What Ben Franklin Would Do

The good doctor can help with our civic head cold.

EARLY TO BED, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, andoh, put a sock in it, Ben. Mossback is suffering from a nasty summer cold and doesn't want to be told to leap out of bed and be a productive member of society. Instead, I want to curl in my nest and be less productive. The region of the sinuses would be a good place to start.

Nevertheless, I would not, and have not, kicked Benjamin Franklin out of bed. In fact, I've been nursing myself back to health by reading former Time essayist Walter Isaacson's new biography of Franklin, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, which is just one contribution to the recent Franklin revival that seems to have consumed the publishing industry. This one is a terrific read about an incredible life, revealing a man who, while famous for promoting virtues, was no Bill Bennett. Despite his annoying sayings, he was both wonderfully wise and human at the same time, a big ego with a sense of humor.

The originality and scope of his accomplishments is mind-boggling. He was a self-made product of the Enlightenment who invented everything from the very concept of the United States of America to a method for discovering how electricity worked. He was a key architect of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the American alliance with France that won the Revolution, and the peace that followed. He still had time to start a university, the first lending library, the first militia, the first think tank, and the first fire department and run the postal service. In the meantime, he invented useful things, from easy-to-maintain street lamps to efficient stoves to the sex-advice column. He witnessed the first manned flight, came within an eyelash of being able to calculate the size of molecules, mapped the Gulf Stream (quite accurately, according to our infrared- satellite technology), and once proposed to study how to reduce the frequencyand improve the fragranceof farts.

ONE REASON FOR his revival is that Franklin was a uniquely American character because of his cracker-barrel wisdom and his belief in the basic freedoms that today we hold "self-evident" (Franklin's phrase, by the way). He also was the embodiment of and apostle for middle-class values. Franklin indeed saw America as a nation of shopkeepers: educated tradesmen and community builders who were civically involved and lived well by doing good for others. He saw America as an intensely rational place where reason could win out over our baser instincts.

Part of his current popularity must also lie in the way people of all political stripes can see something of themselves in himsomething that resonates with contemporary issues.

Conservatives see Franklin as a compassionate conservative, a man who was suspicious of public welfare (because it would create dependence), yet who tirelessly promoted voluntary associations to do public good. He was also a pro-business entrepreneur whose inventiveness was directed toward the practical. David Brooks has called him "our founding yuppie."

Liberals find in him not only a staunch civil libertarian and progressive thinker, but a real advocate of diversity and the rule of secular law. Franklin also believed that the pursuit of money and power led to trouble: Ambition and avarice are a bad combination. In the protection of liberties, he was unequivocala tonic in this Ashcroft era: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," Franklin wrote.

ONE CAN LOOK around and imagine what Franklin would say if he could see our city. He would, no doubt, admire the innovations of Bill Gates and the Silicon Forest, appreciating that harnessing electricity could form the basis of a new type of communication. One can easily imagine a young Franklin as an enthusiastic computer geek.

He would undoubtedly be appalled that Seattle finds it "necessary" to close its public libraries for a week at a time because of budget cuts. Late in his life, when a group of citizens named their town after him, they asked Franklin to donate the church bell. Franklin wrote back saying he couldn't help them with a bell, but if they built a library, he'd be happy to supply the books. Self-improvement was a core value.

As a frequenter of coffeehouses, he would probably support the idea of a latte tax. Franklin definitely thought that luxuries ought to be heavily taxed, especially flubdubs and the property of the rich. Americans should be upwardly mobile, but there ought to be a cap on wealth.

He would probably be disgusted with the money that flows into our local campaigns. He also would likely be unafraid of the challenges raised by the initiative process: Franklin seemed to believe that the ferment caused by direct democracy would eventually create good wine. Of course, he never met Tim Eyman.

I think Franklin would have been comfortable with some aspects of the Seattle Way: His real diplomatic and political success was in acting as an agent of compromise and reason. In his own public career, he found success in holding tenaciously to basic principles and being very flexible on the details.

That, of course, is the exact opposite of most of our politics today, which ignores the big issues and battles over the petty details. For those of us caught in that quagmire, Franklin's life serves as an antihistamine, a head-clearing example that the body politic needs to blow its nose.


comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow