January 17, 2006: Headlines: Freedom of the Press: The First Amendment: History: Speaking Out: Journalism: Chicago Sun-Times: Benjamin Franklin, American

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Benjamin Franklin, American

Benjamin Franklin, American

On January 17, America celebrates the 300th birthday of the Founding Father who called himself Benjamin Franklin, printer. Historians call Franklin the First American. He was a self-made man with middle-class values, an entrepreneurial spirit and a genius for founding quintessentially American organizations such as the volunteer fire department.

Benjamin Franklin, American

Ben Franklin, The First American


January 17, 2006


Today, America celebrates the 300th birthday of the Founding Father who called himself Benjamin Franklin, printer.

Ben Franklin was much more than that, of course. Take your choice: scientist, diplomat, inventor, civic booster, publishing magnate, politician, writer, celebrity, ladies' man and the most famous kite flier in history.

"He probably had more IQ points than most anyone else who has walked the American earth," said University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Zuckerman.

Philadelphia, his hometown, is planning a big party. There's a commemorative silver dollar, a commemorative beer (Poor Richard's Ale) and an endless stream of books.

A Ben Franklin traveling exhibit, "In Search of a Better World," will stop in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Paris. But other than a cake-and-coffee birthday party at Fox River Grove Memorial Library, not much is happening locally.

He was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706. His father was a candle- and soap-maker who married twice and had 17 children. Ben was the youngest of 10 sons. He learned to read at an early age but had just two years of schooling. Ben went to work at age 10, first for his dad, then for an older brother as an apprentice printer.

Franklin ran away to Philadelphia at age 17. He made a fortune as a printer and publisher, and he retired at age 42 to pursue his many other interests.

'He was us at our best'

He was the American Renaissance man. "Leonardo da Vinci can't hold a candle to him in terms of the realms in which he operated," Zuckerman said.

Historians call Franklin the First American. He was a self-made man with middle-class values, an entrepreneurial spirit and a genius for founding quintessentially American organizations such as the volunteer fire department.

"He was us at our best," Zuckerman said.

Franklin was an avuncular sage with a quick wit and a glint in his eye. He may not have been our greatest Founding Father, but he certainly was the most likable.

"He's the most accessible," said Franklin scholar Rosalind Remer, executive director of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary. "There's a sense that he's looking over our shoulder."

Indeed, Franklin said he would love to come back in the future, to see how things had progressed. This raises an obvious question: How would a Benjamin Franklin have fared in 21st century America?

He no doubt would have loved all the technology. "He would be the person you would show your BlackBerry to, and he would figure out a way to improve it," said Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson.

But Franklin would not have thrived in our age of specialization. "He did not stick with things long," Remer said. "He moved from thing to thing."

Franklin had his faults, but they were mostly private ones. He was lacking as a husband and father, and he didn't practice the moderation in food and drink that he preached. Franklin loved wine and champagne, and he weighed around 300 pounds when he died.

"The good thing about Benjamin Franklin was that he was human," Isaacson said. "He was not made of marble."



He was the only Founding Father to sign the four key documents in the founding of the United States.

Benjamin Franklin's signature was on the Declaration of Independence, the alliance with France during the Revolutionary War, the peace treaty with Britain that ended the war and the U.S. Constitution.

Before the colonies broke free, Franklin spent 15 years on and off in England as an unofficial spokesman for America. He hoped to keep America in the British Empire, even pledging to pay for the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party if the British repealed the hated tea tax.

Franklin finally gave up and returned to America at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

The Continental Congress appointed Franklin to a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft, which was revised by John Adams, then Franklin, then the full committee.

During the signing ceremony, Franklin warned, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Congress sent Franklin and two others to France to obtain military and economic assistance vital to the war effort. Franklin was the most famous man in America, and the French adored him. Securing the treaty ranks as one of the greatest triumphs in U.S. diplomatic history.

Franklin also was a member of the American commission that negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War and recognized America's independence.

At age 81, an ailing Franklin attended the Constitutional Convention as the oldest delegate. He successfully appealed to delegates to put aside their misgivings and unanimously approve the compromise document.

Franklin's last public act was a plea to Congress to abolish slavery.


Ben Franklin's famous kite experiment led to his invention of the lightning rod.

