Walter Isaacson: The America Ben Franklin Saw





Walter Isaacson is chief executive of the Aspen Institute. He has written biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Henry Kissinger.

When he was a young man, Benjamin Franklin wired together a set of batteries he had just invented and used them to shock turkeys slated for a Thanksgiving feast. Thus he added yet another invention to his list: the fried turkey. "The birds killed in this manner eat uncommonly tender," he wrote.

After election seasons such as the one past, and when facing "fiscal cliffs" like the one looming, it’s therapeutic to gaze back through history’s haze and catch the eye of Franklin, the Founding Father who winks at us. The twinkle behind his bifocals reassures us that things will turn out all right.

Franklin’s optimism about the American experiment is reflected in an essay he wrote about our first Thanksgiving. The early settlers, "their minds gloomy and discontented," frequently fasted to seek relief from their distress, he recounted. Just when they were about to declare another day of fasting, "a farmer of plain sense" pointed out that "the inconveniences they suffered, and concerning which they had so often wearied heaven with their complaints, were not so great." Instead of another fast, the farmer argued, they should have a feast to give thanks. Writing a century later — in 1785, a period when both the economy and political system looked fragile, rather like the present — Franklin assured his fellow citizens that thanksgiving was still warranted. "Let us take a cool view of the general state of our affairs, and perhaps the prospect will appear less gloomy than has been imagined," he wrote....



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