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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Personal Creed

From Washington Lawyer, March 2003

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator On a bookshelf in my office rests the Yale University Press volumes of the papers of Benjamin Franklin. I came across the books when I was in Philadelphia in 1968 attending an American Bar Association (ABA) convention. I ran into a cynical friend of mine in the convention hotel lobby. He said if I wanted to form an organization where the members have no connection with the way the organization is run, I should study the controlling documents of the ABA. This gave me the excuse I needed to leave the hotel and wander around Philadelphia.

My wanderings took me to a bookstore devoted to Benjamin Franklin. Among the Franklin books were the Yale University Press publications. I signed up for the whole works, as issued.

I put in a stop order at volume 27, published in 1988. Many more volumes have been published. Perhaps the set now runs into 50 volumes with more to come. Franklin’s papers still turn up in attics and cellars all over the world.

Franklin continues to tantalize biographers. Every aspect of his long life has been studied by specialists, his women friends in Paris and London, his negotiations with the French and the English, his enemies, his role as a founding father, his troubled relationship with his son William.

We now have Edmund S. Morgan’s readable mature summary of Franklin in the round. Morgan leaves to the other biographers the minute details.

Franklin would have made a good lawyer. He was intelligent, energetic, and he saw life as a series of tests, cases perhaps, to be studied and solved.

He was an intensely practical man. He did not waste time with what might have been or with the wish to be on the other side of the case where the facts were better. He was where he was and he must work with the facts he had. He conducted himself in the spirit of a statement attributed to General George C. Marshall: "Repeating that we are surrounded does not qualify as a plan of escape."

When his stove smoked up his house, he set to work to invent a better stove. When he made his discoveries about electricity, he put what he learned to work by designing the lightning rod. He experimented on himself by trying vegetarianism and other dietary regimes; he tried cold air baths in the morning as a preventive against head colds.

He wanted to know the best way to get on in this troubled, competitive, contentious world. We have his answer to the question in the form of his personal creed, published in his autobiography.

How many of us would take the time to write out the principles that guide us in our everyday activities? If we were to try we would find as Franklin did that such thoughts do not easily transfer from the mind to the pen and the paper.

Here is Franklin’s attempt:

1. Temperance.
Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.
2. Silence.
Speak not but what may benefit others or your self. Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order.
Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your
Business have its Time.
4. Resolution.
Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality.
Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry.
Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity.
Use no hurtful Deceit.
Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak; speak accordingly.
8. Justice.
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation.
Avoid Extreams. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness.
Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Cloaths or Habitation.
11. Tranquility.
Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity.
Rarely use Venery but for Health
or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your
own or another’s Peace or
Reputation.
13. Humility.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
     I propose four additions to Franklin’s list as a slant to the practice of law.

14. In almost every case except the very plainest, it would be possible to decide the issue either way with reasonable justification.

15. Most irrationality has some connection, however attenuated, with reality.

16. Nothing is ever quite as good or as bad as the prevailing mood of the moment.

17. Age and treachery often overcome youth and skill.

Would Franklin agree that these four additions reflect his practical philosophy? What would he say about John Adams’s accusation that Franklin at heart was nothing but a manipulator? What was the real story of his estrangement from his son William? Why did he buy so much wine? Why is there no record of a marriage certificate recording his marriage to Deborah Read? Would we get answers or would we be met with infinite resources of silence? See number 2 above.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.