Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1785, by Joseph Siffred Duplessis (National Portrait Gallery)
At his death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin was the most famous man in America, rivaled only by George Washington. Born the tenth and youngest son of a humble candle-maker in Boston in 1706, Franklin’s rise to prominence and power first in Philadelphia, and then in London and Paris, was nothing short of meteoric. His very public achievements—in business, science, philanthropy, politics, and diplomacy—were remarkable in his day, and even more so by the standards of our own.
In an absorbing day, historian Richard Bell explores four aspects of the public and private life of America’s favorite Founding Father, tackling his experiences as writer and printer, inventor and philanthropist, husband and father, and reluctant revolutionary. To help participants better understand this wonderfully flawed and familiar figure, the day includes reading and discussion of a few short pieces written by Franklin.
9:30–10:45 a.m. Laid Out In Books: Writer, Printer, Ventriloquist
Even as a child, reading, writing, and printing consumed Franklin, and his career in the book trades shaped everything he did later in life. An apprentice, a runaway, a jobber, a pseudonym-loving essayist, and eventually the 18th-century equivalent of a media mogul, Franklin learned to think, to argue, to imagine, and to care by spilling ink.
11 a.m.–12:15 p.m. The Turkey in the Thunderstorm: Tinkerer, Optimizer, Improver
Franklin was America’s first technophile: a determined experimenter, prodigious inventor, and incorrigible do-gooder convinced that he could make life cheaper, simpler, and easier for everyone. Never letting his limitations get the better of him, he transformed science, medicine, and the city of Philadelphia in short order.
12:15–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own.)
1:30–2:45 p.m. The Silk Negligee: Husband, Father, Flirt
Franklin nurtured a loving marriage and a large and doting family. But he also severed all ties with his once-favored son and heir, ignored his long-suffering wife when she needed him most, and spent more than a decade abroad stringing along an array of star-struck women.
3–4:15 p.m. You Are Now My Enemy: Loyalist, Traitor, Patriot
Franklin treasured his identity as a proud subject of the British Empire and came late to the role of American revolutionary. But once converted, he became the new nation’s most ardent and useful advocate, the only American to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Federal Constitution.
Bell is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Though Benjamin Franklin never funded one of his inventions through Kickstarter, the approach behind the site—and the fundraising and philanthropic activities that we know today—owe much of their genesis to Franklin. The American History Museum’s blog looks at how his then-radical idea that giving can be an expression of communal support by ordinary people instead of an exercise in patronage by the most wealthy took root in American life.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)