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Section 6.1.11

Benjamin Franklin on Leadership

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706. The 84 years during Franklin's life comprise a period of extraordinary historical significance. Most of us just past through history. Franklin was history. Who was he? What made the man? How did he do what he did? Come with me as we travel back in time to those days.

Before examining Franklin's leadership qualities, let us set the background by looking at some scientific milestones during the years in which he lived.

  • In 1705, a year before Franklin's birth, Edmund Halley had a comet named after him. He first saw it in 1682 and he predicted its return in 1758. It has been coming around every 76 years since.
  • In 1714 DG Fahrenheit constructed the mercury thermometer with a temperature scale.
  • In 1724 gin drinking became popular in Great Britain.
  • In 1731 Darwin was born.
  • In 1735 the Swiss scientist Leonhard Euler formulated the symbol Pi (P) as a mathematical notation.
  • In 1741 the Danish explorer Vitus Bearing discovered Alaska for his Russian employers.
  • In 1743 Thomas Jefferson was born.
  • In 1749 sign language was invented.
  • In 1761 the Russian Lomonosov discovered that Venus has an atmosphere.
  • In 1768 Captain Cook's voyages to the South Pacific began.
  • In 1769 James Watt invented the steam engine at age 33. The industrial revolution accelerated into high gear.
  • In 1771 Galvani discovered the electrical nature of nerve impulses.
  • In 1774 Joseph Priestly discovers oxygen.
  • In 1778 Cook discovered Hawaii.
  • In 1790 Franklin dies on April 17.

This period is termed the "Age of Enlightenment." However, during this 1706-1790 period, life was primitive, short and uncomfortable by any standards we take for granted today. Consider these few examples:

  • Sunday travel in Puritan New England could bring punishment from the clergy. A blue law made it illegal to kiss one's wife then. Witchcraft was accepted here at face value. In reality it was a form of political repression by a domineering religious right.
  • Some 25-50% of women died during childbirth. There were few hospitals. Bleeding and applying leeches were common medical techniques. It was a usual practice to ship bodies from place of death to place of burial in casks of cheap rum.
  • Philadelphia was located in the geometric center of the colonies. It had a good seaport, rich farmlands and timber in the open lands to the west. Yet, Indians were scalping settlers just 40 miles from Philadelphia. In 1740 the population of that city was 20,000, with another 10,000 refugees. It was larger than New York or Boston. The pacifist Quakers (also called the Society of Friends) lived mostly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; they advocated non-violence and toleration for others.
  • Most travel over land was by horse carriage or stage. About 30 miles per day was the best distance attainable. From Charleston to Philadelphia, the 700 miles took about three weeks time. An ocean voyage from France to Charleston was nearly two months long. It was five and one half weeks minimum sailing to London.
  • Even after Franklin's 1752 kite experiment, lightning was held by many to be an expression of divine anger and to be avoided only through prayer and the ringing of church bells. "Fulgura frango" — "I break up the lightning" — was cast on many church bells. Bell ringers were instructed to ring the bells at approaching storms in order to frighten away the lightning. A report from Johann Fischer from Munich in 1784 said the previous 33 years had seen lightning strike 386 church steeples, killing 103 bell ringers. Franklin's rods were opposed by Boston clergy who maintained they were attempts to interfere with God's decisions. "Lightning is a means of punishing mankind" they contended.

Franklin took the world as it was, not as he wanted it. He mixed a healthy skepticism with good humor and life-long curiosity.

What are some characteristics of leadership displayed by Franklin? I mention three combinations below, in no particular order, with a few examples of each.

1. Curiosity, Investigation and Improvement

Franklin had only two years of formal schooling. His father taught him to read at an early age. When he was 10, he was taken into his father's business. Disliking this, he was apprenticed to his brother James' printing business. In 1722, when James was arrested for sedition, brother Benjamin became the manager of the paper. He was 16. At this early age, his intense self-discipline equipped him with skills in reading, writing, reflection and self-improvement. These traits stayed with him throughout his life and were one of the secrets of his intellectual strength.

