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Benjamin Franklin

When great men and women of history are transformed into legend--as inevitably they are transformed--they often double or triple in size. George Washington becomes the imperturbable hero in the bow of a rowboat, or the saintly youth of Parson Welles' fables. In the hands of the hagiographers, Thomas Jefferson becomes the Sage of Monticello; flawless and majestic. The popular legend of Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, has somewhat diminished him from the vigorous, brilliant, complex character he really was into a bespectacled, elderly man, the author of a number of improving aphorisms: Early to bed, early to rise..." Yet anyone seeking a spiritual forefather for this nation and having a choice between George Washington and Benjamin Franklin might find Franklin a more congenial--even a more modern--ancestor. Before there was any such thing as the United States, he was the first American. Throughout the pre-Revolutionary period, almost to the day of his election to the Continental Congress, he thought of himself as a loyal subject of the King, but the English knew he was not English and the French knew he was not English. He was something new in the world.

He had a genius for playing a multitude of roles; he was comfortable in Parliament, at Versailles, or in a kitchen. He came from a plain, immigrant background. Born into a large family in Boston in 1706, Ben Franklin was self-educated and--apart from his apprenticeship in his older brother's print shop--self-made. His father Josiah was an immigrant and a poor man. His mother's mother had been an indentured servant. High as he rose in the world, Benjamin had no connections or advantages but those he created. At the age of seventeen he got tired of working for his brother and ran away to New York to look for a job. Finding none, he went on to Philadelphia. In his "Autobiography" he relates that he got off the boat, bought himself "three great puffy rolls" at a bakery, and began knocking on doors. He was hired as a journeyman printer. The authors of schoolbooks have doted on that tale.

Franklin was a plain man but there is no point in pretending he was an average one. He was not one man at all but a myriad. In the grand-scale biography that he wrote of Franklin, Carl Van Doren defined him: "His mind was a federation of purposes working harmoniously together. Other philosophers might be dark and profound but Franklin moved serenely through the visible world, trying to understand it all. Other men of action might lay single plans and endlessly persist in them but Franklin met occasions as they arose and acted on them with a far-sighted opportunism. His mind grew as the world grew."

From journeyman, Franklin soon turned himself into one of the finest printers, and most successful publishers, in the colonies. He understood the value of information and had a head-on instinct for what people wanted to read. If his "Poor Richard" almanac was a huge, moneymaking success--and it was--it was because the colonies were starved for practical advice and daily amusement.

For a genius Franklin was exceedingly hard-headed. He set up a system that we have lately rechristened "networking." He called his network the Junto. Twelve members (no more) met once a week and exchanged intelligence. Not gossip, but an agenda of concerns. What new laws were needed? What useful new books had appeared? Had any businesses failed lately and if so, why? Had any deserving stranger arrived in town? Later, as postmaster general of the colonies Franklin set up a model service - fast, efficient, and profitable. As much as any other thing he created, the postal service made the American revolution possible. For the first time the colonists could communicate with one another and think of themselves as one people. It was all a matter of exchanging information.

In Franklin a hundred other famous Americans are foreshadowed. He had Andrew Carnegie's business sense, John D. Rockefeller's eye for the main chance, Abraham Lincoln's talent for making political capital out of humble origins and plain dress. (As American commissioner in Paris, Franklin wore an old fur hat, which made him the toast of the town.) Of Thomas Edison it is said that his greatest invention was the method of inventing things, but his mentor in this was Franklin. He had no laboratory, no assistants, no grants, no university chair. He lived and worked in a small Philadelphia house with his wife, children, mother-in-law, and a shifting population of servants and houseguests. He ran a printing business and a retail shop. In this unlikely and undoubtedly chaotic setting he became one of the best-known scientists in the world--in fact the only well-known American scientist of his day.

His great discovery was the nature of electricity, and his famous experiments with the lightning rod and possibly with the kite (he may not actually have flown the kite in the rainstorm) demonstrated that lightning was electricity. Another experimenter in Europe, trying to replicate Franklin's experiment, was killed. What Franklin was doing was at least as dangerous as traveling in a spacecraft today. He seems not to have minded the risks, intent as he was on finding a practical use for what he had found out.

Attempting to electrocute a turkey two days before Christmas, he put two wires together and almost electrocuted himself. He later wrote that he was like "the Irishman... who, being about to steal powder, made a hole in the cask with a hot iron." But he went on to invent the lightning rod. He was curious about everything. Finding ants invading a molasses pot in the pantry, he devised an experiment to prove that the ants communicated with one another. Once when he had planned to watch a lunar eclipse, a storm blew up and obscured the view. Later he learned that in Boston the storm had hit after eclipse, and he deduced that the clouds must have moved from west to east. So Franklin began gathering data on storms, and made the first accurate deductions about weather patterns in this hemisphere.

Later, as a colonial agent and then as American diplomat he made many transatlantic crossings, during which he never failed to perform some oceanographic experiment. On at least two crossings he measured the temperature of the water in order to track the Gulf Stream. He was the first to study it. He knew, as most sea captains of the day did not, that a ship made better time by crossing the Gulf Stream directly than by running against it. Like Isaac Newton, he envisioned an ordered, knowable universe, and he wanted to discover its laws. But tracking the majestic swirl of the Gulf Stream did not distract his mind from the possibility of improving the speed of the mail packet from England. He spoke plainly and set down his findings in decent English. His writings on electricity are as clear today as they were then. Anybody who can read can understand him. A father of his country he may be, but he was definitely not a father of his country's scientific and bureaucratic jargon.

Women of all ages and types loved Franklin. What Carl Van Doren said of Franklin in 1938 has a nice resonance in 1981. "Always a person himself, Franklin treated every woman as if she were a person too, and made her feel more truly one than ever. Because he loved, valued, and studied women, they were no mystery to him, and he had no instinctive fear of them. Statesman and scientist, profoundly masculine, he took women into account as well as any other force of nature." At twenty-four he married Deborah Read of Philadelphia. To the marriage he brought an illegitimate son, whom Deborah adopted and raised. The marriage lasted happily for fifty years, until Deborah's death. "We are grown old together," Franklin wrote of her tenderly, "and if she has any faults, I am so used to 'em that I don't perceive 'em." Yet, he was openly the friend and correspondent of many women. In America there was Catherine Ray, in England Polly Hewson and Georgiana Shipley - accomplished women whom Franklin appears to have loved for their minds.

As an aging widower and his country's emissary to France, he was as gallant as a thirty-year-old. He came to France in 1776 and served until 1784. Ironically, in the haut monde revolutionaries were all the rage. Franklin fell in love with a widow of sixty, Madame Helvetius, and wanted to marry her. The story goes that she once chided Franklin for not having visited her when she had expected him. He replied, "Madame, I am waiting till the nights are longer." When she turned down his proposal on the grounds that she wanted to be faithful to her dead husband, Franklin wrote a humorous piece for her. He claimed he had visited the Elysian Fields and had found M. Helvetius and Deborah Franklin married in the afterlife. "Here I am," he closed, "let us avenge ourselves." She still said no, but still they were friends. She was not the only great lady that he loved. Among others there was Madame de Forbach, who gave him an elegant walking stick, which he later gave to his good friend George Washington.

From Shirley Abbott, The National Museum of American History, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1981) 115-119.

 

 

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