Having spent a third of my adult life in the States and travelled through most of them, it seems I have a higher opinion of Americans and their civic qualities than most Brits, Yet, while they do exhibit qualities that lead to deep incomprehensibles like the NRA and Sandy Hook, some of their milder idiosyncrasies like lionising their national heroes were genuine, even as they left me cold. It may be an example of presuming understanding when the words are understandable—Mark Twain’s penetrating observation of the Americans and the British being “two peoples, separated by a common language“.
When I was over there two months ago, I saw the film Lincoln. Superb though Day Lewis’ performance may be in the title role, I still don’t connect with the adulation of him. Good man though he was, I found the character dry and un-charismatic, verging on a bucolic out of his depth. Washington was no titan of tactics and damn near lost them the war. Though the main author of the Declaration, Jefferson was a poor orator and caused more dissent than harmony before becoming President.
And then there’s Benjamin Franklin. If they think of him at all, Americans think of him as an American patriot and founding father. But his influence extended much further. Believing that people volunteering together in a spirit of cooperation could accomplish great things, he was driven by a strong sense of civic duty to be involved himself in both his community and his nation. Always mindful of the “greater good,” Franklin helped establish or improve institutions such as circulating libraries, public hospitals, mutual insurance companies, volunteer fire departments, agricultural colleges, and intellectual societies. Some of his astute observations have a profundity still useful today—and tomorrow:
- Creditors have better memories than debtors
- If you want to be wealthy, think of saving as well as earning
- A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees
- If you want to know the value of money, go try to borrow some
- Buy what you do not need, and soon you will sell your necessities
- It’s easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it
- Experience keeps an expensive school, but fools will learn in no other
- A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two different things
As a “man of science,” Franklin is best known for his experiments with electricity, but his lifelong curiosity also led him to explore an amazing range of scientific topics. From the common cold to ocean currents, from medicine to music, and from agriculture to the aurora borealis, he believed that human logic could unlock the mysteries of the natural world. More interested in practical applications than in theory, Franklin put his ideas to work through such useful inventions as a smokeless fireplace, bifocal glasses, and the lightning rod.
Of the numerous inventions Franklin created, he did not patent even one, believing that: “As we benefit from the inventions of others, we should be glad to share our own…freely and gladly.” He was the first to observe that storms can move in an opposite direction from the direction of the wind. Franklin accurately theorized about the existence of high and low pressure providing early explanations for storm movement. As an extensive traveler, Franklin made eight transatlantic voyages. By measuring the temperature of the ocean at varying depths, Franklin explained the Gulf Stream as a warm river flowing over the Atlantic Ocean. He suggested how the Gulf Stream could be used to speed of vessels sailing to & from America.
As a skilled diplomat, he negotiated treaties with Great Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Spain and helped secure the fledgling country America’s place in the world. As a respected scientist and scholar, he was granted honorary degrees in England, Scotland, and America. And as an Enlightenment thinker, he exchanged letters with some of the greatest minds of the eighteenth century.
Taking nothing away from the American pantheon of 18th © national heroes, most were men of their time that fate called upon to do extraordinary things—just as Bruce was prisoner of equivocal loyalties in the 13th © before destiny picked him up by both lapels. But, towering as Wallace’s patriotism or Hume’s international intellect were, our long history has yet to produce our Ben Franklin who combines both. He was a shining intellect, with equal love of community, country and humanity. He wore his greatness lightly: a Renaissance man who left a complex and inspirational legacy to us all—not just to Americans.
“If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” ~ Ben Franklin