As we celebrate the 300th birthday of this great American, we know him as a writer, publisher, merchant, scientist, moral philosopher, 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 Founding Father, he served as lobbyist to England.
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.
During 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.
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 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, but 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.”
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:
“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.”
Though on his gravestone appeared 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