Ben Franklin: The Original American

America’s First Renaissance Man

November 2022

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

America's Founding Fathers. One of the most eclectic groups of individuals ever brought together in a common cause.

So, what happens when you combine a military commander, a literary genius, a path-breaking scientist, a visionary philosopher, a seasoned diplomat, and a universally admired statesman?

Well … you get Benjamin Franklin. 'Cause this dude did all of those things.

Strap in. 'Cause this is a wild story — that's just as much about us as about him.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

It's a real testimony to America's obsession with our Founding Fathers that nearly 250 years later … we're still fixated on these guys. Alexander Hamilton gets the biggest Broadway show of all time. John Adams gets a best-selling book and an HBO series. George Washington gets … ok, for real though, does anyone know what this is supposed to be?

Now, those guys definitely deserve the attention, but let us put in a word for the man who gave us our name here at Kite & Key…

[Yeah, think about it for a second. Ok, got it? Good. Now you can stop sending us emails about it.]

That's right, our guy: Benjamin Franklin. Now, we're not gonna tell you that he's the greatest American ever — everyone knows that's Dolly Parton — but he may just have been the most American American ever.

Here's what we mean: Chances are that almost every trait you think of as part of our national character … is something you can find in the life of Benjamin Franklin.

America is a country where you can rise from nothing to achieve great things, right? Well, that describes Ben pretty well.

One of 17 children,i his formal education only went up to the age of 10ii — although people ended up calling him Dr. Franklin, because he nevertheless got an honorary doctorate from Oxford, in addition to honorary degrees from Yale and Harvard.iii And at 17, he got his start when he ran away from Boston — violating an employment contract with his own brother — to start a new life in Philadelphia.iv

So yeah, he started his career as a fugitive … also pretty American.

And in short order he turned into a big success. Between his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and his best-selling book series, Poor Richard's Almanac, Franklin did so well as a publisher that he was able to retire by the age of 42.v

Now, you know what comes next…

…42 and retired in Philly? Jersey Shore!

…Unless you're Ben, because another way he was quintessentially American is that he was restless … and always looking for the next thing to build.

And man, did he ever build them.

The first lending library in America? He starts it.vi The country's first volunteer firefighting company? He starts it.vii The University of Pennsylvania? He starts it — and serves at its first president.viii He helps charter the nation's first hospital.ix And he even runs the colonies' postal service — you’re gonna want to sit down for this one — at a profit. xxi

Now, as this list might suggest, a lot of this came from the fact that Ben Franklin had a very American obsession with self-improvement. In fact, his autobiography is practically the nation's first self-help book, providing detailed formulas for how to be a better, more disciplined person. And this is how insane this gets: We're not joking, Benjamin Franklin invented the pro-and-con list.xii

Like to see Alexander Hamilton do that.

And it was this fascination with testing out all his options that also made Franklin one of the great scientific thinkers of his day. You already know about the kite and the key — more on that in a minute — and you might know that he invented bifocals, the Franklin stove, and the lightning rod.xiii But did you know that that he also was one of the first proponents of inoculations against disease,xiv the first person to chart the Gulf Stream,xv and even one of the first to identify what we now know as the Placebo Effect?xvi I mean, it's impressive … and borderline annoying?

And this is before we get to all the quintessentially American stuff that you probably already know him for: speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Governor of Pennsylvania, member of the committee that drafts the Declaration of Independence, Ambassador to France who secures their support for the American Revolution, and the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention.xvii

Which is not to mention leading troops during the French and Indian War ,xviii calling for the abolition of slavery,xix and coming up with the most iconic symbol of the American Revolution.xx

Because, of course. Why wouldn't he have?

Now, when someone's life is that full it probably makes sense that not every story about them is going to be totally airtight. It's not actually true, for instance, that Franklin discovered electricity with a kite and a key. He just proved that lightning was a form of electricity.xxi

Not that that's super-easy, by the way. A Russian physicist trying to replicate the results a year later — without the proper grounding — managed to kill himself.xxii

It's also not true that Franklin came up with the idea of Daylight Saving Time ,xxiii not true that he wanted the turkey to be the national bird,xxiv and he said that wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, not beer.xxv Which is one area where he could've been a slightly better American.

But here's the thing: Benjamin Franklin's life was so crazy that any story about him sounds plausible. Because the following are things he really did do: He did electrocute turkeys, because he thought it made the meat more tender.xxvi He did introduce tofu to Americans.xxvii And he did leave money in his will for the cities of Boston and Philadelphia — on the condition they couldn't use it for 200 years.xxviii That's right — he was giving millions of dollars to charity in the 1990s.

Oh, there's also one other one we should mention: He … may have killed Beethoven.xxix Franklin invented the armonica, a musical instrument played by applying wet fingers to glass. And Beethoven had one. And it turns out that a lot of them were made with significant amounts of lead. And it turns out Beethoven probably had lead poisoning.

