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Remembering Ben Franklin on his 300th Birthday
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Remembering Ben Franklin on his 300th Birthday

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Remembering Ben Franklin on his 300th Birthday
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Benjamin Franklin would have been 300 years old tomorrow. Franklin was born in Boston but it's his adopted hometown of Philadelphia that's doing the most to celebrate. All this year the City of Brotherly Love is toasting Franklin's successes as a printer, politician, scientist and diplomat. But his enduring appeal may not be linked to those accomplishments. As Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports, it may have more to do with Franklin's all-too-human failures.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

Benjamin Franklin's story is quintessential rags-to-riches. Franklin was 17 when he showed up penniless in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of printing press)

ROSE: Six years later he was running his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, printed on wooden printing presses like this one in Franklin's former office on Market Street.

Unidentified Man: And the word `press,' it comes from this coming down.

(Soundbite of printing press)

ROSE: Franklin also published Poor Richard's Almanack, a series of enormously popular books that contained witty sayings about the value of temperance, frugality and other alleged virtues.

(Soundbite of voices)

Unidentified Woman #1: `A light purse is a heavy...'

Unidentified Woman #2: I like this the way it is.

ROSE: At the National Constitution Center visitor Fran Reedy(ph) repeats some of Poor Richard's more famous sayings aloud. She traveled from Long Island to see the museum's Franklin exhibit.

Ms. FRAN REEDY (Long Island, New York): He seems to be someone who was very, very in touch with the common man, everyday life and he was someone who was determined to fix the struggles and make life easier for anybody, women, children, you know, the common man, the working man.

ROSE: Franklin's apparent pursuit of perfection for himself and others made him some enemies, too. Mark Twain complained that Franklin's example was impossible for the rest of us to live up to. D.H. Lawrence called him, quote, "a dry, moral, utilitarian little Democrat." But historian Michael Zuckerman at the University of Pennsylvania cautioned against reading Poor Richard too literally.

Mr. MICHAEL ZUCKERMAN (Historian): Franklin was actually spoofing himself long before Mark Twain or William Carlos Williams or D.H. Lawrence were spoofing him.

ROSE: Zuckerman says Franklin wrote much of Poor Richard's advice with tongue in cheek, knowing that no one could live up to all of it. Zuckerman says Franklin's detractors, and for that matter a lot of his fans, tend to miss the irony.

Mr. ZUCKERMAN: It's just didactic bombast and he knows it but people have taken it straight.

ROSE: Even Franklin himself didn't always follow Poor Richard's advice. He lived in a big house and liked to wear nice clothes though, Zuckerman says, Franklin wasn't obsessed with money or status. He devoted much time and energy to public service, helping to found the colony's first public library, first post office, first volunteer fire department, first hospital and the University of Pennsylvania. But it was his work with electricity that made him famous.

(Soundbite of explosion)

ROSE: A computer screen at the National Constitution Center's Franklin exhibit shows one house getting blown up by lightning while another house survives because of a lightning rod, which Franklin invented. When Franklin went to London in 1757 as an ambassador for Pennsylvania, his reputation as a scientist preceded him. By the time he arrived in Paris 20 years later...

Ms. STACY SCHIFF (Franklin Biographer): He is the most famous American in the world. He may be the most famous man in the world, in fact. And it is that celebrity card that he plays, the man of science, the man who tamed the heavens, it's that card that he plays in America's favor.

ROSE: Biographer Stacy Schiff says Franklin played a major role in persuading the French to support the American side in the revolution. Without his diplomatic efforts, she says it's unlikely the colonies could have won.

But not everyone liked Franklin's style. Schiff says fellow diplomat John Adams wrote to Congress that Franklin was lazy and insinuated that he was a womanizer.

Ms. SCHIFF: I think Adams had a good deal to work with, is the truth of the matter. I mean, Franklin was a very flirtatious man, a very charming man and during those years in France did have two sort of eminent flirtations, one with a much younger woman and another with a woman he would have liked to have made the second Mrs. Franklin.

ROSE: Franklin wrote candidly about visiting prostitutes as a young man and he fathered a child before he was married, although historians say there's no actual evidence that he cheated on his wife.

Mr. RALPH ARCHIBALD (Franklin Portrayer): Keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half-shut afterwards.

ROSE: Franklin portrayer Ralph Archibald says the public is also interested in topics besides Franklin's love life.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: I get a lot of the questions about France and I get questions about electricity. And the young people want to know what he did when he was their age.

ROSE: Near the end of his life, Franklin held Pennsylvania's highest office and served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. And while Franklin had owned slaves in his younger days, he later headed the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Biographer Stacy Schiff says Franklin's contributions to public life were never much in doubt, and she says now even some of his private failures may be part of his charm.

Ms. SCHIFF: He's the last Founding Father. He's the Founding Father who had a sense of humor, who made mistakes, who clearly had a wayward sex life and an illegitimate child. And I think for an age in which we like to confess and forgive, he stands supreme.

ROSE: Franklin's 300th birthday party continues this year in Philadelphia. When the exhibit on his life closes this spring, it will travel to St. Louis, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Paris.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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