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The Straight Dope


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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? --Chris DeHart, Poulsbo, Washington

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 in New Jersey anyway). 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 man 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.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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