Sunday, September 20, 2009

Benjamin Franklin: America's greatest self-educator

The following excerpts are from Carl Van Doren's "Meet Dr. Franklin," in Van Deusen, ed., Readings in American History:

Franklin had, I think, the most eminent mind that has ever 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 great landmark in the history of human speech about the common ways of life.
Franklin's eminence was in his almost supreme mind that moved to its countless tasks with what seems perfect ease.
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 kit is now so old and so familiar that it has come to seem a pleasant legend.... 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.
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."
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.

Carl Van Doren
--"Meet Dr. Franklin" in Van Deusen, ed., Readings in American History