Today's Reading

Eleven years later, at the Constitutional Convention's conclusion, Franklin is said to have been stopped outside the belfried brick building known today as Independence Hall. A Philadelphian named Eliza Powell supposedly asked the eighty-one-year-old, "Well, doctor, what we got, a republic or a monarchy?"
"A republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it."

He was so frail then that prisoners from the Walnut Street Jail often carried him in a sedan chair to the sessions, held less than two blocks from his home. Two years later, Franklin wrote to a friend in France that although the Constitution had "an appearance that promises this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Less remembered is that this witticism came as he faced his own inevitability. "My health continues much as it has been for some time," Franklin's letter continued, "except that I grow thinner and weaker, so that I cannot expect to hold out much longer."

He died five months later, maligned in his final days by the republic he helped to build. There would be no state funeral, and the nation that grieved most would not be his own.

History has, of course, reversed this cold shoulder. Franklin's face remains—as he boasted to his daughter more than two centuries ago— as recognizable as the moon's. In fact, one of its large impact craters is named for him, as are schools, bridges, stadiums, streets, parks, a zoo, this typeface, a genus of flowering tree, one of the world's tallest giant sequoias, and mountains—in Alaska and New Hampshire—that bookend the United States. According to the U.S. Postal Service, Franklin is America's most common place-name. The first of these thirty-one towns, platted in Massachusetts, wrote to Franklin in 1785, asking for money to purchase a church bell. Instead, the seventy-nine-year-old sent them 116 books, "Sense being preferable to Sound." That same year, he sat for a French portraitist, whose rendering is engraved on American currency.

What could there possibly be left to say about Benjamin Franklin? He appears to be self-evident, as elemental to history as water is to earth. Over the centuries, bookshelves have progressively sagged with titles recounting his remarkable life. Here, for a change, is the untold story of his inspiring afterlife.

On the same day my clumsy handprint inadvertently summoned his ghost to the table, I stumbled upon Franklin's last will and testament. Initially, only one line on my laptop's screen captured my attention: "My timepiece, that stands in my library," Franklin directed, "I give to my grandson William Temple Franklin. I give him also my Chinese gong."

Try as I might, I never did find that gong. Instead, I found this tale, one barely hinted at by the end of his doorstop biographies, which conclude when the founder is laid to rest. Poor Richard warned that "Bad Commentators spoil the best of books," and so I say this with all respect for the many authors who have followed Franklin before me: writing a biography of water might well require tracking down fewer sources. (My more than eight hundred citations, along with a time line, appear in the back pages.) But even after the cemetery gates—and those other book covers—are shut, there remains one last bit of narrative string to pull. It holds a charge, still, pulsing from his past down to our present.

In his will, as in his life, the forefather of American philanthropy gave generously. And much like the adages of his many alter egos, Franklin's gifts came with lessons attached. To his fractured family, he left inheritances that publicized his core beliefs: loyalty and patriotism, racial and gender equality, education and public service. But before signing away the last of his fortune, Franklin drew up an imaginative scheme.

At a time when the demise of the United States seemed more likely than its success—when the banking system was fledgling and the dollar so unstable that it had yet to be made the official currency—Franklin placed a final bet on the "rising generation" of young tradesmen.

To his hometowns of Boston and Philadelphia, he gifted twin funds to jump-start what we now call blue-collar careers. The money was to be continually doled out in low-interest loans across two hundred years. On the bicentennial of his death, the accounts—fattened by centuries of earning compound interest—could be cashed out and spent on civic improvements.

Franklin believed that skilled workers formed the foundation of American democracy. They provided crucial services while interacting daily with people of all classes, creeds, and colors. Essentially, they kept the pulse of a community's street-level public and economic life and laid the groundwork (literally) of a healthy society. "Good apprentices," Franklin wrote in his will, "are most likely to make good citizens."

What happened to Franklin's fortune and his hopeful wager on the working class? Surprisingly, given the swings in the nation's fortunes between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, his bet paid off, although not in the manner, or with the results, that he had predicted. But like the lessons from his life, Franklin's death has much to teach us still.

"The slightest events in the life of a famous man," eulogized one of his Parisian friends, "become the most interesting, when they give birth to a new way of thinking that all of a sudden changes the direction of his will."

Where to begin with Benjamin Franklin? This story starts at his end.


INTRODUCTION: All About the Benjamins

Act I: Death, 1789-1791
1. "My earnest desire to be useful"
2. The Foundation of His Fortune
3. Franklin's Inheritors
4. The Morals of Chess

Act II: Afterlife, 1791-1904

5. Dr. Franklin's Legacy
6. "A name that will disappear with him"
7. Boston: Grubby Boys and Angel Fish
8. Philadelphia: Anybody Could Have Done It
9: They Rowed. And Also They Rowed.

Act III: Rebirth, 1904 and Beyond
10. "My teacher, Franklin"
11. Turning the Tap
12. "We finally got it away from those bastards"
13. Benjamin Franklin's Return

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