Throughout our cultural history there are many examples of gifted individuals who stand out as particularly impressive with their multiple talents. However, few, if any, can match the multi-genius of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90).
He was a writer, editor and printer, a scientist and inventor, a musician and composer, a philosopher, and a diplomat and politician. He is the archetypical embodiment of the spirit of the Enlightenment, and has more than anyone defined the American idea of the self-made man.
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Life and Times
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1706. In his early years he worked in his father’s chandlery, as he took little or no interest in school and formal education. He was more interested in his older brother’s print shop, which he took over at the age of 16. A year later he moved to Philadelphia, found employment as a printer, and soon after became the owner of his own print shop. His enterprise, frugality and wise investments enabled him to retire from active business at forty-two. From then he dedicated his work and incredible energy to science, politics, diplomacy, and interest in the general welfare of people.
Franklin spent long periods overseas in London and Paris, where he worked as a diplomat, work that was based on his experiences from negotiating a treaty with the Ohio Indians some years previously. As a diplomat and negotiator he worked for a reconciliation between England and the American colonies, but when independence for the colonies was within reach Franklin was one of the key figures arranging the terms of the treaty that ended the American Revolution. He was also chosen as a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The Enlightenment Man
Benjamin Franklin’s curiosity and remarkable creativity resulted in a series of successful experiments and inventions. He researched the causes of earthquakes, the benefits of the Gulf Stream to navigation and the connection between nature and electricity which resulted in a theory that culminated in his famous kite experiment and the invention of the lightning rod. He also promoted the idea of public libraries, and was among the pioneers and founders of the American Philosophical Society. His strong belief in the progress of man based on reason and a rational co-existence with nature makes him the prototype enlightenment man.
One might ask how is it possible to find time to achieve all this in just one lifetime. The answer may be found in Franklin’s two main literary works, The Autobiography, which he wrote for his son, and Poor Richard’s Almanac, which he published in yearly instalments between 1732 and 1758. Franklin tried to lead a frugal and simple life based on a list of moral virtues such as temperance, order, moderation, and humility, mentioning Jesus and Socrates as good role models. Most historians and scholars agree that multi-talented Benjamin Franklin stands out as a unique personality in our cultural history. But despite all his merits and achievements, and although numerous academic and international honours had been bestowed upon him, true to his humble nature he introduced his will with: “I, Benjamin Franklin, of Philadelphia, printer…”
Poor Richard’s Almanac
The series of yearly sequels that constitute Poor Richard’s Almanac is meant as a guideline for conducting a virtuous life and a successful business enterprise. The articles are written in a proverb-like style (“Remember, time is money.”) and contain information about practical matters such as currency and weather, but also educational reminders and advice for inspiration and guidance. In a somewhat moralising tone the advice is given through “Poor Richard”, who is Benjamin Franklin’s alter ego.
From Poor Richard’s Almanac
“Friends, says he (Poor Richard), and Neighbours, the Taxes are indeed very heavy, and if those laid on by the Government were the only Ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them; but we have many others, and much more grievous to some of us. We are taxed twice as much by our Idleness, three times as much by our Pride, and four times as much by our Folly, and from these Taxes the Commissioners cannot ease or deliver us by allowing an Abatement. However let us hearken to good Advice, and something may be done for us; God helps them that help themselves, as Poor Richard says in his Almanack of 1733."
“Early to Bed and early Rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
“Work while it is called To-day, for you know not how much you may be hindered To-morrow, which makes Poor Richard say, One To-day is worth two To-morrows; and farther, have you somewhat to do To-morrow, do it To-day.”
“Methinks I hear some of you say, Must a man afford himself no Leisure? I will tell thee, my Friend, what Poor Richard says, Employ the time well if thou meanest to gain Leisure; and since thou art not sure of a Minute, throw not away an Hour. Leisure, is Time for doing something useful.”
“Remember what Poor Richard says: Buy what thou hast no Need of, and ere long you thou shalt sell thy Necessaries.”
“Beware of little Expenses; a small Leak will sink a great Ship.”
“When the well’s dry, they know the Worth of Water. But this they might have known before, if they had taken his (Poor Richard) Advice; If you would know the Value of Money, go and try to borrow some, for, he that goes borrowing goes a-sorrowing; and indeed so does he that lends to such People, when he goes to get it in again.”
“But, ah, think what you do when you run in Debt; You give to another, Power over your Liberty. If you cannot pay at the Time, you will be ashamed to see your Creditor; you will be in Fear when you speak to him; you will make poor pitiful sneaking Excuses, and by Degrees come to lose your Veracity, and sink into base downright Lying, for, as Poor Richard says: The second Vice is Lying, the first is running in Debt”. And again, to the same Purpose, Lying rides upon Debt’s Back. Whereas a freeborn Englishman ought not to be ashamed or afraid to see or speak to any man living. But Poverty often deprives a Man of all Spirit and Virtue: T’is hard for an empty Bag to stand upright, as Poor Richard truly says.”
Tasks and Activities
- Why is it appropriate to call Benjamin Franklin a typical representative of the Enlightenment?
- How would you define “a self-made man”?
- Explain the term “Founding Father”.
- Discuss the statement: “The ideals presented in Poor Richard’s Almanac are what built America.”
- What do you think of the much quoted Benjamin Franklin statement: “Remember, time is money”?
- Can you point out some advice in Poor Richard’s Almanac that you think is still valid today?
- Comment on the quote “Leisure is time for doing something useful”.
- What does he mean by saying “Buy what you don’t need, and before long you will be selling your necessities”?
- How do you interpret the phrase: “Lying rides upon debt’s back”?
- Some may call Benjamin Franklin a moralist – is that a positive or a negative label? Explain your answer.
- In the last quote he mentions “a freeborn Englishman” – why not “a freeborn American”?
- Point out some examples of style and spelling that were typical of the Enlightenment era.
- What do you think of the fact that the multi-genius Benjamin Franklin “took little or no interest in school and education”?
- On the draft of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Franklin worked with George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Find out about their positions in American history.
- Check YouTube for clips about Benjamin Franklin, including a reconstruction of his kite experiment, and his invention of a special musical instrument.
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