SOURCE: WISDOM MAGAZINE, March 1958 Dr. Carl Van Doren
FRANKLIN HAD, I think, the most eminent mind that has ever I existed in America. No wonder there are so many legendary misconceptions of him that it is difficult now to restore and comprehend him in the great integrity of his mind, character, and personality. He appears, somehow, to be a syndicate of men. We study him as a scientist, as a diplomat, as a statesman, as a business man, as an economist, as a printer, as a 'humorist and wit, as a great writer, as a sage, and as a landmark in the history of human speech about the common ways of life. What had been said before he so often said better. He was great in friendship, and in his later years was probably the most renowned private citizen on earth. It has recently been more than once remarked—and printed —that Benjamin Franklin was the American Leonardo da Vinci. This is American modesty, if not colonialism. Why not occasionally say that Leonardo da Vinci was the Italian Benjamin Franklin?
Franklin was the earliest American whom, without limiting ourselves to national terms, we can call a very great man. When you try to define his particular greatness you run into what John Adams felt in his jealous days in Paris. Adams was a great man, but not a very great man. A great man such as Adams living with a very great man such as Franklin cannot tell the difference between himself and the other. Adams could not tell why people thought the difference to be so enormous. Nor can anybody express the difference better than with a fairly common, if not entirely just, geographical analogy. Imagine yourself in a range of mountains. You look up, and several of the mountains seem to you, from where you stand, as high as the master of them all. But when you get to a distance which gives perspective you see that the great mountain towers above the others, which are, in a sense, only foothills to it. This was true of many men with whom Franklin was associated during his life, who were as far from being aware of his genuine superiority as posterity has sometimes been since then. Moreover, his superiority is the hardest kind to measure. We can sometimes measure superiority when it shows itself in outward acts, achievements, tumults, benefits, or damages. Franklin's eminence was in his almost supreme mind that moved to its countless tasks with what seems perfect ease. Both the supremacy and' the ease are hard for us to explain because they are so unique that comparisons fail us.
There are, of course, people who take an attitude toward Franklin that may remind us of the fate of Aristides. For his virtues, you will remember, he had a peevish vote cast against him by an illiterate man who was tired of hearing Aristides called Aristides the Just. We often have an impulse to fear and distrust great excellence. We say we like it, but in our hearts we suspect it of being more—and consequently less—than human. When we say this or that hero is human we always mean he is weak in some way that is comforting. All of us are weak, and we like to believe this is human of us. When we find a similar weakness in a great man we are pleased because it means that the great are not so much greater than we are after all.
It is now and then asked if Franklin did not get most or many of his ideas from other men, and then out of vanity take the credit to himself. I do not think Franklin was particularly vain. In the third paragraph of his Autobiography he disarmingly admitted that telling his story might gratify his vanity. "Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to its possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life." Franklin knew that the false modesty which men conventionally affect is a mode of self-conscious egotism.
What could Franklin do when he wrote his Autobiography but tell of things he had done or helped do? Why should he have talked as with his hand over his mouth or his elbow over his head? Everybody knew he was great and famous. For him to pretend not to know that would have been silly, a form of stage fright. In a letter about the classic epigram of Turgot which said Franklin had snatched the lightning from the sky and the sceptre from tyrants, Franklin in 1781 honestly protested. "It ascribes too much to me, especially in what relates to the tyrant; the Revolution having been the work of many able and brave men, wherein it is sufficient honor for me if I am allowed a small share."
Or go back to an earlier year in Franklin's life, when he was not so famous and might have been tempted not to be so generous.
In the fall of 1753 he got together what he called a "philosophical packet" of letters exchanged between him and various scientific friends of his in America. It was an important year for Franklin. The King of France had complimented the remote Philadelphia tradesman on his electrical discoveries, Harvard and Yale had given him honorary degrees, the Royal Society in November awarded him the Copley gold medal. The "philosophical packet" was to signalize what Franklin hoped would be a fresh beginning for him in the scientific career he looked forward to. Among these papers was a latter from James Bowdoin of Boston, dated November 12, in which he—before any other scientist so far as is known—hit on the first true explanation of luminosity (phosphorescence) in sea water: "that the said appearance might be caused by a great number of little animals, floating on the surface of the sea, which, on being disturbed, might, by expanding their fins, or otherwise moving themselves, expose such a part of their bodies as exhibits a luminous appearance, somewhat in the manner of a glowworm, or firefly."
