What would Franklin think?25 May 2016, Posted by The Franklin You Thought You Knew in
What would Franklin think?
Of all the varied things that I get to do as Benjamin Franklin, one of my favorite is interacting with students, especially when they have taken the time and energy to seek my help on a school project. At the request of my neighbors down the hall, Shel and Phyllis, I welcomed their grandson and his friend into my home to answer their questions. They were to portray Benjamin Franklin and William Penn for a social studies project, and had been told that I did such things on a daily basis. These two ten year olds and some responsible adults sat down with me for a conversation, and it was delightful. I first showed them my library, to emphasize the necessity of knowledge and curiosity in such an endeavor. When we talked, I was impressed at how much they had learned about their subjects. We talked about the basic facts such as dates and accomplishments, but then they asked me what sorts of questions I got from people when I interpreted the life of Dr. Franklin. I gave them my insights as I had developed them over the years, and was impressed by their comments. But then they asked another question. The question was, “What would Ben Franklin think if he came back to Philadelphia today, or to the twenty-first century in general?” Would he be shocked at the progress, the dress, the architecture, etc.? After some thought, I said that I thought that he would wonder why we hadn’t done more; why we hadn’t improved civilization any more than we had in the two hundred plus years since his death. After all, this was the great Improver himself.
After they departed, and as the evening went on, I could not let that question go. What would a man who spent his life educating himself and others think of the educational system of this country, the country that he predicted would be the center of civilization in the world? What would he think of a city with the highest poverty rate in the country, with students failing and dropping out at an alarming rate, while the state legislature sat on its hands and let the schools and social services in the state go begging? What would he think of the United States, where education is too often seen as elitist, and ignorance is celebrated? What would he think of a country with the potential to discover and develop untold scientific advances, instead spending its resources and human capital fighting futile wars in far-away places, making the same mistakes over and over? Would he understand a nation built on immigrants like his own father, building walls to keep people out? Would this man who supported every religious group in Philadelphia, cherishing that religious freedom, and even built a house of worship so that any minister of any belief, ”
…even if they be Mohammeden”, could find a pulpit when no one else would yield theirs, prevent any one of those groups from entering his country? And what would this man who raised money to build the nation’s first public hospital for the poor, think of a health-care system that even the middle class can not afford?
Lest one think that this is intended to be a partisan political statement, I do believe that Franklin would be dismayed by the actions ( and inaction ) of both major political parties. Whether it is the corrupt one-party system in Philadelphia, his former home, or the Congress of the United States, created by the U.S. Constitution. As a signer of that document, he would be dismayed to see that very little gets done by the two houses of Congress. Remember, Franklin was at his best when forming alliances and political compromise. He was not an ideologue, but rather a most practical man. When the sessions of the Constitutional Convention were ending in 1787, Franklin expressed the strong hope that the document would be adopted by the states. He said that naturally it was not a perfect product, being drafted by imperfect men with widely differing views on many things, but that it was imperative that a Constitution be produced. He knew that it was impossible to please everyone, and sometimes you pleased no one, but you did something. And so his displeasure would cut across both parties, a group of legislators who leave office ( if they ever do leave, and that longevity would trouble him, also ) wealthier than they came in.
Having said all of that, Benjamin Franklin would be excited by technology. He would want the latest iphone, but would immediately begin to work on improving the thing. He would, I believe, be pleased with the goodness of the majority of honest, hard-working Americans, and would wish that they were better served by their leaders.
He would probably get to work immediately on a satirical, pseudonymous commentary on the state of his beloved America. And neither party would be spared. And, oh yeah, he would love Bluetooth.