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Ben Franklin, Wit, Sage, and the Best American never elected president

We all remember Benjamin Franklin as a printer and newspaper publisher; as a wise, bespectacled American sage, who flew a kite and discovered electricity; also as the inventor who created the Franklin Stove. What we don't always recall is that he was a self-taught man, voracious reader, and influential political thinker.  Among the Founding Fathers, he was the only one to have signed all four of the documents essential to the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France, the peace accord with Britain, and the U.S.Constitution.

Beloved in France, Franklin's kindly visage was instantly recognizable throughout North America and in all of Europe.  Of all the Founders, Franklin was the person most responsible for making the United States a haven for religious tolerance.  Today, his portrait hangs in the Oval Office of the White House.

  Jovial, quick-witted, and comfortable with people from all walks of life, Franklin's eloquent closing speech at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 helped to secure approval of the Constitution, by encouraging delegates to set aside their differences and to unite in a spirit of compromise.  Like nearly everything he wrote, Franklin's speech serves as a master-thesis in the art of the soft-sell:

"I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.  It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgement, and to pay respect to the judgement of others . . .

"In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us . . . I doubt too whether any other convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with these men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.  From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

"It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting in confidence to hear that our councils are confounded, like those of the builders of Babel, and that our states are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the cutting of one another's throats.

"Thus I consent to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best."

According to historian/biographer Walter Isaacson, Franklin's closing remarks "were the most eloquent words he ever wrote--and perhaps the best ever written by anyone about the magic of the American system and the spirit that created it.  Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies."


According to most historians, there were three geniuses among the Founding Generation: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Ben Franklin.

Walter Isaacson added, "Ben Franklin was American's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and was also one of its most practical--though not the most profound--political thinkers.  He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it.  He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold.  He also invented America's unique homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism.  In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism and balance-of-power realism.  And in American politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government."


Among Franklin's many other accomplishments was his development of the first modern American city--Philadelphia.  Working with the help of several influential and wealthy businessmen, Franklin created the nation's first lending public library, the nation's first fire department, led the move to pave all city streets, and erecting an oil-burning lamp on every street corner; founded a major college (today's Pennsylvania University), advocated strongly for public education, helped form an insurance association, and a matching grant fund-raiser.  In 1728, he opened his own print shop.  The following year, he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, and transformed it into the most popular newspaper in Philadelphia. Indeed, Franklin's newspaper would become one of ten in a city that would become the most literate, livable, and cultured city in America. Thanks to Franklin's influence, it was also one of the first American cities to abolish slavery. Called "The City of Brotherly Love", one highborn Englishman described Philadelphia as "One of the wonders of the world."  Another English visitor compared the city favorably with London. In Franklin's time, Philadelphia would become the nation's financial capital (a title New York City would not assume until 1836).

As a newspaper publisher, Franklin used his considerable talent to create a great media empire, that included print shops and newspapers throughout the colonies, and a distribution system (the colonial postal system) that tied them all together and helped give an advantage to Franklin's humorous stories, and maxims for living, including his book, "Poor Richard's Almanac".


"Poor Richard's Almanac" was a book Franklin published annually from 1732 to 1758.  It sold exceptionally well in the Thirteen Colonies, and made Franklin wealthy and celebated.  In general, almanacs were popular in colonial America, offering a mixture of seasonal weather forecasts, practical household hints, puzzles and other amusements.  "Poor Richard's Almanac" included these as well, but became famous for Franklin's wit and humor, and his maxims for self-improvement.  In 1735, upon the death of Franklin's brother, James, Franklin sent 500 copies to his widow for free, so that she could make money selling them.

Interestingly, while often identified with Philadelphia, Franklin wasn't born there.  His hometown was Boston, where he was born to a prominent family, on January 17, 1705.  While Franklin never attended a day of school (his family taught him to read), on his own he devised a method to teach himself how to be a persuasive writer.  He would read the essays of two famous political writers: Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (published in THE SPECTOR, the irreverent London daily that flourished in the American colonies, in 1711-12).  Franklin would take notes, jumble them up, set them aside, and then return to them a few days later to see how well he had replicated the original.  Sometimes he would even turn the notes into poetry, which helped him expand his vocabulary by forcing him to search for words with the right rhythm, before trying to recreate what Addison and Steele had written.

