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Benjamin Franklin

New Page -- 6 September 2003

Benjamin Franklin was a babe magnet.  This may not be the most noteworthy of his many talents, but then again, it might be.  Of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence, it's nice to know that the crafty dodger was sufficiently cognizant of the feminine mystique to gain notoriety for being highly attractive to members of the female sex.  It speaks well of any male politician to genuinely like women.  It's the old, "Make love, not war" style innovation.

The standard accolades for Benjamin are things like "America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, humorist and business strategist." [1]  Yada, yada, yada.  Perhaps Monsieur Franklin did indeed accomplish much.  But then again, maybe he was just in the right spot at the right time.  The more relevant question is what was his philosophy, what was his ideals and aversions, and most significantly, how did he manage to attract all those babes?

Walter Isaacson [1] does a commendable job in answering some of these questions, and organizes it around 7 virtues attributed to Franklin.  These include:

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1 -- An Aversion to Tyranny (So relevant today)

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2 -- A Free Press (and by implication, a couple of hundred years later, Inter Net)

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3 -- Humor (It's the babe thing.)

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4 -- Humility

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5 -- Idealism in Foreign Policy

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6 -- Compromise

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7 -- Tolerance

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8 -- Babes (I added this)

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9 -- 1776 (this too)

1 -- Franklin wrote prolifically in the pen name guise of a slightly prudish widow named Silence Dogood.  [You've got to admire his choice of pen names!]  In one instance, "she" wrote, "I am a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power." [1]

This is the kind of succinct statement which can be mined extensively for meaning and value.  From mortal enemy to arbitrary government, Dogood makes it clear upon which side she stands.  "I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country; and the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly." [1]  Go get 'em, Silence!

According to Isaacson [1], Franklin also uses Mrs. Dogood "to attack the theocratic rule of the Puritan establishment and the link between the church and state that was then the very foundation of Massachusetts government."  She goes on to say, for example, "A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under color of law."

William Rehnquist -- currently the Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court -- said, "The separation of church and state was 'a misleading metaphor based on bad history," and thereafter advocated that "the framers of the Constitution intended merely to forbid the establishment of an official state religion, as exists in England."  Obviously he was unfamiliar with Benjamin Franklin and Ben's part in writing the Constitution for the United States.  But then again, Willy Rehnquist seems unfamiliar with the Constitution itself and the liberties which it advocates.

This constitutional familiarity can be a common problem as the former Attorney General of the United States, failed Senator John Ashcroft, ignored the basis on which is oath of office was made, and routinely mixed "law and gospel" "under color of law" on a regular and unfortunately consistent basis.  It is precisely these people and others like them which Benjamin Franklin would quite possibly consider to be mortal enemies.  They are certainly mortal enemies of freedom loving Americans, and their continuing presence constitutes just one of the Perils of Democracy.

Benjamin Franklin's most relevant quote for the current age was also what became "an American rallying cry back in the early days of the Republic: 'Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety'." [1]  The current morass of the USA (anti) Patriot Act and the infliction upon America of the Homeland InSecurity Department makes this question of liberty and security the most important issue in the United States and the world today.  It is John Ashcroft and his co-conspirators which are most likely the moral enemies of liberty, security, and most anything worthwhile.

On the other side of the coin, however, Ben's "Aversion to Tyranny" makes him someone worthy of emulation, especially in the current State of the Union.

2 -- Franklin early on decided that the surest guard against tyranny was free expression -- including specifically the free flow of ideas and a free press.  According to him "No tyrannical society can long exist when it cannot control the flow of information."  One wonders what he would have thought of the Inter Net, and today's damming [pardon the pun] Media.  [No flow of information, get it?]

The free wheeling Inter Net might easily have delighted Benjamin Franklin.  Certainly, he was not one to shy away from offending anyone, and believed that "when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter." [1]  He might have been concerned, however, at the constant barrage of worms, hackers, computer viruses -- and the inevitable knee-jerk reaction of control freaks to limit the Inter Net.  He would probably suspect that within the "security needs of cyberspace" lie the seeds of liberty-denying shrubs.  [pardon the pun... think about it!]

As Isaacson notes, "America's democracy learned that it could thrive in an atmosphere of unrestrained, even intemperate, free expression.  Indeed, its democracy was built on a foundation of unbridled free speech.  In the centuries since then, the nations that have thrived, economically and politically, have been those, like America, that are most comfortable with the cacophony, and even occasional messiness, that comes from robust discourse."  That pretty well describes the Inter Net, and its true greatness.  Ben would have liked it.

3 -- Franklin also led the way for such descendants as Mark Twain and Will Rogers with a wry and self-deprecating homespun character.  Quotes such as, "I have likewise a natural inclination to observe and reprove the faults of others, at which I have an excellent faculty", is a style wholly within the Art of Writing unto itself.

Humor (and/or laughter) is the essence of wisdom.  It's also an essential ingredient in the babe magnet thing.  A sense of humor displays to all that the possessor maintains a delightful confidence in the past, present and future; and inasmuch as confidence is one of the most attractive of all interpersonal attributes, it follows that humor is the most necessary of all attributes.  It also follows that the terribly serious and concerned folk are about as attractive as a rogue T-Rex in heat on a bad-hair day.

Franklin's observation, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," may not sound terribly humorous, but it did motivate Groucho Marx to reply that the statement was a lot of hoopla.  "Most wealthy people I know like to sleep late, and will fire the help if they are disturbed before three in the afternoon."  Now, that's funny!

