Looking to the Benjamin Franklin Museum for answers


There aren’t enough artistic places in which to shelter over the next four (please, not eight) years. So instead of trying to duck and cover, I went in search of guidance.

Mr. Franklin doesn't like what you've done with the place (your republic, that is; his museum is pretty nice). (Image by Karen Molinar via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

The Benjamin Franklin Museum beckoned. Franklin (1706-1787) witnessed turbulent times in a divided nation. He spent years in London forestalling war, but when the revolution came, he built alliances that ensured the fledgling nation’s success. In addition, he was a scientist, entrepreneur, innovator, and raconteur whose personality shaped the United States' character

Part of Independence National Historical Park, the museum was created for the nation’s bicentennial. Located beneath Franklin’s home and print shop, originally known as Franklin Court, the underground museum was completely renovated three years ago. Those who remember banks of Princess telephones (ask your parents) on which visitors could dial up famous figures to hear their opinions of Franklin are in for a shock. The transformation is astonishing.

Above ground, things look much the same: The open-air courtyard can be entered from Market or Chestnut Streets and is dominated by the exoskeleton of Franklin’s home. The white metal profile was erected in the 1970s in the belief that archaeological and historic information would be insufficient for an authentic reconstruction. Instead of imagineering something to please tourists, the National Park Service reproduced what it could verify.

It’s a spare yet evocative memorial. I hadn’t even entered the museum and Franklin was whispering in my 21st-century ear: Trust the facts.

What a concept.   

Meeting the man in the details

As a man of innovation, Franklin would be delighted by the gadgets in his museum: Videos, touchscreens, tabletop displays, artifacts, and quizzes communicate not only well-known events (the Declaration of Independence, the kite) but also smaller events that influenced Philadelphia’s favorite adopted son.

We hear Franklin’s recollections of being a seven-year-old who overpaid for a whistle, of outworking his peers as a printing apprentice by favoring water over beer; and of sharing a bed in an overcrowded inn with taciturn John Adams. These tales release the living person immortalized in too much marble.

Words reveal the mind

Diplomat, inventor, philosopher, and social charmer: All of these labels fit Franklin, but the most useful for us is author. Franklin’s words reveal his remarkable mind and heart — and he might remind us that you can tell a lot about someone by what that person writes.

Independence National Historical Park's Franklin Court Ghost Structure. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Independence National Historical Park's Franklin Court Ghost Structure. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

In a politically harsh time, Franklin could make a point without making a mortal enemy. He persuaded with reason and humor rather than threats and ridicule.

He often wrote under aliases. At 16 Franklin wrote as Silence Dogood, an opinionated, middle-aged widow.  His brother James, a printer, was completely fooled and published the commentaries. While representing the colonies in Britain, Franklin published an essay mocking King George III and signed it “King of Prussia.”

Franklin’s most successful persona was Richard Saunders, author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, a popular compendium of information and armchair philosophyMany of Franklin’s best-known witticisms appeared there, and are short enough to fit a certain modern form of communication. I can imagine Franklin commenting, “Twitter sounds intriguing, but is the twit the message or sender?”

To which I would answer: “It depends.”

Gather and share information

Though his formal education was limited, Franklin pursued knowledge throughout his life. He consumed books voraciously, networked with learned people, and trafficked in information. Believing that intellect alone did not guarantee accomplishment (“A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one”), Franklin drew up a list of 13 virtues and used them to improve his character, carrying a small notebook to record his progress.

Franklin focused on one virtue at a time, and visitors are quizzed on which Franklin statements supported each desirable quality. Believing “Silence” to be a particular weakness, Franklin wrote that "wishing to break a habit I was getting into of prattling, punning, and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company, I gave silence the second place... Avoid trifling Conversation.” How much better would things be if all of us — and a few in particular — spent more time in silence?

We could also use “Moderation.” Franklin directed himself to “avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”  

“Sincerity?” One must “use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly.”

Tranquility? “Be not disturbed at trifles.”

Justice? “Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”  

“Humility” was Franklin’s ultimate virtue: “There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as Pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out.” 

And if you can’t be good…

Were he here in this fractious and frightening time, Franklin would likely recommend the following: Be industrious, thoughtful, and temperate. Learn, listen, write, and share information. Speak sincerely. Be kind. Take time to think. And if you can’t do any of that, keep silent. 

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