Just this side of the Delaware River, in the heart of Philadelphia, is a rectangular stone slab that marks the grave of its designer–perhaps the simplest thing he ever created during a lifetime noted for historic inventions.
It is remarkable that he made it back to this continent in time to “go to bed,” as he called it, since he spent much of the second half of his life in Europe. But then, after more than 70 years of public service, he still had work left to do in America–a constitution to help write.
His life is presented in 500 pages, in Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Despite his love for and many years living in both Britain and France, his truly was an American life, and America’s life is very much his. Franklin’s legacy, for me, is summed up in one sentence from the book:
“He was the only person to sign all four of [America’s] founding papers: the Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France [that brought its assistance to the cause], the peace accord with Britain, and the Constitution.”
He didn’t, of course just sign them. He shaped them. That leaves the United States of America as his greatest invention, overshadowing the practical use of electricity that would later brighten its nights.
But beneath the characteristics and accomplishments we are familiar with from textbooks, advertisements, and cartoons, Benjamin Franklin was a simple man. He clung to his first profession with as much value as any of his other accomplishments:
In his long life he would have many other careers: scientist, politician, statesman, diplomat. But henceforth he always identified himself the way he would sixty years later in the opening words of his last will and testament: “I, Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, printer.”
He was a man who aimed to do good for his fellow man, not because a religion professed it but because he felt that goodness to others, by itself, pleased God. Communiter Bona profundere Deum est –this is the motto of the Library Company of Philadelphia, which he founded. He believed in what was best for all people, not just the wealthy or connected, and he believed the less fortunate should not be supported without limit, but enabled and encouraged to stand on their own.
However, like all men, he had his flaws, and like many men, his opinions evolved as he neared his end. He became an outspoken critic of slavery only in the last years of his life, and while his personal spirit of compromise gave the Constitution a pulse, in his younger life he had taken to anonymous satire to attack the ideas of others.
For the most part, his goodness to others was strangely lacking toward his own immediate family. He spent fifteen years away from his wife, with an ocean between them, much of it flirting with other women of all ages. He failed to return for his daughter’s wedding, the birth of his first grandchild, after his wife Deborah’s stroke, and even after she died. He fathered an illegitimate son, William, before he married, and refused to reconcile with him for his loyalty to Britain, even after the war was long over.
He developed his own set of moral goals, but a friend pointed out that he forgot to mention pride. Franklin admitted he struggled with that one:
“[E]ven if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I would probably be proud of my humility.”
Soon after that he began printing Poor Richard’s Almanack, which offered many words of wisdom; famous phrases that we still use today. Even the great George Washington seemed to take heed of one of Poor Richard’s maxims, “Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly: Men freely ford that see the shallows.”
I began reading this book specifically for the story I found in one chapter: I had wanted to learn more of Franklin’s crucial brokering with France since I first caught just the scent of it in Chernow’s “Washington.” His deal-making ultimately ended after he led France to believe he was talking to Britain, too, on America’s behalf, to possibly forge a new alliance with them. Such a partnership would have hurt the interests of the French, seemingly locked in perpetual struggle with their neighbor.
The man never stopped trying to make a difference–to make the colonies and then the country a better place for everyone. He never stopped living–not just breathing, but living–until his body finally quit working. Yet he never worked for fortune or fame. I think he was just a restless soul, a Busy-Body, which was one of the pseudonyms that he cloaked his writing under.
Perhaps his modest grave marker was his final act of semi-anonymity, and at last he was able to achieve a sincere humility. Here lies a servant of God; a friend to all; a neighbor; a simple man.