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Beyond the Lightning

By Caroline Kim | HUMANITIES, July/August 2002 | Volume 23, Number 4

By the age of forty-two, when Benjamin Franklin retired from the daily operations of his printing shop, he was a wealthy man. He had arrived in Philadelphia twenty-five years earlier, little more than a boy with a single Dutch dollar in his pocket; by 1748, he was one of the wealthiest men in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With the curiosity and fierce will he had possessed from an early age, he turned his attention to the science of electricity.

At the time, few people understood the phenomenon. “In Franklin’s day, electricity was much more of a puzzle than gravity had been a century earlier in Newton’s time,” says scholar Dudley Herschbach. “Everybody was familiar with things falling and all, but electricity--it was just about rubbing something and getting some sparks. Where did this come from? Very mysterious.”

So-called “electricians” traveled about giving demonstrations of this mysterious force to a fascinated public. One such show featured a boy suspended from the ceiling by silken cords. Rubbing his feet with a glass tube, sparks would be drawn from his face and hands to the amazement of the crowd. In another, a group of people held hands and received a collective shock from an electrostatic generator. These parlor tricks were performed all over the world.

Franklin realized that friction did not create electricity, it moved it from one body to another. The spark that resulted when the two bodies were brought close together was electricity flowing through the air. Taking it one step further, Franklin noticed that lightning was similar to the charge he created in his laboratory.

“Both give off light of the same color and have a crooked direction,” he wrote. “Lightning and this discharge both give off a noise like a crack and both are conducted by metals. The electricity generated in the laboratory is attracted to a pointed metal rod. Since they are similar in every other way, will lightning, too, be attracted to an iron rod? Let the experiment be made!”

What followed was the kite-flying experiment that made him famous. “In an age of reason,” says scholar I. Bernard Cohen, “his proof that the lightning discharge is an ordinary, natural phenomenon and not a manifestation of the powers of darkness, or the force of an angry God, was seen as a tremendous blow for reason against superstition.”

If solving the mystery of lightning were Franklin’s only achievement, he would still be known today. We continue to use the terminology he coined: “plus” and “minus” to denote positive and negative states. He invented the first primitive motor, or “self-moving wheel” and the first “Electrical Battery,” which, when charged, could store electricity for use at a later time. But Franklin’s influence on the world around him, and around us, extends far beyond the realm of science.

He was the only one of the Founding Fathers to have his signature on all three of the most important documents in early American history--the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution of the United States. He mapped the Gulf Stream and published the first American political cartoon. He invented the glass armonica--a musical instrument for which Mozart and Beethoven both composed. And without Franklin’s skillful diplomacy in France, there may never have been a United States of America.

Benjamin Franklin, a three-part series airing on PBS this fall, takes on the herculean task of bringing to life the man biographer Carl Van Doren called “a harmonious human multitude.”

Its producer is Catherine Allan of KTCA National Productions in St. Paul, Minneapolis. The idea came to her while she was working on the Peabody Award-winning series Liberty! The American Revolution. “No one had done a really thorough documentary series about his life and achievements,” says Allan, “especially his early life and the pre-iconic Franklin, the pre-Founding Father Franklin, who had already achieved so much.”

Assembling the same team that worked on Liberty!--Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer of Middlemarch Films and writer Ronald Blumer--they set about researching the man about whom political scientist Michael Zuckert once wrote, “Think of a combination of Jay Gatsby, Thomas Edison, Norman Vincent Peale, Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Garrison Keillor, and Carl Sagan and one begins to have some idea of who Franklin was and how many typical American types he embodied in his capacious frame.” The production team was hooked.

“Franklin is the most human and the most interesting and the brightest of the Founding Fathers,” says Ellen Hovde, co-producer of the series. “The first thing that strikes you is the sheer range of the Renaissance man aspect,” says Catherine Allan. “Not only that he had many interests but that he was accomplished in his many interests. And he was excellent in so many different areas that are not necessarily related. He was a really good writer and he also had an inquiring scientific mind. He knew how to read people and at the same time he was a good political organizer and a very talented scientist. Those aren’t always qualities that go together.”

