Benjamin Franklin, in many ways, represented the essential American character that the newly founded nation was to acquire over the succeeding centuries. From the epoch-making years of the American War of Independence marked by an all-pervading sense of great destiny that awaited us, emerged great personalities like George Washington, the astute general and irresistible leader of men, Thomas Jefferson, a man of over-riding principles and grand concepts, John Quincy Adams, sagacious strategist and many others who together gave voice to the collective aspirations of the thirteen colonies who threw off the yoke of British domination. If they were all building blocks of the foundation of the nation, then surely the cement that held together these disparate personalities was Benjamin Franklin. Walter Isaacson, author of a perceptive biography of the Founding Father, delineated his essential character in “Citizen Ben: A Worldly American’s Seven Great Virtues.” With his qualities of the head and the heart, with his practical wisdom and ideological clarity, with the buoyancy of his spirit that sprang from his great humaneness, Benjamin Franklin made sure that the fledgling nation would be well-balanced in its future growth. Of the great men who founded the nation, it was he who put together the various elements that sustained liberal democracy. His abhorrence of autocracy, love of free expression, fairness towards those who held opposing views giving them equal opportunity, informality in dress and general appearance taking care to stick firmly to middle class mores, great diplomatic acumen with an uncommon ability to wed idealism to pragmatism as a philosopher, the sagacity to compromise, rare vision into the future in cultivating accommodativeness for all religious creeds, his undying curiosity that ensured him a pioneering role in scientific discoveries, inventiveness, industriousness and steadfastness and his ability to enliven those around him with ready wit and humor made him a disarmingly human and round character --among legendary peers known only for their chief virtues--and hence, the prototype of the American of the future.
His opposition to overweening authority marked the beginning of his remarkable life, as he ran away from Boston where he was an apprentice with his elder brother James who owned a newspaper, The New England Courant, since he felt that the older sibling was domineering towards him. This act also marked his rejection of the religious dogmatism of New England and the embracing of the liberal values of Philadelphia. By setting up his own newspaper, Pennsylvania Gazette, he was able to practice what he firmly believed in—freely expressing his ideas and also welcoming opposing ideas of others as well, founding the great American ideal of fearless expression one’s opinion and opening up debates about public affairs generating public opinion, coupled with legitimate generation of income. Later, when it came to national consciousness and American aspirations for independence, his innate opposition to tyranny projected him as a natural rebel against the colonial master Great Britain.
Employing another aspect of his approach of fair exchange of ideas and opinions, he pioneered the art of negotiation. Though proud of his own convictions, he would hold forth that being ‘humble’ in withholding one’s own opinion and listening to others would pay in the long run, by winning friends and supporters. This would certainly have stood him in good stead in his future role as America’s emissary to France.
As a diplomat and statesman, none of his peers would have shone like him. It was thus quite natural that the Congress deputed him as the envoy to the Court of King Louis XVI of France, to seek French military assistance in waging the War of Independence. His massive common sense and practical analysis of balance of power which he employed in convincing the cold and calculating French Foreign Minister Vergennes how the defeat of Great Britain would help France and its ally Spain to sustain their national interests and to even gain fresh territory in the Caribbean won the day. By upholding the ideal of the free nation which would, in future, be an assured haven for any ‘prisoner of conscience,’ Benjamin Franklin captured the imagination of the world at that time. In this sense, he could be termed as the single-most important contributor not only to American victory in the war and the founding of our Federal Republic, but also to its image as the bastion of freedom of the human spirit, which was symbolised later by the Statue of Liberty conceived by a Frenchman.
His informality and adherence to middle class values was in full demonstration while he presented himself at the French Royal Court, before Louis XVI and his acutely class-conscious queen Marie Antoinette, on the occasion of the granting of the royal assent to the treaties which ensured America French military assistance. He decided to abide by his convictions and preferred not to wear stately dress, and chose an ordinary brown suit, and a white hat instead of the powdered wig which was a marker or aristocratic breeding. His simplicity captivated the imagination of the French commoners and gave birth to the great empathy they felt for the American cause.
His greatest contribution in nation-building was perhaps his doctrine of compromise presented during the Constitution Convention of 1878 as manifested in his parleys and final formula of representation in the Congress, which blunted the edge of acute demands by the different States and made them accommodate the interests and aspirations of each other and contribute to the greater common good of the nation. Through his motion, he formulated that the Lower House would have representatives the people elected based on a principle of proportion of population, while the Senate would have an equal number of representatives that different Legislatures chose.
America came to be well-known for its pluralistic approach to religion and culture where any group of people could practice their faith in a legitimate manner. It was Benjamin Franklin, who resented the Puritan New England culture, made the solid beginnings of this great American tradition. He vigorously advocated the right of free expression of different religious beliefs and practice in Philadelphia. At his funeral, all possible religious groups took part, as a final endorsement of the man’s vision.
Benjamin Franklin was a pioneering scientist and an inventor of many devices of domestic use. His innate curiosity led him to send a kite up to the rain clouds, tying a key to it, and observing that lightning was composed of electric charge. Thus he invented the lightning conductor. His inventions include the clean-burning stove and the bifocal spectacles. The maps of the Gulf Stream he prepared proved to be a significant contribution to fledgling art of oceanic cartography. In basic social organization, he pioneered the tradition of citizens’ clubs through setting up Junto, a gathering of tradesmen, through which he started the first lending library. A volunteering fire-fighting corps and insurance association were his other pioneering achievements.
His phenomenal sense of humor and ability to laugh at himself and others would characterize him as a quintessential American. It was Benjamin Franklin who pioneered the unique tradition of American humor which the witticisms and pithy sayings of Mark Twain and Groucho Marx sustained later. He invented hoaxes attacking unbending conventional attitudes towards morality, ethics, and even international politics. Assuming the persona of a fictitious character in countering social ills was his wont from his childhood, when he wrote articles in the voice of the fictitious character of a widow named Silence Deadwood. His story that a woman named Polly Baker had argued her own case and won in a Philadelphia court when she was accused of giving birth to an illegitimate child, pinning the moral responsibility on the male who impregnated her, was perhaps far ahead of his times. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter would come out almost a century later.
Benjamin Franklin’s free spirit, deference towards opposing opinions, tolerance of different religious beliefs, opposition to orthodoxy, philosophic resolution of the ideal and the practical in the field of diplomacy, entrepreneurship and industriousness, careful civil society building, bold experiments in science and inventions of everyday utility and a robust sense of humor made him unique. His great axioms, the most famous of which was “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” were still being remembered by our older generations. Though he would be called a ‘Philistine’ in the Matthew Arnold parlance for his practical approach to life with a claim to a heavenly virtue, this would precisely determine the American character that naturally ensured success. A consummate publisher and advocate of universal exchange of ideas, he would certainly have been a sensation in our present age of information explosion. He set a precedent even to our unconventional view of sexuality, by his public stand regarding open sexual relationships. Reading Walter Isaacson’, “Citizen Ben: A Worldly American’s Seven Great Virtues,” served as a means of introspection about our national characteristics, the great American values, that the rest of the world used to typify us with until recent times, when we began to hear frequent voices accusing us of being arrogant and domineering.
Isaacson, Walter. “Citizen Ben: A Worldly American’s Seven Great Virtues.”
Web.15 February 2013. http://rhhstemp.wikispaces.com/file/view/Citizen Ben.pdf.