Benjamin Franklin, born January 17, 1706 in Boston, is often referred to as “the first American.”
It was he who provided the classic model of the American self-made man (and autodidact), who first achieves personal independence by success in business, using it as his stepping-stone to worthier achievement in the realms of learning or of politics. And it was Franklin who first synthetized the characteristically American political blend of conservative skepticism with broadminded liberality, tempered by the businessman’s sense of practicality.
Franklin became rich as printer, publisher, and author, then with the leisure provided by the independence he had earned, turned his attention to experimental science. In the sciences, Franklin’s achievements were of international importance (he contributed greatly to the understanding of electricity), but probably even more important were the practical inventions which resulted from his experiments, or simply from his restless inclination toward problem-solving. We owe to Franklin: bifocal eyeglasses, the odometer, lightning rods, and the Franklin stove (among others), the last of which alone completely revolutionized the economy of domestic life.
In the struggle for American independence, Franklin, though the oldest, proved perhaps the most indispensable of the framers after Washington. He edited the draft of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. To Franklin’s scientific prestige, to his diplomatic abilities, and to his personal savoir faire and charm, we owe the French Alliance which made Revolutionary victory possible.
Franklin’s carefully crafted mature persona, the grandfatherly amiability artfully cloaking the deep and crafty intelligence, still proves a serviceable model for worldly and successful men to use to disarm potential opponents today. And it is Franklin’s own characteristic combination of superb practical competence allied to modesty and deprecatory humor, which defined our national version of sprezzatura.
Christopher Hitchens reflects on Franklin in today’s Wall Street Journal.
Some of his inventions