The current reality is at odds with the accomplishment and vision of Benjamin Franklin, whose birthday is today. Franklin was a man of science who wanted science and technology to improve everyday life. He championed inoculation against smallpox; now we can vaccinate against many diseases. He published a newspaper and invented the concept of the electric battery — anyone reading this article online is doubly Franklinesque.
In his era, science was central to national prestige, and thoughtful engagement with both science and technology was desirable. During the 18th century, children learned Newtonian physics, women studied botany and lowborn sailors published their observations of the world. Inclusion was not universal, but the aspiration to engage more and more people in science was a notable goal.
Franklin may have been an overachiever, but he was typical in having scientific interests. And he used the public respect for science around the Atlantic to advance the credibility of a dubious new nation and, with that international support, helped win the Revolutionary War.
Most Europeans had a low opinion of colonial people, including the American Founders. Broad stereotypes about Americans as culturally backward were standard. And when the American patriots rejected European rule, they made themselves even more suspect. With monarchy the default form of government, the Declaration of Independence seemed to many observers a step toward misrule and anarchy.
In fact, the main reason the American Revolutionaries initially gained international support was that Britain’s rivals wanted to humiliate the British. From the start of King William’s War in 1688 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain, France and their allies were in continual conflict, often within their colonized territories. France had its worst setback during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), when it conceded major colonial landholdings to Britain.
Franklin shrewdly used this situation to convince the French that the American “insurgents,” as they were called, offered a unique opportunity to get back at Britain. But to do this, he would have to make the most of his reputation as an intellectual celebrity in science, the man who (as it would be said) snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from the tyrants — the key tyrant being Britain’s George III.
But then, he used science to make British rivals respect the revolutionary goals of the colonies.
Before the Continental Congress sent Franklin to Paris, it had recruited Silas Deane — a man with no real connections or reputation in Europe, who made little headway. But Franklin was different. Even the king of France had heard of him.
Franklin’s scientific reputation made him an international celebrity — someone who defied stereotypes of Americans as untutored rubes. His prominence stemmed from his “Experiments and Observations on Electricity,” first published in 1751, running through multiple editions and translations. While Franklin’s investigations of electricity are often reduced to his flying a kite in an impending thunderstorm, his actual ambition — and impact — was far greater: He wanted to explore the nature of matter, the universal properties of the stuff that constructs the universe.
He made a lasting contribution to physics when he defined electrical charge as shifting states within matter, positive or negative. In so doing, he laid a foundation for continuing investigation of electromagnetic phenomena. He defined terms for physics and engineering that remain in use, including “positive,” “negative” and “battery.”
Franklin’s bold scientific discoveries gave him visibility and authority: The German philosopher Immanuel Kant proclaimed him the “Prometheus” of the modern age. Why Prometheus? By establishing that electricity occurred up in the atmosphere and could be conducted safely to earth through protective lightning rods, Franklin resembled the ancient god who stole fire from heaven to help humanity. There was no one from the British colonies — or indeed any place in the Americas — who had a comparable stature.
It was very handy for the Continental Congress to have a pop icon to pitch its appeal to France, Britain’s rival. Although Franklin could not be presented at court or meet directly with French officials without formal recognition of the United States, his mere arrival in France in late 1776 was huge news. After he wore a fur cap to keep warm at sea, a fur-cap engraving of him became a popular French New Year’s gift in 1777. In short order, Franklin reported to his daughter, his face became as recognizable as that of the Moon.
Ah, that fur cap. It was a perfectly chosen accessory, though not because people then, as now, thought Franklin was channeling “Davy” Crockett (who was not born until 1786). In 1776, someone looking at a picture of a man in a fur hat would have thought not of a frontiersman, but of a philosopher or man of science. In two widely reproduced portraits, mathematician Pierre Louis Maupertuis, who commanded a polar geographic expedition, wore a fur cap, and moral philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau sported yet another fur hat. Franklin surely knew his headgear would brand him as another famous man of ideas and of science.
Franklin worked his scientific contacts to expand a network within the French elite. He had acquired a prestigious membership in France’s Académie des sciences in 1772 and corresponded with several important French men of science, with whom he now established personal contact. The Académie pointedly published one of his essays in 1777, publicizing his presence and, by inference, his American mission. Thomas-François Dalibard, who had replicated Franklin’s kite experiment in France, worked to send muskets to the United States.
Even though Franklin’s work in France made him into an enemy of Britain’s — and traitor to George III — his reputation in science sustained even his prestige in Britain. Rather astonishingly, several of his scientific works were republished in London at the height of the war. The editor of a 1779 edition of his essays estimated that “no man ever made larger or bolder guesses than Dr. Franklin from like materials in politics and philosophy,” and lamented Britain’s loss of such a mind.
By the time the French were ready to recognize the United States in 1778, a year after the American victory at Saratoga, Franklin had instituted an unofficial diplomatic presence in Paris. Thereafter, he kept up pressure on France to give financial and military aid to its new ally. Without that money, materiel, military expertise and succeeding recognitions of the United States by France’s allies, it is doubtful the Americans would have prevailed.
The British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781; a peace treaty followed in 1783. Although Britain and the United States were the formal signers of the treaty, it became apparent that the United States had been a pawn in a proxy war between Britain and France when conflict broke out again during Napoleon Bonaparte’s wars of expansion, and the British did not respect American independence. Only after the 1815 Congress of Vienna did Britain truly accept American sovereignty. But France’s earlier recognition of the United States had been a crucial step forward and its military assistance essential — and Franklin’s fame had been central to making it all happen.
It is odd that many Americans question scientific expertise yet surrender autonomy when they enter the techno-electronic worlds of the Internet. It is also, given the nature of the nation’s founding, strangely un-American behavior. Franklin helped guarantee a future for the United States by deftly repurposing contemporary respect for science, having embodied critical engagement with science and technology. Hundreds of years on, we still need that respect, that critical engagement, not least to honor Franklin on his birthday.