You know the moment. You’re locked in a heated conversation, and you notice a weak spot in the other person’s argument. You want immediately to jump in, cut them off mid-sentence, and proclaim how ridiculous they are for believing something so obviously stupid.
As a twenty-something know-it-all, Benjamin Franklin was often guilty of going for the jugular. In the description of a Quaker Friend of his acquaintance, Franklin was a jerk in conversation—an “overbearing” interlocutor who no matter the subject always had to be right.
We know this about Franklin’s character because he admitted it and told the story of how he changed his ways. Writing in his Autobiography, Franklin relates how he was told by the Quaker that he was “generally thought proud,” and that his “pride showed itself frequently in conversation. . . ”
This revealing critique came to light as Franklin set about on what he called “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” Selecting twelve virtues that he wanted to master, including temperance, order, industry, and sincerity, Franklin was prompted by the Quaker’s prodding to add a thirteenth: humility.
Franklin’s quest for moral improvement was motivated by his desire to become a better individual and a better community member. It was born of a desire to build bridges where they could be built, and to bring civility to citizenship.
It was a hard road. “In reality,” Franklin wrote, “there is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.” Because he was quick to contradict others, Franklin sought to mend his ways. Instead of using words as weapons, he resolved to make conversational peace whenever possible. Rather than informing his interlocutors about how wrong they were, Franklin sought out points of commonality.
As a young man, Franklin discovered immediate benefits in his new approach to engaging others. His willingness to listen to others made them more receptive to his ideas. Having given up trying to best others in debate, he found them much more amenable to his proposals for “new institutions, or alternations in the old.”
By the time he was an old man, Franklin was convinced that his long labors to become humble had paid immense dividends. In addition to enhancing his rhetorical abilities, and enlarging his influence upon civic affairs, his efforts at becoming more humble made him more open to ideas not his own.
As the elder statesman of the Constitutional Convention, held over four months in 1787, in Philadelphia, Franklin weighed in on the Convention’s final product—just as some factions were moving to scuttle its signing.
As the 81-year-old Franklin said of the proposed Constitution, “The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.” Urging a unanimous vote in favor of the document, Franklin urged everyone “to doubt a little of his own infallibility.”
Franklin’s fifty-year struggle with pride left him with no illusions about the difficulty of his endeavor. “[Y]ou wil see [pride], perhaps, often in this history,” the 78-year-old Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, “for even if could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
Today, with civility in short supply, and meaningful conversation across ideological divides all too rare, Franklin’s life reminds us of the elusive yet enduring power of humility.
David J. Bobb, Ph.D., is president of the Bill of Rights Institute and author of Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue.