Monday, January 17, 2011

In Memoriam: Benjamin Franklin

In stark contrast to his more subdued Revolutionary brethren, Benjamin Franklin must have seemed like a breath of fresh air in the halls of power; while history has increasingly imbued Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the rest with all the elan of plaster saints, Franklin's legacy has always afforded the scholar and casual observer alike with oodles of wicked fun.

PhotobucketBorn in Boston on this day in 1706, Franklin was imbued with his zeal for an independent America early on; having learned the printing trade from his brother, by the age of 17 he was already muckraking. When it was discovered that a certain 'Mrs. Silence Dogood' - whose letters had all of Boston talking - was in fact him, Franklin fled to Philadelphia, where he was to be based for the rest of his life.

Following Franklin's return from his first trip to London in 1726 he took up with his old girlfriend Deborah Read, with whom he had to live common-law, since her husband had absconded to the Indies and so couldn't be brought to court for a divorce. Together they had two children, and raised a third, whom Franklin had sired with an unknown woman. Read died in December 1774.

The first of Franklin's numerous contributions to American life involved the founding of a public library, which sought to provide access to books for everyone; today this collection is one of the most valuable in the world, comprising half a million titles, and is housed in Independence Hall. In the fullness of time, Franklin would produce his famous Poor Richard's Almanack, broker the crucial support of the French for the cause of independence, invent a portable stove which made settlement of the West a possibility, and perform a series of famous experiments into the nature of electricity (for which he received the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1753).

A noted polymath, Franklin never graduated from university, and was essentially self-taught through voracious reading; like many of the Founding Fathers, he embraced Deism, and was disgusted with religious orthodoxy and dogma. Franklin died in April 1790, at the grand old age of 84, having lived an extraordinary life in times that were equally extraordinary in part because he had lived in them.

Today the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial is a must-see when passing through the City of Brotherly Love.
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Seumas Gagne said...

A fantastic piece about one of my favorite Founding fathers.

michael sean morris said...

Mine too!

The difficulty in writing about Benjamin Franklin in a forum as glib as this one is taking the whole scope of his life into consideration. This bio does not do him justice, but I hope it gives people a jumping off place with which to consider his legacy.

Look for more coverage on Franklin on Pop Culture Institute in the fullness of time.