Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin
Rivaled only by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin was, at his death in 1790, the most famous man in America. Born the tenth and youngest son of a decidedly 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 first public achievements—in business, science, philanthropy, politics, and diplomacy—were remarkable in his day, and even more so by the standards of our own.
Yet for all we know about Franklin the icon, aspects of the man still elude us and his many contradictions remain both puzzling and glaring. For example, he treasured his identity as a proud subject of the British Empire right up until the moment he embraced the role of American revolutionary. He also owned enslaved persons for most of his life, only to decry slavery in the harshest possible terms in old age. He nurtured a loving marriage and a large and doting family even while flirting with an array of star-struck women and severing all ties with his once-favored son and heir.
How can we merge these several Franklins into one? Or should we even try? Richard Bell, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, argues that it’s Franklin’s many faces that make him so compelling. His multiplicity and capacity for complexity render him inscrutable and inimitable and wonderfully flawed and familiar. Both ordinary and extraordinary, Franklin—the man with nine fascinating lives—winks at us from across the centuries and dares us to wink back.