Benjamin Franklin was the most cosmopolitan spirit of his age. The self-made republican, the tallow-chandler’s son, the many-sided tradesman, and the universal genius moved with grace and honor among the powdered heads of Europe, quipping with royalty and corresponding at once easily and profoundly with the greatest intellects of the day.
Born in Boston, whither his parents had moved from Nantucket (he liked to explain that his keel had been laid in Nantucket but that he had been launched in Boston), he spent a great many of his mature years in England and France. Yet this tireless man of the world was completely at home in his adopted city of Philadelphia and was intimately involved in its problems and projects. He gave the impetus to practically every undertaking that advanced the welfare and the importance of the city in his time. With his printing press, his remarkably lucid literary style, and his uncommonly good sense, he was an unmatched propagandist for worthy causes. When the good citizens of Philadelphia proved reluctant to subscribe to the radical proposal to found a modern public hospital, Dr. Thomas Bond appealed to Franklin. “There is no such thing,” Bond wrote, “as carrying through a public-spirited project without you are concerned with it; for I am often asked by those to whom I propose subscribing, ‘Have you consulted Franklin on this business? And what does he think of it?’” Here, as in so many other concerns, Franklin’s persuasive influence, usually leavened by the best of humor, was the vital ingredient of success.
And he was concerned with almost everything. On a single day in 1772 he wrote thirteen letters to as many different persons on subjects that ranged from the employment problems of a glass factory and the problems of silk culture to the selection of books for the Library Company and the principle of oath-taking. He sometimes covered almost as much ground in one letter. The Library Company of Philadelphia was itself an outgrowth of his Junto, a club of thoughtful young tradesmen whom Franklin brought together in 1727, as was the Union Fire Company, founded in 1736, the first in town and the beginning of a flourishing city-wide system of protection.
Like a pebble thrown in a pond, Franklin caused a series of ever-widening circles that finally ringed the city with public-spirited endeavor. Thus he was at the center of the movements that reformed the city watch, improved the paving, cleaning, and lighting of streets, gave birth to the Academy that became the University of Pennsylvania, and organized the military defenses of the Quaker province.
Out of Franklin’s Junto, too, emerged the American Philosophical Society, a symbol of the smouldering intellectual curiosity which he fanned into a bright flame by his own incessant investigation of the world he lived in, the seen and the unseen. His invention of the lightning rod, deemed by some contemporaries a sacrilegious interference with God’s plan for mankind, was only one of the experiments by which he attracted to Philadelphia the attention of the scientific world. On another level, the maxims of Poor Richard that emanated from Franklin’s press won world-wide currency.
Art as well stood in Franklin’s debt. Letters from Dr. Franklin had helped young Benjamin West get established in London, nor did his friendship flag as West became court painter to George III and the monarch’s intimate friend. Despite war and political struggles, three generations of American artists studied in London under the kindly, hospitable West. He became the most widely known American painter of his day, perhaps of history, and in 1805 he paid his compliments to the memory of his friend with the allegorical painting at right, showing the Philadelphia genius, attended by cherubim, snatching lightning from the heavens.