His first kite experiment was not related to electricity. He used a kite to tow himself across a pond, amazing his friends.

Wanting to be his own man, Franklin left for Philadelphia in 1723. He arrived there with one Dutch dollar and a copper shilling in his pocket. Working in several print shops, his circle of friends grew. He learned even more about the accounting and selling sides of business, until at the age of 24 he owned his own printery. He started a newspaper, the Philadelphia Gazette.

From 1730 to 1748, his industry and thrift contributed to the success of his business. His Poor Richard's Almanac was selling some 10,000 copies in a city where the population was just 25,000. Most families had just two books — a bible and an almanac. The fame of Poor Richard's Almanac spread Franklin's name throughout the colonies and abroad in six languages. The humor, common sense and charm of it remains even useful today. Most of the sayings were subtle messages for self-improvement:

  • If you would know the value of money, try to borrow some.
  • He who drinks fast, pays slow.
  • Well done is better than well said.
  • A closed mouth catches no flies.
  • Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterward.
  • A used key is brightest.
  • House guests and fish smell after three days.

These sayings helped develop America's sense of humor. Their popularity saw them translated into 15 languages and posted on billboards in London, Paris and elsewhere. Everyone knew Franklin was the author of Poor Richard's Almanac , and it further spread his fame at home and abroad. For Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac was just another technique he employed to influence people to his way of thinking and to his outlook.

Franklin labored continuously to improve himself. He taught himself to read French, Spanish, Italian and Latin. He founded the "Junto" ("together") Club, whose influential members discussed philosophy, morality, politics and the issues of the day. Many civic projects were proposed by Franklin, either through the Junto Club or city: street lighting, a fire department, paving of streets, a police department, a circulating library, a city hospital, and learned societies all were ideas originating with Franklin.

He rarely solicited public office; however, his wide recognition as a man of good intentions brought those positions to him. Appointed Postmaster of Pennsylvania and then of all the colonies, he visited many areas, increasing the efficiency and the financial success of the postal service.

Franklin found time for original studies in "natural philosophy," as science then was called. In 1737 he wrote about earthquakes. In the same year he observed that northeast storms on the Atlantic coast moved against the wind. In 1744 he invented the Franklin stove, whose radiant heating principle used one-fourth less firewood and delivered two-thirds more heat than conventional fireplaces. In one short letter during this period, he mentioned land draining, linseed oil production, climate variations, sea shells, taxation, natural springs in mountains and smuggling.

He was not the first person to dabble in electrical experiments, but he was the first to characterize its behavior into plus and minus or positive and negative. He was the first person to use the term "battery" as a static storage device. He wondered if lightning was electricity. In that age, most people thought lightning was an instrument of God, used to punish people. He was curious. How to capture it? In June of 1752 he and his son William flew a kite, and the link of lightning and electricity was confirmed.

Almost simultaneously (but slightly earlier, on May 10) a French man named Thomas-François Dalibard performed a related successful experiment, using a sentry box and a 90-foot lightning rod, at Marley-la-Valle, outside Paris.

The effect of harnessing nature, thereby proving that lightning was not a supernatural event and could be understood, was a major revelation. It helped break the grip of dogma and superstition of the receding Dark Ages. The days of open inquiry and freedom from past ignorance were upon the Western world. Even the conventional wisdom of repressive political institutions was to be challenged.

2. Belief in Change and Determination

The futurist Alvin Toffler (author of Future Shock) wrote, "Man's highest talent is the ability to learn, and then to unlearn and to relearn, when new ideas present themselves."

Franklin believed that change was the norm. And why not? It was everywhere around him. He saw that he could be a part of that change and influence change. Or he could be outside of change and be effected by it. He was excited by change and was able transfer that excitement to others. The best way to create change, he said, is to get all people involved in the process … to be a part of the team. He never gave up. He always kept moving towards his goal, even when the odds were against him.

