The idea that his beloved adopted city has long been the best-kept secret on the East Coast would have infuriated him. He wouldn’t have understood the Philadelphian insecurity about being lost between Washington and New York. From his roots in Boston, Franklin imported the Puritan mixture of public virtue and private profit — what Cotton Mather called “doing good for others and getting of good for himself.” Not for him Quaker consensus and self-effacement. For Franklin, withdrawal from the world wasn’t an option — making the world better and putting something in his pocket at the same time was the way to go. “What good can I do today?” Franklin asked, and he basically created the modern communitarian impulse, with Philadelphia as the proving ground of civic engagement.
In the 1760s, Franklin became the first global celebrity, his image on snuff boxes in London and ladies’ fans in Paris. He delighted in his fame, and fueled it with his writings and his great autobiography, which could have been written by a literate but canny public relations man. When Franklin went to Paris late in life, he sported a democratic fur cap instead of a powdered wig, and carried a plain wooden staff instead of a fancy sword. It made him the talk of the town and the symbol of the American new man, the natural, rough-hewn democrat. It was a carefully cultivated Appearance of a man who supposedly disdained appearances. The show in honor of Franklin’s 300th birthday, “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” which opens at the National Constitution Center on December 15th and is presented by the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, not only charts his dizzying array of inventions and accomplishments, but also reminds us why he continues to be, three centuries after his birth, one of the great brands in American life.
Franklin is certainly the most approachable of the Founders. Washington was so stern and frosty that the delegates at the Constitutional Convention dared each other to clap him on the back. Jefferson was an aristocratic sphinx. Adams was cranky and full of himself. Franklin is the Folksy Founder — but this, like everything about Franklin, was a cultivated front. While he was far from being an Everyman, he wanted to seem like one. Even after he was the wealthiest man in town, he signed his name “B. Franklin, Printer.” As the scholar Gordon Wood suggests, he actually aspired to be a gentleman and was by far the most cosmopolitan of the Founders. (He adored the French.) He was an immensely sociable being, and always advised people to split the difference in an argument; he was argumentative by nature, but realized that it got him nowhere. “I made it a Rule,” he wrote in his autobiography, “to forbear all direct Contradictions to the Sentiments of others.” He had the highest emotional intelligence of any of the Founders.
Franklin feels modern because in so many ways he created the modern American sensibility. All of his life, he was concerned with — as he put it — Appearance and Reality. He sometimes called this “meat and sauce” — what we would call the steak and the sizzle. He knew that they were equally important. He was a master of what marketers today call “impression management.” And he knew that if you couldn’t achieve the Reality of a thing, the Appearance was pretty darn close. For example, he well understood that humility was universally perceived as a virtue, yet as he wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.” He knew that only superficial people don’t judge by appearances. His ultimate vanity was in not appearing vain. Now, when we look at him, we look at ourselves. The last exhibit of the Franklin show at the National Constitution Center is a six-foot-high replica of his spectacles. When you look into the lenses, you see yourself reflected back. Ben in us; us in Ben.
So what he has to tell us, now, reaching across 300 years, is the message Philadelphians are beginning, it seems, to understand: Create yourself in the image of who you would like to become. Why try for anything less? It is a lesson we should take to heart more than any of his other, more tangible inventions. One of his maxims in Poor Richard’s Almanack stated, “Who was ever cunning enough to conceal his being so?” The answer, of course, is Ben Franklin.
Richard Stengel, the former national editor of Time magazine, is president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, which is hosting “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” opening December 15th.