"I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me."
Benjamin Franklin was a printer, author, scientist, musician, inventor, diplomat, ladies' man, revolutionary, and one of the coolest and most fascinating people in American history. Managed to make it onto the U.S. hundred dollar bill without being President. Invented bifocal lenses, the Franklin stove, and the lightning rod, after proving that lightning was just electricity, not the wrath of an angry god. If you ever take a tour anywhere in Philadelphia's historical district, you will learn that he invented pretty much everything. Even The Internet. He's the most famous American outside of America.But he was not a President. And he did not write the Declaration of Independence (although he did edit it). And he didn't found the Ben Franklin dime store chain. As a consolation he is the only person whose signature appears on all three founding documents of the United States of America... the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris and the US Constitution.
Tropes frequently associated with Benjamin Franklin:
The Alcoholic: Not only did he like to drink, he had over 50 different epithets for being drunk.
During the American Revolution he had a platoon of soldiers guarding him whenever he went out drinking, not because of his safety, but rather because the other Founding Fathers were afraid he would leak military secrets during his binges.
American Dream: Often held up as one of its greatest success stories. Though he had family ties, he basically started out with less worth than the currency which bears his image.
Peter Folger, Franklin's maternal grandfather, was a court clerk who was once jailed for disobeying a local magistrate while defending middle class people against wealthy landowners. He would be a big inspiration to his grandson Benjamin.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: Franklin was the one who said "The Lord helps those who help themselves." It is not found in the Bible anywhere.
Big Fun: Ben's weight is part of what made him so endearing then and keeps him endearing now. One story goes that during a trip to Paris, a woman who knew him greeted him by pinching his belly and jokingly asking him what he would think if he saw all that weight on a woman. Ben replied, "madam, twenty minutes ago this weight was on a woman!"
Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Franklin was a Dirty Old Man and liked taking naps during meetings. During his time in France he attended numerous parties and often came in late to work, which earned him the resentment of his colleague John Adams. However, this allowed him to create the informal connections that helped secure French support for the American Revolution.
Common Knowledge: Franklin never actually tied a key to a kite string in a thunderstorm. He wasn't stupid!
Also, while Franklin did suggest the kite experiment, two French experimenters did it a few months before him. Franklin is better remembered because of the then-long travel distance across the Atlantic and because the history of electricity was largely written by English-speakers.
Cool Old Guy: Not just smart, he had a wicked sense of humor.
Compound Interest Time Travel Gambit: Without time-travel. He bequeathed £1,000 each to the two most important cities in his life (Boston, where was born and raised, and Philadelphia, the adopted hometown where he made his name). Each fund was to be invested by giving loans to young craftsmen for a period of 200 years; each city could take 75% of the fund out after 100 years for a public-works project, and the trust would reach maturity and be given over entirely to the city after 200 years. The Boston fund, when opened, was enough establish a large trade school after the first 100 years; the Philadelphia fund was used to fund scholarships to local high school students at maturity in the 1990s.
A bit of a darker side when one considers he left his wife in America while he travelled Europe serving as an ambassador etc., and never returned to her even when he heard she was dying. To be fair, he had wanted her to come with him and asked her to many times, but she was afraid of travel by water, and he probably never went to her because of political business in Britain. All the same, being a prolific adulterer- probably even while his wife was on her death-bed- is a bit of a blight on his record.
Eccentric Mentor: He was the oldest of the Founding Fathers, and respected for both his brilliance and his witty humor.
Eagle Land: Ben is the embodiment of the type 1 flavor, though funnily enough, if he'd had his way, we might have ended up calling the trope "Turkey Land." To elaborate, when it came time to choose a national emblem, Franklin argued that we should pick the turkey because of the fact that it's native to North America rather than the Old World. However, the other Founding Fathers prevailed and we ended up picking the more majestic eagle, but a type native to North America, the bald eagle (though it would be a while before artists would depict the bald eagle correctly).
Gallows Humor: One of his most famous quotes, referring to the Revolution, was "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." A rather literal use of gallows humor indeed.
