In one of those brief but illuminating apocryphal tales with which all history abounds, we are told that Benjamin Franklin was prevented by the Founding Fathers from authoring theDeclaration of Independencebecause they feared he would insert a joke. They knew their man; indeed, John Adams, who may have known the most, wrote that Franklin “had a satire that was good-natured or caustic, Horace or Juvenal, Swift or Rabelais, at his pleasure.” Both the story and the description point to a central paradox in Franklin's character—his capacity for irreverent reverence—a psychological and artistic reflex that appears throughout a career that consistently merged with a society undergoing rapid social, economic, and political changes. Even given his far-ranging genius, it is remarkable how Franklin's humorous and satiric energy permeates his writings and erupts at critical social and political moments into a variety of discrete forms, which nevertheless remain part of an organic comic vision. Far more than an occasional jokester orad hocsatirist, Franklin embraced the comic as a habitual mode of expression so integrated with his deistic beliefs and reliance upon reason and the “natural order” of things that it may be said to function as a form of epistemology, a dialectical way of not only exposing theerrataof human behavior in the traditional manner of humor and satire, but also of gaining control, insight, and understanding into the nature of humanity. Thus, he could write to Madame Brillon:Reflect how many of our duties [Providence] has ordained naturally to be pleasures; and that it has the goodness besides, to give the name of sin to several of them; so that we might enjoy them more.

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