My little living room is loud with the animated conversation of friends. Dave is talking about his job search with Nancy, who in turn recounts her visit to family in Cincinnati. Others are on the couch or in chairs eating nachos and catching up. Then casserole dishes open and steam from hot food fogs the windows.
This is a meeting of my Ben Franklin Circle, a diverse mix of men and women who convene every month to discuss timeless human virtues like justice, moderation, and tranquility. Gathering to examine virtues in ourselves and our nation may seem countercultural, especially since the horrific synagogue shooting and letter bombs just days before the midterm election.
But we’re channeling the greatest Founding Father that neither Left nor Right can claim: Ben Franklin. And we’re here to mend, in our small way, the torn social fabric of America.
Franklin embodied the best of the American spirit: diligence, invention, humor, diplomacy. Our Circle, like hundreds around America, is modeled after Franklin’s own circle of Philadelphia tradesman, the Junto. This diverse group met regularly for self-improvement and to launch community projects. Their work led to America’s first lending library, a public hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Each month, our modern Junto focuses on one of Franklin’s 13 virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility. In his Autobiography, Franklin recounted how he created his list of virtues and strived to master each one. Our group’s aspirations are less ambitious. At this meeting we discuss frugality. Franklin advised that one should “Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself.”
Over dinner we parse Franklin’s definition and each person does their best to apply 18th century wisdom to 21st century life. What emerges surprises many of us: We waste time, in the form of email, social media, and self-righteous political pronouncements. We decide to be more frugal with our outrage. The news media pumps out all flavors of angry discourse. Maybe we should save our outrage for things more important than Twitter tirades.
Our Ben Franklin Circle in Annandale, Virginia, is one of 300 around the nation. Circles can be found in 29 states, from Salem, Oregon, to Virginia Beach, and from Concord, New Hampshire, to Dallas. Ben Franklin Circles started just two years ago with 30 groups. Julie Mashack, who coordinates the program from the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, has seen a rapid expansion, especially since the 2016 Presidential election. “The Circles provide opportunities to connect with others. After the 2016 election, there was such a sense of disconnection that regardless of where you were, people were saying ‘I need to talk to my neighbors, get to know people, get a community again.’”
One Circle starter did just that. Nanette Alvey, from Gaithersberg, Maryland, printed flyers and passed them out to neighbors. “Within days, I received 11 emails expressing interest,” she said. “We started a few weeks afterwards with a group of about nine people: a university professor of math, two retired primary school teachers, a young woman just starting her career, a pharmaceutical salesperson who travels a lot.”
“I’ve gotten to know more neighbors and enjoyed running into them around town. Being neighbors does not necessarily ensure common values or create an instant common objective. I had to find a way to create a common purpose and make sure that everyone found something of value in the discussions.”
Ben Franklin Circles gather in public libraries, community centers, and living rooms. One group in Long Island meets on the beach when the weather’s warm. Marla Haas co-hosts a politically diverse Circle in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “We’ve had several great debates between our members, mostly due to the fact that among our members are a socialist and a libertarian. Although the debates can get passionate, they are always respectful. Both of these members have gained great insight not only to the beliefs that someone on the opposite end of the spectrum holds, but the reasoning behind the beliefs. We all genuinely enjoy seeing each other for the discussions, bid each other to have a great evening, and greet one another sincerely the next time we convene.”
This November, we find ourselves at another crossroads, another election. Much of the country will cheer the returns late Tuesday night, and others will say the country’s headed down the wrong path. Whatever the outcome, we are still one nation, a nation that has survived more than a hundred election nights and persevered through much worse. What we all can do, on the Left and Right, is act “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” At a time of much worse division, Abraham Lincoln implored us “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Across our country, Ben Franklin Circles meet to reconnect Americans and mend the torn fabric of our nation through discussions of our strengths, virtues like industry, frugality and sincerity.
Maybe if we see ourselves in terms of our strengths, our virtues, and our aspirations, we can make America great in ways none of us can yet imagine. Ben Franklin Circles aspire to do just that, across America, one conversation at a time.
Henry Edwards teaches positive psychology at The New School of Northern Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program.