always hungry. Legba, the West African trickster is sexually insatiable. And they are not constrained by social norms against gluttony or lechery, or many other norms either. In many stories which you can read for yourselves, there's an association with excrement and flatulence.

Perhaps the less said about this the better. But I should mention that further evidence has recently arisen here. Two days ago, Ellen discovered a new Franklin letter! [READ IT]

No doubt the popular view of Franklin is like that of Clinton, right or wrong. Are Americans ready to forgive Clinton because he too, is seen to some degree, as a trickster.


The last trait of tricksters that I'll mention, is that they often appear at the beginning of a society, at the edge of its world. They have connections with the gods. They play their pranks on heaven and get for the society what it needs.

Christianity, especially in its more Catholic versions, has figures who connect to god -- the saints and Mary. They function by intercession, they entreat for us. Jesus is another connection, both divine and human, who helped humanity through sacrifice and redemption. Tricksters are different. They try to outwit the gods. This is because the trickster comes from world-views where the gods are not benevolent. They don't watch over us.

[MAYBE OMIT: Franklin's religious views are important here. He was a believer in God -- and a trickster must believe in God, but not necessarily Jesus. READ]

This kind of trickster is humanity's champion. As our representative, with the task of acquiring what humanity needs, he is full of human faults -- greedy, stupid, deceitful. The trickster is one of us. Indeed Franklin is probably the most human of all the historical heros in American culture. Compare him with Washington, or Jefferson or Lincoln. Who would you like to go drinking with? It's his faults that keep him human that way.

What do tricksters contribute to humanity? In the mythology of many cultures, it's healing powers, very often it's tools -- Coyote brings the fishhook and Loki the net. One can go through the list of Franklin's contributions or introductions -- mail order catalogs, libraries, insurance, post offices, swimming flippers, the pedometer, library stepping stools, bowls, fire departments, the franklin stove, daylight savings time, copying paper -- these are the things that organize our lives.

Very often what tricksters gave us is even more basic than tools: elementary benefits like the sun, or fire to cook food. Loki invents fire. In Franklin's case, of all his contributions, the one that symbolizes him most strongly, relates to our picture of him standing out in the storm with his kite. People say it was a foolish thing to do (although we know the story is not quite as the popular mind has it.) But this defiance of the gods brought us electricity. The famous saying of Baron Turgot, "Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis." "He snatched lightning from the heavens, and the sceptre from tyrants." The word "snatched" is the important one. He didn't persuade or plead the heavens for it. Like a real trickster, he grabbed it.


This idea is recurrent in trickster lore -- that the trickster connects to heaven, often for the sake of magic and knowledge. I'll mention a series of examples.

Gbadu, daughter of the creator sits on top of a palm. She has 16 eyes, but she can't open them so Legba, the Yoruba trickster god (who inspired my statues), climbs up the tree every morning. He opens certain of her eyes for her, the ones she tells him. She sees what there is to see in the world from her perch, and so does he. From this humanity acquired divination.

From the American west, a common Coyote story has him taking his eyes out and casting them up to the top of a tree. He can see beyond the mountains. He calls his eyes back to him, and they go back. Then against the advice of the sparrows, he casts them again and again. He does it once too often and they stay up there in the tree. He fumbles around blind, until he tricks a mouse into bringing them back. But now they are dusty and yellow like a coyote's eyes.

In a Korean story the tiger, a trickster, climbs up a palm tree, and then tries to ascend to heaven by an old rope that the gods throw down to him. He falls to his death. All of this leads to the creation of the sun and the moon in the sky.

[PROBABLY OMIT: In a travesty of this, Ananse the spider lies on his back, and with his penis reaches up to the top of a palm tree to pick dates.]

In an old Irish story, O'Donnell's kern, a wandering foot soldier, comes into court and performs magical tricks. At one point, he throws a silk string up into the clouds. A tiny rabbit goes up the string, and a dog follows after it. Then a tiny boy goes up the string to mind the dog, and a tiny girl to mind the rabbit. It goes on from there.

There aren't many full tricksters like this in Anglo-American folklore, the closest one is Jack, of jack and the beanstalk. He goes up the beanstalk, meets a giant, and brings back wonderful objects. Things have deteriorated somewhat -- instead of God or knowledge up there, it is now a nasty giant, but you can hear the echo of the old idea when he brings back his treasures to earth.

All these stories have this theme of the connection to heaven, sometimes yielding gifts or knowledge from the gods. Our strongest image of Franklin is out flying his kite in a thunderstorm. This fits in this group, his kite is Legba's palm tree, and Jack's beanstalk. It's his symbolic connection to heaven, and his defiance of the heavens nonetheless yields us the magic of electricity. That is why the kite picture has become the central striking image of him.


In summary, there are various tricksters in American culture but now they seem more for entertainment. Franklin is the one in the culture who embodies the oldest function of a trickster -- one who shows up at the start of the society, and provides the culture with what it needs from above. He sets it off in the right direction. Returning to my first question -- why was he to vote against Greek as the national language? That seems natural -- he had the foresight to plan America as it ought to be.