Ben Franklin: A Man of Many Facets
At the Smithsonian, they’re planning a tribute to his statesmanship. In London, an exhibition hails his medical contributions. But at McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Philadelphia, they know best how to honor Benjamin Franklin on his 300th birthday: with a celebratory toast.
A beer for Ben?
“He was a very jovial fellow who would meet at the taverns, discussing the latest John Locke book or scientific breakthrough over a nice pint of beer,” says McGillin’s owner, Chris Mullins. “I don’t think you could imagine getting drunk with George Washington, but with Benjamin Franklin? Definitely.”
Is there any place Franklin wouldn’t fit in? He was a businessman, inventor, revolutionary, athlete (Franklin is a member of the United States Swim School Assn. Hall of Fame), diplomat, publisher, humorist, sage, man of destiny and regular guy.
Unlike John Adams, he does not need a historian like David McCullough to defend him. Franklin is the nation’s beloved eccentric uncle -- the old flirt who carried on with French women; the quipster with a clever remark for all occasions; the righteous citizen who stands up to authority; the tinkerer who could fix your stove, edit your newsletter or upgrade your computer.
He is the founder we feel we know best, but at the same time, he’s the founder most easily misunderstood: The image of Franklin changes depending on who celebrates him.
“He certainly is a multiplicity of persona, so one never knows which one is the real Franklin,” says Gordon S. Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose books include “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.”
Franklin’s approachability begins with his background. Unlike Washington or Jefferson, he did not grow up a landed “gentleman.” His rise, as Franklin himself later boasted, was “from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world.”
He was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706, the 10th son of a soap and candle maker. Starting at age 12, he worked five years as an apprentice at his brother James’ newspaper, the New England Courant, establishing himself as a prankster and satirist, and, not for the last time, as “a little obnoxious to the governing party.”
Eager to poke the Puritan establishment, he submitted humorous essays to the Courant under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood.” To his pleasure, and eventual pain, the essays were accepted. When James Franklin learned the author’s identity, he angrily beat his brother. With Massachusetts authorities threatening to shut the paper down, Franklin fled for Philadelphia in 1723, his “pockets stuffed with shirts and stockings.”
Over the next 30 years and beyond, he charmed and advanced himself as a printer, publisher and humorist, composing such lasting epigrams as “Fish and visitors stink in three days” and “Eat to live, and not live to eat.” For many, he is the founding American wit, grounded in plain talk as opposed to high learning, his tradition carried on by Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Dave Barry, among others.
“I have to admit that, when I was a youngster in grade school, I did not care for Benjamin Franklin,” Barry wrote, in an introduction to “Wit and Wisdom From Poor Richard’s Almanack,” published in 2000 by the Modern Library.
“Teachers were always shoving him down my throat -- him and his wise adages, such as ‘A penny saved is a penny earned.’ I had no idea what that meant.
“But I have to say, much of what I read in the Almanack had me nodding in agreement and wishing that modern people [including me] followed its precepts. Poor Richard advocates diligence, self-reliance, frugality and honesty; he disdains laziness, extravagance, pretense, and immodesty. It goes without saying that he hates lawyers.”
Franklin’s greatest public triumph was probably as a diplomat, persuading France to aid the colonies in their fight against the British. But he needed no revolution to be a revolutionary, for he changed the world simply by living in it.
“The things which hurt, instruct,” he once observed. The varieties of middle-aged eyesight led him to design a single, all-purpose set of glasses -- bifocals. A struggle to raise money for a public hospital led to a plan by which private contributions would be equaled by government funds, the “matching grant” formula in use to this day.
Modernized street lights, volunteer firefighters, fire insurance, lending libraries. He lived like a deity who simply by declaring something could happen, made it so. Odometers, daylight saving time, lightning rods (inspired by a kite excursion as fabled as Washington’s cherry tree, but, in Franklin’s case, a true story).
“His demonstration that lightning was not supernatural had huge impact,” says Dudley R. Herschbach, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. “Since lightning had long been considered a prerogative of the Almighty, Franklin was attacked for presumption, vigorously but in vain.”
Herschbach, a Harvard University professor who has lectured frequently on Franklin, says: “Franklin’s scientific curiosity extended far beyond his adventures with electricity. He made important discoveries and observations concerning the motion of storms, heat conduction, the path of the Gulf Stream, bioluminescence, the spreading of oil films, and also advanced prescient ideas about conservation of matter and the wave nature of light.”