The invention has saved countless lives and buildings. A metal rod on top of a building attracts lightning, and a cable carries the current to the ground, preventing damage to the structure and harm to the people inside.

Another invention still in use is the cast-iron Franklin stove. It's shaped like a fireplace, with metal baffles to increase its heating efficiency.

Franklin also invented bifocal glasses, medical catheters, swim fins and glass harmonicas. And he showed farmers how to improve acidic soil by using lime.

Refusing to take out patents, Franklin put his inventions in the public domain. "As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others," he wrote, "we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any inventions of ours."


Sometimes smart people do stupid things.

Ben Franklin famously flew a kite in a thunderstorm to prove that lightning is electricity.

A bolt of lightning struck a wire fastened to the kite, traveled down and caused a spark in a key at the other end of the kite string. Fortunately, Franklin wasn't electrocuted.

It wasn't his only risky electrical experiment. Franklin once tried to kill a turkey with an electric shock but wound up getting shocked himself. "I meant to kill a turkey," he joked. "Instead, I nearly killed a goose."

In other studies, Franklin charted the Gulf Stream, recording its depth, speed and temperature. He also demonstrated how to calm rough sea by pouring oil on the water. And he did groundbreaking studies in meteorology.

Franklin was considered one of the greatest scientists of the 18th century. Although Europeans generally looked down on Americans as provincials, Franklin was elected to England's Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences.


Ben Franklin excelled at just about everything.

Except for being a family man. He ignored his wife, dallied with other women and had a bitter falling-out with his son.

"His greatest weakness was his inability to have a happy family life," said Franklin scholar Rosalind Remer.

Before he got married, Franklin fathered an out-of-wedlock son, William. Historians don't know the identity of William's mother or what happened to her -- she may have died in childbirth.

To his credit, Franklin raised William. But they fell out after William sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. Franklin never forgave or reconciled with William.

Franklin and his wife, Deborah, had two other children, a son who died at age 4 and a daughter who cared for Franklin in his old age.

Franklin had, in the words of University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Zuckerman, "an unmistakable eye for the ladies." But while Franklin had dalliances with other women during his long marriage, there's no proof he slept with any of them.

He spent many years in Europe away from Deborah. Even when she was dying and begging him to return home, he continued to stay away.


You name it, Ben Franklin organized it.

Franklin founded the first public lending library and volunteer fire department in America, along with an insurance company, a hospital, the University of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophical Society.

When Pennsylvania was still a colony, Franklin organized a militia to defend against possible invasions by the French or Spaniards.

He also championed police reform and campaigned for street improvements. He advocated daylight saving time, arguing that it was a waste to burn candles at night and sleep in the morning when the sun shines.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Franklin was so successful as a promoter, "anyone with a good cause in mind was likely to turn to him for help."


Ben Franklin ran an 18th century version of a multimedia empire.

For 37 years, he published the Pennsylvania Gazette, one of the most successful newspapers in the colonies. Always innovative, he was the first editor in America to illustrate a story with a map and the first to run a cartoon. His famous Join, or Die cartoon urging unity during the French and Indian War depicted the separate colonies as cut-up segments of a snake.

Franklin wrote and published Poor Richard's Almanack under the pen name Richard Saunders. The popular journal contained his commonsense philosophy and witty sayings that have survived to this day.

He also wrote an autobiography and briefly published a German-language newspaper and a monthly magazine.

The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin

Peace Corps Online


Benjamin Franklin popularized dozens of aphorisms. Most of them appeared in his Poor Richard's Almanack.

Franklin coined many of the adages himself. Others were traditional folk wisdom that he reworded to give them more zip.

Here's a sampling:

# Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

# Haste makes waste.

# Well done is twice done.

# Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

# Great talkers, little doers.

# Lost time is never found again.

# Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die tomorrow.

# Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.

# Wish not so much to live long as to live well.

# He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.

# A good example is the best sermon.

# Innocence is its own defense.

# Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing.

# Fish and visitors stink in three days.

# Don't throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass.

# He that spills the rum loses that only; He that drinks it, often loses both that and himself.

# To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.

# No gains without pains.

# There never was a good war, or a bad peace.

When this story was posted in January 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Chicago Sun-Times

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