Impressed by Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio, I thought I’d read his Benjamin Franklin – though familiar enough with the subject that another immersion might have seemed redundant. Not so.
Franklin was actually at one time the world’s most famous scientist. We all know the kite story. I’d recently read somewhere that it’s a myth; that Franklin wrote hypothetically about it but never actually tried it. Isaacson convincingly puts that to rest. Franklin was not an armchair theorist but a “hands on” scientist who loved tinkering and experimenting.
And the kite experiment was in fact very important, as it changed our understanding about electricity. Its immediate practical application was the lightning rod, a huge boon to mankind that made Franklin a global hero. But, more significant, as Isaacson explains, electricity was a curiosity when Franklin came to it; he left it a science.
This would have been enough to immortalize anyone. But Franklin was also a prolific writer – Isaacson says he was the best in the colonies. He also served as postmaster for them all, cutting a letter’s delivery time between New York and Philadelphia to one day (!). And somehow Franklin also found time to spearhead foundation of America’s first lending library; a volunteer fire-fighting system; a militia system; a hospital; a police force; and the University of Pennsylvania – America’s first non-sectarian college.
In the latter effort, and the others, Franklin, ever the practical man, had scant use for religion. We constantly hear America was founded as a “Christian nation.” The founders would have gagged at that, as their intent was quite the opposite – to get as far as possible from the old world of dogmatic religion married to state power. Yes, you can find selected quotes giving lip service to conventional pieties – but Jefferson also wrote privately calling religion a form of insanity, and Washington apparently never in his life penned the name “Christ.”
“Deism” was the word of choice, to eschew formal religion while avoiding the dicey term “atheist.” And in those times, quitting God entirely was an intellectual leap very few could manage. Yet the only “religious” belief Franklin really held was to do good by others. And he it was who put “self evident” into the draft Declaration of Independence (in place of “sacred and undeniable”) – thus changing a religious slant to an assertion of Enlightenment rationalism.
Of course, I haven’t even touched upon Franklin’s greatest role: in public affairs as revolutionary, diplomat, and constitution maker. Isaacson quotes the French statesman Turgot: “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepters from tyrants.”
As some of the civic initiatives noted above show, Franklin was a great one for creating associations, always believing more can be accomplished when people work together. And he was really the progenitor of the greatest association ever: The United States of America. As early as 1754 the “Albany Plan of Union” was conceived by Franklin (who promoted it with our first and most famous political cartoon). That plan incorporated an innovative political invention of his: federalism.
Isaacson’s summation is eloquent. Franklin represents one of two main intellectual currents: reverencing down-to-earth middle class virtues (industry, honesty, temperance, sociability), versus despising them in favor of supposedly more profound and transcendent aspirations. It is Franklin’s Enlightenment ethos versus the romanticism that followed; reason versus feeling; head against heart. Not only have Franklin’s bourgeois values been mocked by sophisticate critics, but also his worldly metaphysics, by those spinning loftier spiritual confections (out of nothing, of course).
Mundane and even simplistic though Franklin’s philosophy might ostensibly seem, Isaacson instead sees something very deep indeed. Always eschewing lofty pretensions, Franklin’s insight grasped the core of what truly mattered: quality of life for the ordinary person. Everything he preached and did was aimed at that. And it was this Franklinism that built, very much through the assiduous personal efforts and influence of the man himself, our American society, so wonderfully conducive, above all others, to that worthy end.
* I wrote this last summer; I have a backlog of blog posts.