Social & Domestic Issues

Ben Franklin: The most modern of the Founders

“I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to have been born two or three centuries hence.” — Ben Franklin
 
Benjamin Franklin, whose birthday we celebrate today, Jan. 17, 1706, was the oldest of the founding fathers — he was indeed a whole generation ahead of George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — and yet he was the most forward-looking of the group, a man ahead of his times.  He was a supporter of free-enterprise capitalism and globalization, a skeptic about organized religion, defender of the rights of minorities, a lover of modern gadgetry, and proponent of the sexual revolution.
 
His views were distinctly modern.  Of all the founders, he would be the one most comfortable living today.  He would not be surprised by the tremendous advances in people’s incomes and living standards.  After the American revolution, he predicted, “America will, with God’s blessing, become a great and happy country.”  He was an optimist and a believer in progress and the American dream, the idea that every American could get ahead through industry, thrift and a good education.  Franklin was in many ways the father of American capitalism.  He would be pleased with the buzz of daily life in the market place and our major cities.
 
As an advocate of the “new” economics of “free trade” and open borders, he embraced the benefits of globalization, the spread of democracy and representative government.  “Our cause is the cause of all mankind.  God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all nations of the earth so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say, this is my country!”
 
Throughout his adult life, he was mesmerized by scientific advances in transportation, medicine, and agriculture, and loved to hear about and even create his own new inventions.  “I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to have been born two or three centuries hence,” he dreamed, “for inventions of improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind.  The present progress is rapid.  Many of great importance, now unthought of, will before that period be procured.  I mention one reason for such a wish, which is that if the art of physic [medicine] shall be improved in proportion with other arts, we may then be able to avoid diseases, and live as long as the patriarchs in Genesis.”  Franklin would be the first to have a cell phone and an HD television.
 
His attitudes toward religion were very much in keeping with today’s tolerant and skeptical views.  He opposed any kind of requirement of a religious test on legislators, and believed in a “general toleration of all.”  He actually donated funds to all the various churches in Philadelphia.  Of the three virtues, hope, faith and charity, he regarded charity (good works) as the most important.  He believed in God, but had his doubts about the divinity of Christ.
 
His views were advanced for his age when it came to treatment of minorities.  He let his slaves go during his lifetime, and was an advocate for the abolition of slavery.  He considered blacks equally capable as whites.  He blamed most of the Indian disputes on the white population.
 
Franklin was a defender of women’s rights and treated them as his equals.  “Women, especially, flocked to see him, to speak to him for hours on end,” commented his French friend Le Roy.  The savant of Philadelphia was no distant marble figure like the reserved Virginian George Washington or the cantankerous prude John Adams.  Here was a red-blooded American Casanova who disdained the mores of a sexually-repressed Puritan age, enjoyed a strong libido, and was adored by the fairer sex for his charm, story-telling, fame and savoir faire.  A thoroughly modern founding father who had few hang-ups. 
 
As far as politics is concerned, there are many characteristics of today’s government he might find agreeable and some disagreeable.  He was not especially fond of the gold standard, and preferred a paper money standard, though he feared too much inflation could be “mischievous and the populous apt to demand more than is necessary.”  He supported and invested in Robert Morris’s Bank of North America, a precursor to Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of the United States, America’s first central bank.
 
Some features of modern-day America would appall Franklin.  He would feel terribly uncomfortable with the size and burden of today’s national debt, and America’s leaders failure to balance the budget.  The sheer size of the federal government would depress him.  He believed “a virtuous and laborious [industrious] people can be cheaply governed.”  He would dislike the engagement in foreign wars by the U. S. military.  “The system of America is [should be] commerce with all, and war with none.”
 
Finally, he hated party politics.   “There are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men, ambition and avarice, the love of power and the love of money….And of what kind of men will strive for this profitable pre-eminence, thro’ all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters?  It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust.  It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits.  These will trust themselves to this government and be their rules.” 


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