To understand Franklin, one must go back to the period of the Enlightenment, a time of universal optimism when it seemed that human reason could solve every problem and surmount any difficulty.

“The basic assumption of the Enlightenment,” says historian Gordon Wood, “is that we’re not born to be what we are--which was the traditional view for centuries, for eons. And once you have that insight, which is a modern insight, you can begin to change things. Education becomes important. You can change what you were born, presumably, to be. You can become something else.”

Unlike George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, Franklin was not born into the aristocracy. His father, Josiah, was a candle and soap boiler; Franklin was the thirteenth of seventeen children and the youngest son. Puritan Boston in the time of Franklin’s youth--the early 1700s--still retained the class systems the immigrants had brought with them from Europe, but they were not as rigidly kept. Life was a struggle for survival and there was too much work to be done. “There was an upper crust,” says Blumer, “but it was nothing like England. There was much more mobility. Also, there was a great shortage of laborers so that anybody who could do something useful could earn money here.”

Franklin saw opportunities everywhere. Taken out of school at the age of ten due to lack of funds, he was apprenticed to his brother James to learn the printing trade. He continued to study on his own, teaching himself “everything from geometry to the art of winning arguments using the Socratic method,” according to Blumer.

Exposed to a greater wealth of books in the printing shop than the religious tracts he was given as a child, he learned to perfect his writing style by taking apart articles in the British Spectator and rewriting them. “He would make little notes on pieces of paper--the theme of a paragraph or the various points on a theme. He would put it aside for a while, come back and then try to compose it. In a few cases, he thought he even made a slight improvement over these masters of English writing,” says historian Ralph Lerner.

At the printing shop where his brother James published the New England Courant, one of America’s first newspapers, Franklin made his first foray into the world of publishing by writing under the pseudonym Silence Dogood, a fictional middleaged widow of strong opinions. “Name a vice in which women exceed men. Drunkenness? Swearing? And idleness--if you talk to us, you’ll learn that a woman’s work is never done. As for ignorance, that’s completely the fault of men who prevent women from getting an education. Women are taught to read and write their names and nothing else. We have the God-given capacity for knowledge and understanding. What have we done to forfeit the privilege of being taught?” He slipped the letters under the door anonymously to keep James from becoming jealous. He was sixteen years old.

“Benjamin was smarter than James, was better as a printer, even as an apprentice, than James was,” says H.W. Brands. “James would beat him, as masters commonly beat their apprentices. Well, Ben didn’t think this was right.” At seventeen, Franklin broke his apprenticeship agreement and ran away, first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Now his own man, and with more freedom in Philadelphia than in Boston, Franklin began his ascent from obscurity. “Franklin from the get-go understood that he was a modest man’s son, but he had powers that rich men’s sons didn’t have. He was smarter than they were, he was more adroit than they were, he was stronger than they were,” says scholar Michael Zuckerman.

The film’s opening episode, “The Way to Wealth,” covers the first forty-two years of his life. These were the years in which he became an astute businessman, published the Pennsylvania Gazette, formed a commercial self-help group called the Junto, wrote Poor Richard’s Almanack, and turned his attention to civic duties such as organizing America’s first police force, paving and lighting the streets of Philadelphia, and founding the first lending library and the college that became the University of Pennsylvania. Even before he turned his attention to politics, Franklin accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime.

It is easy to lose Franklin behind his list of achievements. Faced with the challenge of bringing to life not only a complicated personality but one who lived in the pre-photographic era, Middlemarch Films uses a technique they discovered during the filming of Liberty!--on-camera actors speak from original sources. “We wanted to use this incredible archive of letters and so on [diary entries, official reports, newspaper accounts] but it doesn’t form itself like dialog,” says Muffie Meyer. “So this technique of having people speak directly to the camera is more in the spirit of someone writing.” Hovde agrees. “You get a sense of character that you can’t get any other way. It’s a very intimate way to present historical characters.”

