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The wisdom of Benjamin Franklin.

Many great men in history have had little or no sense of humor, and George Washington was one of them; but Benjamin Franklin, the most versatile genius in American history, not only had a sense of humor but was one of the few people who could get a laugh out of George. The story he liked best was Ben's reply to die stuffy Englishman in 1775 who protested that it was foul ball for the Yankee Minutemen to fire at British redcoats from behind stone walls. Why?" asked Ben. "Didn't those walls have two sides?" George relished this so much that when he visited Lexington, Massachusetts, 14 years later, he told it to his guides, astonishing them with roars of laughter. And like most of Franklin's jokes, this had a moral to it: don't be mad at your enemy if he is smarter than you, but try to be smarter yourself. Franklin's humor, as revealed in his Poor Richard's Almanack, is always kindly, often earthy to the point of coarseness, but never bitter. He makes fun of pretense and stuffiness, but never sneers at poverty or ignorance. He is whimsical, as in his "Drinker's Dictionary," in which he gives more than 100 terms for drunkenness-some of which, like "fuddled." "stew'd," and "half seas over," have endured; but most, like "cherry merry," "as dizzy as a goose," and "loose in the hilts," have gone down the drain. He was a master of political satire, as in that fake edict of a German king proposing to tax England because the Anglo-Saxons originally came from Germany, and he excelled in the typically American humor of exaggeration. For instance, he warns passengers sailing down Delaware Bay in August not to be alarmed in hearing "a confus'd rattling noise, like a shower of hail on a cake of ice." It is the season of fevers and agues in the "lower counties"-the present state of Delaware-and the noise is the chattering of the inhabitants' teeth! Born in Boston in 1706, missing the Puritan century by only six years, Ben Franklin was three years older than Dr. Samuel Johnson and ten years older than Thomas Gray. Every other leader of the American Revolution belonged to a generation later than his; Washington was 26 years younger; Jefferson, 37 years younger; Hamilton might have been Ben's grandson and was, in fact, only 5 years older than Ben's grandson William Temple Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was old enough to have called on the Rev. Cotton Mather, who when approaching a low-hanging beam in his parsonage, between the living room and the library, gave young Ben a piece of advice he always remembered and acted upon: "You are young and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it, and you will miss many hard bumps." Expediency; or, accept the second-best if you cannot get the best, might have been Franklin's motto. He was always advising it in his almanacs, as, "Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar," and "Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards." Ben Franklin set the pattern of the American success story. Though Ben was withdrawn from Boston Latin School within a year because, as the 10th son and 15th child in a tallow-chandler's family, his father could not afford the small tuition fee, Ben became, by his own efforts, one of the most learned men of his age. He would have enjoyed enduring fame as a scientist and philosopher had he never dabbled in politics. "Doctor Franklin" he was called, because he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, St. Andrews, and Oxford; he could put "F.R.S." after his name as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and was elected corresponding member to most of the learned societies of Europe. At home he was the only American leader except Washington who commanded respect and confidence throughout the Thirteen Colonies, four of which (New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Georgia) appointed him their agent, or official lobbyist, in England. And his popularity went deep; he had the confidence of all classes. Robert Morris, Philip Livingston, and Cadwallader Colden were proud to have him to dinner; yet the frontiersmen of North Carolina proposed that he "represent the unhappy state of this Province to His Majesty."

Ben was as American as clam chowder and johnnycake, but equally at home in England, where he spent almost 20 years prior to 1776, and in France, where he had popular renown and great influence. A pioneer in experimental physics, especially in the new branch of electricity, he was in touch with everything else that went on in the scientific world; yet he could also make practical inventions such as the lightning rod and the Franklin stove. (Incidentally, the so-called Franklin stoves now found in antique shops are much less effective than the original "Pennsylvanian Fire-Places," which Franklin invented in 1740. This metal fireplace included an air box over which the hot combustion gases passed on their way to the chimney. Outside air was drawn in through a duct, circulated through the air box around baffles, and passed out into the room.)

When he crossed the Atlantic he studied winds and currents so thoroughly that he could instruct Yankee skippers how to work the Gulf Stream to best advantage. A conservative until the very eve of the Revolution and an advocate of compromise with Britain, Franklin became in 1775 one of the strongest exponents of American independence; and although 70 years old when American independence was declared, he was one of the more radical Revolutionary leaders. Ben Franklin never made much money, but he was generous with what he had and became a public benefactor. He refused to have his inventions patented; everyone could profit from them. One of his legacies, operated under sagacious principles that he laid down, still provides the Franklin Medals for top scholars in the Boston schools; another still contributes income to the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. His many private charities were unobtrusive; most touching were his efforts to preserve the self-respect of his sister, Jane Mecom, by setting her up in business with the old family recipe for crown soap. And he was a most accomplished man. He could fix anything around the house and tell others how to fix things in his annual almanac. He could play the violin, guitar, and harp, and he invented a new musical instrument he called the armonica, on the principle of the musical glasses. Mozart and Beethoven composed music for the armonica, and Queen Marie Antoinette, among others, learned to play it.

A great man by any standard, Benjamin Franklin was a universal genius, great in a variety of ways: as printer, philanthropist, statesman, man of science, naturalist, humanist, and writer whose Autobiography and Poor Richard's Almanack had an international vogue. Nor was Franklin content to write literature: he organized it, as he did everything else. He organized the Philadelphia Library, the first important semipublic library in the Colonies; the College of Philadelphia, which became the University of Pennsylvania; and a "Junto" or discussion club, which eventually became the American Philosophical Society, our senior learned society.

