December 2, 2008

Giving Us the Electrocuted Bird III: In Which I Rest and Rescind My Case

The scum of every nation gravitates to the frontier.” Benjamin Franklin
Wrapping up my charges (earlier ones here and here) that Benjamin Franklin was the most overrated Founding Father, let me point out what a bad roommate he was. When Franklin and John Adams were on a diplomatic mission regarding Canada, the two men had to share a bedroom on Staten Island. (Make up your own “politics makes strange bedfellows” joke.) It was cold outside and Adams shut the bedroom window.

“No, that’s very unhealthy,” Franklin said, opening the window and praising the healthy benefits of fresh air. This lecture was so boring, Adams slept through it. But the poor little guy was still cold!

Not only was he an annoying roommate, but historians agree that Franklin wasn’t much of a father. For example, his only son William was forced to risk electrocution flying a kite in a lightning storm while dad took notes from a covered shed. Of course, images like this engraving by Henry Sadd usually show Franklin going it alone, or if William is present, he’s a mere accomplice.

As an adult, William opposed the Revolutionary War because he believed the only way the American colonies could achieve independence was through a series of bloody battles, and he couldn’t bear to see that happen. Opposing the war meant that William was defined as a “Loyalist” for King George III of England.

This infuriated his father, and after signing the Declaration of Independence, Franklin personally arranged for the arrest of his son. William’s subsequent three years of solitary imprisonment left him with no teeth, no job, no wife (she died in the interim), and no father. Benjamin Franklin cut all mention of William from his autobiography, and William was exiled to Great Britain for the rest of his days.

What a jerk! Let’s see, what else... One could say that Franklin was indirectly responsible for the renegade State of Franklin, a real place from 1784–1788. You see, North Carolina originally reached west all the way to the Mississippi. But its inhabitants living on the western frontier were such a pain in the roughneck, North Carolina’s governor cut them loose by turning the land over to the federal government.

The frontier folk then formed their own territory, the State of Franklin. To see where it was, check the right inset on this map (from a 1923 book by William R. Shepherd, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries).
The State of Franklin applied to Congress for statehood and received seven of thirteen votes, two votes short of the two-thirds majority required. In 1786, the North Carolina Assembly passed the Act of Oblivion (how cool!), which was intended to bring the State of Franklin back within North Carolina. It didn’t take, but ten years later, the state formerly known as Franklin became part of the new state of Tennessee.

But can I really define Benjamin Franklin (or anyone!) by the worst thing he ever did? I suppose not. You've got to love anyone who wrote, “I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, than, He died rich.” As a final point in his favor, Franklin was both a printer and a book lover, thus cementing his merit for the ages. Below, the epitaph that he wrote for himself in 1728:
[Here lies] the Body of B. Franklin, Printer;
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stripped of its lettering and gilding,
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be wholly lost;
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new and more perfect edition,
Corrected and amended,
By the author.
The Henry Sadd engraving is from the Library of Congress.
My sources are here. Oh, and as a final aside, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, became a newspapermen who delighted in tweaking George Washington’s image. Bache once wrote that the president was “a despotic, anemic counterfeit of [King] George.” Guess the kid had a little gadfly in his DNA.

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