Enlightenment & Capitalism

In a recent Books & Culture, there is an article on Benjamin Franklin’s interest in business, which was an aspect of his life that he kept from the public since business was considered unbecoming of a person of any importance. The article ends by highlighting how Franklin’s capitalistic sensibility is a mark of the Enlightenment.

Commercial capitalism has been so routinely disparaged for so long by American intellectuals that we have some difficulty crediting how very happily the Enlightenment embraced commercial capitalism as Nature's own system of merit over against unearned aristocratic title. Gary Nash's recent attempt to re-cast the American Revolution as a proletarian uprising, more concerned with "elementary political rights and social justice, rather than the protection of property and constitutional liberties," misses utterly how genuinely revolutionary the protection of property and constitutional liberty was in a world of absolute autocrats and talentless courtiers. Precisely because the self-made man of commerce appeared to the philosophes as a manifestation of the operation of reason and nature, Voltaire sang an unashamed song of admiration for the calculating, dispassionate self-promotion of the bourgeoisie:

I don't know which is the more useful to the state, a well-powdered lord who knows precisely what time the king gets up in the morning and what time he goes to bed, and who gives himself airs of grandeur while playing the role of slave in a minister's antechamber, or a great merchant who enriches his country, sends orders from his office to Surat and to Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world.

No one in revolutionary America lived up to this reputation more than Franklin. It represents a fatal inversion of Franklin's own expectations that no reputation today has lesser standing among the Revolution's scholars than that of the "great merchant." And none plays a smaller role in the modern-day marketing of Benjamin Franklin.

—Allen C. Guelzo, “Capitalist Tool” in Books and Culture


Anonymous said…
Ayn Rand's disciples would certainly agree with this reading of the Englightenment.
Unknown said…
I think your basic point is correct: the founding fathers certainly weren't fighting for the oppressed masses. That being said, even in early America there was a constant conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton. Among other issues, this was about how the United States should conduct itself economically. I think it is more constructive to view the enlightenment figures as anti-mercantilism than pro-capitalism.