Wednesday, January 18, 2006

All Hail Me

So last week I promised the boss I'd write an editorial for Ben Franklin's 300th birthday to run Thursday. I looked at the schedule and saw I was due for a light workload day today, and I figured I'd research it and pull it together today.

Then I come in to work today and discover that the city editor's mother is ill and he's flown off to Chicago to be at her bedside, and I've been plugged into the slot in his place. Which means that from about 5;30 p.m., I'll be entirely occupied in getting the local section together.

So in the space of about 20 minutes I have available, I cobble together this Ben Franklin piece. Not bad, if I do say so:

"The History of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other," John Adams grumbled in 1790. "The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington."

Adams usually was most right when he was most grumpy. This week, on his 300th birthday, Ben Franklin seems more alive than ever. Franklin & Marshall College has been bringing Franklin to life locally in a multitude of ways that never would work for John Marshall.

Franklin was the oldest of the major Founders, but he remains the most modern, the most accessible. He was the one without a powdered wig, the one often painted with a sly smile on his lips that suggests a very clever dirty joke has just popped into his head.

His lightning rod is still the standard design, and he foreshadowed the sound byte with his pithy maxims in "Poor Richard's Almanac." Franklin was a generous public philanthropist — as well as a relentless nepotist. He was the American Paris loved, and he loved it in return, or at least the female half of it.

If George Washington was young America's model of nobility and self-sacrifice, Franklin was its living embodiment of the Protestant work ethic, and the dream of the self-made man. The first "Poor Richard's Almanac," in 1733 when Washington still was in diapers, addressed the reader:

I might in this place attempt to gain thy Favour, by declaring that I write Almanacks with no other View than that of the publick Good; but in this I should not be sincere; and Men are now a-days too wise to be deceiv'd by Pretences how specious soever.

It was another New Englander, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who noticed Poor Richard's proverbs were "all about getting money or saving it." It was modern historians who noted the amount of material in them that was plagiarized.

He was the original spin doctor and self-promoter. Voltaire had praised to the skies the Pennsylvania Quakers and their system of government; did the Parisians mistake Franklin, the agnostic son of Puritan Boston, for a Philadelphia Quaker? Very well, he would let them, since it redounded to his praise. In fact, he even gave the false image a little polish from time to time.

Yet when the Revolution broke, Franklin had headed the Pennsylvania junta government that coldly swept the Quakers out of power and property, and whose dictatorial reach horrified the more thoughtful political men among the Founders.

In our self-deception, we believe only Virginians were tainted by slavery, but Franklin bought, sold and advertised slaves all through his life, despite a late-in-life, and perhaps halfhearted, lending of his name to the abolition movement.

It is impossible to praise one of his virtues without discovering a matching vice on the flip side. And in this, too, is he not like us? Moreso than the marble figures we imagine the other Founders to be?

Between the two, George's noblesse oblige and Ben's acquisitiveness, Franklin's model has been more of a success with us. When we celebrate him, we celebrate us.

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