Along with the ever-infamous "Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead."
Good Cop/Bad Cop: Franklin decided that if America was going to win France's support in the Revolutionary War, he would have to play the part of the charming, hard-partying ladies' man in order to forge informal bonds with the French court, while the grumpier, business-minded John Adams went about putting pressure on the French court to side with America. Adams apparently disagreed and thought they should both be pressuring the French, but Franklin continued doing things this way. It should come as no surprise that when Adams received a commission to be Minister to the equally businesslike Dutch, he preferred it mightily.
I Have No Son: His son William, born when his father was about 24 (the exact date is unknown). William was a Loyalist who supported the British Crown; he served as the last royal governor of New Jersey until he was forcibly deposed in early 1776. After spending a couple of years in prison William escaped to British-held New York and eventually settled in London. Benjamin Franklin could not get past this. Franklin ignored a letter that William sent him in 1784 in an attempt at reconciliation and never made any other communication with him. He only met William once after the Revolution, a brief meeting in London in 1785 to settle up business affairs. In Franklin's will he left William some land in Nova Scotia and nothing else, adding that if the British had won as William hoped, Franklin would have had nothing to leave him.
I Was Quite a Looker: While we're mostly familiar with Franklin the overweight Dirty Old Man, he wasn't always that way. Printers regularly had to carry large, heavy trays of lead type, and Franklin in particular was very health-conscious in his youth (he was particularly partial to swimming), and as a result the young Franklin was quite fit and rather buff.
Kavorka Man: Despite being elderly, balding, wearing glasses, and having neither money nor aristocratic title, he apparently cut quite a wide swath through the ladies of Paris when sent there as American Ambassador (and did pretty well on his home turf too).
It was said of Franklin that, when he returned from his post in France, he had every venereal disease known to medicine. All at the same time.
To be fair, this was almost certainly averted in his youth, where he was just as much of a Casanova. He was apparently handsome and lifted weights to improve both his strength (which he needed as a printer's apprentice and then a printer—cases of lead type are heavy) and appearance (makes sense, given his whole self-improvement schtick). Presumably, he gained enough experience with the ladies that he no longer needed to rely on his looks.
Likes Older Women: Preferred older women for their intelligence, often independent means, and *ahem* "experience".
Massive Numbered Siblings: He was the 15th of his father's 17 children.note Franklin's father Josiah had two wives, Anne Child (whom he had married in England and died in childbirth in Boston) and Abiah Folger (who was from Nantucket). He had seven children with Anne and ten with Abiah, of whom Benjamin was the eighth; he was also Josiah's tenth and final son.
In one man, he was the reason why British society started to realise that the American colonies could produce great men of their own.
A partial list of things Franklin invented: the lightning rod, the Franklin stove (which in slightly modified form became the modern fireplace), bifocals, and the urinary catheter. Things he studied: the Gulf Stream (which he charted and named), the principle of cooling by evaporation, population growth (he was a major influence on Thomas Malthus), and of course his research into the nature of electricity, which included not only the nature of lightning but the idea of electrical charge (he created "positive" and "negative" as descriptions of the two types of charge) and the concept of conservation of charge, which he originated. Renaissance Man, indeed.
Red Oni, Blue Oni: In France on his and Adams's mission to secure French support for the American Revolution, he was mellow and easy-going compared to John Adams's fiery, hot-tempered disposition.
Self-Deprecation: In contrast with most of the other Founding Fathers, Ben was known to paint a less than ideal picture of his character in his writings about himself.
Self-Made Man: He was one, and very proud of it. He also used Poor Richard's Almanack as a way to spread his words of wisdom and urge other Americans to also make themselves into this trope. To this day, American schoolchildren in the youngest grades are often given Franklin's quotes as encouragement and as a good example of how to push oneself towards self improvement.
Serious Business: The fight over whether lightning conductors should be pointed or have a spherical end. It took on a political dimension after Franklin sided with the American Revolution, and so patriotic Britons adopted the other type.
