History of the 4th of July: Ben Franklin

HISTORY OF THE 4th OF JULY: BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

We know this polymath as a writer, publisher, printer, merchant, scientist, moral philosopher, international diplomat, and inventor. Musically he invented the glass harmonica, but he also invented the Franklin stove, and started the first lending library and fire brigade in Philadelphia.

He did experiments in electricity and developed the lightning rod.

As one of the earliest and oldest of the American Founding Fathers, he served as lobbyist to England, was first Ambassador to France, and has been called “The First American.”

He was one of the five drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, along with John Adams and primary drafter Thomas Jefferson. Franklin was 70. At 81 he served as the oldest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, recommending a bi-cameral legislature.

Cafe PrecopeDuring the Revolutionary War, he served as Minister to France and managed, with his sagacity and salon celebrity, to convince the French King Louis XVI to support the American cause financially and militarily. He dazzled the salon crowd with his notoriety and flirtation, much to John Adam‘s chagrin. When a person appeared before the French king in Versailles it was always without a hat. Franklin showed up in a coonskin cap. He captivated Paris society. He frequented the first and now oldest coffee house in Paris Café Procope as did other luminaries of the time like Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, Voltaire and a young Napoleon Bonaparte.

He was the most famous private citizen in America and the most celebrated American in Europe.

As a moral philosopher he was a personal mystery. Though he believed that the new Republic could survive only if its citizens were virtuous and he wrote pithy and wise sayings in “Poor Richards’ Almanac” — he did not live by all of them himself. He is usually considered a deist, at least in the early part of his life, nevertheless he proposed clergy-led prayer each morning during the Constitutional Convention in June of 1787. He said “God governs the affairs of men” yet he also said, “I have some doubts as to [Jesus’] divinity.” He was a huge fan and supporter of the international evangelist George Whitfield and would go on to publish all his sermons, though he did not ascribe to Whitfield’s theology.

Puritan Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, knew of Franklin’s deist leanings, but wanted, if possible, to pin down the nimble-footed freethinker to some basics. In friendship Stiles asked for some kind of creedal confession, however limited. Franklin, who said that this was the first time he had ever been asked, on March 9, 1790, readily obliged:

“Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe: that he governs the world by his providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respect[ing] its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.”

In addition, Stiles wanted to know specifically what Franklin thought of Jesus: Was Franklin really a Christian or not? Franklin responded that Jesus had taught the best system of morals and religion that “the world ever saw.” But on the troublesome question of the divinity of Jesus, he had along with other deists “some doubts.” It was an issue, he said, that he had never carefully studied and, writing only five weeks before his death, he thought it “needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opport[unity] of know[ing]the truth with less trouble.” It would be difficult to burn a heretic like that.

For his own epitaph, Franklin wrote at the age of 22:

“The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out, stripped of its lettering, and gilding, lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author.”

After he died though, his will stipulated that on his gravestone appear only “BENJAMIN And DEBORAH FRANKLIN 1790.” His funeral in Philadelphia attracted the largest crowd of mourners ever known, an estimated 20,000 mourners.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

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6 comments… add one
  • Good post old friend. Appreciate your craft.

    Reply
  • Excellent as usual, Bill. Thank you for the time and effort you put in.

    Reply
  • Bill, I recommend to your readers part 2 of “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” in which he defined thirteen virtues: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility, and a weekly plan to perfect himself in each virtue, one at a time. I read the “Autobiography” as a young teenager, copied the virtues into a small binder, and went to work. I did not have as much success as Franklin claims to have had, but his list of virtues, along with the Scout Law, formed the practical goals of my young life.

    Reply
    • Chuck,

      Even Franklin was not entirely successful in his task. I suspect he needed a better appreciation of grace :-)

      In Part 5 of his Autobiography, he admits:

      My list of virtues contain’d at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list giving an extensive meaning to the word.

      I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.

      Reply
  • Good summary. I am also partial to the lessons of the BSA.

    Reply

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