Meet Benjamin Franklin by Stephen Kaufman
Meet Benjamin Franklin, America’s First International Celebrity
His range of interests and influence still astonishing after 300 years
By Stephen Kaufman, 07 January 2006
Without inherited wealth or social position, the 10th son of a Boston candle and soap maker rose to become one of the most intriguing men of the 18th century, influencing scientific research and invention, education, political thought, journalism, all the while playing a pivotal role in the struggle for U.S. independence from Great Britain.Benjamin Franklin, whose 300th birthday will be celebrated January 17, can be considered the first American international celebrity, whose fame from his endeavors in science and journalism preceded him to the capitals of Britain and France, where he argued and advocated for the rights of his newly formed nation.
In 1776, at age 70, Franklin arrived in Paris, dressed in a fur hat and a plain brown suit, epitomizing the ideal of the simple but dignified man of the New World, standing in stark contrast to the ornate royal court and aristocracy. A compilation of his sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanac, urging common sense, thrift and honest habits, had been translated into French, and he seemed to personify both Voltaire’s enlightened simple man, and Rousseau’s “noble savage.”
Franklin’s mission was to secure French financial and military support against Britain; in doing so, he found himself the object of a personality cult. His portrait soon appeared on French medallions, rings, watches and snuffboxes, and fashionable ladies adopted the “coiffure a la Franklin” to imitate his fur cap. America’s first diplomat was also its first superstar.
The alliance he brokered between France and the American Colonies ultimately secured their independence, but it required skillful diplomacy and clever intrigue, including the use of spies, and Franklin accomplished his task nearly single-handedly. As the representative of a loose handful of colonies, Franklin was dealing with one of the 18th century’s great world powers. He had to convince France that military aid and an alliance, tantamount to a war against Britain, was desirable because of the promise of victory and future trade benefits.
In reviewing a recent television documentary of Franklin, the Web site Underground Online said the figure of this stocky, balding man who lived long ago is “not just the man in your wallet on a lucky day,” referring to his portrait on the U.S. $100 bill.
“[H]e’s the guy behind America’s first public lending library, first nonreligious college, and first national newspaper,” it said. “He invented everything from musical instruments to bifocals to the Franklin stove, documented the Gulf Stream, and made arguably the most important scientific breakthrough of the 18th century with his study of electricity.”
Franklin’s witticisms and quotations from Poor Richard’s Almanac and other sources have survived into modern day English. Any athlete knows the phrase, “no pain, no gain.” In the business world, there is the proverb “haste makes waste,” and in long-winded meetings, most people might find themselves agreeing with him that “the worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.” In moments of humor and despair, we also may borrow Franklin’s saying that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Paying tribute to his wide sphere of influence, biographer Carl Van Doren wrote, “In any age, in any place, Franklin would have been great. … Even his genius could not specialize him.”
In its October 2003 issue, the magazine Physics Today declared Franklin to be the “model of a civic scientist,” meaning “one who uses his or her special scientific knowledge and skills to influence policy and inform the public.”
The popular image of a man flying a kite that was struck by lightening references what might be Franklin’s most important contribution to science. In his 1752 experiment and the subsequent book Experiments and Observations on Electricity, he confirmed that lightning is an electrical phenomenon. In so doing, he opened to the scientific world the idea that electricity might be a valuable field of study, leading ultimately to many of the everyday applications of electricity used by people all over the world.
For this, and other scientific achievements, Franklin gained fame and recognition from the European scientific community. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and in 1753, he received the society’s Copley Medal, which was perhaps the 18th century equivalent to a Nobel Prize. In 1772, Franklin was elected to France’s Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, which was an exceptional honor because the academy was restricted to having only eight non-French members at a given time.
FOUNDING FATHER AND PHILANTHROPIST
Benjamin Franklin was also the only American who was involved intimately with the four most important documents pertaining to the establishment of the United States – the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France, the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended hostilities with Britain, and the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789.
As a humanitarian, Franklin was an outspoken advocate of the abolition of the slavery of African Americans and their integration and education into the new country. When he died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790, his will established a 200-year trust fund for the cities of Boston and Philadelphia that was used for a variety of residential loan programs during its lifetime. In 1990, its accumulated sum in Philadelphia of more than $2 million was used for scholarships for local secondary school students, and the accumulated $5 million Boston trust fund established the Franklin Institute of Boston.
This article, slightly shortened for display here (since some of the links on the original page no longer work correctly), was published by the US State Department on its website. You can read more and explore further by visiting their new website.
You’ll meet Benjamin Franklin in American Literature, Module 1.