Today's Reading

If I had previously thought of Franklin at all, I saw a kite. Then his wizened face, smirking on the hundred-dollar bill, and speaking only in gnomic quips like some American Yoda. But, as Poor Richard charitably put it, "the Wise and Brave dares own that he was wrong."

Back in my room after lunch, I opened my laptop. Where to begin with Benjamin Franklin? I started with the table. Formerly it had lodged at the Hôtel d'York, where Franklin and the American delegation had met the British representative to sign the treaty that recognized America's independence, ending the Revolutionary War. The hotel is gone, but a plaque marks the site, located directly across the Seine from the Louvre. The address, 56 rue Jacob, is now, fittingly, home to a university's Center for International Studies.

One link led to another. I spent the night clicking Franklin, not suspecting that this was the start of a decade-long trail that would wind through Boston and Philadelphia archives, the Library of Congress (whose central entrance is topped with Franklin's bust), his former London town house, and his ancestral Northamptonshire village, nestled amidst fields of beans. To begin with Franklin is to pull on a kite string that keeps pooling at your feet. The man contained multitudes.

Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals, the lightning rod, and a musical instrument called the glass armonica. (Mozart composed a piece for it.) He proved that lightning is electricity, and coined the words electrician, battery, conductor, positive/negative charge, and electric shock. He founded Pennsylvania's first library and fire department, and co-founded its first hospital and college. (All remain open.) He perfected the odometer and the rocking chair. He designed a better catheter and a more efficient stove. He drew the first American political cartoon: a sliced-up snake captioned JOIN, OR DIE. He explained the northern lights and mapped the Gulf Stream. He also invented swim fins. For his own prowess in the water, Franklin was posthumously inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He once astounded a party by leaping from a boat and swimming three miles from Chelsea to Blackfriars against the strong tidal current of the river Thames.

As Poor Richard, he spun aphorisms that went viral centuries before this was a thing, including "Fish & Visitors stink in 3 days" and "Three may keep a Secret if two of them are dead."

Not all of his sayings were gems; think of the last time you heard someone utter "Men and Melons are hard to know" or "She that paints her face, thinks of her Tail." Others have been updated, even if unknowingly. It's a short walk from "He who multiplies riches, multiplies cares" to "Mo Money Mo Problems," a song by the Notorious B.I.G., who also dubbed hundred-dollar bills "Benjamins."

Some of Poor Richard's most quoted sayings, such as "God helps those who help themselves," actually originated elsewhere. Franklin plucked that one from a vine that ran back to Sophocles in ancient Greece. But then Franklin was an inveterate borrower, starting with his first published essay at the age of sixteen and continuing to his last will and testament, written in his eighty-fourth year.

The line between Franklin fact and Franklin fiction blurred even during his lifetime. Franklin himself hid behind pen names that included Silence Dogood, Martha Careful, and— my favorite—Caelia Shortface. From London in 1774, Franklin wrote a letter of introduction for "an ingenious, worthy young" Englishman looking for work, perhaps as a surveyor. After the immigrant arrived in Philadelphia and published a pamphlet that ignited the movement for American independence, many people, including Thomas Jefferson, suspected that Common Sense's "Thomas Paine" was just another Franklin pseudonym.

Franklin's autobiography is often credited as the first American memoir. Davy Crockett supposedly carried it to his death at the Alamo. Dale Carnegie modeled How to Win Friends and Influence People on it. Elon Musk—a fellow electrical visionary—tabbed it as his favorite book. Yet for a man known for his plainspokenness, Franklin could be cagey about his personal life. In his memoir, he characterized his visits to prostitutes as "Intrigues with low Women that fell my Way, which were attended with some Expense and great Inconvenience." He also never publicly revealed who had mothered his firstborn child.

To a modern reader, the autobiography's most glaring omission is that Benjamin Franklin once owned slaves. While he is often described as being a man ahead of his time, such praise elides the fact that Franklin was also a man very much of his time. As a young entrepreneur, Franklin profited from slavery, printing in his weekly Pennsylvania Gazette advertisements selling enslaved men and women, or seeking those who had escaped. He earned income, too, from slavery's opponents, publishing in 1729 two of the colonies' first abolitionist tracts, as well as the 1737 book All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, which excoriated the trade as being "the Mother of all Sins."

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