Here was a subject Franklin had already speculated on. He had at first conjectured that this luminosity was "owing to electric fire, produced by friction between the particles of water and those of salt. Living far from the sea, I had then no opportunity of making experiments on the sea water, and so embraced this opinion too hastily. For in 1750 and 1751, being occasionally on the sea coast, I found, by experiments, that sea water in a bottle, though at first it would by agitation appear luminous, yet in a few hours it lost that 'virtue; hence, and from this . . . I first began to doubt of my former hypothesis, and to suspect that the luminous appearance in sea water must be owing to some other principles."
Bowdoin's conjecture at once struck Franklin as sounder than his own. "It is indeed very possible," he wrote in a letter dated 13 December, "that an extremely small animalcule, too small to be visible even by the best glasses, may yet give a visible light. I remember to have taken notice, in a drop of kennel water magnified by the solar microscope to the bigness of a cart-wheel, there were numbers of visible animalcules swimming about; but I was sure there were likewise some which I could not see, even with that magnifier; for the wake they made in swimming to and fro was very visible, though the body that made it was not so. Now, if I could see the wake of an invisible animalcule, I imagine I might much more easily see its light if it were of the luminous kind. For how small is the extent of a ship's wake, compared with that of the light of her lantern."
Dr. Edwin Grant Conklin of the American Philosophical Society recently told me that a Japanese scholar had called Franklin's comment on these animalcules in sea water the earliest guess at the existence and nature of the microorganisms, as we should now call them, which are responsible for the phenomenon. Franklin had nothing to do with the error. He kept back his own letter (to be published long after his death), and sent Bowdoin's to London, where it was read before the Royal Society in December 1756 and later included in the 1769 edition of Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity, as A Letter from J. B. Esq; in Boston, to B. F. concerning the Light in Sea-Water. The credit was Bowdoin's, and Franklin plainly gave it to him.
This same 1769 volume, among the most fascinating in the whole range of eighteenth-century "philosophical" writings, punctiliously credited Thomas Hopkinson, Ebenezer Kinnersley, and Philip Syng with their original suggestions and discoveries made during the Philadelphia experiments. If the three came to be overlooked in the light of their greater colleague, it was hardly Franklin's fault. Reporting to Peter Collinson in London, Franklin constantly spoke of "our electrical enquiries" and the things "we" had found out, never pretending to have done the work alone. The first collection of his Experiments and Observations (1751) was possibly printed in London before Franklin in Philadelphia had known it was to be. Because he alone had written the reports, his name alone was given on the title page. In his own copy of the pamphlet he marked each experiment with the initials of the discoverer: Hopkinson's once, Kinnersley's seven times and once jointly with Franklin's, Syng's three times. There can be little doubt that Franklin was always chief among the experimenters, as there can be none that he was the best writer among them. But he did not make excessive claims for himself. What happened was that as he went on growing more and more famous, the world credited him with more and more achievements, past as well as present. First men are dramatically first, and the rest nowhere to speak of.
I know it is commonly said that the Autobiography is a retouched photograph in which Franklin emphasizes his own share in the life of his times and minimizes that of other men. I also know that I have spent many days and weeks investigating this very matter and have come to the conclusion that he left out things he had done more often than he even seemed to claim to have done things he had not. Philadelphia during the great years of the Junto (1727 to 1757) was a town of remarkable intellectual activity, and its history has not yet been truly written as I hope it will some day be. But no matter what claims may be made for other men, Franklin emerges as the chief among them, the energizing, galvanizing source of two-thirds of the town's important enterprises.
