HBD Benjamin Franklin: The Fun Genius

Few historical figures have as many talents and accomplishments as Benjamin Franklin.  He was born in January of either 1705 or 1706 in Boston, Mass in what was then the British colonies.  According to published sources, his impressive list of roles include: writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.

It’s impossible in the space of this blog to do them all adequate justice, so let’s hit on the key themes that ran throughout his life.  First and foremost, he was a writer and this served him well in all of his roles from printer to journalist to politician to inventor to scientist.  He was adept at getting the word out and loved to use pseudonyms for his writings.  When one thinks of the sheer enormity of his writings scratched out by hand using dipper pens and feather quills, the fact that he was a hard worker becomes abundantly clear.

He was also a busy body, and by that I mean a body perpetually in motion. He got a lot done, traveled extensively and was constantly experimenting.  Oh, to have been a guest at one of his dinner parties, especially the ones where he killed the turkey to be eaten with electric shock and cooked it on an electrical spit.  He wrote that this made the turkey “uncommonly tender.” He also humorously penned a series of essays called busy body in which he describes real busy bodies gossiping and such.

On that note, he was also very humorous.  So many of our favorite sayings actually came from his incredibly popular publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack, which is the business venture that made him the most money.  It was a yearly publication that had a circulation of 10,000 and ran from 1732 to 1758.  The almanack was published under the name Richard Saunders, but it was no secret that Benjamin Franklin was the author and featured humorous lines like “He that lies down with Dogs will rise up with Fleas;” “A True Friend is the Best Possession;” and “Haste makes waste.”

Franklin was also a largely self-made man, though it was clear that he had no problem drumming up investors in his businesses. He had no schooling past the age of 10, but was self educated and a voracious reader and the founder of the Library Company of Philadelphia, which was a subscription library where member dues were pooled together to purchase books for lending.  Today the Library Company of Philadelphia is a large and successful public research library. 

Although he was born in Boston, he spent much of his adult life in Philadelphia except for large amounts of time spent working in London on both scientific and diplomatic issues, and the years he served as the American Ambassador to France and Sweden.  

His many experiments and resulting inventions are legendary including the lightning rod- which was inspired by his efforts to conduct electricity- the Franklin stove, the glass harmonica and bifocal glasses.

Franklin held many public offices and participated in numerous political groups.  Most well known was his participation in the Second Continental Congress in 1775-1776 as the representative for the Pennsylvania Assembly where he was one of five authors of the Declaration of Independence.  According to his Wikipedia page, he is also, “the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris and the United States Constitution.”  He also served as the Postmaster General of British America from 1753 to 1774.

Oddly, when I attended high school, we were made to read his essay, “Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout.”  Therefore, I have always associated Franklin with the gout, which plagued him in his later years.  Here is a funny, brief excerpt from that essay:

FRANKLIN.  Eh! Oh! eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?

GOUT.  Many things; you have ate and drank too freely, and too much indulged those legs of yours in their indolence.

FRANKLIN.  Who is it that accuses me?   

GOUT.  It is I, even I, the Gout.

Certainly, if I had the chance to sit down with Benjamin Franklin, he might have something funny to say about my associating him entirely with the gout over his other notable achievements.

Benjamin Franklin died at the age of 84 in Philadelphia from pleurisy, an inflammation of the membranes in the lungs and chest cavity, and had over 20,000 attendees at his funeral.  

Here are some resources to help you learn more about Benjamin Franklin:

The Raising of America’s First Flag and the Cool Sarcasm of George Washington

The first day of January, not surprisingly, is full of firsts in history.  In today’s world, we begin the new year by getting gym memberships and starting work on our list of New Year’s Resolutions.  On January 1, 1776, George Washington’s resolution was to start a new army to finally beat back the overbearing British government.

On this cold day, George Washington had the Grand Union flag, which was a symbol for the new country they were trying to create, raised at Prospect Hill in what is now Somerville, Massachusetts.  

Washington had come to Boston in the summer of 1775 to take command of the revolutionary army during what was called “The Siege of Boston” where colonists were fighting to gain control of the region. Washington was headquartered in nearby Cambridge, Mass., but Prospect Hill –being a hill– offered the opportunity to fly a flag that would be seen for miles.  

The painting above of the flag raising was created by Clyde O. DeLand who painted it many years after the event– he wasn’t even born until 1872– but it shows members of Washington’s army shouting praise for the flag.

The inclusion of the British flag– otherwise known as Union Jack– in the canton or corner of the flag confused a lot of people including the British soldiers at the time, who considered the flag a sign of surrender.  

King George III– now is the time to muster all of those hilarious images of Jonathan Groff playing an oblivious King George in Hamilton— had in a recent speech offered to spare any colonists that would surrender.

Our guy, George Washington, refers to King George’s surrender offer in a super cool and sarcastic letter to Joseph Reed a few days later on January 4, 1776.  He says, “DEAR SIR: We are, at length, favoured with a sight of His Majesty’s most gracious speech, breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects.”

George Washington is clearly annoyed and we love him for leaving us that little nugget of sarcasm.  

Later in the letter, he describes the confusion “…for, on that day, the day which gave being to the new Army, but before the proclamation came to hand, we had hoisted the Union flag, in compliment to the United Colonies. But, behold, it was received in Boston as a token of the deep impression the speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission… By this time, I presume, they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our lines.”

This was not a good time for George Washington.  A revolution does not have a draft or a trained and well funded army to rely on.  The willingness of colonists to fight under such harsh conditions ebbed and waned, and Washington was charged with trying to rally the troops under very dire circumstances. 

Further in the letter, he gives insights into his situation, “Thus, for more than two months past, I have scarcely emerged from one difficulty, before I have been plunged into another. How it will end, God, in His great goodness will direct. I am thankful for his protection to this time. We are told, that we shall soon get the Army completed, but I have been told so many things, which have never come to pass, that I distrust every thing.” 

Washington’s words help us to understand the tense and stressful situation the colonists were in at the time of the flag’s unveiling.

The Grand Union flag was the first to introduce the “stripes” part of the stars and stripes.  It was a flag that was easily created by taking the existing British flag and sewing six white stripes over the top to create the symbol for the 13 colonies.  

Historians differ on the meaning of the flag or why they would include the British flag in the canton.  Was it an act or defiance or just an easy edit?  No one really knows, but it took hold and eventually, the “stars” replaced Union Jack in the canton and the rest is, as they say, history!

Each year, the City of Somerville, Mass. recreates the raising of the flag on Prospect Hill where a tower has been erected.  You can watch the 2019 raising of the flag on Twitter here.

Happy New Year!  And best wishes for a better 2021 and an end to this pandemic.  In the words of Washington, “How it will end, God, in His great goodness will direct.”