He was a loyal subject of both the colonies and the English Crown, but when he was berated by Parliament for his role in colonial independence — he was called "Dr. Doubleface" by his English enemies — and stripped of his postmastership, he knew he would have to choose sides. King George called Franklin the "evil genius of the revolution."

Franklin arrived in France on December 3, 1776 with his grandsons, Bennie and Temple. He wore his plain fur hat in a royal court of powdered wigs. He was warmly received as a common man's philosopher. Marie Antoinette called him the "L'Homme Electrique" — "The Electric Man." Franklin responded by saying that her eyes did more mischief in a week than he had done in a lifetime.

Franklin rose from dead-end poverty. Determination enabled him, at age 42, to retire from his successful printing business. He was a determined problem-solver. And determination fired his powers of observation and deduction. Determination saw him tame lightning during his electrical experiments. Determination in his political life helped him grow from being a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania colony to becoming a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Peace Treaty with England and the U.S. Constitution.

3. Knowing How to Motivate Others Tactfully

Many of Franklin's achievements involved motivating other people towards his goals. He was successful in accomplishing many things because he enlisted the help of others.

He rarely sought political office; however, his wide recognition as a man of good intentions brought these positions to him. The Pennsylvania Assembly sent Franklin to London as a political agent. He was to spend 16 years in London and nine in Paris. His immense prestige and persuasive manner and gentle humor were of great value in calming passions and resolving disputes.

As with many guerilla wars, the American rebels could not lose the Revolution, but they would have a hard time winning it. To win, they needed a powerful ally in Europe. England and France, of course, being the great super-powers of the time, were in mortal conflict with one another. France saw a chance to stick a needle into England's eye by supporting the rebel colonies.

Franklin went to France first in 1767 and then again in 1769. This backwoods sage, with his fur cap, simple dress and unpretentious manners, became an ambassador/philosopher/scientist/author in keeping with the ideas of Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Condorcet and others who opposed the dark dogmas of the past.

It was Franklin in France for the nine years from 1774 to 1783 who influenced King Louis XVI and his Foreign Minister, the Compte de Vergennes, to provide the mercenaries, the money and the munitions so vital to the American Revolution. Washington beat the British in Saratoga in 1777, and then again at Monmouth. Soon afterwards the French recognized the new country on Feb. 6, 1778. Spain and then Holland entered the war. Franklin obtained for John Paul Jones a license to use French ports for his pirate raids against English shipping. Jones named his ship Bonne Homme Richard after Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac in thanks. The King said, "We help defend their liberties that we might defend our own."

Franklin was immensely popular in France … when dolls of him became popular, he wrote to his daughter saying that he was being "i-doll-ized." The French Minister of Finance wrote that "Franklin snatched lightning from the sky and the sceptre from tyrants." Franklin enjoyed the good life in France these years, putting aside his earlier habits of moderation. He referred to himself as "Dr. Fatside."

His friends in France cautioned him that his valet was a spy and should be dismissed. Franklin said, "You know he is a spy. I know he is a spy. But he does not know that we know he is a spy. There are some things I want the British to know."

On September 14, 1784 he returned from France. He lived the last five years of his life on Philadelphia's Market Street, inventing, writing and serving the emerging nation. The task of composing the Declaration of Independence fell to Jefferson, 40 years younger than Franklin. It was said that Jefferson was chosen to write the document for fear that Franklin might conceal a joke in the middle of it.

Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84. More than 20,000 people — half the population of Philadelphia turned out for his funeral to do him honor. Tradesman, practical writer and humorist, successful businessman, inventor, honest politician, statesman and co-founder of his country … people of his type visit our planet only rarely.

One biographer wrote, "He was equally at home in three countries; he knew Europe better than any other American, America better than any European, France better than most Englishmen, England better than most Frenchmen, and was acquainted either personally or through correspondence with more men of eminence in science, politics, and philosophy than any other man of his time."

In closing, the last words are Franklin's, as he said in Poor Richards Almanac:

Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors,
And let every New Day find you a Better Man.


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