When he found his own version wanting, he would correct it.  "But I sometimes had the pleasure," he recalled, "of fancying that in certain particulars of small import I had been lucky enough to improve the method of language, and this encouraged me to think that I might possibly become in time a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious."

More than making himself merely "tolerable," he became the most popular writer in colonial America.  He may also have been (according to noted Franklin biographer, Carl Van Doren) "the best writer in America" during his lifetime.  Franklin's self-taught style, featured a direct and conversational prose, which while lacking in poetic flourish, was powerful in its directness and humor.

The print trade was a natural calling for young Ben Franklin.  "From a child I was fond of reading," he recalled, "and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books."  Indeed, books were the most important formative influence in his life, and he was lucky to grow up in Boston where libraries had been carefully maintained since the town's first settlers arrived there in 1630, packing fifty books.

Franklin's favorite book was John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," the saga of the tenacious quest by a man named Christian to reach the Celestial City.  Published in 1678, "Pilgrim's Progress" quickly became popular among the Puritans and other dissenters who settled in Boston.

The central theme of Bunyan's book was contained in its title: "progress", the concept that individuals, and mankind in general, move forward and improve based on a steady increase of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity.

Franklin's other favorite book--and the favorite of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton--was Plutarch's "Lives", which is also based on the premise that individual endeavor can change the course of history for the better. History is a tale, Franklin came to believe, not of  immutable forces, but of human endeavors.

Franklin's first significant published writings came when he was only sixteen, when he dreamed up a prudish widow named Silence Dogood (a pseudonym young Franklin created to get himself published in his brother's newspaper; his older brother James never would have printed it had he known the true author was his younger brother.)

After running away from home at age 17, Franklin settled in Philadelphia, where he would open his own print shop and publish a weekly newspaper. He perfected various tricks of the trade to build circulation: gossip, sex, crime and humor.  But he also used his pen to encourage worthy civic endeavors and, later, to promote his political views.

Franklin's output was wondrously diverse and prolific.  He wrote pointed tales and humorous hoaxes, amusing essays, letters both chatty and profound, scientific treatises, detailed charters for civic associations, political tracts, plans for uniting the colonies, and later after he had sided with the American revolution, propaganda pieces supporting the American cause in Britain and then in France. It was through his craft that Franklin was able to influence, more than any of the other Founders, the character and personality of the American people.


Curiously, Franklin came late to the patriotic cause.  He spent most of the 1760s in London attempting to obtain a royal charter for Pennsylvania.  As late as 1771 he lobbied for a position within the English government.  When he returned to the colonies, however, he was thoroughly disgusted with the English Parliament's handling of the American crisis.

Back in Philadelphia, he joined the patriotic cause and rose quickly to the top of political leadership.  In 1775, Franklin was elected as a delegate to the Continental Convention.  At the Convention he was nominated to the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. While Thomas Jefferson wrote the bulk of the document, he received encouragement and pointed suggestions from Ben Franklin and John Adams.

Franklin's contribution to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was modest.  However, his closing speech (listed above) convinced the delegates to set aside their differences and sign the document.

After the Convention ended, Franklin was asked what type of government  had been created.

"A republic," he said solemnly, "if we can keep it."

While Franklin didn't say, "I never met a man I didn't like" (Will Rogers said it), what he did write was, "I resolve to speak evil of no man, not even in matters of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasion speak all the good I know of everybody."

Franklin's religious creed was as direct as it was simple: "I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence.  That he ought to be worshipped.  That the most acceptable service we can render, is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.  These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them."

A staunch abolitionist, Franklin's last written document was composed from his deathbed in Philadelphia.  It was a wicked parody of the justification slave advocates in Congress were pushing in support of their "peculiar institution." His letter was published throughout the thirteen states, but failed to influence the vote in Congress that would have put an end to slavery.  Franklin died a month after the letter was published, on April 17, at age 84.

- END -

note: I am indebted to four books in composing this blog: BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, by Carl van Doren; BENJAMIN FRANKLIN READER, by Walter Isaacson, TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW, by Bernard Bailyn, and THE FIRST WALL STREET, by Robert E. Wright

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