Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)


This short note presents my comments on the TV series shown by KRMA-TV on 19-20 November 2002, a 3-1/2 hour program on the life of Benjamin Franklin, a prominent man in colonial America, and one of the founders of the United States. This is an excellent program, which I highly recommend. It should make Franklin more familiar to those who only see him on the $100 notes they hold, as the man with the kite, and in insurance advertising. Franklin is about the only famous character of the War for Independence of whom I heartily approve and admire, and feel that he is not properly appreciated for his accomplishments, which were considerable. Among other things, he is a freethinker and an abolitionist , two moral qualities that recommend him to me. The program also points out that he was a genius, which is quite true, the only one I know of in American history. The other "founding fathers" are a miscellaneous collection of military incompetents, humorless puritans, inveterate cheats and swindlers, slave drivers and dissembling, vindictive connivers, a few of whom rose slightly above their limited prospects. The comparison with Thomas Jefferson, whose qualities are priced far above their true value, is telling.

Franklin was a good scientist, recognized in the world, as Jefferson, who made not the slightest contribution to scientific knowledge, was not. Franklin was not as important as the program maintains. His study of thunderstorm electricity and invention of the lightning rod were celebrated. With Priestley and Cavendish, he studied electrostatic induction, but Henry Cavendish, at about the same time, contributed much more to electrical knowledge. Franklin, Henry and Michelson were about all the United States could boast of throughout the 19th century, when little Scotland contributed many times as much. The United States was not a land of opportunity for physical scientists.

The program had only two serious anachronisms that I detected. The lesser was the ship that carried Franklin home from England after his first visit, in 1726, depicted as a cutter (single mast, gaff-rigged with a topsail). This rig was not used until 1740, and was unsuited to an Atlantic crossing. The more serious was the use of a Wimshurst induction static electricity machine. This was not invented until 1878, more than a hundred years later. Franklin used a glass-cylinder machine sent him by Collinson from England. This machine was the suggestion for Franklin's rotating glass musical instrument. Some of Franklin's more interesting electrical demonstrations were not shown, such as lighting gas on the other side of the Schuylkill by the electric spark.

English politics, and the controversy over the American question, were not presented in any reasonable manner. It was not pointed out that England had been ruled by Parliament for a hundred years at this time, not by the King, who was only the formal head of government. The king had nothing to do with the case other than as a symbol and the issuer of fatuous comments. The Stamp Act was presented as apparently the main reason for American unrest and the cause of the war, when in reality it was just one of a number of events of small import but much noise. The real reason was the insistence of Parliament in governing the new lands west of the Appalachians, their support of the Indians, and the exclusion of colonial settlement, just when Virginia was invading Kentucky and North Carolina was invading Tennessee. In fact, Virginia claimed all of the northwest, and thought it should govern it, not London. This was the real reason for the coastal agitation. Pennsylvania had no claim in this area, so Franklin could not have been very interested. A map was shown in the program that had what is now West Virginia as part of Maryland, with the western boundary of Pennsylvania already determined with the ear that sticks up at Erie and the Virginia panhandle. All this was not determined until much later. This is probably just historical ignorance, though.

Franklin's diplomatic successes in France were very important. The contrast with John Adams was well brought out, and Adams's utter incompetence was suggested. However, Spain was hardly mentioned in the whole affair. It was only said that Spain joined the alliance. Spain, however, played a much more important role than this. France and Spain had been defeated in the Seven Year's War (French and Indian in North America), Spain had lost Florida, and France had lost its whole American empire, except for an odd island or two. Charles III was eager to correct his earlier reverses, and France, as usual, was hungry for revanche. Spain had a navy and great resources in the Americas. When the United States became independent, it was not the richest country in North America, Mexico was, rich in silver after 300 years of development. Spain was still at least as much a world power as France; the destruction wrought by Napoleon was yet to come. It was mentioned that the Treaty of Paris was exceptionally generous to the United States, which it indeed was.

I do not remember its being mentioned that William Franklin, Royal Governor of New Jersey, was Benjamin's illegitimate son, and how the relationship was legitimized. As usual, the fiction that the War for Independence was a Revolution, replacing an arbitrary king (like Louis XVI) by a democracy was suggested. Actually, it was a lawyer's revolution in which nothing changed except the royal symbol. There was confiscation of the property of those who supported the King, but other than this, the same powers ruled, and society did not change its structure.


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 20 November 2002
Last revised