Ben Franklin was a genius


Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 10:40 p.m.
This year, Jan. 17, marks the 300th birthday of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, and the nation is celebrating with a museum-on-wheels of rare artifacts of his life and the birth of this country. It will tour this country and then go to Paris in 2007. Of course, there will be parades, kite-flying contests, concerts and lectures.
Franklin was a remarkable fellow. He was a genius recognized at home and abroad in his own time. George Washington referred to him as "that great philosopher." Thomas Jefferson called him "the greatest man of the age." John Adams said "Franklin had a great genius, original, sagacious and inventive, capable of discoveries in science no less than of improvements in the fine arts and mechanical arts."
Ben had only two years of elementary school but he received three master's degrees, from Harvard, Yale and William and Mary and two doctor's degrees, from Oxford and St. Andrew in Britain. He loved to read but there were few books available in America in those days so he started the first American library. During his lifetime he accumulated over 4,200 books, the largest private library in the U.S.
He was versatile and his inventions illustrate the range of his activities: printing press, flexible catheter, street lamp, Franklin stove, the odometer, the first electric motor, bifocal eye glasses, a musical instrument, the lightning rod, daylight savings time and a phonetic alphabet for simplified spelling.
Personally, he was successful at almost everything he did. Starting in poverty, he was able to retire from business at 42. Starting as clerk of the Pennsylvania Legislature he rose to member and then Speaker.
As American Ambassador in Paris during the Revolutionary War, he first convinced the French to join forces with us against the British, then he persuaded the French King to help us with the money, munitions, and the French army and navy. Without these we would never have won the war.
Franklin was an innovator, responsible for many of our institutions. Besides the first lending library, he started the first public hospital, the first property insurance company, the first scientific society, the first foreign language newspaper, and made the first chart of the Gulf Stream.
He was our first postmaster general, our first humorist, our first franchiser, first ambassador, president of the first American antislavery society, founder of the first non-denominational university and wrote the first autobiography of a common person.
Franklin was amiable and humorous; a great story teller in the style of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. He had lots of friends, men and women. He liked women but he was no Cassanova, no womanizer. He was an excellent writer but not a good public speaker.
William Penn's secretary, James Logan, who knew Franklin in Philadelphia as a young man, referred to him "certainly an extraordinary man, of a singular good judgment, but of equal modesty." James Boswell, the writer, dined with Franklin in London many years later and remarked, "Franklin is all jollity and pleasantry."
He was generous: he gave money and personal service to causes and people he believed in. He took no money for any of his inventions, and in his will he left his salary for three years as Governor of Pennsylvania to Boston and Philadelphia. Boston was where he was born and raised, and Philadelphia was the city he adopted and that adopted him.
Franklin was the most democratic of all the founding fathers. He was a champion of the underdog: slaves, Indians, women and the poor. He is the only founding father who participated in all the major events and whose name is on all those documents leading up to the founding of the United States.
Franklin is known for his ability with words, and his aphorisms like "early to bed, etc." have become a part of our culture: One that has become popular lately is "They who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." He used it in 1755 during the French and Indian War, and again in 1775 in the Revolutionary War.
When, in 1789, a year before he died at age 84, his job done, our freedom won, our Constitution approved and the government taking shape, the French Revolution was just beginning. Writing to a friend, Franklin expressed these sentiments:
"God grant that not only the love of liberty, but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man, may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say, This is my country."
Seymour S. Block is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida who has written extensively about the life and times of Benjamin Franklin.

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