by Benjamin Franklin
February 6th, 2009
I've been working my way through this book for about a year now, and I finally finished it. At 1500 pages, it's no wonder that I took so long. It's not the complete works of Benjamin Franklin, but it sure does include a lot of them. Along with the two standards (the Autobiography and Poor Richard's Almanack, it includes a wealth of other material: the Silence Dogood letters, lots of political letters, diplomatic correspondence, and pamphlets. Franklin was a prolific writer and this collection provides a hefty sampling.
What do these writings tell us about the man? He certainly was remarkable. He had minimal schooling, yet taught himself to become one of the learned men of the day. The range of Franklin's intellectual pursuits defies description; he and Thomas Jefferson are the two great Renaissance Men of American history. Franklin breathed the intellectual excitement of the Age of Reason, the sense that anything could be figured out. Indeed, if I were to summarize Franklin's world view, it would be the very essence of what is now considered the American world view: that, with hard work, perseverance, and self-sacrifice, you can accomplish anything you desire. Initially, this can-do attitude was confined to the pursuit of wealth. Franklin's recommendations here were clear and simple: work hard, don't spend a penny except on truly necessary expenditures, and be civil to everybody. It's a simple formula, and it still works. But it's important to realize just how novel these ideas were 250 years ago. Remember, English society was highly stratified and Franklin's formula would have been useless in that society. But American society was already differentiating itself from English society, and Franklin's genius was to see the change and give it clear expression.
His ideas had their most colorful expression in Poor Richard's Almanack, through which he sprinkled his cute little adages. Many of those adages are now part of the extended lore of the American language. "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." This was really just a clever way of saying "Don't stay up drinking with your buddies." It was the clean pithiness of his adages that made them so repeatable. "Haste makes waste." Like commercial jingles, they stick in your mind in the most maddening way. "Be civil to all, serviceable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none." And some of his lesser-known adages precurse current wisdom: "Old boys have their playthings as well as young ones; the difference is only in the price." And my personal favorite of them all: "The greatest monarch on the proudest throne is obliged to sit upon his own arse."
Franklin was also surprisingly modern in his thinking. He wrote vigorously against slavery; and abuse of Native Americans particularly exercised him. When a group of racist thugs massacred a peaceable community of Indians, Franklin wrote an outraged editorial condemning them in the strongest possible terms. This so angered the thugs that they came to Philadelphia for a showdown with Franklin. He met them courageously and they left without bloodshed.
His intellectual curiosity was boundless; he poked his nose into all manner of curious phenomena. But he did so with a careful eye to practical application; Franklin was at heart more engineer than scientist. His researches into lightning led to the lightning rod, which had a dramatic effect in reducing the damage done by lightning in cities. It's difficult to say whether Franklin knew that the real utility of the lightning rod lay in the cumulative effect of hundreds of such rods scattered all through the city; certainly the metal connections to the ground were not sufficient to handle the huge current surges of a lightning strike.
Franklin also invented the Franklin Stove, an improved design that allowed air circulation around the rear of the stove, thereby doubling or tripling the efficiency of the fireplace. He refused to patent the device, placing it instead in the public domain. Another investigation led him to the discovery of the Gulf Stream, but again, his purpose was to reduce sailing times, not to advance pure science.
There's no question that Franklin was a genius; at the age of only 23, he wrote a pamphlet on the desirability of a paper currency, and his thoughts on the role of the money supply in the development of an economy, written before Adam Smith was even born, are sound. Indeed, I can think of some modern American politicians who would profit by reading Franklin's treatise on money.
Franklin played a crucial role in the Revolution, even though his name does not often crop up in the events. Because he was widely regarded as the most august American, and he had a strong reputation as a cool head, his support for the Revolution (including signing the Declaration of Independence) added enormous weight to the movement. It also weakened British resolve against the Americans, because Franklin was highly esteemed in England. He was instrumental in gaining French support for the Revolution, which ultimately turned out to be necessary to the American victory. Franklin, like all truly great men, worked behind the scenes on what was truly important.
I don't have many personal heroes, but Franklin is on that list along with Erasmus, Voltaire, Jefferson, and da Vinci.