Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
Random header image... Refresh for more!
Make a blogger happy, come back. Sign up for email post alerts!

I will make your master a little king for this.

Strive to be the greatest man in your country, and you may be disappointed. Strive to be the best and you may succeed: he may well win the race that runs by himself.—Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin ran away from Boston when he was seventeen years old. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he spent his last few pennies on bread. He may have started poor with no family support, but Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther include him in The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates—A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present.

How did he build such great wealth? With grand entrepreneurial moves in printing and publishing. For nearly the entire twenty-five years of its publication, Poor Richard’s Almanac was the #1 bestseller after the Bible. He owned the Pennsylvania Gazette, which was the most successful newspaper in the colonies. He was a retailer with several stores and he perfected the concept of franchising by setting up standardized print shops in cities outside Philadelphia.

But his life was about more than building enormous wealth. Franklin’s humorous aphorisms are so embedded in our popular culture that he has been caricatured as the class clown of the Revolution. Nothing could be further from the truth. Franklin was arguably the second most important person in securing our inde­pendence. Despite Washington’s great efforts, our domestic military and treasury could never have defeated the British Empire. We needed help. As commissioner of the United States in Paris, Franklin did more than flirt with the ladies; he charmed a nation and gained access to the French court. Once granted access to the back rooms of Versailles, he achieved the impossible by getting the United States desperately needed money, warships, and international legitimacy.

During the Constitutional Convention, Franklin played a unique role that no one else could fill. This convention was at times so acrimonious that the delegates several times nearly abandoned the endeavor. Each time the conven­tion edged toward collapse, Benjamin Franklin was there to lighten the tone through humor, calls for help from the Almighty, or merely filibustering until tempers abated. Franklin did not add much sub­stance to the constitutional design, but his interpersonal skills held the delegates together until the design was complete.

Franklin was an inventor and world-renowned scientist. He invented bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, a urinary catheter, swim flippers, a glass armonica, an odometer, and many other devices. He was especially renowned in Europe for his scientific achievements. His famous kite-flying episode was not a lark, but an experiment to confirm a portion of his well-developed theory of elec­tricity. He was the first to map the Gulf Stream, which gave him some­thing to occupy his mind during his eight voyages across the Atlantic. Franklin founded the nation’s first volunteer fire department, public hospital, public library, as well as the American Philosophical Society and numerous other civic improvements.

Benjamin Franklin built things to last. The American Philosophi­cal Society still resides next to Independence Hall. Poor Richard’s Almanac and his autobiography have never been out of print. The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insuring of Houses from Loss by Fire that he founded still sells fire insurance. The University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Hospital still exist. And most important, we still have our Constitution.

What would Franklin think if President George Washington said, “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, ‘Well, it must be ’cause I was just so smart.’ There are a lot of smart people out there. ‘It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.’ Let me tell you something: If you’ve got a business, that–you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Did Franklin have help from the government? The answer would be yes. He was one of the Deputy Postmasters for a time under the British, which was an indubitable assist in distributing his newspapers and almanacs. But he took his civic duty seriously and streamlined operations so well the Parliamentary Post became profitable. Although he benefited from this service from the government, he would have taken umbrage if told the government was responsible for his enormous success.

So, what would Franklin think? Despite his jovial image, Franklin could hold a grudge, and he made those who slighted him or his country pay for their transgressions. As relations grew tense between England and the colonies, Franklin, who had lived in London for eighteen years, tried to smooth things over as an unofficial envoy. He was so angered by his ill-treatment at a Privy Council session that it is rumored he told the British solicitor general, “I will make your master a little king for this.”

Franklin made good on his word. Upon returning from England, he was appointed to the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence.

James D. Best is the author of the Steve Dancy Tales and Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Look for his new book, Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic. Author’s note: Part of this post has been lifted from my book Principled Action.


1 Curtice Mang { 07.23.12 at 9:33 pm }

Nicely done!


2 Keith Pyne Howarth { 08.14.15 at 12:48 pm }

Thank you for this well-written, largely historically accurate and engaging piece on Benjamin Franklin. I must say, your implied scenario as to how Dr. Franklin, hypothically, might have responded to a charge regarding his various and substantial businesses that he “didn’t build that” depends on erroneous and incomplete information. Most importantly, Franklin did not become financially independent or build his various businesses without significant assistance at every stage of their creation. He sought and attained the support of dozens of well-placed men in business and government, depended on their resources, contracts (a government contract printing official documents and paper money was particularly sustaining) advice and continuing patronage and, when he was able, filled similar roles for other aspiring entrepreneurs as required by the culture of his time. There is no doubt that he was his own master, and the brilliant driving force behind his own financial accomplishments. But so unremarkable was his dependence on private patronage and the structures of government that references to it are matter-of-factly peppered throughout the entirety of the Autobiography. Had anyone laid the charge that he had help building his business, Franklin would have heartily agreed, just as he would and did spread the credit for the developement of the Franklin Stove, armonica, bi-focal glasses, and even the founding of the republic – all of which had been at different points attributed to him, and all of which he refuted as personal triumphs and explicitly stated were cooperative endeavors. Perhaps least well-known among his convictions, probably because it directly contradicts maxims necessary to sustaining economic hegemony, was his position regarding private property (land, money, etc.) which, as being possible at all only thanks to the combined efforts of determined, rational men and the governmental institutions they wrestled into existence, should be available as needed by public requirements “…down to the last farthing.” Franklin saw as undeniable fact the interdependent nature of business and personal success, and would have applauded the “reality check” Obama was attempting to administer, although he might have recommended better phrases to convey it.

Which brings me to the final point. The President, normally well served by his rhetorical accumen, here failed at a crucial moment with his poorly phrased, quotable “You didn’t build that.” But while a blunder, it has been grossly misused by the old (and employed by every political party and position) and cheap trick of robbing it of its’ context. Even a casual read of the speech from which the quotes you provided clearly demonstrate what is actually meant, and it is not what is otherwise here implied, but is, as Franklin himself explained long ago, a call to recognize that success in business endeavors depends on group efforts, and that government, for all its many flaws, is an indespensible manifestation of group will. Consequently, your very worthwhile essay is foundationally inaccurate, and your suggested conclusion is contrary to historical and contemporary fact.


Leave a Comment