If I had to choose a pre-revolutionary American, who more than any other, could claim a per-eminence among a pantheon of heroic figures of history – not just here in America, but on the world stage- it would be one who was born in Boston in 1706 in something less than promising circumstances. His father was a candle-maker whose humble earnings had to feed a family with thirteen children spanning a generation from youngest to oldest. His mother, Abiah Folger had been a next-door neighbor to my own 8th great grandfather, one of the founders of Nantucket in the 1630s. What’s even worse, he was born on a Sunday – a sinful event in Puritan New England, necessitating immediate baptism on the day of birth.
Young Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to an older brother in the print business after only a month or two of formal education in a “Latin school”, revolting against harsh authority and “running away” to Philadelphia at age fourteen. Launching his own career as a printer and publisher of pamphlets and newsletters, he exhibited an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and wisdom which would have made him remarkable in any age. Over a period of thirty years, he established libraries, a hospital, fire departments, a postal delivery service, and eventually at least four universities of higher learning. His interest in all things scientific led him to landmark discoveries with electricity and the invention of the first electrical storage battery; medical breakthroughs in the study of the human circulatory system, and a free-standing fireplace which revolutionized home-heating.
Drawn into politics, he was elected to Pennsylvania’s Assembly in 1751 following 25 years as the clerk and archivist of that representative body. He attended the Albany Conference in 1754 where he introduced a plan for union. He was sent as an agent of the colony to London where his insight into Crown politics invested him with a unique understanding of trans-Atlantic relationships. Later, as America’s representative to France, he would almost singlehandedly bring that powerful ally into full support of the emerging American revolution, and where his portly figure would become a welcome sight on the streets of an adoring Paris where Franklin proved himself to be anything but the “country bumpkin” many expected.
In January, 1774, Benjamin Franklin went before England’s Privy Council following the event which became known as the “Boston Tea Party”, in an effort to convince the “Mother Country” that relationships with the people of the Colonies deserved new thinking. In anticipation of this grand undertaking, he purchased a black velvet suit for the occasion. Instead of a cordial welcome, he was treated with unmitigated scorn, and for two hours was subjected to ridicule and abuse as he was excoriated by the Crown’s Solicitor General, Sir Alexander Wedderburn.
Returning home, the humiliated Franklin folded up and packed away his black velvet suit, a reminder of the most degrading experience of his life, determined never to be seen in it again.
He would, however, break that promise; First, in 1778 when he signed a treaty with France, recognizing the United States as an independent nation, and finally, in Paris in 1783, when England in effect acknowledged their loss in America’s war for independence. Of this occasion, Dr. Franklin – perhaps the wisest and shrewdest statesman the United States has ever sent abroad - explained “This suit has seen my worst day, it deserves to see my best”.