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Thursday, February 5, 2015

The man who invented America: Ben Franklin at 300

When the last toast has been drunk and the last scrap of confetti swept away, when we’ve taken the latest, last full measure of the man, there will be one inescapable conclusion about the yearlong gala conceived to celebrate Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday: It was insufficient.

How could it be anything but? One slim year to fete the man who stole lightning from the sky? C’mon, that electrifying trick had already secured Franklin, then 46, his place in history. And he was just getting started.

Coast-to-coast celebrations? European tributes? That’s it? We couldn’t manage more? After all, this is the man whose conceptual fingerprints are today on everything from the way Americans deliver mail, heat homes, fight community fires, patronize libraries and, not incidentally, lead and inspire a world that before Franklin was uniformly ruled by monarchs, chieftains and spiritual poobahs who wielded power based on an alchemic brew of birthright and superstition.

This is a man so cool it’s a confounding surprise to learn he didn’t invent sunglasses.

But the real reason to celebrate Franklin is the one we most overlook, the one that’s the pure distillation of the myriad celebrations launched January 17, his 300th birthday.

Ben Franklin invented America.

He’s the spark that ignited the flame that became the American spirit. He’s can-do and no quit. He’s self-made and selfless. He’s Free Speech and free hors d'oeuvres. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff describes him as "equal parts Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bugs Bunny."

Growing up in Britain, Nicola Twilley, 27, never heard much about Franklin. Today she’s immersed in him and, predictably, she’s fallen in love. She’s the public programing director for the Ben Franklin Tercentenary (www.benfranklin300.com), the alliance dedicated to perpetuating the stupendous legacy of America’s most significant and dashing rascal.

"Our office is all women and we all went out to celebrate his birthday," she said. "I remember us all primping in front of the mirror and thinking, ‘Oh, Franklin would love this.’ Even one who tries hard to be objective finds it hard not to be smitten when dealing with Franklin."

It’s a love that does not go unrequited. Inventions which could have earned him fortunes -- the lightning rod, the Franklin stove -- went altruistically unpatented. "We should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours," he said, "and this we should do freely and generously." He loved human beings and he loved being human.

That’s the message that resonates in the monumental exhibit, "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," which launched in Philadelphia, is currently in St. Louis through September when it will move to Houston (October-January), Denver (March-May, 2007), Atlanta (July-October 2007), before concluding in Paris (December-March 2008).

The exhibit and its 250 original items will confer instant expertise upon anyone interested in the man credited with introducing Americans to tofu, Scotch kale and Parmesan cheese. The exhibit features 250 original items, including America’s five founding documents. Each is signed by Franklin, a seminal legacy unmatched by any other Founding Father.

An appreciation of Franklin is extending to London, where Franklin served as an ambassador from 1757-1773. His last still-standing residence at 36 Craven Street, just steps from Picadilly Circus, has been restored. It was there that Franklin invented bifocals, the first perpetual clock, and one of his proudest creations, the glass armonica, a musical instrument so enchanting both Bach and Mozart composed pieces specifically for it.

But the best place to "eat, drink and B. Franklin," will always be Philadelphia where through October the streets are festooned with artistic kites to commemorate his most thrilling experiment. It’s an often overlooked fact, but Franklin was the father figure to the Founding Fathers. He’d retired at 42 after a successful career as a printer when Thomas Jefferson was 4. Many of the statues at the National Constitution Center’s Signer’s Hall were erected in poses of youthful tumult. Not Franklin, who, seated, appears to be serenely issuing the bright bits of wit that still ring with Biblical clarity.

It may be more fitting to remember him as America’s beloved Founding Uncle, the winking one most likely to ask you to pull his finger. He composed drinking songs, kept recipes for "spruce ale," and is credited with the line, "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

So the best place to get a true sense of Franklin is someplace convivial like the historic City Tavern, the unofficial meeting place of the First Continental Congress. Or to get a feel for what Franklin, a globe-trotter in a horse-and-buggy era, felt traversing the Atlantic, dine aboard the four-masted Moshulu, an historic 1904 sail ship that rounded Cape Horn 54 times. Today, it’s a four-diamond restaurant docked along the Delaware River, just a short paddle from Camden’s Adventure Aquarium where through August 31 guests can try on replica swim fins invented by an 11-year-old Franklin.

For luck, you can follow tradition and toss a penny onto Franklin’s grave in the historic Christ Church Burial Ground. Don Smith, executive director of the church Preservation Trust, said Franklin still earns about $700 a year from people who pay their respects one cent at a time.

Or you could visit one of Franklin’s favorite legacies, the Fireman’s Hall Museum, site of the nation’s first all-volunteer fire company founded by Franklin in 1736. Years later, after a lifetime of vanquishing ignorance and tyrants, Franklin said his pivotal role in saving Philadelphia from catastrophic fire was, perhaps, his crowning achievement.

And on this the great man was wrong. No, his greatest role might have involved, not extinguishing fires, but starting them. His idea for the first public library, celebrating its 275th anniversary November 8 as The Library Company, ignited fires of the mind, according to director John C. Van Horn. "All the earlier libraries were at elite colleges and were devoted to clergy and religious studies. Franklin’s idea for public libraries helped make common farmers and tradesman as educated as gentlemen in other countries."

The recognition that any man or woman can elevate themselves above their birth status became the kindling behind both the American and the French revolutions. Today, those fires still burn.

Franklin’s restless quest for self-improvement and for a better world still smolders and that’s his enduring gift, the belief that the America of tomorrow will be better than today. And so will the men and women who vow to make it so.

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