Benjamin Franklin: A Humantarian


When I was a child my Great Grandmother gave my brother and I, a set of Encyclopedia’s. Excited to see such a great volume of neat looking books, I begun going through and reading different unimpressive and unfamiliar biographies. Then, I come across Ben Franklin. “Yeah,” I thought, “I remember learning about him in school!” Since reading that encyclopedia, Ben Franklin has fascinated me. Currently, I am reading a H.W. Brands biography and studying the papers of Ben Franklin put together by Yale University. I come across a couple quotes I thought were interesting enough to share but before I share them, I think they need a little explaining to appreciate.

When Franklin was in his 50’s, he moved to London to represent the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. Franklin’s commission was to heal the tough political relations between the elected colonial officials in the Pennsylvania Assembly and William Penn, the Proprietor (Royal Governor) of Pennsylvania. Franklin hoped this role would eventually lead him to a place in the British Parliament. This was before the American Revolution, so at the time, he was quite the British subject and a proud advocate for the British Empire.

Once Ben settled in and become comfortable with London he decided to log onto and research his family tree. Actually, I’m just kidding. There was no internet in the 18th century, so Ben and his son William took the opportunity in England to take a trip to the countryside to research their ancestry. While doing this he received news back from Philadelphia that two of his friends had passed away. His response is both intuitive and speaks volumes of his ability to identify and make sense of human behavior. In a time where there was no such thing as mental health, depression, bipolar, or pharmaceuticals, Ben Franklin recognized mental illness on an 18th century level. When speaking of his two very different friends, he recalls quite clearly, how one was somehow happy despite being poor and the other not happy despite having amassed a bit a wealth. It is things like this that I love most about history, it breathes life into human beings that have long since died and been forgotten.

Franklin wrote back to Hugh Roberts:

“Odd Fellows, both of them, Parsons, a wise man, often acted foolishly, Potts, a wit, that seldom acted wisely. If enough were the means to make a man happy, one had always the means of happiness without ever enjoying the thing; the other always had the thing without ever possessing the means. Parsons, even in his prosperity, always fretting! Potts, in the midst of his poverty, ever laughing! It seems, then, that happiness in this life rather depends on internals (rather) than externals; and that, besides the natural effects of wisdom and virtue, vice and folly, there is such a thing as being of a happy or an unhappy constitution.”

Franklin wound up living in London for nearly 20 years from 1757-1775 with a brief return to Philadelphia in 1763. After leaking some private letters of Thomas Hutchinson (Governor of Massachusetts) to the Revolutionary press, Franklin was placed in the “cockpit” of Parliament, lambasted, and embarrassed by and in front of Englands ancient family names. A man now almost 70 years old, a lifetime of intellectual genius and notority that led him to international fame and honor, was treated like a child who had been caught with his pants down. This ended his love for the “mother country” and this ended his time in England. In 1775, he returned to America where he was greeted like a hero. For the first time in his life he felt as if the 13 colonies bickering with England had grown irreconcilable and he begun supporting the growing Independence movement. Franklin was eventually sent back across the ocean where he lived and worked as the ambassador to France. After some meaningful military accomplishments by George Washington, Ben successfully convinced the French King to enter the American Revolution as an ally against the British. If it was not for this, General Washington would have never been able to keep his army together and defeat the British. His role as ambassador was irreplaceable (John Adams was sent to help but was found counterproductive, abrasive and rude) it is arguably the single most important factor in America winning the war. One could say and many have; without Franklin’s personality and wit, there would be no United States of America. I know it’s not “scholarly” to speculate as such, but I cannot help but think if Franklin would have been a younger man, if he had not been at the end of his life and if he would have expressed the ambition for holding the office; Washington, may not have won our first election in such a landslide.

Despite his amazing achievements, Dr. Franklin died an unpopular man. Though Franklin did own house slaves in his lifetime, though he did profit from publications of the slave trade in his papers, he also profited from the publication of the abolitionist, and Franklin, rather then accepting and defending slavery, took it upon himself to learn more about the African Race. His opinion of their equality grew after he visited and subsequently help fund, one of the first black school houses in the nation. He observed, the children as having higher natural capacities than he expected and went on to say he felt ashamed for not seeifs them equal of white children the same age to begin with.

Franklin wrote a letter to Reverend John Waring in December 17, 1763:

“This is chiefly to acquaint you, that I have visited the Negro school here in company with the Rev. Mr. Sturgeon and some others; and had the children thoroughly examined. They appeared all to have made considerable progress in reading for the time they had respectively been in the school, and most of them answered readily and well the questions of the catechism; they behaved very orderly, showed a proper respect and ready obedience to the mistress, and seemed very attentive to, and a good deal affected by, a serious exhortation with which Mr. Sturgeon concluded our visit. I was on the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw, have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race, than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children. You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my prejudices, not to account for them.”

In his later years, Dr. Franklin did away with owning slaves altogether. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and many more were unwilling to make such a move, either waiting to free their slaves upon dying or not freeing them at all, choosing to either defend, just the institution of slavery to their death. Franklin chose to take a leadership role in the infancy of the Abolitionist movement. He become President of the nations first official Abolitionist group, “Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.” He spoke in dissent outside the Constitutional Convention and in 1789 he submitted the first petition to Congress calling for the end of slavery. Very bold for the time.

He wrote for the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, 1789:

“Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils. The unhappy man who has been treated as a brute animal, too frequently sinks beneath the common standard of the human species. The galling chains, that bind his body, do also fetter his intellectual faculties, and impair the social affections of his heart… To instruct, to advise, to qualify those, who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberty… and to procure for their children an education calculated for their future situation in life; these are the great outlines of the annexed plan, which we have adopted.”

Dr. Franklin offended many politicians and peers whose livelihood depended on slavery. Thus, he died a rather infamous figure in the papers outside of Philadelphia. For a man who spent his lifetime building a reputation unmatched in the colonies and around the world, I think this shows just how difficult it would have been for him to do what he did at the end of his life. Think of how much easier it would have been for this man to have spent the dusk of his days getting along and increasing his already amazing reputation by signing autographs and giving speeches. Instead, as a frail old man, he chose to take his iconic prominence and popular influence on the American psyche and throw it in the trash by picking up an unpopular position which gave birth to a movement that took on the establishment and fought for human rights. All of this while he was dealing with severe pain from kidney stones in his 80’s.

Despite all that Benjamin Franklin achieved in his lifetime, what most impresses me about him is his love for the human being. His study of our behavior and personalities and his fun wit in his reflections. When reading Dr. Franklin’s writings, it is truly hard not to laugh out loud at his intelligence, comedy, and love for humanity. He was a politician, an ambassador, an electrician, a scientist, a physician, a psychologist, and even a sociologist. Throughout his lifetime German immigrants flooded Philadelphia, making many citizens uneasy and causing political tensions between the two groups. Some suggested German books ought to be banned, in order to encourage the learning of English. Others, in an attempt to ease tensions, suggested intermarriage. Dr. Franklin had some interesting thoughts on the idea that German Immigrants should be encouraged by government subsidy to marry the colonials.

Franklin writes to Peter Collinson:

“The German women are generally so disagreeable to the English eye, that it would require great portions to induce Englishmen to marry them. Nor would German ideas of beauty agree with our women: dick und starcke; that is, thick and strong, always enters into their description of a pretty girl, for the value of a wife with them consists much in the work she is able to do. So that is would require a round sum with an English wife to make up to a Dutch man the difference in labour and frugality.”

I’ll end this brief tribute to Dr. Franklin with more of his comedic reflections and insight into human behavior, particularly how women behave as they mature. This is his advice to a young bachelor, advice in which he first tells his friend marriage is of course best for him to release his inhibitions. However, if marriage is not an option, he tells the young man, older women are much more preferable partners.

Franklin writes to Cadwaller Colton (please remember this was a relaxed private correspondence, he surely meant no offence to anyone or any group):

“if you will not take this Counsel (on marriage), and persist in thinking a Commerce with the Sex inevitable, then I repeat my former Advice, that in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones. You call this a Paradox, and demand my Reasons. They are these:

i. Because as they have more Knowledge of the World and their Minds are better stor’d with Observations, their Conversation is more improving and more lastingly agreable.

2. Because when Women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over Men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a 1000 Services small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all Friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old Woman who is not a good Woman.

3. Because there is no hazard of Children, which irregularly produc’d may be attended with much Inconvenience.

4. Because thro’ more Experience, they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion. The Commerce with them is therefore safer with regard to your Reputation. And with regard to theirs, if the Affair should happen to be known, considerate People might be rather inclin’d to excuse an old Woman who would kindly take care of a young Man, form his Manners by her good Counsels, and prevent his ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.

5. Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.

6. Because the Sin is less. The debauching a Virgin may be her Ruin, and make her for Life unhappy.

7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflections; none of which can attend the making an old Woman happy.

8thly and Lastly They are so grateful!!

Thus much for my Paradox. But still I advise you to marry directly; being sincerely Your affectionate Friend.”


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