The Smart Guy: Respected even among the American Founders, dyed-in-the-wool intellectual elites almost to a man, for the breadth of his knowledge.
The Spymaster: While in Paris, he was this. Like every diplomat at the time.
Simple Country Lawyer / Farm Boy: In France, Franklin intentionally played up the image of a plain-speaking rustic from the colonies. He would wear simple clothing (in stark contrast to the ostentatious costumes that the French nobles wore), intentionally subverted etiquette rules and social conventions, and spoke directly and simply (in contrast to the flowery and loquacious jargon that French politics used). But most importantly, while he played rustic, he never played dumb, in his free time, he wowed the aristocracy with demonstrations of scientific experiment, the ones dealing with electricity was very popular. The French found him to be a breath of fresh air and loved him for it. this was also the time when the philosophy of Rousseau and Voltaire was popular, and the French found Franklin to the be perfect example of a natural, but civilized man, someone with a European's brain but the untrammeled heart of a noble savage.
Averted when Franklin went to England, where he immediately swanked it up for all he was worth. The English had enough dealings with plain Puritans to be impressed with that rustic act.
White and Anglo-Saxon, yes; Protestant, no. He was a committed Deist (or at most, a Theist), albeit one that believed in an afterlife.
His parents were Puritans and he was raised Puritan, but turned his back on organized religion in youth; however, he later regretted this as he felt that rejecting religion had made him and his friends less virtuous. He described himself as both a Deist and a Christian, and once motioned to introduce daily prayers to meetings of the Constitutional Assembly (which failed, and was never brought to vote) and his proposal for the motto of the United States was "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God" (also rejected). He doubted the divinity of Jesus, but thought his moral system was "the best the world has ever saw or is likely to see", and believed in God and supported religion in general, though he felt that it should be seperate from the state (to preserve its own integrity). John Adams wrote that Christians of every denomintion regarded him as one of their own, such was his popularity amongst the religious laity. He may have called himself a Deist, but most of his religious beliefs seem to better reflect theistic rationalism, which was fairly common amongst the Founding Fathers, since unlike Deists he did believe that God and Providence actively intervended in human affairs, and credited the success of the American Revolution at least in part to God being on their side.
Womb De Plume: His "Silence Dogood" widow persona, adopted for some of his earliest works because nobody would have paid attention to newspaper comments from a sixteen-year-old.
Benjamin Franklin in fiction and pop culture:
open/close all folders
According to the official backstory of Code Geass, one major divergence point between its history and ours is that Franklin betrayed Washington in return for a title of Britannian nobility and land, meaning that the United States of America never came into being. The show's immortal female lead C.C. speaks of Ben and his peaceful nature wistfully, implying that she knew him personally.
In the film How High, Method Man and Redman end up discovering that Franklin invented the bong. Although not historically accurate, it would explain his easygoing nature. Franklin actually owned a hemp mill, and several of the Founding Fathers grew hemp, though it was the sort used for fiber which doesn't contain much THC.
Ben And Me, a story told from the point of view of a cute talking mouse that lives in the walls of Ben Franklin's house. Contributed to the "key kite" myth. Later became a Disney animated short.
John Hodgman apparently detests Ben Franklin, if the repeated potshots taken at him throughout Complete World Knowledge is any sign.
He is a major character in the James Morrow novel "The Last Witchfinder"
In the first chapter of The Baroque Cycle, Enoch Root visits early 1700s Boston and encounters a child prodigy named Ben (surname not given, but clearly intended to be Franklin.)
America (The Book): The foreword, supposedly written by the ghost of Thomas Jefferson, claims that if crack cocaine had existed when Franklin was alive then "that boozed-up snuff machine would weigh 80 pounds and live outside the Port Authority."
The Age of Unreason, an Alternate History series by Gregory Keyes in which Sir Isaac Newton studied alchemy instead of physics, features a young Ben Franklin as Newton's protege.
In Two Crowns for America by Katherine Kurtz, a "secret history" of the Revolution, Franklin plays a supporting part in his role as a Master Mason.
