Do you have a favorite person that you enjoy reading about over and over? If you do, please leave a comment and share your thoughts. In the meantime, let me tell you about my favorite.
In my mind, Benjamin Franklin wasn’t a tubby guy flying a kite in a thunderstorm. In fact, there’s good reason to suspect he never did the kite experiment at all. We “know” about it through someone’s second hand account which was later popularized by Parson Weems — the man who gave us George Washington and the cherry tree. That Franklin is an icon; a cartoon. So is the bifocaled old Founding Father that Americans typically imagine.
He was much greater than a cartoon. He was his era’s Leonardo: A multi-tasking, genius-at-everything celebrity. In the whole history of science, he shares pop culture celebrity status with Einstein alone. Galileo, Newton, Faraday, and Darwin might have been the giants of science, but only Franklin and Einstein were famous beyond their science.
Franklin started out as a printer’s apprentice and excelled enough to run the shop himself when his brother was arrested for libel. He set up his own print shop and proved himself an entrepreneur extraordinaire, growing wealthy enough to retire young. He planned to devote his retirement to science and before a decade had passed his discoveries had made him famous throughout Europe — even more so than in his native America where science (or natural philosophy as it was called) wasn’t much known. Then came his civic accomplishments, which compare with those of no one else. World events eventually called him into politics, international relations, and nation creation.
Except for his family life, which was mostly fractured, he was extraordinary in nearly every endeavor. Consider these: he played music (and invented an instrument for which Mozart composed), taught swimming (he’s enshrined in the International Swimming Hall of Fame), and had a wicked sense of humor. I can’t picture Washington or Jefferson telling a joke. Lincoln, a soft-spoken yes. Franklin, a hearty yes. Over beer.
He fascinates me. He’s not the cartoon. I’ve read more books on Franklin than on any other historical figure. It started with the thin little Story of Ben Franklin by Eve Merriam that I bought from Scholastic in third grade. I still have that book scrawled with the sloppy signature of my seven year old self, but minus the worn front cover. I’ve read many others since. (A few of my favorites are shown in the photo above.) I think I know the man pretty well and yet he was so multi-faceted that there seems to be something new to discover in every biography I read.
I’m running long in today’s blog already, so I’ll tell you about the new perspective I gleaned from a recent Franklin biography next time. Until then, tell me who YOU enjoy reading about.