Benjamin Franklin: Patriot, scientist, statesman

Benjamin Franklin was 84 years old when he died in 1790, and there are few, if any, who have accomplished as much with their lives as he. At least most of us know of a few of his accomplishments in the founding of our country. During his lifetime, the English colonies were separate entities with a good deal of jealousy and animosity among them. He lived to see the craftsmen, merchants, and ship owners of New England and the aristocratic, slave-holding plantation owners of the South eventually unite to form a new nation.

Franklin decided early on that the colonies should be free and independent of the English crown, and his devotion to that cause never wavered. His only living son, the crown-appointed governor of New Jersey, was a fierce loyalist, and this resulted in the permanent alienation of father and son, much to Franklin’s regret.

During the Revolutionary War, Franklin served as ambassador to the court of Louis XVI, the king of France. His charm and personality and his proficiency in the language immediately endeared him to the French people and to the king himself. The plain clothes he wore were admired and quickly became a fashion rage. As he was a widower at the time, the French ladies loved him, and he certainly reciprocated.

His diplomatic efforts resulted in the alliance treaty of 1778 between the newly formed United States of America and France. France advanced a considerable amount of money and provided direct military assistance to the newly formed American government, which greatly helped in the war effort and eventually led to the final defeat of the British.

Franklin’s talents, however, were not limited to diplomacy. Poor Richard’s Almanac, from which he made a fortune, was first published in 1732. His newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, was quite popular and eventually became The Saturday Evening Post magazine. Under his guidance, the postal service of the colonies was speeded up, and he founded the American Philosophical Society in which membership today is a much sought-after honor. Perhaps some of his more mundane accomplishments were the invention of bifocal glasses and the Franklin stove, which replaced the fuel-wasting fireplace.

But in the field of science is where he truly excelled. By the middle of the 1700s, Dr. Franklin was recognized in Europe as one of the outstanding living scientists. Electricity fascinated him and stimulated his fertile mind to resolve many questions about that little-known phenomenon. Here are some of his personal notes concerning electrical experiments: “Electric fluid agrees with lightning in these particulars. 1. Giving light 2. Color. 3. Crooked direction. 4. Swift motion. 5. Conducted by metals. 6. Crack or noise in exploding. 7. Destroying animals. 8. Firing inflammable substances. 9. The electric fluid is attracted by points. We do not know if this property is in lightning, but since they agree in the other particulars, it is probable they agree likewise in this. Let the experiment be made ….” This led to the famous kite-flying episode that proved lightning was electricity. Its attraction for points gave him the idea for the lightning rod.

His probing and productive mind, bold, but tempered with common sense, led him into productive research on the aurora borealis, the origin of northeast storms, the Gulf Stream, the common cold, earthquakes, mathematics, and natural history. He even foresaw the use of paratroops when he suggested 5,000 balloons, each carrying two men, would not cost more than five ships of the line, and he argued, “Where is the prince who can afford to cover his entire country with troops for its defense?”

In the field of natural history, he was an avid bird watcher and a student of animal behavior. When the Congress wanted to name the bald eagle as our national bird, Franklin objected and said the eagle was unworthy of representing this country because of its vile habit of stealing food from other birds and animals. He suggested the wild turkey was more appropriate as a national symbol, but this was rejected.

Franklin is buried in a courtyard in Philadelphia, a short distance from Independence Hall. His electric personality still lights the world.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Aug. 24-30, 2005, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!