As I watched the Fourth of July fireworks in Oxford on Friday night, July 3, my mind wandered to thoughts of our founding fathers, particularly one whose pragmatism and intelligence always impressed me.
Before going any further, I must offer full disclosure: Dr. Ben Franklin founded the university I attended in West Philadelphia. His visage graces a slew of monuments and plaques. Yet, I knew very little as an undergraduate about this printer-turned-statesman, except for his kite and key lightning experiment.
Since my graduation 48 years ago, I’ve learned that this brilliant, dumpy guy was a businessman, civic activist, legislative leader, diplomat and master of the possible as a political compromiser. He was extraordinary at a time when revolutionary fever was high, and when the young nation took its first baby steps as an experiment in constitutional democracy.
Though I have no earthly idea what Ben Franklin was thinking about when the inaugural fireworks display, as envisioned in 1776 by John Adams, graced the skies in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, my guess is that Ben Franklin had more practical concerns. After all, the colonies were fighting for their survival against their British oppressors.
While history rewards Thomas Jefferson with most of the credit for composing the Declaration of Independence, Franklin contributed in a “small but resounding” way, according to Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin, An American Life.” In place of “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” Franklin replaced five words with three notable ones: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
According to Isaacson, Jefferson appealed to a religious principle; “Franklin turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.”
When the Congress edited the draft Declaration by cutting the final five paragraphs, young Jefferson was distressed and turned to Dr. Franklin for solace. Ever the conciliator with uncanny people skills, Franklin related a little story to his Virginian friend. For the sake of time, I won’t retell the story, but its conclusion was obvious: the simpler, the better in crafting a message.
Despite my predisposition to like and admire Ben Franklin, I have found myself repeatedly affirmed by what I have learned about this gifted and talented man who was so instrumental and influential in creating a nation and then preserving it. The following statement by Isaacson aptly describes the former printer:
“Similarly, he helped to create, and came to symbolize, a new popular order in which rights and power were based not on the happenstance of heritage, but on merit and virtue and hard work. He rose up the social ladder, from runaway to apprentice to dining with kings, in a way that would become quintessentially American. But in doing so he resolutely resisted, as a matter of principle, sometimes to a fur-capped extreme, taking on elitist pretensions.
“He was egalitarian in what became the American sense: he approved individuals making their way to wealth through diligence and talent, but opposed giving special privileges to people based on their birth.”
Maybe, just maybe, Ben Franklin would have considered a grand fireworks display on July 4th in 1777 as well as 2015 a wonderfully open way for all Americans, regardless of their social or economic class, to celebrate the wonder of an imperfect country battling bias-based demons but determinedly offering opportunity to achieve happiness and economic success.
I despair of hero worship. It’s too easy to be disappointed when reality sets in. My reading tells me that Ben Franklin paid little attention to his family, spending more time than some thought was necessary in France nurturing an early ally. Yet, his accomplishments, notably practical and useful, were invaluable.
Amid the July 4th festivities, I felt grateful to the wise, savvy Dr. Franklin.