There’s a good case to be made that America would not exist as the nation we know without Benjamin Franklin.
In 1778, France concluded a formal alliance with the newly declared United States of America — and it was Franklin who almost single-handedly engineered that geopolitical coup. The alliance provided America with critical arms and financing and, eventually, troops and naval power that cornered General Lord Charles Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown in October 1781 in the decisive victory of the American Revolution. The French alliance turned a colonial rebellion into a world war, and forced the British Empire to cut its losses and agree to a peace settlement with the Americans in 1783. Franklin helped craft that treaty.
Benjamin Franklin, more than any other single person — even including George Washington — was the architect of American victory in our founding struggle. The great filmmaker Ken Burns is profiling Franklin in his latest documentary project, currently airing on PBS.
Franklin was a true polymath — a highly successful self-made man of business (printing), an inventor, and a man of letters who, without institutional backing, became an internationally renowned man of science. It is ironic that he became one of the leading lights of the American Revolution, because he was a most reluctant revolutionary. He was an ardent British American patriot, who lived in London for 16 years, from 1757 through 1775, serving as an informal diplomat (and deputy postmaster general) on behalf of the Colonies. London was a great hub of the Enlightenment, and Franklin loved the city life, indulging in “air baths” in the buff, reveling in the company of other men of science and letters — and in the company of women, who found him stimulating and charmingly flirtatious. Franklin’s fondness for the ladies had been a salient characteristic from his youth — and age and the dignities of office did nothing to slow him down. His proclivities were notable enough to be the subject of a bit of doggerel:
Franklin, tho’ plagued with fumbling age
Needs nothing to excite him.
But is too ready to engage
When younger arms invite him.
Franklin could be earthy and bawdy — even juvenile. To take the wind out of creeping academic pretentiousness, he submitted an essay to The Royal Academy of Brussels that has come down in history with the title “Fart Proudly.” While he probably never said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” (emblazoned on brewery t‑shirts everywhere) he did order a gallon of porter to share with the tradesmen at a print shop to toast the noble profession that made him.
It was the intransigence and insults of the British government that radicalized Benjamin Franklin, and when he left England with sorrow, he went all-in on American independence. His commitment created a deep rift with his son (illegitimate, but acknowledged) William Franklin, Royal Governor of New Jersey, and a committed Loyalist. The rift between them was never healed. Franklin’s diplomatic efforts in France were critical to winning American independence, and the 81-year-old great man would be tapped to help frame the government of the new nation.
He had a clear-eyed and unsentimental view of the Constitution the framers hammered together, recognizing that it was, after all, the creation of highly fallible men:
“…when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.”
Still, he thought the work was worthy, and might just stand the test of time. It may be apocryphal, but a statement attributed to Franklin about the nature of the government crafted in Philadelphia in 1787 has resonated down the centuries. Asked what kind of government the convention had created, Franklin replied:
“A republic, if you can keep it.”
It’s on us to keep it, and to be worthy of the legacy of this fascinating — and most relatable — of American founders.