What's the true story on Benjamin Franklin?

August 20, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Whenever I run into references to Ben Franklin I'm struck by what an absolute stud he was. He discovered electricity, founded the postal system, had a passel of kids, hit the French like Jerry Lewis, and published Poor Richard's almanac. How much of this is hype and how much is the truth? The other founding fathers seem to get much more play even though they look like chumps in comparison. Why? Is there some deep dark secret about ol' B.F. that makes him less attractive than Thomas Jefferson or Sam Adams?

Cecil replies:

Now, Chris. Sam Adams is remembered today mainly because he's got a beer named after him. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was president of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, which surely still warrants some public attention. As it is, however, Jefferson gets his mug on the next-to-worthless nickel, whereas Franklin, whose highest executive position in government was postmaster general, is commemorated on the $100 bill, beloved by high rollers, drug dealers, and other national role models. How fair is that?

In fact, if you ask me the real question is whether Franklin is more, not less, famous than his accomplishments would seem to warrant. Let's run through his qualifications for immortality, starting with those alluded to in your letter:

  • He was an absolute stud. I know you meant this figuratively, but let's face it, the one thing everyone thinks they know about Ben is that he was a rake. Was he? Probably not. A legendary self-publicist, Franklin liked to give the impression he was a great womanizer, but he was in his 70s and troubled by gout while serving as an envoy to France, alleged scene of his most celebrated conquests. While he was charming and popular with the ladies, and it's not beyond belief that he got physical with a few of them (if women find Jack Nicholson sexy, anything's possible), there's little evidence of any Casanova-like proclivities. As a youth he patronized brothels and sired an illegitimate son (who became royal governor of New Jersey — proof of how far being a bastard can get you in this world, or anyway in New Jersey). For what it's worth, he never formally married his partner of 44 years, Deborah Read, with whom he had two more kids. Still, most scholars think stories about Ben's romantic exploits and legion of little Franklins are exaggerated.
  • He discovered electricity. Don't be silly. Electrical experiments by gifted amateurs were common after the invention of the Leyden jar, a primitive capacitor, in 1746. Franklin was a talented experimentalist who made some notable discoveries about electricity, most famously the fact that lightning was electricity but also the existence of positive and negative charge. The French in particular lionized him for this work and considered him a genius. I won't say he wasn't, but his reputation benefited from the fact that he was an early entrant in a small field — professional scientists in those days were rare.
  • He published Poor Richard's almanac. True. It was a mother lode of chestnuts such as "A penny saved is a penny earned." Franklin also wrote an autobiography long considered a classic. His writings today offer a useful glimpse into the formation of the American mind and are unquestionably witty and shrewd, but if you're looking for the incisive insight of, say, a Voltaire — sorry, I just don't see it.
  • He was a founding father. Sure, that's how we think of him, but why? He was a prominent public citizen, signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (and helped write the former), and was lauded as a sage, but you'd be hard put to say he was the prime mover behind any of the great events of his time, least of all independence. On the contrary, he remained a British loyalist till surprisingly late.
  • He had a lot of spare time. Now we're getting somewhere. Not to deprecate Franklin's gifts, but one reason he looms so large in American history is that he retired from active business in his early 40s and thereafter devoted his time to philanthropy, the arts and sciences, and public affairs. He was also a northerner at a time when most American men of leisure were southern slave owners. As such he was an uncontroversial choice to send on lengthy diplomatic missions to England and France. He proved to be such an able spokesman that Europeans considered him the leader of the colonies, which increased his prestige back home.

Don't get me wrong. The guy was smart and energetic, one of the first self-made men. His numerous inventions ranged from bifocals to the lightning rod; he helped establish everything from a library to the U.S. postal service. Franklin would have been an accomplished figure in any era, but in the 18th century he was a big star on a small stage.

Late additions

Some related topics I didn't have room for in the printed column:

  • Was Franklin a misogynist? He wrote a long-suppressed but now famous essay on matrimony that, taken literally, would give you reason to think so. Franklin argues that matrimony is the natural state of man, but for those preferring to cat around instead he lists eight reasons that "in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones," to wit:

    "1. Because they have more Knowledge of the World …

    "2. Because when Women cease to be handsome they study to be good … there is hardly such a Thing to be found as an Old Woman who is not a good Woman.

    "3. Because there is no Hazard of Children, which irregularly produc'd may be attended with much Inconvenience.

    "4. Because through more Experience they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion.

    "5. Because in every Animal that walks upright the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part. The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the Last as plump as ever; so that covering all above with a Basket [!], and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to tell an old one from a young one. And as in the Dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of Corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior; every Knack being by Practice, capable of Improvement.

    "6. Because the Sin is less. The debauching a Virgin may be her Ruin …

    "7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflection; none of which can attend the making an old Woman happy.

    "8th and Lastly. They are so grateful!!"

    In my opinion the above was written with tongue in cheek, but you be the judge.

  • Was Franklin antisemitic? Based on what we know now, almost certainly not. The Anti-Defamation League tells the whole story here. Briefly put, an allegation began circulating in the antisemitic press in the early 1930s that Franklin had given a speech at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 warning that Jews posed a grave danger to the United States and should be expelled. Mainstream historians are unanimous in declaring the supposed speech a fraud. No documentation exists, the sentiments expressed are at odds with Franklin's known views and actions regarding Jews, and the timing, coinciding with the rise of Nazism, is highly suspicious. Whatever failings Franklin may have had, it's doubtful antisemitism was one.
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