News & Politics

The Myth of Benjamin Franklin

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The myth of Benjamin Franklin is probably greater than the myth of Santa Claus, and that’s because the Ben Franklin that most school children know is nothing more than a jovial, benign Kris Kringle, a smiling kite-flying granddaddy figure filled with chuckles, winks, and wise sayings that sound like they were lifted from the pages of Readers’ Digest.

The undisputed fact, of course, is that Ben Franklin really was a genius with a dark history. Born in Boston in 1706, the tenth son of soapmaker Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger, Franklin was many things: A printer, inventor, writer, publisher, adventurer, and lover, as well as a man of secrets and mystery. His childhood was difficult, with his father marking him early on as “destined” for the clergy although that plan failed when the cost of divinity school proved prohibitive. Instead, the precocious, troubled boy who liked to read was farmed off to his older brother James, then editor and publisher of The New England Courant.

James put young Ben to work as a printing hand, so the 12-year-old was soon diligently working all the time setting type. In the end, the “technical only” job proved unsatisfying because Ben wanted to write for the magazine but knew that his brother would never allow a lowly print assistant, much less his younger brother, to become a contributor. Ben, undeterred, went on to invent a nom de plume, “Silence Dogwood,” supposedly an anonymous woman writer who wrote letters to the editor criticizing the treatment of women in the colonies. Unaware of his younger brother’s duplicity, James published Dogwood’s letters in The Courant and they became quite famous, on the order of a Colonial version of “Dear Abby”. Soon everyone in town wanted to know who Silence Dogwood was.

When Ben confessed the truth to his brother, James’ reaction was not nice. In fact, it was downright volatile. James became self-righteous and claimed that Ben had harmed the publication, and then proceeded to beat him as if he was a slave. But the teenage Ben had had enough, and found passage to Philadelphia where he hoped to find a job in printing, arriving with just enough money for a few loaves of bread. On his first day in the city it is said that he walked the streets soaking wet (it had just rained), and that his “odd” look impressed his future wife who, serendipitously, happened to catch a quick glimpse of him walking the streets. They would marry years later after her first marriage failed and after Franklin had established roots working for The Pennsylvania Gazette.  

The Founding Father’s life then takes on a mythic cast. He fathered an illegitimate child named William before his marriage, but after his marriage tales of his flirtations with other women, especially in France — where the spirit of sexual licentiousness has always seemed to rule with an iron fist — began to circulate. He also embarked on a number of simultaneous careers, including that of inventor. His inventions included the lightning rod for homes and the glass armonia. On one sailing trip he was the first to discover the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. He also resurrected Silence Dogwood in the form of another pseudonym, “Poor Richard” or “Richard Saunders,” when he published the annual Poor Richard’s Almanac, a chapbook of aphorisms, quotations, reflections, weather reports, and other oddities that the public found endearing.

Noted by some as America’s first arms dealer, Ben went to London to work on behalf of the colonies and was for a while the guest of Lord Snowdon, in whose estate in East Wycombe he stayed. Here’s where his life takes a mysterious turn.

Lord Snowdon was the founder of the Hell-Fire Club, a secret esoteric society that held meetings and parties underneath the Wycombe estate, where the male members dressed as monks and the women as nuns. The behavior among Hellfire Club members was in perfect alignment with Philadelphia’s own “Sin City” reputation in the 18th Century, when bawdy houses were common in the city. This may be difficult to imagine now, but in 18th Century Philadelphia most neighbors had a “live and let live” attitude when it came to the local bawdy house. People left them alone as long as no trouble came from them. When trouble did come to these houses, it was often in the form of fights, noise, and gunshots. If a house was too troublesome, it was often razed by neighbors, but it was razed not from a sense of moral outrage, but for practical reasons: Too much noise is never acceptable.

In some correspondence Ben makes references to Wycombe’s “underground” life, although the extent of his involvement there is unknown. Ben, after all, was the ultimate PR man. In his book, Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man (1996), Francis Jennings wrote:

To begin with, Franklin’s Autobiography is about as valid as a campaign speech. It sounds good. Everything he wrote sounds good. Franklin’s public life was devoted to public relations, of which he became a preeminent master.

Golly ole Ben was a man of passionate appetites. To use a Walt Whitman expression, he contained multitudes, so many “different selves” in fact that today there are still a number of people who accuse him of being a British spy, or of murdering and then burying the corpses of women and children under his old house on Carver Street in London, while others reduce him to a Satanist who worshipped Lucifer in the Hellfire caves at Wycombe. But it was Ben’s PR abilities that continue to affect how some biographers continue to see him to the present day. These biographies paint too sweet a portrait of the man, although these portraits are thoroughly in keeping with the touristy imitation Franklin’s one sees walking around Independence Hall. If your knowledge of Ben didn’t extend beyond this Santa image, you would never know, for instance, that novelist D.H. Lawrence found Franklin “a little pathetic … ridiculous and detestable,” and that German sociologist Max Weber summed up Franklin’s thinking as a “philosophy of avarice.”

Ben, for instance, called German immigrants “the Refuse of their People,” and he referred to the black slaves on American soil of having “a plotting disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel.”

The most evenly balanced biography of the man is Mark Van Doren’s biography that spells out quite literally that when Franklin’s wife was dying in Philadelphia, ole Ben was spending his time living it up surrounded by French women in Paris. Van Doren also describes how Franklin and a friend played a prank on a young man in Philadelphia’s Oyster Alley, and then accidentally burned him to death. Then there was Ben’s cynical view of American Indians in western Pennsylvania. It seems that before negotiating a treaty with these Native Americans, Franklin sent them a case of whiskey to “lubricate their compliance.”

At his funeral in 1790, 20,000 people paid tribute to this remarkable human being who was really much more complicated than the fake glossy image that’s become popular today.

At age 39 in 1748, Franklin wrote:

“Fair Venus calls; her voice obey;
In Beauty’s arms spend night and day
The joys of love all joys excell
And loving’s certainly doing well.”

Life, for Ben, was all about the next conquest, be it political, a new scientific invention, or a woman’s “resistance.”