4 -- Humility is a tough road to hoe, particularly when one is so incredibly brilliant, witty, handsome, and genteel.  [BTW, arrogance is the illusion of being superior.  If one really is superior, then it's not arrogance.]

Franklin considered humility to be something worth acquiring, even if only a life long attempt in his case.  "Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it [pride], I would probably be proud of my humility." [1] Obviously, this is a good example of humor and humility, in that admitting to it displays a degree of humility.  But this is also one which Benjamin could not claim personally, as he would then be proud of the statement.  [This humility is really a multi-edged sword.  There's really no escaping it!]

On the other hand, Franklin noted [1], "People will eventually give you the credit... if you don't try to claim it at the time.  'The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid'."

5 -- It has been said (by historian Bernard Bailyn) that, "America's great historical moments have occurred when realism and idealism have been combined, and no one knew this better than Franklin." [1] Franklin employed this understanding as the official American envoy to Paris during the Revolutionary War.  He both courted the cold calculating French Foreign Minister with crass mercantile interests, and appealed to the idealism of the French public in the potential brilliance of America and its goal of providing an alternative to tyranny the world over.

This tactic of combining realism and idealism is fairly common -- including the idea of going to war with Iraq in order to free the people from tyranny (idealism), but also to obtain exclusive access to a whole lot of oil (realism)!  The difference, however, between the current state of the world and Franklin's was that Franklin was able to pull it off with a degree of credibility.  No one believes the democracy argument with respect to Iraq, if only because of the serious lack of credibility of those making the argument.

The curious part is that for anything to work in any age, there must be a compromise between realism and idealism -- and thus the sixth virtue.

6 -- Compromise. "For Franklin, who personally believed in proportional representation, compromise was not only a practical approach but a moral one.  Tolerance, humility and a respect for others required it.  The near perfect document [the Constitution] that arose from his compromise [to include both representation on the basis of population and statehood] could not have been approved if the hall had contained only crusaders who stood on unwavering principle.  Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies." [1] [emphasis added]

(6/20/05) Franklin, while working with Jefferson and Adams on the Declaration of Independence, rewrote Jefferson's phrase "We hold these turths to be sacred and undeniable..." as "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Walter Isaacson [4] wrote: "Our rights derive from nature and are secured 'by the consent of the governed', Franklin felt, not by the dictates or dogmas of any particular religion." But with Adams input, Franklin was willing to compromise and accept, "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

Tolerance, humility and respect for others...  There is implied in this phrase the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, one does not know everything or that one is not singularly blessed with divine guidance in all things.  [Obviously, if I'm right all the time, then everyone else must be wrong, at least part of the time!]

It is thus compromise on the basis of tolerance for other's opinions that lead us to...

7 -- Tolerance.  Isaacson [1] makes the statement: "The great struggle of the 21st century will be between the forces of fanatic fundamentalism and those of tolerance."  Not quite.

The greatest struggles -- at least those with the greatest sound and fury (and probably signifying nothing) -- will be those between different sects of fanatic fundamentalism.  The lynch pin in such conflicts will be the compromising forces of tolerance.

The dramas on the world stage currently are in reality between the fanatic fundamentalisms of Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Orthodox Jewry, Christian-at-whatever-cost administrations, and all those who would misuse religion in order to control, manipulate, and deceive any and everyone else.  When one realizes that the basis of the problems in the breakup of Yugoslavia into Bosnia, et al, was the centuries old conflict of Muslims and Christians of different sects, remembrances of battles hundreds of years prior, and the use of religion as a wedge so one person could steal another person's land.  One can readily see that it is not quite enough to solve problems by waiting patiently until the current generation croaks.  Sometimes, the religious bigotry lives on, and thus, it is essential to preach tolerance.

As Franklin has said, "I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue."  The relevant factor is that all major religions have within their purview a Golden Rule in which it is delineated that one should do unto others what one would like others to do unto them -- or words to that effect.  Tolerance, therefore, sees the fundamental connecting links between religions, while orthodoxy sees only the elaborate rules which attempt to distinguish one sect from another.

8 -- Babes.  One of Franklin's favorite lines was, "If you ladies have any questions, the answer is 'yes'." [2]  Willingness is the mother of invention.  Or something like that.  But if a "paunchy, balding, bifocaled septuagenarian managed to get French ladies in a flutter," [3], then you have to sit up and take notice of his advice.  Keep in mind that many of the women who surrounded Benjamin, were young, attractive, and intelligent.  If the only one of these three assets Franklin could claim was intelligence, then his sage advice is worth heeding.

It should be note, in addition that Franklin did master the "amorous friendship" of intimacy expressed in teasing kisses, tender embraces, intimate conversations, flowing love letters, and a hesitation toward sexual congress.  Any such a talent can carry someone a long ways.  There is the hint of a man who truly appreciated and respected women -- an attribute which can be very attractive to any female.  It is admittedly short of Sacred Orgasm, but it's based on the same principle.

9 -- Then there's "1776", the musical.  See it.  No kidding.  It's Benjamin at his best.

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[1]  Walter Isaacson, "Citizen Ben's 7 Great Virtues", Time Magazine, July 7, 2003.

[2]  Joel Stein, "All About the Benjamin", Time Magazine, July 7, 2003.

[3] Claude-Anne Lopez, "Why He Was a Babe Magnet", Time Magazine, July 7, 2003.

[4] Walter Isaacson, "God of Our Fathers", Time Magazine, July 5, 2004.

 

Signers of the Declaration of Independence         Declaration of Independence

Justice, Order, and Law

State of the Union

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