- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

At the Smithsonian, they’re planning a tribute to his statesmanship. In London, an exhibit hails his medical contributions. But at McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Philadelphia, they know best how to honor Benjamin Franklin today, his 300th birthday: with a celebratory toast.

A beer for Ben?”He was a very jovial fellow who would meet at the taverns, discussing the latest John Locke book or scientific breakthrough over a nice pint of beer,” explains McGillin’s owner Chris Mullins. “I don’t think you could imagine getting drunk with George Washington, but with Benjamin Franklin? Definitely.”

Is there any place Franklin wouldn’t fit in? He was a businessman, inventor, revolutionary, athlete (Franklin is a member of the United States Swim School Association Hall of Fame), diplomat, publisher, humorist, sage, man of destiny and regular guy.

Unlike John Adams, he does not need a historian like David McCullough to defend him. Franklin is the nation’s beloved eccentric uncle — the old flirt who carried on with French women; the quipster with a clever remark for all occasions; the righteous citizen who stands up to authority; the tinkerer who could fix your stove or edit your newsletter.

He is the Founder whom we feel like we know, although, at the same time, the Founder most easily misunderstood, for the image of Franklin changes according to who celebrates him.

“He certainly is a multiplicity of personae, so one never knows which one is the real Franklin,” says Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose books include “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.”

Franklin’s approachability begins with his background. His rise, as Franklin himself later boasted, was “from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world.”

He was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706, the 10th son of a soap and candle maker. Starting at age 12, he worked five years as an apprentice at his brother James’ newspaper, the New England Courant, establishing himself as a prankster and satirist, and, not for the last time, as “a little obnoxious to the governing party.”

Eager to poke the Puritan establishment, he submitted humorous essays to the Courant under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood.” To his pleasure, and eventual pain, the essays were accepted. When James Franklin learned the author’s identity, he angrily beat his brother. With Massachusetts authorities threatening to shut the paper down, Franklin fled for Philadelphia in 1723, his “pockets stuffed with shirts and stockings.”

Over the next 30 years and beyond, he charmed and advanced himself as a printer, publisher and humorist, composing such lasting epigrams as “Fish and visitors stink in three days” and “Eat to live, and not live to eat.” For many, he is the founding American wit, grounded in plain talk as opposed to high learning, his tradition carried on by Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Dave Barry, among others.

“I have to admit that, when I was a youngster in grade school, I did not care for Benjamin Franklin,” Mr. Barry wrote, in an introduction to “Wit and Wisdom From Poor Richard’s Almanack,” published in 2000 by the Modern Library.

“Teachers were always shoving him down my throat — him and his wise adages, such as ‘A penny saved is a penny earned.’ I had no idea what that meant.

“But I have to say, much of what I read in the Almanack had me nodding in agreement and wishing that modern people (including me) followed its precepts. Poor Richard advocates diligence, self-reliance, frugality, and honesty; he disdains laziness, extravagance, pretense, and immodesty. It goes without saying that he hates lawyers.”

Franklin’s greatest public triumph was likely as a diplomat, persuading France to aid the Colonies in their fight against the British. But he needed no revolution to be a revolutionary, for he changed the world simply by living in it.

“The things which hurt, instruct,” he once observed. The varieties of middle-aged eyesight led him to design a single, all-purpose set of glasses — bifocals. A struggle to raise money for a public hospital led to a plan by which private contributions would be equaled by government funds, the “matching grant” formula in use to this day.

Modernized street lights, volunteer firefighters, fire insurance, lending libraries. He lived like a deity who simply by declaring something could happen, made it so. Odometers, daylight-saving time, lightning rods (inspired by a kite excursion as fabled as Washington’s cherry tree, but, in Franklin’s case, a true story).

“His demonstration that lightning was not supernatural had huge impact,” says Dudley Herschbach, a Nobel Prize winning chemist. “Since lightning had long been considered a prerogative of the Almighty, Franklin was attacked for presumption, vigorously but in vain.”

Mr. Herschbach, a Harvard University professor who has lectured frequently on Franklin, says, “Franklin’s scientific curiosity extended far beyond his adventures with electricity. He made important discoveries and observations concerning the motion of storms, heat conduction, the path of the Gulf Stream, bioluminescence, the spreading of oil films, and also advanced prescient ideas about conservation of matter and the wave nature of light.”

Franklin now seems the safest of the Founders to celebrate, but when he died, in 1790, he was mistrusted by many in power as a Francophile synonymous with the excesses of the French Revolution. The Senate rejected a proposal to wear badges of mourning in his honor. A year passed before an official eulogy was delivered, by a longtime detractor, Anglican minister William Smith, who belittled Franklin as “ignorant of his own strength.”

Condemned as a Jacobin upon his death, he would be satirized as a middlebrow member of the booboisie for more than a century after. Poet John Keats disliked “his mean and thrifty maxims.”

“It was elitism,” says Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson, “sort of a condescending elitism that looked down on Franklin for having basic middle-class values.”

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