But, look it's not very likely! And honestly … if anyone had ever done enough to work off that debt…

All of which is to say that Ben Franklin was quintessentially American. Always striving, always on to the next thing, always believing that tomorrow could be better than today. And there's a lot of inspiration to be found there.

So, yes, the father of our country was a strapping military man who carried himself with grace and dignity. The mind behind the Declaration of Independence belonged to a country gentleman with the heart of a poet. But the real seeds of our national character … go back to a fat dude with a mullet who just kinda did a little bit of everything. Which is about as American as it gets.

God, is this a great country or what?

Sources

  1. Benjamin Franklin's Character TraitsNational Park Service
  2. Benjamin FranklinBritannica
  3. Ezra Stiles: List of Franklin’s Honors, 11 July 1763 — National Archives
  4. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (pg. 34) — Walter Isaacson
  5. "Benjamin Franklin’s Retirement and Reinvention" (William N. Thorndike Jr.) — Harvard Magazine
  6. History The Library Company of Philadelphia
  7. "Benjamin Franklin's 'Bucket Brigade:' The Union Fire Company" (Cary Hutto) — Historical Society of Pennsylvania
  8. Penn’s History — University of Pennsylvania
  9. "Franklin and the Nation’s First Hospital" (Michael North) — National Library of Medicine
  10. "What Would Ben Franklin, Our First Postmaster General, Think of Louis Dejoy?" (Diane Bernard) — Washington Post
  11. "How Is the U.S. Postal Service Governed and Funded?" (Tyler Powell, David Wessel) — Brookings Institution
  12. From Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Priestley, 19 September 1772 — National Archives
  13. Benjamin Franklin’s Inventions — The Franklin Institute
  14. "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Vaccines" (Howard Markel, M.D.) — New York Times
  15. "Benjamin Franklin Was the First to Chart the Gulf Stream" (Kat Eschner) — Smithsonian Magazine
  16. "The First Modern Psychology Study" (Sadie F. Dingfelder) — American Psychological Association
  17. House Speaker BiographiesPennsylvania House of Representatives
  18. "When Ben Franklin Met the Battlefield" (Brooke C. Stoddard) — Smithsonian Magazine
  19. Benjamin Franklin and the First Abolitionist Petitions — Bill of Rights Institute
  20. The Story Behind the Join or Die Snake Cartoon — National Constitution Center
  21. Benjamin Franklin and the Kite Experiment — The Franklin Institute
  22. Ibid.
  23. Did Ben Franklin Invent Daylight Saving Time? — The Franklin Institute
  24. Did Benjamin Franklin Want the National Bird To Be a Turkey? The Franklin Institute
  25. 7 Things Benjamin Franklin Never Said The Franklin Institute
  26. December 23, 1750: Ben Franklin Attempts to Electrocute a Turkey — American Physical Society
  27. "Ben Franklin May Be Responsible for Bringing Tofu to America" (Ryan P. Smith) — Smithsonian Magazine
  28. "How a 200-Year-Old Gift From Benjamin Franklin Made Boston and Philadelphia a Fortune" (Jake Rossen) — Mental Floss
  29. "'Armonicists' Debate Source of Beethoven’s Maladies" (Richard Benke) — Los Angeles Times

Shownotes

Sound | Premium Beat:  "Highly Strung" Jack Pierce, "Lucky Clovers" Mark Walloch, "Not Just Yet" Oliver Lyu, "One Last Heist" Flash Fluharty, "Shook Up" Life Is An Epic Film // Musicbed: "Everybody Knows (Unstoppable)" Royal Deluxe // Prosound Cloud Library

