Friday, July 3, 2009

Benjamin Franklin: Thinking about the American Revolution

"I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.”
— Benjamin Franklin in a Letter to his parents (c. 1728) as quoted in: An American Life (2003) by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin, one of our greatest and most beloved founding fathers, was a true renaissance man. He was a printer who used the power of the press to speak not only to the intellectual community of the time, but he published articles that spoke to the common man. He was a scientist and inventor of great note, having contributed to the knowledge of electricity, optics (bifocal glasses), and ocean currents (especially the gulf stream). He was a public servant who served as postmaster general, librarian, member of several legislative groups, and a governor of Pennsylvania. He was an educator who held a variety of honorary degrees from famous universities in both this country and Europe; he also helped found several colleges in the colonies. And, above all, he was a diplomat who represented the American colonies and a fledgling American nation in the courts of England and France. In his eighty-four years, he accomplished feats worthy of several lifetimes.

“Much less it is advisable for a Person to go thither [to America], who has no other Quality to recommend him but his Birth. In Europe it has indeed its Value; but it is a Commodity that cannot be carried to a worse Market than that of America, where people do not inquire concerning a Stranger, What is he? But, What can he do?”
— Benjamin Franklin, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America

This self-educated, energetic man practiced his Puritan beliefs to the benefit of all men. He spoke to the inequalities of the times in his series of “Silence Dogood” letters published in the New England Current. He provided folk wisdom to the common man through his “Poor Richard’s Almanack” that was published by The Philadelphia Gazette. Above all, he represented a level of understanding and support for these American colonies during a time of great threats and potential successes. He encouraged public and social service to his fellow colonists.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
— Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

Let’s take a closer look at this man of great faith in his fellow man and in the cause of freedom…

Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)

“I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.”
— Benjamin Franklin in a letter to his parents, c1728, as quoted in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003) by Walter Isaacson

He viewed himself as a printer from his first apprenticeship in Boston to his death in Philadelphia. But the effects of his writings and his publication of news for the masses probably did as much for the people of the colonies as any other of his many accomplishments as a diplomat and a scientist. He was self-educated (finishing only a few years of school), but he established the first public library in Pennsylvania. He facilitated the spread of information and communication infrastructure by founding the colonial postal service; this reliable service enabled the news and information about the events within colonial American to spread throughout the thirteen colonies. And, believe it or not, it occurred in a time that didn’t know how to ‘tweet’! In fact, the success of the colonists’ uprising and the coordination of the activities of the hated British troops and the British Parliament would have been nearly impossible without the postal service.

“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
— Benjamin Franklin

While Franklin was a common man, coming from a Puritan family with a father who was a candle maker, he arose to assume the role of chief diplomat to the courts of St. James (England) and King Louie XVI (France). No doubt, his accomplishments as an inventor and a scientist gave him special standing in these positions, he accomplished much due to his understanding of the common man and the need to become independent of the tyranny of the British Parliament. His battlefield was diplomatic service in Europe, not on the fields of New York or Virginia. His weapons were a quick, discerning mind, not a saber or gun. Early in the colonists’ struggle with the British, he was able to eloquently argue with the Parliament to get the hated “Stamp Act” repealed. During our country’s time of need, he was able to obtain a treaty with France to provide military and naval assistance. Finally, he was able to negotiate the “Treaty of Paris” to end the American Revolution. Any one of these tasks would be a lifetime achievement for most other diplomats!

"To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions."
— Benjamin Franklin

"Trickery and treachery are the practices of fools that have not the wits enough to be honest."
— Benjamin Franklin

Finally, he was one of the great practical thinkers of colonial America. He was a delegate to the 2nd Continental Congress in 1776, where he was one of the five delegates charged with creating the Declaration of Independence. He is remembered with his words to the signers of this Declaration with the words: “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” Upon returning to America after his duties in France, he occupied a position second only to George Washington due to his diplomatic successes. In 1787, he was a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention where the new Constitution for this new country was drafted. We are grateful for his service to his country.

Amongst the founding fathers, Franklin was the only one who signed the four documents to create this great country of ours. These included the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Treaty of Alliance with France, and the United States Constitution. This amazing man was a public servant, not a politician. He was not interested in acquiring or asserting power. For this we are indeed grateful.

“Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.”
— Benjamin Franklin

Will there ever be a man of the stature of Benjamin Franklin? Probably not. He was a man of his times and when much was asked, much was given. He devoted his life to this new country and for that we can only say: Thank You!

Next Time: We will continue this series by considering the contributions of Thomas Jefferson. Join us for that examination…

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