In their December 2006 edition The Atlantic published a list of the 100 most influential Americans, based on the opinions of ten historians. Influence was defined as “a person’s impact, for good or ill, both on his or her own era and on the way we live now.” Since Oxford is chock full of historians we thought we would take a closer look at The Atlantic’s list and spotlight some of the most influential Americans in history. Throughout the month we will look at some of the people who changed “the way we live now.” First up are the Revolutionaries, George Washington (number 2), Thomas Jefferson (number 3), Ben Franklin (number 6), and James Madison (number 13).
To introduce this series we have asked Ed Gaustad, the author of Benjamin Franklin in the Lives and Legacies series and Professor of History and Religious Studies Emeritus at the University of California at Riverside to weigh in on Franklin’s number 6 spot on the list, and what made Franklin such an American icon, tomorrow we will look more closely at Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. The Atlantic wrote that Franklin was, “The Founder-of-all-trades- scientist, printer, writer, diplomat, inventor, and more; like his country, he contained multitudes.”
Since 2006 marked the bicentennial of the birth of Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706), the United States found this a convenient excuse for heaping even more honors upon the nation’s favorite founding
father. “Favorite” because he seems so approachable, so congenial, so thoroughly human. If on occasion he is placed on a pedestal, he stands there seemingly ready to step down at the merest invitation, ready to join in the conversation and even the conviviality. And so Philadelphia, in its newly erected National Constitution Center, employed and trained personnel in 2006 to play the role of Franklin to charmed visitors. Even the U. S. Postal Service got into the act by issuing its new stamps with the image of Franklin stamped thereon (perhaps recalling for some the fact that Franklin was—among so many other things—the nation’s first postmaster).
But he is remembered, both in his own country and well beyond, for a variety of other aspects of his long life (he died April 17, 1790). After leaving his native Boston for Philadelphia as a youngster, his first career was that of a printer. As was so often the case, whenever he gave his full attention to something, success seemed inevitable. By 1730, when he was only 24 years old, he became Pennsylvania’s official printer, and soon that of several other colonies as well. But nothing brought him greater fame or profit than the publication, begun in 1732, of Poor Richard’s Almanack. Almanacs were a staple in most colonial homes because they gave vital information on weather, tides, phases of the moon, and other data necessary for the daily lives of ordinary folk. But Franklin enlivened all this with witty sayings and engaging anecdotes. He—and his Almanack—rose to fame both within Pennsylvania and well beyond. By 1748 he had made enough money as a printer that he could “retire” to pursue other paths, or, as he put it, now he would have “leisure to read, study, make experiments, and converse at large with such ingenuous and worthy men as are pleased to honor me with their friendship.”
If all of this suggests a world of interests and a lively curiosity, that suggestion is most apt. His curiosity led by stages to a better understanding of that strange “fluid” known as electricity. Particularly, he wondered about the static electricity tricks produced in the laboratory and the far more dramatic effects produced in the skies by lightening. Were these two phenomena related, and if so, how? His letters to a fellow investigator in London were, with other materials, soon printed as an 86-page pamphlet bearing the title, Experiments and Observations on Electricity made in Philadelphia in America (1751). Soon this daring work was translated into French, German, and Italian, even as it went through repeated editions in English. Franklin was now a citizen of the world, at least the European world. But ever the practical man, Franklin kept asking himself “So what?” What good did these “observations” promise for mankind? The immediate answer was the lightning rod that spared many a colonial structure from the all-too-common threat of a destructive, often catastrophic fire.
Franklin, however, had hardly begun to take his place on the public stage. In the growing tensions between England and her American colonies in the 1760’s, in his capacity as colonial agent for Pennsylvania and residing in London, Franklin made a despairing and futile effort to maintain good relations between the colonies and the mother country. In the decade from 1765-1775, Franklin employed his favorite weapon, the pen, to pour oil on increasingly troubled Atlantic waters. He tried persuasion, ridicule, satire, warnings—but nothing worked. By 1775, Franklin, returning to Philadelphia, reluctantly concluded that neither King nor Parliament had any interest in protecting the rights of Americans, only in preserving all royal and legislative monopoly for England.
Once back in America, Franklin threw himself with all vigor and focus into the growing revolutionary sentiment he found there. Though now 70 years of age, Franklin dodged no duty. He was appointed to the Second Continental Congress, and accepted a seat on its most important committees. He voted for the appointment of George Washington as General in charge of a Continental Army that did not yet exist. And on July 4, he supported a formal Declaration of Independence from England. Later that month he was persuaded to make one more effort on behalf of peace; Franklin agreed to try but with little hope because of Britain’s “abounding pride and deficient wisdom.”
With the prospect of a long and expensive war ahead, Congress saw France as the new nation’s most hopeful ally, and seized upon Franklin as its most promising minister to the French. So to yet another career, the apparently tireless Philadelphia printer boarded a ship in October, 1776, bound for the French coast. In his nine years in France, Franklin concluded treaties, alliance and commerce with that nation, managed to obtain from the French essential monetary and even military assistance, and negotiated (after Yorktown) with England for a peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War. He returned to America in 1785 in time to make his contribution, as elder statesman, to the Constitutional Convention.
The question is not “Why celebrate Franklin?” Rather, it is how can one possibly avoid paying homage to so remarkable, so notable, so omnipresent a founding father?
Want to learn more about Ben Franklin? Check out Gaustad’s books, Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Franklin: Inventing America.