When I am told, as I occasionally am, that I make Franklin out as larger than life, I can only, answer that Franklin must have been what he was, because nobody could have invented such a figure. Stranger things happen in fact than in fiction. Nature is richer in invention than men are. The great characters in fiction are almost always heroes who have each of them some ruling passion, with enough human weaknesses to give him a reasonable credibility Romantic creation is most likely to be exaggeration along a few lines. But the more you study Franklin the more lines you find running out from him in all directions, and the more facts that no poet—however romantic and exaggerative—would ever have thought of inventing. The wonder of Franklin is the facts that are true about him. The more exact the research into his character, the more surprising the adventure.
Too much emphasis has been laid, I think, on his simple practical ingenuities. You go into a grocer's and see the clerk taking objects down from high shelves with a device based on the long arm which Franklin invented to get at his books. Most of us have in our kitchens a combination chair-and-stepladder which Franklin seems to have devised; and in our fireplaces a draft such as he had made for his fireplace in Craven Street. He has been credited with the invention of the rocking chair, which I believe he did not invent, though in his last years he had one which automatically fanned him when he rocked. But the ingenuity that went into these gadgets is less notable than the ideas behind Franklin's principal inventions.
If, for example, we read his remarkable pamphlet about what he called the Pennsylvanian fireplace, later known as the Franklin stove, we should not be too much taken by the salesmanlike adroitness of his arguments. It is true he was adroit, particularly in his claims that the use of the stove would be beneficial to the health, complexion, and beauty of women. Such arguments were as likely to be effective in 1744 as they would be today. But Franklin believed they were sound, as they were. He had not designed his stove purely for economy in fuel. He had strongly in mind the great importance of proper ventilation, and its value for health. He even took into account an esthetic element. His stove, unlike the Dutch and German stoves of the time, allowed people to see the fire, "which is in itself a pleasant thing." In 1744 Franklin had been using his stove, he said, for "the four winters past," which takes the invention back to 1740. But he put off writing about it till he had announced the organization of the American Philosophical Society. His pamphlet was in effect his first contribution to the work of this new league of scientists. As if to give his little treatise the dignity of learning, he accompanied it with notes from various impressive sources, one of them in Latin.
Certainly the lightning rod was not a gadget. The experiment which Franklin proposed, to prove whether electricity and lightning were identical, and his own separate demonstration with the kite, must be ranked with the most fundamental as well as the most striking experiments in scientific history. The story of the kite is now so old and so familiar that it has come to seem a pleasant legend, not much more real to us than the customary pictures of the scene, which show Franklin's son as a little boy when in fact he was twenty-one or so and as tall as his father. The experiment, because it solved a mystery, has so deprived lightning of its terror that it no longer overawes men. Franklin, drawing the lightning from the skies, removed it from the dread region of mythology. Kant was not speaking for picturesque effect when he said Franklin was a new Prometheus who had stolen fire from heaven. The expression meant, literally, that Franklin had made men equals of the gods and therefore free of an ancient slavish dread. Nobody in 1752 felt that the kite story was a quaint little incident. It was something immense, and it gave Franklin the reputation of a wizard, not unlike Merlin or, in our day, Einstein.
I have, I suppose, already made it clear that I do not agree with those almost unanimous modern commentators on Franklin who think of him as primarily an ingenious inventor. I will go further and say that I think his fundamental conjectures are more important than his inventions. He said of himself: "I own I have too strong a penchant to the building of hypotheses; they indulge my natural indolence." But these hypotheses were as truly original as anything he ever invented. What he called his "conjectures and suppositions" about electricity make up the principia of the science. Nor did he confine himself to one branch of science, or to science as a whole. His notes in 1743 on the origin of northeast storms were the first step toward a scientific meteorology. In his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc., written in 1751, he not only anticipated Malthus, who acknowledged his debt to Franklin, but also forecast the theory of the American frontier later associated with the name of Frederick Jackson Turner. In 1754 Franklin in his famous letters to Governor Shirley of Massachusetts set down his farsighted plan for equal justice to the various parts of the British Empire, and summed up almost all the American arguments of the Revolution. In 1762 he wrote the earliest piece of scientific musical criticism, and in 1768 said as much as has been said since about the need of reform in English spelling. He was the first scholar who studied the Gulf Stream (1769) and had some understanding of it and the possible use of it by navigators; and among the first who insisted that the common cold is more likely to come from contagion than from exposure. As he put it in one of the notes he made in 1773 for a paper he intended to write: "Think they get by coming out of such hot rooms; they get them by being in."
