Three Things You Might Not Know About Benjamin Franklin

31 Jul 2015, Posted by Founding Franklin in The Franklin You Thought You Knew

Three Things You Might Not Know About Benjamin Franklin


One of the things that I always strive for in this newsletter is to acquaint you with Benjamin Franklin’s life and work, his personality and character, beyond those more commonly known facts.

In this edition, I want to look at three different sides of Dr. Franklin

Franklin the geographer and cartographer

I wrote in last month’s letter about Franklin the traveler. One thing that began to intrigue him about trans-oceanic travel was the phenomenon of the mysterious current, or river that was found in the midst of the north Atlantic. New England whalers and merchant seamen knew of it, as well as early Spanish explorers like Ponce DeLeon, but British seamen did not. It often took two weeks longer for British ships to reach America than to go in the other direction. Franklin consulted with his cousin, Timothy Folger, a Nantucket merchant seaman, about this stream, which Franklin came to call the Gulf Stream, as he learned that it originated in the warm waters of the Gulf of Florida. Timothy told him that the British ships were sailing against the current of that stream, and showed Franklin on a map where it was located. Timothy had made a map which was largely ignored, but Franklin took temperature readings on his later voyages, and helped refine the map. Franklin also published the map, which no doubt gave it added credibility. When compared with modern satellite images, the map is amazingly close to the more sophisticated maps.

Franklin the psychologist

Benjamin Franklin was in Paris from late 1776 until early 1785. While there, he became associated with some of the most prominent scientists of the day. During that time, a German named Franz Mesmer began to go about claiming to heal all sorts of maladies by what he called “Animal Magnetism.” Mesmer and his followers would magnetize metal rods, and encourage subjects to contact those objects, thereby effecting miraculous “cures.” Followers touted the benefits, and sceptics denied them just as loudly. Finally, the King appointed a commission to investigate these claims. Franklin was appointed to the body, as were Lavoisier and Dr. Guillotine, the inventor of that most humane execution device. While there was no real way to prove or disprove what people experienced during these treatments, Franklin had an idea. Five trees were selected at Franklin’s home, and one of Mesmer’s followers was told that they had been exposed to the magnetic rods. He went from tree to tree, and fell swooning to the ground at the fourth tree. Only the fifth tree, which he never reached, had been so treated. And so Benjamin Franklin invented blind testing.

Franklin the champion of religious freedom

Although he was brought up in a very religious household in Puritan Boston, Franklin is not often thought of as a particularly religious man. Though he frequently credited the Creator for His benevolent providence, Franklin was not one to stand on religious ceremony. He said, for example, that we serve God best when we serve his fellow man. His relationship with George Whitefield, however, shows a more complete picture of Franklin’s view of religion. Whitefield was an English evangelist during the period know as the Great Awakening. He visited the American colonies seven times between the 1730’s and the 1760’s. He most often had to preach out of doors, as the established clergy soon became resentful and jealous of his success. Whitefield attracted hundreds, often thousands, to hear him preach. Franklin on one occasion stood at Front and Market Streets in Philadelphia, and Whitefield could be heard from a block away at Second Street. Though Benjamin admitted that he did not share many of the evangelist’s particular beliefs, he was impressed that Whitefield’s sermons seemed to effect better, more civilized behavior among the inhabitants of Philadelphia. Franklin felt that this was a sufficient reason to welcome such preaching. He also began to see that men like Whitefield should not be forced to do their preaching in the streets and the fields. He raised sufficient funds to build a large hall at Fourth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, where he hoped visiting preachers would be able to address the crowds. He said that even the Mufti of Constantinople would be welcome if he wanted to preach Mohametenism (Islam).   Benjamin Franklin took to heart William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, which had granted a unique level of religious freedom to all Pennsylvanians.

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