When Benjamin Franklin finally died at the then-ancient age of 84, the largest crowd ever assembled in the New World – 20,000 – gathered in Philadelphia to see the great man off. The old typesetter and printer’s tombstone reads, “The body of Benjamin Franklin, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be wholly lost. For it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more perfect edition. –Corrected and amended by the author.”
Did you catch Ken Burns’ new documentary on PBS? I’m not a huge fan of Burns. His budgets are gargantuan compared to those of other documentarians, and I believe he could do a lot more. But his subject matter is certainly worthy. One notable observation is that if Franklin lived in modern times, he could win the Nobel Prize in Science. He would be considered our greatest diplomat and win the Nobel for Peace and be our greatest prose writer. He probably would’ve been a hit on Jimmy Kimmel, the Daily Show and other shows of that ilk, such was his wit, intelligence and sense of humor.
Among the aphorisms he coined: “Fish and houseguests begin to stink after three days;” “He who lies down with dogs…;” “Haste makes waste;” “A penny saved is a penny earned;” ”A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats;” “The only things that are certain are death and taxes.”
His inventions included the Franklin Stove, a massive improvement to heating and an immensely popular appliance in those days. He conceived the positive and negative properties of batteries and invented bifocals and the musical instrument called the Armonica. An avid swimmer, Franklin invented swim fins and had himself pulled through the water by connecting himself to a kite.
As Postmaster General, Franklin set out to dramatically improve the colonies’ handling of mail. On an inspection tour, he invented the odometer by attaching a geared device to the rear wheel of his carriage. With every 400 revolutions of the wheel, he calculated that he’d traveled one mile. It proved to be remarkably accurate. To help relieve his brother’s suffering from kidney stones, he conceived and built a flexible urinary catheter, the first ever.
We all know about the kite and electricity as well as the lightning rod. This propelled him to international fame at a time when Europeans thought of the Colonies as a backwater, good only for furs and tobacco. His role in raising America’s stature worldwide is incalculable. You could say that he also invented American celebrity.
Interestingly, Franklin never sought a single patent on any of his inventions, believing them to be in the public domain and to be used without fees by everyone.
His greatest contribution to society, though, was as a diplomat and patriot. For most of his life he was a rabid Anglophile until the run-up to the Revolution. He had been posted to London for many years and had considered moving there permanently as he was a well-known and beloved fixture in intellectual and royal circles. He was passionate about finding ways to reconcile the growing differences between England and her Colonies.
It wasn’t until 1775 that a final break came between Franklin and England. In an infamous session before Parliament and other influentials in a setting called the Cockpit, the English humiliated a stoic Franklin, causing him to at last return to Philadelphia. There, he plunged back into affairs of state, not without overcoming significant personal challenges. Many thought him to be a spy because of his long association in London as well as the fact that his son William was the Tory governor of New Jersey. Franklin, through intellect, actions and humor ultimately won the day.
Much has been written about Franklin as envoy to France. He was a celebrity there with his Marten hat and his plain clothes as well as the twinkle in his eye. Many French households featured his portrait over their mantles, and King Louis XVI adorned the bottom of the royal chamber pot with his likeness. It was the patient, artful diplomacy of Franklin – not that of his fellow envoy and polar-opposite personality John Adams –that ultimately won the French to the American side and ensured victory for the Colonies.
Franklin returned to America to large crowds and booming guns of salute. George Washington’s first stop in Philadelphia was to see Franklin. At 81 years of age, he attended every session of the Constitutional Convention save one. In 1787, he made the motion to adopt the Constitution.
Yet there was still some unfinished business. Franklin had been an enslaver but, late in life, saw the inhumanity and injustice in the practice and became an abolitionist. He freed his two slaves and wrote a treatise, saying, “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature. That its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.” Like I said, what a dude!
The writer is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and is the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.”