Franklin's secret, the thing that made him tick" and pulled every aspect of his mind together, was his love of people. Not people in the abstract, like Karl Marx, Henry George, and other dreary prophets of progress, but people in particular, and of all kinds. He liked intellectuals, businessmen, workingmen, children, and Negroes; not only Americans but also Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Europeans of a dozen other nations. Not that he had any illusions about people. He knew them at their worst as well as their

best, but he accepted them. Note this remarkable prophecy written in 1780:

The rapid progress true science now makes, occasions my regretting. sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity.... Agriculture may diminish its labor and double its produce; all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured ... 0 that moral science were in as fair a way of improvement, that men would cease to be wolves to one another and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity ! He talked kith English and French statesmen as equals; yet he was as homely and comfortable as an old shoe. If you had been a young man in 1776 calling on the great ones of the day, you would have been awed by George Washington, and Sam Adams you would have found rather grim. Alexander Hamilton would have made you feel very small and stupid; Patrick Henry would have made you a speech; and John Adams would have talked your head off. But old Ben would have made you at home. He would have asked after your parents, and probably would have known diem, or at least about them; he would then have asked you about yourself, drawn you out, and sent you away with some good advice, a warm handclasp, and a smile you would have remembered all your life. The same would be true if the visitor were a young girl, especially a pretty girl. "Caty" Ray, a lively lass of 23, happened to meet Franklin at his brother's house in Boston when he was 48 and became his friend for life. For more than 30 years, they maintained an intimate correspondence, charming on both sides, though rather illiterate on hers. Ben's last letter, written shortly before his death, ended: "Among the felicities of my life I reckon your friendship, which I shall remember with pleasure as long as that life lasts."

It was because he loved people so much that he hated war profoundly. After peace had been concluded in 1783, largely owing to his efforts, he wrote: "At length we are in peace, God be praised, and long, very long, may it continue. All wars are follies, very expensive, and very mischievous ones. When will mankind be convinced of this, and agree to settle their differences by arbitration?" Yet Franklin hated cruelty and injustice even more than he hated war. Outrages on humanity, such as those perpetrated by the Pennsylvania frontiersmen on the Moravian Indians, evoked savage indignation from his usually serene and tolerant mind. His last public paper, in 1790, was written in favor of the abolition of Negro slavery; and for it he was bitterly attacked in the U.S. Senate. No doctrinaire pacifist, he supported the three principal wars of his time. He used the wisdom of the serpent to get around the pacifism of Pennsylvania Quakers and persuade them to cooperate in the French and Indian War.

Hopeless of abolishing war in his day, Ben Franklin made every effort, through treaties and international agreements, to render war less horrible by safeguarding the rights of neutrals and of noncombatants; by obtaining agreements that farmers, fishermen, and other civilians would not be molested by armies and fleets. He hoped to confine war to professional forces and to make it less frequent by recourse to arbitration. The United States followed this policy until the present century; but between the Hague Convention of 1907 and the London Naval Conference of 1909 there came a turning point, and we joined other nations on the road to total war and, possibly, total destruction.

Franklin's life passed through many phases-the poor boy of a large family, the Boston journeyman printer, the young man making his way in Philadelphia. Following one of his favorite quotations from the Bible, "It is better to marry than to bum," Ben married his landlady's daughter Deborah. "Debby," almost illiterate, and already married to a sailor who had simply disappeared, shared few of Franklin's interests and prevented his being accepted by the polite society of his adopted city. "How the scum rises!" remarked a Philadelphia matron when Franklin's grandson moved uptown. But that sort of thing didn't bother Ben. He was no status seeker; he accepted every social contact that came his way, and in all his vast correspondence that has been preserved there is not one complaint of being slighted or snubbed. No man ever born had less class consciousness. He never attempted to conceal his working-class origin; in his last will and testament he described himself as "Benjamin Franklin, printer." He was not ashamed of his poor relations, who were both numerous and importunate. Many people, when he rose to fame, became his enemies and did their best to pull him down; but he never retaliated, and in his thousands of letters I have found no unkind word about anyone.

Poor Richard's Almanack, from 1733 on, is full of epigrams and mottoes that we still use in common speech, often forgetting whence they came, such as:

Time is money.

Snug as a bug in a rug.

Keep one's nose to the grindstone.

Necessity never made a good bargain.

Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.

And these, now forgotten, deserve a revival:

Fish and visitors smell in three days.

There are no fools so troublesome as those that have wit.

There are three faithful friends: an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.

None but the well-bred man knows how to confess a fault, or acknowledge himself in error.

Ten or 12 years after the almanac started, Franklin began his electrical and scientific work. In 1748 he retired from active printing and bookselling, which gave him leisure for writing and science. His Experiments and Observations on Electricity, printed in London in 1751, was translated into French, Italian, and German. The book earned its author several honorary degrees and the Copley medal of the Royal Society of London, and made him a leading figure in the world of science. These experiments, of which the famous one with kite and key was the best known but not the most important, were a notable contribution to knowledge. Franklin was responsible for the concept of positive and negative electricity; he made the first electric battery and armature. He would have liked to have devoted his entire life to science, but he was too public-spirited to confine himself to that. He served very efficiently as deputy postmaster-general for the English Colonies for 21 years. He entered Pennsylvania politics early and became a member of the Assembly. He organized logistic support for British armies in the interior during the Old French and Indian War, and he represented Pennsylvania at the Albany Congress of 1754. Three years later, the Assembly sent him to England to try to persuade the Penn family to allow their millions of acres of wild land to pay a small tax to the province. (continued next issue)
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Title Annotation:part 1
Author:Morison, Samuel Eliot
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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