In his day—over two centuries ago—Ben Franklin was the most famous American in the world. That’s not the way I remembered him, despite knowing about his many accomplishments. It might be a matter of faulty memory, or maybe my school textbook didn’t describe him that way. But looking back at Ben Franklin today, from the year 2022, the Burns documentary shows us a life so action-packed, so accomplished, and so full of contradictions that it’s a wonder someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t tackled it on stage.
Unlike Alexander Hamilton, who was killed in a duel at age forty-seven (or forty-nine, the record isn’t clear), Ben Franklin lived to be eighty-four—old even by today’s standards–and died of natural causes. He was seventy and already long famous when he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776; by 1787 he was eight-one and ailing but thought to invite fellow Constitutional Convention delegates to his home to work out their differences under the shade of his mulberry tree.
Ben Franklin is born in Boston in 1706, the 15th of 17 children and his father’s youngest son. His father sends him to school for two years but can’t afford to keep him there and puts him to work in his candle shop. Ben’s ten. By twelve, he’s working for his older brother James in his printing shop after signing on to a nine-year apprenticeship. He spends his little free time reading late into the night.
In the two-part Ken Burns documentary, which PBS ran earlier this month, historian H.W. Brands explains Ben’s lack of schooling as one important key to his genius. “He had only two years of formal education, so he didn’t know what he didn’t have to know; he just assumed he had to know everything and that made him a lifelong learner.”
By sixteen, Ben is writing popular humorous essays under the name Mrs. Silence Dogood, which are published in his brother’s newspaper, The New-England Courant. By seventeen, he’s fed up with life as an abused indentured servant. He hops on a ship and lands in Philadelphia, the third most populous city after Boston and New York. While Philadelphia will remain home for the rest of his life, he spends many years in London and in France, first as a young man trying—unsuccessfully—to secure equipment to start his own printing press, then as a diplomat trying to stop the growing animosity between England and the colonies, and later as an ambassador to France, where he secures much needed funding for the Revolutionary War and afterwards negotiates the peace treaty with England.
One of the contradictions in Franklin’s character is that, like other Founding Fathers, he owned slaves. The documentary makes this clear from the beginning. Six slaves, and they worked in his home and business. Franklin’s newspaper published ads for slave auctions and notices about runaway slaves, although he also published anti-slavery ads from Quakers. Ben Franklin, however, was always a work in progress and came to believe that “Liberty” must include all men; he spent the last part of his life trying to make amends. He freed his own slaves and served as President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first group of its kind.
Ben Franklin’s success is a rags-to-riches story, a quintessentially American story that still appeals to people around the world. His printing business in Philadelphia made him a very wealthy man—he published newspapers and printed everything from novels to colonial currency; his Poor Richard’s Almanac was a bestseller. But his main purpose in life was the pursuit of knowledge, and with that knowledge came what he believed was his highest purpose: public service to better the lives of his countrymen. He retired from business at forty-two and focused on scientific experiments, inventions, and helping the colonies thrive. He served as a Governor of Pennsylvania, he represented Philadelphia in the Colonial Assembly for seven terms; he helped establish the city’s first college, first library and first volunteer Fire Department.
Ben Franklin was far from perfect, but he did an extraordinary amount of good. And, if we let our children see him in his entirety, he’s a great example of a human being who constantly strives to improve his moral character and make the world a better place.
Thinking about famous Ben makes me think of Volodymyr Zelensky, arguably the most famous man in the world right now. Most famous good man, I should qualify. Like Ben, he rose from modest beginnings in a country that was controlled by another country. His path to fame was unexpected. While Franklin was a printer who flew a kite in a thunderstorm to demonstrate that lightning is electricity and later became a great statesman, Zelensky studied law, founded an entertainment studio, and played a history teacher on TV—a teacher who became an internet sensation ranting about corruption and was elected President of Ukraine. Then Life imitated Art: Zelensky ran for President and won. But what made him truly world famous was his decision to stay in Ukraine after Russia invaded. As the journalist Bret Stephens said beautifully in a recent Opinion piece, “Why Do We Admire Zelensky?”
“He shows that honor and love of country are virtues we forsake at our peril.”. . . “We admire Zelensky because he reminds us of how rare these traits have become among our own politicians. Zelensky was an actor who used his celebrity to become a statesman. Western politics is overrun by people who playact as statesmen so that they may ultimately become celebrities.” — Bret Stephens writing for the Sunday New York Times, April 20
When Ben Franklin emerged from the building where the founders signed the Constitution, a woman ran up to him to ask, “What have we got, a monarchy or a republic?” Franklin famously replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” No question Zelensky must be thinking the same each day that the war rages on. Like Ben Franklin, may he live to be an old man and see democracy rein.