He's a supporting character in The Year of the Hangman, an alternate history where the Americans lost to the British in 1777. He takes in the protagonist, Creighton, as an apprentice, unaware that he's a British spy. Franklin secretly publishes The Liberty Tree newspaper, and is later burned with his print shop by British soldiers.
The Office: When Michael orders Jim to hire a male stripper for a bachelorette party, Jim calls the Scholastic Speakers of Pennsylvania and hires a Franklin impersonator. Dwight is 99% sure he's not the real one.
Appears in the HBO miniseries John Adams, where he is generally played as Adams' foil: witty, popular and sly, in comparison to Adams' earnest and blunt firebrand.
When Puff Daddy sings "It's All About the Benjamins, Baby", yes, it's this Benjamin. Franklin is the face on the American hundred dollar bill.
In MAD #169, the article "A MAD History of Sex", writes: "Perhaps the greatest Sexual Figure in Revolutionary times was also known as "The Father of Our Country". His name was Benjamin Franklin. We realize some people think George Washington was the father of our country, and you may say "You don't know your history." All we can say is "You don't know your Benjamin Franklin!"
When Bobcat Goldthwait cut his hair because he was going bald, he joked that he was "starting to look like Ben Franklin". He also, in another bit, said that David Crosby looks like "Ben Franklin fucked a walrus".
His ghost is a major character in A Girl And Her Fed. (He's close friends with an attention-deficit woman who sets people on fire, a cyborg fed, and a genetically-engineered koala supergenius.)
The Transylvito Moneymancer in Erfworld is named Benjamin, and he is essentially Ben Franklin. This incarnation also sports the addition of a gold chain with "100" as the symbol.
Thanks to Time Travel, he's a modern-day superhero in Spinnerette. He's pretty much invincible due the universe itself making sure he survives to return to the past eventually and make history what it is.
Franklin is one of the major artificial intelligences working for the Americans in Afterlife Blues. An oracle, or use of his full computing power on a single question, is said to be very valuable.
Shows up in The Fairly Oddparents when Timmy decided to do research for a report on American History the fun way, by interviewing a few Founding Fathers.
Also, as shown in a later episode, he somehow has the ability to control storms.
Liberty's Kids, which features Walter Cronkite as Benjamin Franklin, is about Franklin's newspaper and its staff of teenage reporters and apprentice printers.
An episode of Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? ends with a cliffhanger when Carmen travels back in time to 1752 and steals Ben Frankin's key, foiling his kite experiment and preventing the development of electronics and trapping Zack and Ivy in time.
Even South Park treated Benjamin Franklin with respect. He appeared to save the day in "I'm A Little Bit Country".
An episode of The Simpsons. Homer thought Franklin was president.
Benjamin Franklin is featured in several other fantasy sequences. In one he invents the sled and in another he plays Air Hockey with Jimi Hendrix.
In a Family Guy cutaway about the Declaration of Independence:
Speaker: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal...
Benjamin Franklin: Except the Jews!
Speaker: Franklin! For the fifth time, I'm sorry you overpaid for your house, but it's not going in!
Benjamin Franklin: You'll be soor-ry!
Tony Hawk's Underground 2 allows you to skate as a Ben Franklin impersonator (known only as "Ben Franklin"). His unique trick is the Franklin Grind, which has the skater be pulled along the rail by a kite (with a key tied to it, of course) as a thunderstorm sound effect plays.
Day Of The Tentacle features Ben Franklin in the past, trying out his famous kite experiment. When a storm rolls around, he goes back inside, and Hoagie has to convince him to go back out, using the lightning to charge the battery for his Chrono-John.
In one edition of Where In Timeis Carmen Sandiego, you and your Good Guide, Polly Tix, meet him while trying to get Declaration of Independence back from one of Carmen's crooks. Later, he helps clue you to where Carmen is going.
In The Simpsons Game, Benjamin Franklin attacks the heroes in heaven with a key that shoots lightning.