The documentary creates a rich narrative of not only Franklin’s long life but the century in which he lived. To give viewers a sense of this world, background scenes depicting eighteenth-century London, Paris, and Philadelphia were filmed in Vilnius, Lithuania, whose eighteenth-century architecture remains intact. “The Paris that we know today,” says Meyer, “is a nineteenth-century city and looks pretty much nothing like Paris looked then. In the main city of Lithuania, Vilnius, we found things were almost exactly the same.”

As for portraits and paintings of Franklin, there was an abundance to choose from. “Franklin,” says Catherine Allan, “was one of the most painted and reproduced of the Founding Fathers.” This was due to Franklin’s famed scientific experiments, but also to his concern with his image. As a young man in Philadelphia, he admits in his autobiography, he made sure his industriousness was seen by his fellow townsmen.“ In order to build my credit and character as a tradesman, I take care not only in reality to be industrious and frugal, but to appear so in public. When I buy paper, I make sure to be seen pushing it through the streets in a wheelbarrow. I’m soon considered an industrious and thriving young man, and merchants who import books or stationary choose me to sell it in my shop. Everything goes . . . swimmingly.”

Franklin’s understanding of the importance of image continued to serve him when he was sent to France during the American Revolution. When he arrived, he was wearing a fur hat to keep his head warm; the French went wild. “There was a vogue for things American in France at this time,” says H.W. Brands. “Many French intellectuals looked to America as a new world, as a fresh world, as a world where human nature was closer to its natural origins than the human nature one found in the confines of Europe.”

Franklin wrote home to his daughter Sally: “My picture is everywhere, on the lids of snuff boxes, on rings, busts. The numbers sold are incredible. My portrait is a best-seller. You have prints and copies of prints and copies of copies spread everywhere. Your father’s face is now as well known as the man in the moon.”

Franklin’s mission in France is covered in episode three, “The Oldest Revolutionary,” and reveals how delicate and difficult an operation it was. He had to seek French aid but could not do so openly. Ostensibly there as a private citizen, he had to use his social skills to secure the most basic necessities for the Continental Army--weapons, boots, ammunition, blankets. “Why did he go to France? Why did we need French help?” says Blumer. “Because there was no industry [in America]. You couldn’t make gunpowder, you couldn’t make guns. There were no people who knew about fighting, there was nothing. People suggested you fight the war with pikes. That was the level of technology they had.”

“He had incredible social skills,” says Allan. “And the canniness, the backroom politicking skills for handling that very delicate situation of trying to ask the French, a monarchy, a Catholic monarchy, for money to support a revolution against a king. I mean, when you think about it, it makes no sense. Other than the fact that they wanted to get back at England.”

Franklin’s diplomacy was aided by the joie de vivre he shared with the French. Genuinely, he loved life,” says Allan. “He enjoyed eating and drinking and flirting and having fun and talking to people and staying up late. All those kinds of social skills he had in abundance and that was how diplomacy was conducted.”

He shocked John Adams, who was in France for the same purpose. Adams thought Franklin was putting aside American interests in his desire for a good time. Adams wrote home: “The life of Dr. Franklin here in France is one long party. He eats breakfast late in the morning, and as soon as his breakfast is over, crowds of people come to his court. Philosophers, academics, his literary friends, even women and children, thrilled at the great honor of viewing his bald head, listening to him telling stories about his simplicity. Well, by then, it’s the afternoon! Time to dress for dinner! Dr. Franklin never turns down a dinner invitation. He seldom comes home before nine and sometimes as late as midnight. I’d be happy to do all the work myself--all I want is a few moments a day for him to sign letters or get advice on what’s to be done. He has time for everyone but me.”

“You must remember that there was no foreign service, there was no tradition,” says scholar Claude-Anne Lopez. “This was one of his chief inventions, so to say.”

