The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin

By Morison, Samuel Eliot | The Saturday Evening Post, April 1990 | Go to article overview

The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin

Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Saturday Evening Post

Many great men in history have had little or no sense of humor, and George Washington was one of them; but Benjamin Franklin, the most versatile genius in American history, not only had a sense of humor but was one of the few people who could get a laugh out of George. The story he liked best was Ben's reply to die stuffy Englishman in 1775 who protested that it was foul ball for the Yankee Minutemen to fire at British redcoats from behind stone walls. Why?" asked Ben. "Didn't those walls have two sides?" George relished this so much that when he visited Lexington, Massachusetts, 14 years later, he told it to his guides, astonishing them with roars of laughter. And like most of Franklin's jokes, this had a moral to it: don't be mad at your enemy if he is smarter than you, but try to be smarter yourself. Franklin's humor, as revealed in his Poor Richard's Almanack, is always kindly, often earthy to the point of coarseness, but never bitter. He makes fun of pretense and stuffiness, but never sneers at poverty or ignorance. He is whimsical, as in his "Drinker's Dictionary," in which he gives more than 100 terms for drunkenness-some of which, like "fuddled." "stew'd," and "half seas over," have endured; but most, like "cherry merry," "as dizzy as a goose," and "loose in the hilts," have gone down the drain. He was a master of political satire, as in that fake edict of a German king proposing to tax England because the Anglo-Saxons originally came from Germany, and he excelled in the typically American humor of exaggeration. For instance, he warns passengers sailing down Delaware Bay in August not to be alarmed in hearing "a confus'd rattling noise, like a shower of hail on a cake of ice." It is the season of fevers and agues in the "lower counties"-the present state of Delaware-and the noise is the chattering of the inhabitants' teeth! Born in Boston in 1706, missing the Puritan century by only six years, Ben Franklin was three years older than Dr. Samuel Johnson and ten years older than Thomas Gray. Every other leader of the American Revolution belonged to a generation later than his; Washington was 26 years younger; Jefferson, 37 years younger; Hamilton might have been Ben's grandson and was, in fact, only 5 years older than Ben's grandson William Temple Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was old enough to have called on the Rev. Cotton Mather, who when approaching a low-hanging beam in his parsonage, between the living room and the library, gave young Ben a piece of advice he always remembered and acted upon: "You are young and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it, and you will miss many hard bumps." Expediency; or, accept the second-best if you cannot get the best, might have been Franklin's motto. He was always advising it in his almanacs, as, "Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar," and "Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards." Ben Franklin set the pattern of the American success story. Though Ben was withdrawn from Boston Latin School within a year because, as the 10th son and 15th child in a tallow-chandler's family, his father could not afford the small tuition fee, Ben became, by his own efforts, one of the most learned men of his age. He would have enjoyed enduring fame as a scientist and philosopher had he never dabbled in politics. "Doctor Franklin" he was called, because he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, St. Andrews, and Oxford; he could put "F.R.S." after his name as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and was elected corresponding member to most of the learned societies of Europe. At home he was the only American leader except Washington who commanded respect and confidence throughout the Thirteen Colonies, four of which (New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Georgia) appointed him their agent, or official lobbyist, in England. And his popularity went deep; he had the confidence of all classes. Robert Morris, Philip Livingston, and Cadwallader Colden were proud to have him to dinner; yet the frontiersmen of North Carolina proposed that he "represent the unhappy state of this Province to His Majesty. …

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