Next Avenue Logo

Being Benjamin Franklin

The 18th century statesman, writer, philosopher, printer, inventor and entrepreneur offers plenty of lessons for today, a biographer says

By Clayton Trutor

Benjamin Franklin led many lives over the course of his 84 years. Between his birth in Boston in 1706 and death in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia in 1790, Franklin excelled as a statesman, writer, philosopher, printer, inventor and entrepreneur. This son of an immigrant soap and candle maker made a unique life for himself in the American colonies and played a profound role in the making of the United States.

An actor portraying Benjamin Franklin. Next Avenue, Benjamin Franklin, Eric Weiner
Michael Douglas as Benjamin Franklin in "Franklin," a new series now on Apple TV+  |  Credit: Apple TV+

Author Eric Weiner, who has written extensively on great thinkers from around the world, delves into the life of Franklin, following the American polymath's journey from Boston to Philadelphia to London to Paris in his new book, "Ben and Me: In Search of a Founder's Formula for a Long and Useful Life."

"Franklin, it seems to me, gets short shrift," Weiner said. "He's seen as this avuncular figure who drank too much and ate too much and told jokes and played around with kites. He was a lot more than that." Weiner had never written at-length about a figure from American history. He had always been attracted to stories of thinkers from abroad, including Confucius, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates and Sigmund Freud.

Franklin Lived Every Year to the Full

Part of Weiner's attraction to Franklin was the way he dealt with aging, a subject of which Weiner himself is certainly conscious.

"I'm getting older. I'm definitely in your demographic," he said of Next Avenue. "We don't have very many good role models for aging. What we have is older people clinging to youth." Weiner regards Franklin as an excellent role model for adults aged 50 and over.

"Franklin, it seems to me, gets short shrift."

"The last third of his life was the most incredible. He accomplished the most and changed his mind about many things," Weiner said, including slavery, which he came to abhor, and democracy, which he came to view as the preferred form of governance.

During his seventies, Franklin spent years in France, developing strong diplomatic ties between the European power and the fledging American government. He continued learning, leading an active civic life, and he persevered through a series of ailments to make significant contributions to the young American republic.

Learning by Listening

In many ways, the contributions he made in his later years were an extension of the approach he took to his life's work from an early age. Largely self-educated, Franklin learned by reading and listening. He moved to London as a young man and made a home for himself at the city's coffeehouses, which were known as "Penny Universities" for the exchanges of ideas that took place within them.

Franklin decided as a young man to spend his significant intellectual energies on things useful to other people. Whether in the form of practical inventions (such as the lightning rod or bifocals) or the spread of practical knowledge through Poor Richard's Almanack, Franklin kept an eye on ways he could help other people improve aspects of their lives.

On the local level, he helped found institutions that made significant contributions to his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, including the city's fire department, public library and the University of Pennsylvania.

Contributing to the Constitution

That same desire to be useful became evident at the most consequential gathering of Franklin's life, one that took place just three years before his death.

Headshot of a man. Next Avenue, Benjamin Franklin, Eric Weiner
Eric Weiner  |  Credit: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

In 1787, Franklin was a force for compromise at the Constitutional Convention and helped bridge the partisan and sectional gaps that were evident even before the country's formal establishment. His experience and foresight tempered the often-heated debate that characterized the summer-long sessions that led to crafting of the Constitution.

"He would dismiss concerns about the age of either candidate [in the 2024 Presidential race]," Weiner said. "When he attended the Constitutional Convention, he was 81 years old, the same age as Joe Biden right now. He was old enough to be the grandfather of most of the other delegates to the convention. He had grandchildren older than the youngest delegate."

Politics Today? Same as It Ever Was

"He was generally respected for his wisdom but ageism has always been around. Some of the younger delegates dismissed Franklin as past his prime," Weiner said of Franklin's role at the Constitutional Convention.

Weiner notes that Franklin would find the contemporary political polarization of the United States completely recognizable. For most of Franklin's life, the colonies were separate political entities.

"His advice would be 'we've been here before and we'll overcome this,' " Weiner said. Franklin kept a list of 13 virtues he regarded as "necessary or desirable" for leading a good life. Weiner points out several of Franklin's virtues that are sorely needed in our tendentious moment: silence, humility and tranquility.


"Silence would be helpful. We don't listen too much now," he says. "Franklin was very observant. He noticed things that others did not. He had a keen eye and a keen ear. I think that's where all creative breakthroughs begin — with observation."

"He was willing to doubt his own convictions."

Similarly, Weiner admires Franklin's unwillingness to be flustered by the intrigues of the moment. Philosophically, he calls Franklin a "possibilian" — his temperament was given to creativity and experimentation within the context of the world as it currently existed. He was not a starry-eyed romantic nor a hard-boiled pragmatist and he was certainly not preoccupied with the trifles of the moment.

A Nimble Thinker

Franklin possessed a striking willingness to change his mind about a subject when presented with new information.

"One of the most admirable things about him was he would hold these beliefs, whether it's about slavery or electricity or democracy, very firmly until he didn't. He was willing to doubt his own convictions," Weiner said, a trait that has become strikingly unfashionable in the present political moment.

Next Avenue, Benjamin Franklin, Eric Weiner

While Franklin suffered many sadnesses in his life, notably a long estrangement from his son, a colonial administrator who remained loyal to the British, he found many ways to pursue the good in a decidedly imperfect world. His ability to make tangible contributions to the world around him for more than 80 years contributed significantly to his sense of meaning and purpose during his 18th century life.

The Art of the Possible

Long after his death, Franklin found a way to contribute to the places that shaped him. He created a trust fund that bore interest for 200 years. In 1990, this accumulated wealth was distributed between the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to civic endeavors in both his birthplace and his adopted hometown.

Franklin's imprint is evident everywhere one looks in American life. He offers a unique example of the ways in which citizens can shape the present and future of their communities by pursuing the art of the possible.

Clayton Trutor holds a PhD in history from Boston College and teaches at Norwich University. He is freelance writer and the author of "Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta — and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports" and "Boston Ball: Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams and the Forgotten Cradle of Basketball Coaches." Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2024 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo