With a new PBS biographical documentary (premiering tonight), a new book on his philanthropic efforts, and an upcoming Apple TV series based on his life, Benjamin Franklin is again – and still – in the spotlight.
Recognizing his skills, perseverance, wisdom and work ethic, we remember many of the reasons we revere him as an American founder as well as the namesake of one of the finest College of Arts and Science anywhere:
Why has the spotlight now swung to Franklin? One easy answer is that he’s always seemed to be the Founding Father most likely to enjoy modern American life. One can readily envision Franklin engaging in debates via blog, Twitter feed, or TikTok. That modern sensibility makes him a useful subject for humor. Unlike most of the other Founders, he was truly self-made. His family was not destitute while he grew up in Boston, but he was the 15th of 17 children, and the youngest son. He worked hard wherever he went, from his brother’s printing office in Boston to ones in Philadelphia and London. He cultivated connections with important men in each place. And he sought to project precisely that image to the world. “In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the Contrary.” The fact that he rose from a position as a youngest son of a candle- and soap-maker to become a wealthy businessman, renowned scientist, political leader, and diplomat is legitimately impressive, but it also makes him a Founder particularly suited to contemporary American hustle culture.
Recognition of his proto-modernity is a welcome addition to the many virtues to be proud of in Franklin, nearly as many as there are reasons to be proud to be a Franklin alum.