• Finding Franklin

    [Revised version of an essay originally written July 6, 2007]



    In the weeks after the deaths of my brother Steven and his wife Catheryn, I found a photograph that instantly gripped me. In the photo, Steven was standing next to a statue of his recently adopted hero, Benjamin Franklin, along the Freedom Trail in Boston. Just a few months after their wedding, he and Catheryn had traveled back to Massachusetts for his ten-year high school reunion. There was Steven—approximately one year before his death, on a cloudy November day. Franklin stood above him, his hat cradled in his arm. Steven had a newspaper held in his arm, an echo of Franklin. I wondered whether he had intentionally adopted Franklin’s pose—publicly declaring his intention to emulate this man he so admired.

    Steven and Ben

    Losing Steven drove me to find ways to connect with him, and I just couldn’t get that photograph out of my mind. So, finally, I went in search of this man who so inspired him. In finding Benjamin Franklin, I found more than I had anticipated from my limited exposure to his story in high school and college. I found a life rich with depth, character, humor, and devotion. I found a lover of learning, a lover of freedom, a lover of service and good works, and a lover of God.

    Lover of Learning

    Though he had only two years of formal education, Benjamin Franklin was a life-long lover of learning. As a child, he devoured books and other reading materials and continued to read and educate himself as an adult, eventually amassing one of the largest personal libraries in America. He is also responsible for creating the first public library system—the Library Company of Philadelphia.

    Seeing a need to educate Philadelphia’s youth, Franklin proposed the creation of an academy where he acted as president for the first five years. This school later became the University of Pennsylvania.

    Franklin taught himself French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and German, and he learned to play the harp, violin, guitar, and “armonica” (an instrument he invented). Franklin was eventually awarded honorary doctoral degrees from numerous prestigious colleges and universities including Yale, Harvard, and Oxford. These degrees were awarded in recognition of his achievements and discoveries in the field of electricity for which he gained international fame.

    His curiosity and his desire to use knowledge to improve the world were insatiable. He pursued his interests in a wide range of fields including meteorology, physiology, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, botany, agriculture, geology, natural history, mechanics, and physics. He simply loved to learn, and the world was better because of the things he discovered.

    Lover of Freedom

    Though Franklin’s diplomatic duties took him from his home and beloved wife, Deborah, he served willingly and tirelessly to successfully bring about the goals of the American patriots. Franklin stated:

    We have had a hard struggle, but the Almighty has favored the just cause; and I join most heartily with you in your prayers that he may perfect his work, and establish freedom in the new world as an asylum for those of the old, who deserve it.[1]

    The perfection of that work of freedom did continue with the gathering of a group of remarkable minds in Philadelphia—the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

    Even when the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention were behind him, Franklin still did not cease to promote freedom. During that time, Franklin dedicated himself to the abolishment of slavery. In 1787 Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. As president, in his final of many appeals—only two months before he passed away—he wrote to Congress urging an end to the practice of slavery:

    From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the portion, and is still the birthright, of all men, and influenced by the strong ties of humanity and the principles of their institution, your memorialists conceive themselves bound to loosen the bands of slavery, and promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom.”[2]

    It would be many years before Franklin’s request was finally granted.

    Lover of Service and Good Works

    Franklin was constantly seeking ways to solve problems and improve life for his fellow men. As part of his “Plan for Self-Examination”—a plan he formulated to attempt to achieve “moral perfection”—Franklin asked himself each morning, “What good shall I do this day?” and, each evening, “What good have I done today?” He made a determined effort to consciously plan for good works each day.

    Franklin’s curiosity and keen problem-solving skills resulted in numerous inventions which made life safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable for others. His inventions include bifocals, the lightning rod, daylight saving time, the “armonica,” and the Franklin stove. Though these ideas originated with him, Franklin refused to patent his inventions because he felt that they were his gift to humanity.

    In a pamphlet describing his suggestions for the academy which later became the University of Pennsylvania, Franklin requested that the curriculum help students to gain “an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, [their] country, friends, and family; which ability is . . . to be acquired or greatly increased by true learning, and should indeed be the great aim and end of all learning.”[3] In Franklin’s mind, the end and purpose of all true education was to acquire the skills and motivation to serve.

    Serving others was also Franklin’s way of showing appreciation to God. He wrote, “God is very good to us . . . . Let us enjoy his favors with a thankful and cheerful heart; and, as we can make no direct return to him, show our sense of his goodness to us by continuing to do good to our fellow creatures.”[4]

    Lover of God

    In a declaration of his thoughts and beliefs on religion and God, Franklin wrote:

    I believe [God] is pleased and delights in the happiness of those he had created; and since without virtue man can have no happiness in this world, I firmly believe he delights to see me virtuous, because he is pleased when he sees me happy. . . . I love him, therefore, for his goodness, and I adore him for his wisdom. Let me, then, not fail to praise my God continually, for it is his due, and it is all I can return for his many favors and great goodness to me; and let me resolve to be virtuous, that I may be happy, that I may please him who is delighted to see me happy. Amen![5]

    Praying to God was another way Franklin exhibited his devotion. He prayed often in private, and he was also responsible for organizing Pennsylvania’s first day of fasting and prayer—appealing to God for protection against attacks from Spanish and French Privateers along the Delaware River near Philadelphia in 1747. Franklin is also quite famous for his appeal at the Constitutional Convention for daily prayer. His words on this occasion reflect his own love for and reliance upon his Creator:

     In this situation of this assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find political truth . . . how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings? . . . To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need [His] assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.[6]

    As I read the last few pages of Franklin’s life, I found a beautiful gift. With Steven’s and Catheryn’s deaths so fresh, lingering in the background, Franklin spoke peace to me as I read of his own peaceful passing from mortality. He did not fear death. Several years prior to his death, Franklin wrote:

    It is the will of God and nature that these mortal bodies be laid aside when the soul is to enter into real life. This is rather an embryo state, a preparation for living. A man is not completely born until he be dead. Why, then, should we grieve that a new child is born among the immortals, a new member added to their happy society?[7]

    Why, then? Steven and Catheryn have graduated into the happy society of the world of spirits—where Benjamin Franklin and other honorable men and women awaited them.

    Their mingled voices push me forward, urging me. Go learn. Go serve. Go love. Go and do good.


    In 2008 I took a pilgrimage to this statue.

    In 2008 I took a pilgrimage to this statue.


    [1]  W. Cleon Skousen and M. Richard Maxfield, comp. “Timeless Treasures from Benjamin Franklin (Selections from His Writings),” Part II of The Real Benjamin Franklin, 399.

    [2]  Ibid., 272.

    [3]  Andrew M. Allison, “Benjamin Franklin: Printer, Philosopher, Patriot (A History of His Life),” Part I of The Real Benjamin Franklin, American Classic Series (Washington D.C.: National Center for Constitutional Studies), 84-85.

    [4] Skousen and Maxfield, “Timeless Treasures from Benjamin Franklin,” 415.

    [5] Allison, “Benjamin Franklin: Printer, Philosopher, Patriot,” 42–43.

    [6] Skousen and Maxfield, “Timeless Treasures from Benjamin Franklin,” 456.

    [7] Allison, “Benjamin Franklin: Printer, Philosopher, Patriot,” 274.

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