John Adams was also dismayed by Franklin’s reputation as a flirt. Franklin, at the time, was over seventy, bald, heavy, and afflicted with gout--and the French were entranced by the way he charmed the ladies. “You couldn’t be a politician in France unless you had relationships with influential women,” says scholar Tom Fleming. “They called them the salonnières. And these women ran these salons where everybody who was anybody came. At one point, there was a salon where three hundred women gathered around Franklin and they placed a crown on his head. And don’t think these women didn’t go home and tell their husbands, ‘I think France should become the ally of America.’ They had influence. So he was always being a diplomat even while he was charming the ladies of France.”

Though the documentary goes beyond Franklin’s achievements and tries to convey the man’s personality, it acknowledges the difficulty. “He’s a very elusive character,” says Hovde. “He’s incredibly bright, he’s a genius. And he’s also very self-protective.” Blumer says, “As he says, ‘let all men know thee but none know thee well.’ He keeps his cards very close to his chest and there are occasional little cracks where you really see what’s going on, but most of the time, he presents this very placid, benign exterior. You can’t really see into his soul. We met a lot of people who said he didn’t have a soul . . . but, in fact, he’s a real live human being.”

The middle episode, “The Making of a Revolutionary,” shows Franklin’s relationship with his son, William, perhaps the person who knew him best. Born illegitimate, a product of a youthful flirtation, William was raised by Franklin and his new wife, Deborah. Constantly by his father’s side, he was there during the famous kite experiment and traveled with him to England, where Franklin was sent by the Pennsylvania Assembly to represent their interests. Working tirelessly on his son’s behalf, Franklin had him appointed as the Royal Governor of New Jersey. As relations broke down between England and the colonies due to the Stamp and Tea Acts, it also created a personal rift between Franklin and William. “When his own son refused to join him in this revolution in which Franklin was risking his life and his reputation and his property,” says Fleming, “this seemed to Franklin an absolutely unbelievable, unspeakable betrayal.”

“I don’t think there’s any question that Benjamin Franklin was a great statesman,” says scholar Willard Randall. “And I have no question that he was a brilliant inventor. I think he was a wonderful journalist and writer. But I think he was very hard on family and friends. And no different from an awful lot of leaders who are put in the public eye and we expect them to be saints in private, as well as giants in public. . . . Franklin destroys everything around him to create something new. He destroys the old British order. He destroys aristocracy. In the process of creating something new . . . he destroyed what was closest to him, his relationship with the person closer than anyone to him, his son.” William was eventually jailed, before fleeing to England. Franklin wrote about his son one more time, to cut him out of his will.

Franklin was quintessentially American in his ability to reinvent himself. “He’s the ultimate believer in reason and evidence and facts,” says Allan. “That you don’t make facts fit the theory, you make the theory fit the facts.

And if the facts change, you have to change your theory.” At the end of his long life, Franklin visited a school and noticed that black students were learning just as quickly as white students were. He immediately became an abolitionist, one of the few Founding Fathers to do so. He wrote, “Can the pleasure of sweetening our tea with sugar grown by slaves make up for all the misery produced among our fellow creatures, the butchery of the human species by this detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men?”

“Franklin was far in advance of his time,”says biographer Esmond Wright. “What makes him so compelling to study and so original is his almost total freedom from the limits of his own environment.” “He speaks in a very modern voice and has a very modern sensibility,” says Blumer. “The kind of mentality he represented is a very modern mentality. The whole idea of understanding the power of the press as propaganda, understanding image. All that’s very modern.”

The America that has been passed down to us--the “land of opportunity,” the haven for immigrants, for the soul who knows his worth and is willing to work hard to reach his goals-- owes much to the example of Franklin’s life. “Much more than a rags-to-riches story,” says scholar Leo Lemay, Franklin’s early years reflect “a dream of possibility--not just of wealth or of prestige or of power, but of the manifold possibilities that human existence can hold.”

About the Author

Caroline Kim is a writer in San Francisco.

Funding Information

KTCA National Productions has received $825,000 in Endowment support for the production of Benjamin Franklin.