Tomorrow is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin. Although an omnipresent player in the Founding generation, the only one to sign all three documents that confirmed us as a nation—Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, and the Constitution—Franklin was not as influential in shaping the design of our government as men such as Madison, Hamilton, or Jefferson. His biographer Edmund Morgan points out that in the service of his country, Franklin sometimes undertook— and brilliantly performed—assignments he himself questioned, such as procuring French financial assistance for the Revolution. “We cannot really know who Franklin was from the role he played in history,” Morgan writes; but in Franklin’s elegant, often witty prose, “we can recapture . . . someone whose life showed, as few ever have, how much it can mean to be a human being.”
Franklin made his name as a journalist and author, and one can read his own clever compendium of the best of the adages he authored under the pseudonym “Poor Richard” in a piece written shortly before he retired from the printing business, “The Way to Wealth.”
His habit of putting common human behavior to the test of reason and producing a surprising result is well displayed in “Old Mistresses Apologue,” written in the form of advice to a young man seeking the extramarital entertainment of women (Franklin urges the young man to exclusively court older women).
His assessment of the opportunities his newly independent nation offered to its citizens, and the good to which the nation ought to aspire, can be seen in an essay he wrote while Ambassador to Paris: “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America.” Here he articulates an American idea of respectability, based in useful employment, that contrasts with the European idea.
As Peter Schramm puts it, for Franklin, “life and citizenship and virtue were partly obligations, but mostly just fun. He took pleasure in the world, in freedom, in creating wealth, in shaping the character if his people. His life was proof that free men could be both prosperous and virtuous.”