Though from 1773 to 1783 Franklin was so much absorbed in politics he had little time for general ideas, he had hardly signed the final treaty of peace with England when his mind was alert with bold conjectures again. Having seen the first ascent of human passengers in a free balloon, in Paris in November 1783, Franklin at once—and apparently alone among his contemporaries—foresaw the possibility of aerial warfare: This discovery, he wrote in December, might "give a new turn to human affairs. Convincing sovereigns of the folly of wars may perhaps be one effect of it; since it will be impossible for the most potent of them to guard his dominions. Five thousand balloons, capable of raising two men each, would not cost more than five ships of the line; and where is the Prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense as that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not in many places do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?"
Franklin's own age knew him as philosopher and sage, statesman and wit, and while delighting in his charm and grace thought of him as always a figure of weight and dignity. It remained for another century to take affectionate familiarities with him, and call him Ben Franklin—which only his immediate family ever did—as the century called other heroes Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln. The homely anecdotes of Franklin's Autobiography gave him a homespun reputation which does him less than justice. There was little that was shirt-sleeved in his science or politics or diplomacy. His manners, as I have written elsewhere, "were as urbane and expert as his prose." His economical maxims give a wrong impression of his character, which was generous and at times lavish. "Avarice and happiness never saw each other," he wrote as Poor Richard. "How then should they become acquainted?" So far from making a great virtue of the cunning which has been often ascribed to him, Franklin as Poor Richard said that "Cunning proceeds from want of capacity"—meaning that truth was better. "Dr. Franklin," Henry Laurens wrote when the British ministers were warily looking for someone to treat with Franklin for peace in 1782, "knows very well how to manage a cunning man; but when the Doctor converses or treats with a man of candor there is no man more candid than himself."
Though Franklin was an excellent and successful business man, he retired from active business at forty-two and spent forty-two years more in the service of the public. He might have made a fortune if he had patented his stove or his lightning rod. He refused to patent anything which he thought might be of benefit to mankind. As he did not hungrily gather wealth, so he did not cautiously guard his comfort or safety. It must never be forgotten that in his seventieth year Franklin might with decency have done what his more conservative son advised him to do; that is, retire from active affairs and let younger men settle the conflict between England and America. Instead Franklin, at the risk of peace and even of his neck, took his stand with the revolutionaries. Life with him began all over again at seventy. The older the bolder.
I shall take the liberty of quoting the final words of my Benjamin Franklin, in which I have done my best to reduce his qualities to their essence. "Franklin was not one of those men who owe their greatness merely to the opportunities of their times. In any age, in any place, Franklin would have been great. Mind and will, talent and art, strength and ease, wit and grace met in him as if nature had been lavish and happy when he was shaped. Nothing seems to have been left out except a passionate desire, as in most men of genius, to be all ruler, all soldier, all saint, all poet, all scholar, all someone gift or merit or success. Franklin's powers were from first to last in a flexible equilibrium. Even his genius could not specialize him. He moved through his world in a humorous mastery of it. Kind as he was, there was perhaps a little contempt in his lack of exigency. He could not put so high a value as some men put on the things they give their lives for. Possessions were not worth that much, nor achievements. Comfortable as Franklin's possessions and numerous as his achievements were, they were less than he was. Whoever learns about his deeds remembers longest the man who did them. And sometimes, with his marvelous range, in spite of his personal tang, he seems to have been more than any single man: a harmonious human multitude."