Franklin was an innovator, but, unlike Jefferson, not a poet; ideas didn’t matter unless they were useful. He was the country’s original pragmatist -- the classic American art of learning through experience, not theory, that was later refined and adopted by William James, John Dewey and others.
His community spirit and hands-on innovation made him an imagined contemporary of a modern pragmatist, Jane Jacobs, the urban activist who in her classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and other books attacked city planners as detached bureaucrats. Her affinity for Franklin began as a girl, when she would pretend to converse with her great predecessor.
“Like Jefferson, he was interested in lofty things, but also in more nitty-gritty, down-to-earth details, such as why the alley we were walking through wasn’t paved, and who would pave it if it were paved,” the author, now 89, once observed. “He was interested in everything, so he was a very satisfying companion.”
Franklin now seems the safest of the founders to celebrate, but when he died, in 1790, he was mistrusted by many in power as a Francophile synonymous with the excesses of the French Revolution. The Senate rejected a proposal to wear badges of mourning in his honor. A year passed before an official eulogy was delivered -- by a longtime detractor, Anglican minister William Smith, who belittled Franklin as “ignorant of his own strength.”
Condemned as a Jacobin upon his death, he would be satirized as a middlebrow member of the booboisie for more than a century after. Sociologist Max Weber believed Franklin stood for the “earning of more and more money combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous engagement in life.” Poet John Keats disliked “his mean and thrifty maxims.” Historian Charles Angoff labeled him “the father of all the Kiwanians.”
“It was elitism, sort of a condescending elitism that looked down on Franklin for having basic middle-class values,” says Walter Isaacson, author of the 2004 bestseller “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.”
“For a long time, most intellectuals saw him as a spokesman for capitalism and for making money and getting ahead, a view of America many have had,” says historian Wood.
The denigration of Franklin was partly his own doing. His “Autobiography,” unfinished at the time of his death but published posthumously, immortalized him as a crafty self-made man for whom all virtue was but a means to success.
Business titans, including Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon, have been among his greatest admirers. Dina Dwyer-Owens, CEO chief executive of a leading franchiser, the Dwyer Group, says she relates to Franklin as a pioneering franchiser -- he set up a system of printing outlets around the colonies -- and as a kind of guiding spirit.
“One of my favorite Benjamin Franklin quotes was ‘Early to bed, early to rise,’ something my dad used to say to us over and over again when we were young,” said Dwyer-Owens, whose organization is based in Waco, Texas, and oversees such companies as Glass Doctor and Mr. Electric Corp.
“Now, I’m an early bird, so that affirmation clearly has stuck with me. I teach a class called Design Your Life, which is all about living by a set of rules, like Franklin did. And part of that is taking care of yourself, getting enough rest and applying yourself.”
But the “Autobiography” underplays other, bolder sides of Franklin: The statesman, dissident and man of conscience, the former slave holder who eventually called for abolition, the belated rebel who overcame his reverence for the British crown and helped coin one of the era’s immortal phrases: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
He is praised now by both left and right. David Brooks, the conservative author and New York Times columnist, has imagined Franklin approving of shopping malls and “faith-based community organizations.” Regnery Publishing, a right-wing press famous for the anti-John Kerry bestseller “Unfit for Command,” has just released “The Compleated Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” which uses excerpts from other Franklin writings to fill out the text.
“He was a defender of limited government, and he was very much opposed to taking on excessive debt,” says the book’s editor, Mark Skousen, an author and economist whose edition of the “Autobiography” includes a Franklin quote of obvious appeal to conservatives: “A virtuous and industrious people may be cheaply governed.”
Meanwhile, he is one of the few American leaders complimented by the famously acerbic, and left wing, Gore Vidal. In “Inventing a Nation,” published in 2003, the author noted Franklin’s concerns for the fate of democracy and lamented that many had forgotten the “wise, eerily prescient voice of the authentic Franklin in favor of the jolly fat ventriloquist of common lore.”
Victor Navasky, longtime publisher of the liberal magazine The Nation, praises Franklin if only for his advocacy of low postal rates for magazines and newspapers.
David Koepsell, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, believes Franklin would have opposed the rise of religion in government during the Bush administration.
“I think he would have been dismayed by religious fundamentalism in government,” says Koepsell, whose organization was founded 25 years ago and publishes a bimonthly magazine, Free Inquiry, which has about 25,000 subscribers.
“He was a free thinker about many things and at least a skeptic about the afterlife and the divinity of Jesus. He was a scientist, a man of letters and a man of Earth.”