By Hillel Italie
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
At the Smithsonian, a tribute to his statesmanship is planned. In London, an exhibit 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.
"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," McGillin's owner Chris Mullins said.
Franklin was a businessman, inventor, revolutionary, athlete (he is a member of the United States Swim School Association Hall of Fame), diplomat, publisher, humorist, sage and regular guy. "He certainly is a multiplicity of persona, so one never knows which one is the real Franklin," says Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose books include "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin."
Franklin's approachability begins with his background. Unlike George Washington or Thomas 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's 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."
Over the next 30 years and beyond, he 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, a tradition carried on by Mark Twain and Will Rogers.
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 by living in it. "The things which hurt, instruct," he observed.
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.
Among other credits: modernized street lights, volunteer firefighters, fire insurance, lending libraries, odometers, daylight saving time and lightning rods (inspired by a kite excursion).
"His demonstration that lightning was not supernatural had huge impact," says Dudley 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 refined and adopted by William James and John Dewey.
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 a 2003 bestseller about Franklin. "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 Gordon Wood.
The denigration of Franklin was partly his own doing. His "Autobiography," unfinished at his death but published posthumously, immortalized him as a crafty self-made man for whom all virtue was but a means to success.
But the "Autobiography" underplays other sides of Franklin: the statesman, dissident and man of conscience, the former slaveholder 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."
Franklin is praised now by both the left and right.
"He was a defender of limited government, and he was very much opposed to taking on excessive debt," says Mark Skousen, an author and economist whose edition of the "Autobiography" includes a Franklin quote of appeal to conservatives: "A virtuous and industrious people may be cheaply governed."
David Koepsell, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, said he believes Franklin "would have been dismayed by religious fundamentalism in government. 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."