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.