Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 1/11/2006 [Archive]

Ben Franklin turns 300

Ben Franklin's 300th Birthday

Ben Franklin, who was born Jan. 17, 1706, is one of our most important but often overlooked Founding Fathers. He'simmortalized forever on the $100 bill. And he's known by every school boy and girl for his "Poor Richard's Almanacks" and his experiments with kites. But as former Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson showed in his 2003 book, "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," Franklin just may have been the most indispensable and most multitalented of the men who made America.

Brilliant, charming, gregarious, tolerant, witty and wise, Franklin was an inventor, printer, philosopher and civic do-gooder with an eye for the ladies who was involved with every aspect of the Revolution -- from the writing of the Declaration to the diplomacy in France that brought the money, men and ships we needed to win our independence.

To mark Franklin's 300th birthday and get a better appreciation of a great man who reflects -- and in fact invented -- many of our best national qualities, here is a reprise of a 2003 telephone interview with Isaacson, who is now president of the Aspen Institute.

Q: Shouldn't Ben Franklin almost own the title of 'Father of Our Country'?

A: Yeah, and the "Grandfather of Our Country" as well. He was a generation older than most of the Founders, but he was the wisest of them all. And he was the one who instilled in America the notion of religious tolerance, compromise and a feel for real democracy.

Q: Of all his many accomplishments -- he was scientist, an inventor, a statesman, a printer, a musician, philosopher, an economist --.

A: If he had to pick one, he would pick printer or publisher. At age 16 he became a printer and in his last will and testament, at age 84, it begins, 'I, Ben Franklin, printer--.'

He liked being in the media. He liked being a publisher and an editor. He felt that the free flow of information was indispensable to both tolerance and democracy.

So even though he was a great scientist and a great diplomat and a great statesman and a political leader, he took pride in the fact that he was a shopkeeper who wore a leather apron and believed in middle-class values.

Q: What do you think his greatest accomplishment was, in terms of helping to create the American character?

A: There's a little anecdote I like to tell, which was when Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft of the Declaration of Independence. He writes the sentence 'We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable' and Franklin uses his heavy printer's back-slashes to cross those words out and to replace them with, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident.'

So Franklin insisted that our country was founded on rights that derived from reason, rather than from religion. And that we were not a religious theocracy. We could all be religious, but be tolerant of other people's religions. I think the notion of religious tolerance was his most important contribution.

Q: How is Franklin a product of his age?

A: He was the first leader of the Enlightenment period that was flourishing by the end of the 18th century. The Enlightenment believed in reason, experiment, tolerance, and it helped shape what this nation became. He was born in Boston, which was a fervent Puritan theocracy, but he helped bring the values of the Enlightenment to America.

Q: Did he create as much as reflect the American ethos -- that passion for freedom and common sense and all that self-reliance stuff.

A: He talked about running away from being an apprentice to his brother because he had an aversion to tyranny. He said 'that aversion to tyranny has stayed with me my whole life, and that's what made me an American.'

Q: What would he think of today's world?

A: He would be happy that America is a democracy based on middle-class values and respect for the common citizen. He would not like the religious fanaticism that threatens the world. And he would not like the extreme partisanship that we have in America sometimes.

Q: If he ran for president, could his personal life and his ideas pass muster with the media today?

A: Well, he was involved in many elections. If we think the press is scurrilous today, in the elections in the 1760s, when he was running, they took after his personal life -- all sorts of pamphlets and newspaper articles about his love for younger women and the fact that he had an illegitimate child all were very much publicized.

He didn't mind that. He admitted he had an illegitimate child. He raised the child and he shrugged off all the attacks on his private life.

Q: What kind of character did he have? Was he a good, decent man?

A: He had basic middle-class virtues -- honesty, frugality, industry. He had a simple creed, which is that the best way to serve God is to do good by your fellow man. He lived by that. He was deeply generous, deeply philanthropic, and he did more to help his community and fellow citizens than any other person of his time.

Q: That includes fire departments, stoves -- practical things.

A: Yeah. He created the first fire department, the first lending library, a militia, a discussion club, insurance societies -- all of these things.

Q: Would he be considered brilliant?

A: Franklin was very wise. Secondly, he was very ingenious and inventive. And his intelligence was also reflected in how articulate and what a great writer he was. He was considered both witty and wise, which were the two most important components of intelligence back then.

Q: What party would he belong to today?

A: I'm not sure. He very strongly opposed partisanship. He believed you could always find common ground and look at the evidence and see what policies worked without being unduly partisan.

He was very populist, but also he was conservative in the sense that he didn't believe in welfare. He thought that that would lead to dependency and laziness.

On the other hand, he believed in volunteerism and he didn't believe in excess wealth. So he'd be a Democrat in that he was very much in favor of the estate tax, but he'd be a Republican in that he was very skeptical of government handouts and welfare.

Q: What would he think of the country today, with the size and scope of the federal government and the tax bite of all levels of governments?

A: He would be upset, because he basically believed in citizens' volunteerism and populist government, but not in big spending, especially on welfare.

Q: Do you think America has sort of forgotten about Ben Franklin?

A: No. I think there's a great Franklin revival happening, because the 1990s were a period where we lost touch with our values, whether it was our business values, or our political values, or our family values. I think there is a sense that we need to come back to stronger values.

Q: I saw that his autobiography was very influential. It was used in education in the 1830s and 1840s and 1850s. He was held up as an exemplar of individualism and entrepreneurialism and his autobiography inspired Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon. What was so powerful about that autobiography?

A: It was the first great rags-to-riches tale, in which a person can rise in the world based on hard work. It inspired Carnegie and Mellon and others because of its message of self-reliance, but also because of its message of trying to help others rise as well. Both Carnegie and Mellon worshipped Franklin, both in terms of his industriousness and in terms of his philanthropy.

Q: Having seen Mr. Franklin up close, do you like the man?

A: I like him a lot, even with all of his flaws.

Q: Do you think he could get elected president today?

A: I think he could because he's such an endearing character, and his values are so well-grounded.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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