The First American
(This column was first published in the January 6, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)
Who is your favorite early American?
For many of us the answer to that inquiry has changed over the past decade. (I'm speaking here about presidents before Abraham Lincoln, who I believe remains beyond comparison.)
In my case, for example, ten years ago I would have answered without hesitation: Thomas Jefferson. Since then, however, Jefferson's vicious political infighting came to light and, for me at least, sent him into decline. Replacing him in succession were George Washington and John Adams. But now I believe I have come up with a response that I am prepared to maintain.
The best answer: Benjamin Franklin.
If you don't agree, you almost certainly have not read the three excellent books that have led me to this conclusion: the new ones, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H. W. Brands (Random House, 2000) and Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan (Yale University Press, 2002); and the reprint, The Ingenious Dr. Franklin: Selected Scientific Letters of Benjamin Franklin, edited by Nathan G. Goodman (University of Pennsylvania, originally 1931).
Consider evidence for my claim derived from these books.
A remarkable politician, Franklin was the only American who contributed to and signed our "big three" documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War and the Constitution. Arguably even more important to this country, he had negotiated a wartime treaty of commerce and defensive alliance with France. He was also, among other things, a best-selling author - of "Poor Richard's Almanack" and his "Autobiography" - and this country's first postmaster general. He opened an early public library and formed a group that developed into the American Philosophical Society. He was even a musician who played the violin, harp and guitar, and invented an odd instrument called the armonica.
But this is a column about natural history and Franklin's contributions to this field were at least equally substantial. Unlike many of the philosophers of his times, he would be comfortable in any community of scientists today.
And here is where Franklin's model is most important for young people considering a future in science. Morgan pins down this "most conspicuous virtue, the thing that would earn him world‑wide fame in his own lifetime: his insatiable curiosity.... Franklin could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick. He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why.... Franklin never stopped considering things he could not explain.... He was always devising experiments to help him understand what he saw around him, but he made the whole world his laboratory.... For Franklin the world was so full of strange things that it is hard to keep up with his efforts to understand them."
Among the major outcomes of his investigations: the lightning rod, a practical result of his association by his famous kite experiment of lightning with static electricity; the Franklin stove, his contribution (he refused to patent it) to heating our homes; and our first recognition of the Gulf Stream. Small things too: the calming effect of oil on water, marsh gas, balloon flight, the common cold, sun spots. He even contributed to meteorology and paleontology.
Interestingly, Franklin refused to argue against those who disagreed with his scientific views. He was averse to public argument about science; rather, he preferred to let further experimentation respond to differences.
It is quite appropriate that I celebrate Franklin today as his birthday was January 6th - in 1705. (For purists, the change to the Gregorian calendar implemented in September 1752 made this correspond to the modern January 17.)-- Gerry Rising
Note: A few of the many web resources on Benjamin Franklin are the following: