Benjamin Franklin Was America’s Founding Polymath

On Sept. 17, 1787, the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the oldest man in the room rose to speak.

Benjamin Franklin, who more than a decade earlier had signed the Declaration of Independence, then later the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, disagreed with much of what ultimately went into the U.S. Constitution.

He noted in his autobiography that he even “opposed a legislature with two branches, which I thought would occasion lengthy disputes and delays … and promote factions among the people and obstruct the public business.”

Yet he now strongly urged his fellow delegates to support the document they had drafted and not to let the process be derailed by minor disagreements.

“I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best,” Franklin said. “The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. … I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it would, with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity put his name to this instrument.”

Franklin had not been the most outspoken man on the convention floor, but he had worked hard behind the scenes to broker compromises and keep the process from falling apart, which it nearly did. He had been a strong supporter of the Great Compromise, by which each state received two Senate seats, with House seats allocated based on population.

He had also tried to remind his fellow delegates of how fortunate they had been to reach this point — of how providence had given them an opportunity they must not squander. During the Revolution, he told them, “we had daily prayers in that room for the divine protection! Our prayers were heard, and they were graciously answered. … I have lived a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men! And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

That empire did rise, and today it is one in which Franklin’s name is revered. His most recognizable visage graces its currency. Twenty-five counties and more than three dozen cities are named after him. For-profit and nonprofit organizations use his name and even his face to advertise themselves.

Franklin wrote much on the subject of virtue and his own struggle to improve as a person. His call to doubt “one’s own infallibility” reflected the emphasis he placed on humility as an important virtue, notes David Bobb, president of the Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute.

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“I take that moral sense to be something that was serious in Franklin and not just part of his more whimsical side,” Bobb told IBD.

Franklin also states in his autobiography that only a virtuous people can govern themselves in the manner that the Constitution prescribes. This may have been what he meant by his immortal but cryptic words at the end of the convention, when he was asked what sort of government it had produced — “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Massachusetts Rise

Franklin (1706-90) was born in Boston. He never graduated from Latin school, yet his intellectual feats exceeded nearly all his peers who had formal education.

At age 15, Franklin used a ruse to get his start as a writer at his brother’s newspaper, the New England Courant. Knowing that James Franklin would not let him write, he penned more than a dozen pseudonymous letters from a widow named Silence Dogood. Her civic-minded correspondence, which he would slip beneath the print shop door at night to conceal his involvement, proved quite popular with readers.

He left Boston in 1723 for Philadelphia, where he found work as an apprentice printer. Six years later he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, and he went on to own a whole chain of newspapers in the Colonies.

During this period, Franklin acknowledged paternity of an illegitimate son, William, whom he raised with the help of his common-law wife, Deborah Read. William Franklin would go on to become the last Colonial governor of New Jersey. But father and son were bitterly divided by the Revolution, in which they took opposite sides. They never reconciled, and William went to London as an exile after independence.

In his newspapers, Franklin would write under pseudonyms and, in a historical first, even illustrate cartoons. His “Join or Die” snake illustration of May 1754 urged unity among the Colonies in the face of a common threat — the French and Indian alliance threatening from the West. The cartoon later became a symbol of the American Revolution.

In 1733, Franklin also began pseudonymously publishing “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” In addition to currency exchange tables and advice about weather and recipes, it contained some of his most famous aphorisms and poems.

Franklin’s wit and humor are legendary and suffuse his writings. In one famous letter to Edmund Burke, he mocked British Gen. Thomas Gage’s retreat from the Battle of Lexington and Concord: “His Troops made a most vigorous Retreat, 20 Miles in 3 Hours, scarce to be parallell’d in History; the feeble Americans, who pelted them all the Way, could scarce keep up with them.”

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Innovator For The Ages

Franklin was an inventor who created his own efficient stove. He invented bifocals. He developed a urinary catheter to assist his brother who was suffering from bladder stones. “He may be the one who brought the idea of the catheter to North America,” said Carla Mulford, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire.”

Franklin was an avid chess player and a scientist. His papers include meticulous plottings of water temperatures and wind directions from during his trans-Atlantic travels. He studied electricity, proposing the famous kite-and-key experiment for which he is perhaps best known. It is debated today whether he really conducted it himself (Mulford believes he did), but he is supposed to have observed an electrical current when he noticed that the fibers of the kite’s hemp string were standing erect.

Franklin later built a grounded lightning rod on his house, “fixed to the top of my chimney and extending about 9 feet above it.” It was immensely annoying to his wife, Deborah, but it helped him continue his study of electricity. It is to Franklin that the Anglophone world owes such basic terms as battery, charge, plus, minus and conductor in the context of electricity.

It is hard to imagine such a polymath as Franklin today, in an era of hyper-specialization in scholarship. As a public intellectual, he operated in an era when far less of a distinction was drawn among the various fields of knowledge. “In today’s world, there are STEM scholars, and then there’s everyone else,” said Mulford. “From an 18th century perspective, that idea of separating the two would seem ridiculous.”

Franklin lived in London for many years at a time, beginning in 1750. He considered himself a loyal British subject, but his experience there made him increasingly critical of Colonial rule. He noted in one famous letter that “Every Man in England seems to consider himself as a Piece of a Sovereign over America.” He believed that in passing laws for the Colonies without being terribly aware of their circumstances, the English were “desiring to be omnipotent without being omniscient.”

Franklin finally fell out of favor in England after he obtained and leaked correspondence of the appointed governor of Massachusetts, revealing an intention on his part to deprive American Colonists of their “English liberties.”

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In The Hunt

Franklin returned to America in 1775, shortly after the death of his wife, and became involved in the independence movement. He helped draft — and was a signer of — the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a year into the Revolutionary War. He then went to France, where he sought favor and aid for the American cause from King Louis XVI.

As a celebrated scholar, Franklin was already popular in Paris, where he had first traveled decades earlier and met the king’s father. He put his prestige into the service of helping persuade the king to sign the 1778 treaty by which the French agreed to help the revolution.

Later, Franklin was instrumental in negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1783, by which the American Revolution was finalized as successful.

Mulford named the Treaty of Paris as his most important accomplishment: “If he hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened. He knew how to deal with the French in a way Jefferson and Adams couldn’t.”

Franklin evolved over the course of his life regarding the issue of slavery. He had owned slaves when he was younger, but his long stay in London among anti-slavery activists convinced him that the practice was immoral. In 1772, he wrote a piece in the London Chronicle praising the freeing of one particular slave but calling for much more — the abolition of slavery, at least gradually. As he put it, “if not … procuring liberty for those that remain in our Colonies, at least to obtain a law for abolishing the African commerce in Slaves, and declaring the children of present Slaves free after they become of age.”

One of Franklin’s last satirical writings placed the pro-slavery arguments of a Southern congressman in the mouth of an Algerian prince, who argued strenuously that his nation’s European slaves could not possibly be liberated, nor the slave trade ended.

At the Constitutional convention, he understood that the project of founding the United States would not survive an attempt to abolish slavery then and there, which Britain itself would not end until 1833.

But one of Franklin’s last public acts was to petition Congress to abolish slavery in 1790. His efforts went nowhere, and he died that April.

Franklin’s Keys

Inventor, scientist, thinker, statesman, public intellectual.

Overcame: Humble origins, lack of formal education.

Lesson: Curiosity is a powerful thing in the hands of a person with the drive to explore everything.

“He that lieth down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas.”

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