Footage | The White House: John Trumball // Columbia Daily Tribune // The White House Historical Association: John Trumball, David Martin, Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq // Film Art Gallery: Orion Pictures // Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Trumbull, Emanuel Leutze, Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, Allen & Ginter, Auguste Toussaint Lecler, Benjamin Franklin, Pierre Michel Alix, Charles Willson Peale, Emile Dupont-Zipcy, Jean-Baptiste-François Bosio, Jean-Baptiste Nini, Charles-Nicolas Cochin, Gift of William H. Huntington, 1833, Jean-Honoré Fragonard // Beethoven House: Karl Joseph Stieler // National Portrait Gallery: Gilbert Stuart, Joseph-Siffred Duplessis // Ministerie de Culture: Joseph-Siffred Duplessis // Muséum de Toulouse: Didier Descouens // Musei Vaticani: Raphael // National Gallery of Art: Filippino Lippi // Library of Virginia: Thomas Sully // Library of Congress: Edward Percy Moran, Matteson, Neale, Sadd, James Montgomery Flagg, Henry Bryan Hall, James McArdell, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Benjamin Franklin, Carol M. Highsmith, Charles Willson Peale, Rare Book & Special Collections Division // Architect of the Capitol: John Trumball // Philadelphia Museum of Art: Benjamin West // Library & Archives Canada: John David Kelly, George B. Campion // Harvard Art Museums: Robert Feke // Harvard // Yale // Oxford // Harvard University Portrait Collection: John Singleton Copley // The Pennsylvania State University: Currier & Ives // Clark Art Institute: Gilbert Stuart // Dover Publications: Ben Franklin // Biblio: Roger Williams and Willima Ury // Simon & Schuster: David McCullough // Thrift Books: Dale Carnegie // Paramount Pictures: Red Granite Pictures // Walt Disney Studios: Hamilton // Warner Bros.: Kopelson Entertainment // The Internet Archive: George Cove, John Bach McMaster // Getty: Paul Marotta / Stringer, Nuwatphoto, Master1305, Rich Fury / Staff, Yuri Tkach, Kean Collection / Staff, Bill Ross, f11photo, Patrick Donovan, Hulton Archive / Handout, Kean Collection / Staff, Gorodenkoff, YolandaVanNiekerk, Mario Marco, Geir Pettersen, Cristalov, Ryan McVay, © Santiago Urquijo, R. Brandon Harris, Coprid, Gregg DeGuire / Contributor, Mark Makela / Stringer // Unsplash: Eilis Garvey, Prateek Katyal, Sergey Sokolov, Zibik, Annie Spratt, Josep Martins, Nathan Anderson, Maddison McMurrin, Eric Prouzet, Charlotte Harrison, Alvan Nee, Joel Naren, Greg Rosenke, Gerhard Crous, Vladimir Fedotov, Cameron Stewart, Kevin Jarrett, Mackenzie Marco, Kelly Sikkema, Sara Bakhshi, Elena Joland, Brock Wegner, Jason Mitrione, Engin Akyurt, Serge Esteve, William Stark, Sherman Kwan, Ilse Orsel, James Lewis, Josephine Bredehoft, AussieActive, Brandon Mowinkel, Alexis Gethin, Crina Parasca, Ryan Thorpe // Pexels: Jeff Seven, Andrea Piacquadio, energepic.com, Anna Shvets, Antoni Shkraba, Monstera // Vecteezy: Orhun Evcimen // Amazon: Stephen R. Covey, Ty // Ebay: James Clear // Ben Franske // Daderot // Dbenbenn // Devin Cook // Rama // Georg Wilhelm Richmann // Beyond My Ken // Myrabella // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

Sources

  1. National Park Service
    Benjamin Franklin's Character Traits
  2. Britannica
    Benjamin Franklin
  3. National Archives
    Ezra Stiles: List of Franklin’s Honors, 11 July 1763
  4. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
    Book by Walter Isaacson
  5. Harvard Magazine
    "Benjamin Franklin’s Retirement and Reinvention" (William N. Thorndike Jr.)
  6. The Library Company of Philadelphia
    History
  7. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
    "Benjamin Franklin's 'Bucket Brigade:' The Union Fire Company" (Cary Hutto)
  8. University of Pennsylvania
    Penn’s History
  9. National Library of Medicine
    "Franklin and the Nation’s First Hospital" (Michael North)
  10. Washington Post
    "What Would Ben Franklin, Our First Postmaster General, Think of Louis Dejoy?" (Diane Bernard)
  11. Brookings Institution
    "How Is the U.S. Postal Service Governed and Funded?" (Tyler Powell, David Wessel)
  12. National Archives
    From Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Priestley, 19 September 1772
  13. The Franklin Institute
    Benjamin Franklin’s Inventions
  14. New York Times
    "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Vaccines" (Howard Markel, M.D.)
  15. Smithsonian Magazine
    "Benjamin Franklin Was the First to Chart the Gulf Stream" (Kat Eschner)
  16. American Psychological Association
    "The First Modern Psychology Study" (Sadie F. Dingfelder)
  17. Pennsylvania House of Representatives
    House Speaker Biographies
  18. Smithsonian Magazine
    "When Ben Franklin Met the Battlefield"(Brooke C. Stoddard)
  19. Bill of Rights Institute
    Benjamin Franklin and the First Abolitionist Petitions
  20. National Constitution Center
    The Story Behind the Join or Die Snake Cartoon
  21. The Franklin Institute
    Benjamin Franklin and the Kite Experiment
  22. The Franklin Institute
    Did Ben Franklin Invent Daylight Saving Time?
  23. The Franklin Institute
    Did Benjamin Franklin Want the National Bird To Be a Turkey?
  24. The Franklin Institute
    7 Things Benjamin Franklin Never Said
  25. American Physical Society
    December 23, 1750: Ben Franklin Attempts to Electrocute a Turkey
  26. Smithsonian Magazine
    "Ben Franklin May Be Responsible for Bringing Tofu to America" (Ryan P. Smith)
  27. Mental Floss
    "How a 200-Year-Old Gift From Benjamin Franklin Made Boston and Philadelphia a Fortune" (Jake Rossen)
  28. Los Angeles Times
    "'Armonicists' Debate Source of Beethoven’s Maladies" (Richard Benke)

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