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This week’s Wiki Wormhole is all about the Benjamin (Franklin, that is)

With more than 4.5 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or researching whether wooden teeth would be cheaper than your current dental plan. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 4,593,478-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Benjamin Franklin

What it’s about: The man who adorns the $100 bill was a true Renaissance man, as his beginnings as a printer and newspaper editor led him to leanings as an author and essayist, but also as a political agitator—one of the earliest and loudest voices for American independence. Once that independence was won, Franklin started a third or fourth career as a statesman, serving as U.S. ambassador to France, floor leader of the Constitutional Convention, governor (then called president) of Pennsylvania, and postmaster general (which doesn’t sound impressive, but he created the country’s earliest communication network, which was an instrumental, if unglamorous, part of building the new nation). Franklin was also a musician, scientist, inventor, breakdancer (unconfirmed), volunteer firefighter, Freemason grand master, possibly the best chess player in the young nation, and at one point the richest man in America. Franklin has been called “The First American,” both for his central role in the independence movement and as one of the most prominent citizens in this country’s history.

Strangest fact: Franklin, an Enlightenment thinker and deist, whose writings helped convince Louis XVI to end religious persecution in France, was nearly a Puritan pastor. Franklin’s pious parents wanted him to study religion and join the clergy, but they only had money to send him to school until the age of 10. As a fallback plan, they apprenticed him to his brother James in the printing business at age 12. (Franklin was the third-youngest of Josiah Franklin’s 17 children. His first wife died giving birth to their seventh child; Josiah remarried within the year, and the first of 10 children by his second wife was born shortly thereafter.) Three years later, James founded The New-England Courant, one of the country’s first newspapers (no relation to The Hartford Courant, the country’s oldest currently publishing newspaper). When the British jailed the elder brother for criticizing Massachusetts’ colonial governor, the 16-year-old Benjamin took over as editor until his brother was released. The authorities would shut down the paper for good four years later, but by that point, Ben had run away to Philadelphia to start his own career.

Biggest controversy: Leaving an apprenticeship without his brother’s permission was a crime, which prompted Franklin’s move to Philadelphia. But of course, legal wrongdoings are never as interesting as sex scandals. Upon moving to Philadelphia at age 17, Franklin lived in a boarding house, and quickly proposed to his landlord’s 15-year-old daughter, Deborah Read. Her mother refused to allow the marriage because she considered Franklin’s financial prospects to be poor, and while Franklin was abroad in London, Read married one John Rogers. Unknown to the Reads, Rogers was deeply in debt, and took the dowry from his marriage and fled to Barbados.

Divorce was difficult to obtain, especially when one partner’s whereabouts were unknown, so Franklin and Read entered into a common-law marriage seven years after Franklin originally proposed. Further complicating things, the couple settled down with William, Franklin’s baby by another woman (whose identity is lost to history). Read adopted the child, and had two more children of her own, the first of whom died of smallpox at age 4. While the Franklins were together until her death in 1774, she was afraid to travel by boat, and didn’t accompany her husband on any of his overseas trips. He seemed to manage their separations just fine, as his frequent extramarital activities can be inferred from a letter written in 1745 titled “Advice To A Friend On Choosing A Mistress.” In it, he advises an unknown younger man that an older mistress is preferable to a younger one, for reasons including less risk of pregnancy, “greater prudence in conducting an intrigue,” and that while “the Face first grows lank and wrinkled… regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one… The Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of improvement.” The letter was considered so salacious (and damaging to the reputation of one of the country’s respected founders) that it was banned for over a century, and was used on numerous occasions as a reason to overturn censorship laws.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Franklin was one of the first abolitionists. Like most wealthy Americans in the mid-1700s, Franklin owned several slaves, but his views on slavery changed as he got older. In 1758, he advocated a school in Philadelphia to educate slaves; a few years later he publicly challenged the idea that blacks were inferior. At some point Franklin freed his slaves (Wikipedia lists both 1770 and 1785 as dates), and henceforth was an outspoken abolitionist and became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the nation’s first such society, which still exists today as a civil rights organization. However, despite a request from the society, Franklin declined to debate the issue of slavery at the Constitutional Convention, most likely fearing—like many northern delegates—that the southern states would not remain in the Union if slavery were prohibited. That compromise kept the young nation together, but merely postponed the issue—and prolonged the horrors of slavery—until the Civil War.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: That we couldn’t find anything to write in this space. Apart from marital infidelity, and not singlehandedly ending slavery, Franklin led an exemplary life—brilliant, wise, and industrious in too many fields to list. Here’s a bit more of what Franklin did in his life:

