Celebrating the accomplishments of a self-made man

Library of Congress exhibits papers of Benjamin Franklin on the occasion of what would be his 300th birthday



A young French damsel seems to be polishing Ben Franklin's bald pate with a feather duster in the hand-colored lithograph depicting his reception at the Court of France in 1778.

But it's not a feather duster, says Gerard W. Gawalt, manuscript historian and curator of the exhibition, Ben Franklin: In His Own Words, which opens today at the Library of Congress.

"It's supposed to be a laurel wreath," he says.

The lithograph is among 75 items from the library's Ben Franklin Collection on display in celebration of Franklin's 300th birthday(on Jan. 17).

Franklin, who helped craft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, rose from the humblest beginnings to achieve fame as a printer, author, scientist, philanthropist, inventor, politician and diplomat - in short as a New World Renaisssance man. He remains perhaps most famous for his Poor Richard's Almanac with its doggerel poetry and proverbs.

In the exhibition lithograph, elegant French women of the court, in off-the-shoulder gowns with adorable bustles, surround Franklin. They loved him in France, the women especially, it has often been said. He was admired and feted throughout Europe, even in Britain where he was a deputy postmaster until they decided he was definitely a revolutionary.

"He made a point of arriving for the reception in the French court in a plain Quaker suit, although he wasn't a Quaker," Gawalt says. "He was very good at portraying an image of the simple American. Although he was probably the most famous American in the 18th century because of his scientific experiments."

But, Gawalt says, "he became very much part of the French elite. The wine and brie set loved him."

Franklin went to France as a commissioner for the Continental Congress and stayed as a diplomatic minister. He negotiated the alliance with the French military and signed the Treaty of Paris peace treaty in 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War.

He was the only founding father of the United States who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris and the Constitution. And he was the oldest, too.

But he didn't like the bald eagle as a symbol for the new United States.

He wrote his daughter Sarah Franklin Bache, arguing against the eagle, as a "fish-stealer."

"The Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird," he wrote, perhaps humorously. "And a true original Native of America."

So was he.

Franklin was the quintessential American self-made man. In his autobiography, he says he was born and bred in poverty and obscurity. He was the 15th son of Josiah Franklin, a Boston soap and candlemaker who sired 17 children with two wives. Ben's mother was the second wife, Abiah Folger, who bore 10 of Josiah's children.

He left home at 17 and landed in Philadelphia, where he most famously got off the boat, bought himself "three great puffy rolls," and strolled down Elfreth's Alley looking for a job.

He found work as a journeyman printer and five years later owned his own shop.

Perhaps his most famous work was Poor Richard's Almanac, which he printed under the pen name "Richard Saunders," who was supposed to be a poor man with a nagging wife, thus "Poor Richard."

"He said that he printed 10,000 a year," Gawalt says. "Which may be a slight exaggeration. But he printed a great many."

The Library of Congress' copy in the exhibit dates from 1739. That year the almanac offered commonplace weather and planetary calculations, and also Franklin's pithy maxims, such as "Kings and Bears often worry their Keepers, Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall not be disappointed, and couplets like this one:

When Man and Woman die, as Poets sung,

His heart's the last part moves, her last, the tongue.

He thrived with the almanac and with his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, but Gawalt says "One of his big moneymakers, literally and figuratively, was as the printer of money for the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey."

A half-dozen examples are displayed in the show.

"What is really interesting about his currency," Gawalt says, "is that he helped develop anti-counterfeiting techniques. He would put little chips of mica in the paper."

"You were hung for counterfeiting," Gawalt says.

Franklin's 1744 edition of Cicero's Cato Major, or His Discourse of Old Age is "considered one of the best, if not the best, example of 18th-century American printing," the curator says. The book is the first classic work translated and printed in North America.

Franklin printed Cicero in large type so aged readers, he said, "in Reading by the Pain small letters give the eyes, feel the Pleasure of the Mind in the least allayed." He invented bifocals for pretty much the same reason in 1784 when he was 68. His design is in the exhibit.

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