Benjamin Franklin is my favorite founding father. There are chapters in the lives of others that I admire — Washington’s bravery, Jefferson’s eloquence, Madison’s political vision — but even these giants had glaring flaws and failures. But Franklin’s life as a whole is extraordinary, with many varied chapters — printer, author, scientist, inventor, politician, revolutionary, diplomat. He was, truly, a Renaissance man.
I’ve been reading, or re-reading, his Autobiography. I have a memory of reading it as a sixth grader, but the book must have been a simplified and expurgated children’s version. Franklin’s writing is mostly plain and direct, not much concerned with literary effect. His writing hurries toward his main objective, which is to tell what he has learned about how to live. He believes unequivocally in the virtue of hard work, honesty, frugality, and temperance. He very much wants to communicate the value of these habits and attitudes. But he does not appear dour or gloomy. Rather, he seems mostly cheerful. He strikes me as lively and always curious, a person who enjoyed both people and ideas, who had fun.
How did he manage to be so accomplished and productive? I think a large part of it was due to the old-fashioned virtues he promotes, like diligence and honesty. The man worked very hard and mostly kept to the straight and narrow. But another quality, which he does not (at least so far as I’ve read) discuss, was also important: unselfish caring. Franklin cared about other people, both as individuals and as communities, and dedicated much of his life to helping them. He was generous with his gifts. That generous spirit made him a happy, productive person.
In the Autobiography, Franklin does not conceal his moments of weakness and mistakes. He’s human — but a really remarkable human. I’ve been realizing how much his example impressed me as a child and influenced my development. For a role model, one could do much worse.