  • Franklin played at least three instruments, composed for string quartet, and invented an improved glass harmonica, a now-obscure instrument popular enough at the time that Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, and Strauss wrote works for the instrument.
  • He founded the College Of Philadelphia, which used the then-innovative technique of teaching in English instead of Latin, and would eventually become the University Of Pennsylvania.
  • Despite never taking up arms, he organized the Pennsylvania Militia in 1756 and declined the honorary rank of colonel.
  • He was essentially America’s first spy, acquiring the Hutchinson Letters, which proved that the British were conspiring to restrict Bostonians’ rights, and before the Revolutionary War, had a network of counter-surveillance to keep American patriots one step ahead of the British.
  • Besides his famous kite experiment with electricity, Franklin identified and named positive and negative charges and the concept of grounding, used kites to pull ships, was one of the first scientists to study population growth, charted and named the Gulf Stream, realized that storms and wind don’t always travel in the same direction, and discovered cooling by evaporation.
  • Franklin was essentially the 18th century’s Most Interesting Man In The World. Portraits of Franklin often included a Latin inscription that translated to, “He snatched the lightning from the skies and the scepter from the tyrants.”

Also noteworthy: When Franklin was 21, he created the Junto, a club for civic-minded “artisans and tradesmen” who met to discuss the issues of the day, and could provide mutual support. Franklin began discussions by posing a list of questions to members, ranging from, “What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?” to “Have you lately observed any defect in the laws, of which it would be proper to move the legislature an amendment?” to “Hath any body attacked your reputation lately? And what can the Junto do towards securing it?” It was from the Junto’s conversations that Franklin began promoting ideas including volunteer fire brigades and public hospitals (he would go on to found one of the country’s first of each).

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Although Benjamin Franklin wrote numerous influential essays arguing for the American Revolution, his best-known work is Poor Richard’s Almanack, an annual tome of advice, wit, poetry, and typical almanac fare like weather predictions and astrology. The Almanack ran from 1732 to 1758 and was a runaway bestseller, printing as many as 10,000 copies a year. (Given the colonies’ small population, it would be the equivalent of 3 million today.) Franklin published the books under the veiled pseudonym “Richard Saunders.” Writing in character allowed Franklin more leeway with satire—borrowing a joke from Jonathan Swift, Poor Richard had a running joke in which he was an astrologer who predicted the impending deaths of other astrologers (which the Almanack would then falsely report as having happened). But Poor Richard is best-remembered for enduring sayings—usually on the subject of industry and thrift—including, “There are no gains without pains,” “He that lives upon hope will die fasting,” “A penny saved is twopence dear,” (commonly misquoted as “a penny earned”), and “The noblest question in the world is, ‘what good may I do in it?’”

Further down the wormhole: For the Junto’s benefit, Franklin created the country’s first subscription library, in which members pooled their money to buy books—which at the time were difficult to come by—to be shared by all. The Library Company Of Philadelphia still exists as a research library with half a million rare books in its possession, including the Mayflower Compact. To manage the library, Franklin hired America’s first librarian, a fellow printer named Louis Timothee. When Franklin wanted to get out of the newspaper business, he turned the operation over to Timothee, with the arrangement that Franklin retained one-third of the profits for providing the printing press and fonts. We’ll examine fonts, and their transition from blocks of lead to digitized intellectual property, next week.