The Next Great American City: Ben Would Love This

Philadelphia’s first creative genius would fit right in with what’s happening now

Ben Franklin knew something about self-promotion and buzz marketing. When he took over the fledgling Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729, at the tender age of 23, he wanted the Philadelphia city fathers to see that he was reliable and hardworking. So every evening, he would push through the streets a wheelbarrow containing the newsprint he had purchased that day, even though he didn’t need to. He later wrote that he wanted to “show that I was not above my business.” At the same time, he began publishing letters in the newspaper that he himself had written under various pseudonyms, praising its solid values and also young Franklin for not exposing “the continual blunders” of its rivals.

Clever, yes. But so what, you say? It’s small potatoes compared to the achievements of the fellow who proved that lightning was electricity and created the lightning rod to tame it, who invented bifocals and clean-burning stoves, who charted the Gulf Stream and the origins of the common cold, who basically invented the democratic idea of civic involvement by starting the lending library, the volunteer fire corps, insurance associations and matching-grant fund-raisers. And let’s not forget that he was one of America’s greatest statesmen and diplomats, and the man who pioneered the idea of the separation of powers that is at the heart of the Constitution. Or that he is perhaps our greatest line editor: Franklin crossed out the last three words of Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and wrote in “self-evident” instead. But how do we know that Franklin accomplished all those things, and many more?

He told us so. Again and again.

We know those two not-very-flattering anecdotes three paragraphs above because Franklin told us about them, too. “Hide not your talents,” Poor Richard’s Almanack says. “What’s a sun-dial in the shade?” Franklin never did hide his talents. He knew that you could do something wonderful, but if people didn’t know about it, what was the point? There was also no point in inventing anything that wasn’t useful — and people had to know about what you created for it to be useful. You had to spread the word.  

During his long and illustrious life, Franklin invented many things, but his greatest invention was himself. Urban and entrepreneurial, self-created and self-propelling, he was the original Horatio Alger hero. He created Brand Ben and marketed it his whole life and beyond. That’s something Philadelphia can learn from him. He also understood symbols. Why was the kite up there? To capture electricity — but also to capture our attention.

In Europe, he liked to boast that Americans were taller and more robust than the people of the Old World. (And he was the model — Franklin was nearly six feet tall and strong, never fat like the modern, jollified Ben Franklin as Santa Claus.) He was a prototype of the American confidence man, the proud American who claims the frogs in our swamps make more beautiful music than the symphonies of Europe. Even if he didn’t always believe it himself.