Channelling George Washington: Benjamin Franklin


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“There’s another fellow from my time who I don’t think is properly appreciated by a lot of Americans:  Ben Franklin.”

“How well did you know him?”

“We were never close friends.  He was famous when I was still in my teens, twenty-five years before the Revolution.  He discovered electricity and invented the lightning rod—and he published the best newspaper in America.  I saw him in action only once, when I was an aide to General Braddock, in the war with the French and Indians.”

“He was in Braddock’s army?”

“Ben was already too old to be a soldier.  He was a politician from Pennsylvania.  Braddock needed wagons to supply the men on their march west to attack the French fort in present-day Pittsburgh.  The general tried to get them, army-style.  He demanded them from western farmers.  That got us nowhere.  Then Ben took charge.  He persuaded the general to rent the wagons on very generous terms.  Ben traveled around telling the farmers if they didn’t come through the general was going to seize them for nothing.  Presto!  We had more wagons than we needed.”

“When did you meet him again?”

“I met him in the Continental Congress, but it was a brief encounter.  He returned from two decades in England in May 1775 and I left to take command of the Continental Army in June of the same year.  A few months later he came to Cambridge with a committee to find out how much it was going to cost to maintain the army.  He literally shuddered when he looked at the numbers.  But it didn’t change his determination to win our war.  A good thing, because we couldn’t have won it without him.”

“How would you sum up his contribution?”

“I can do it in one word:  France.  He persuaded the French to sign an alliance with us—and loan us money.  And more money.  And more money.  And finally to send an army and a fleet that made Yorktown possible.  For six years, he kept Louis XVI and his courtiers in the game.  In spite of idiots like John Adams and some of our other diplomats, such as Arthur Lee, who thought it was smarter to insult and berate them.”

“Did you like Franklin personally?”

“How could I not like him?  He wrote me the greatest letter I’ve ever received.  It was toward the end of the war. Can I read it to you?  I almost hate to admit it, but I keep a copy handy.”

“By all means.”

Should peace arrive in another campaign or two and afford us a little leisure, I should be happy to see your Excellency in Europe, and to accompany you, if my age and strength would permit, in visiting some of its ancient and most famous kingdoms.  You would, on this side of the sea, enjoy the great reputation you have acquir’d, pure and free from those little shades that the jealousy and envy of  a man’s countrymen and contemporaries are ever endeavouring to cast over living merit.  Here you would know—and enjoy—what posterity will say of Washington.  For one thousand leagues have nearly the same effect as one thousand years.  At present I enjoy that pleasure for you, as I frequently hear the old generals of this martial country (who study the maps of America and mark upon them all your operations) speak with sincere approbation and great applause of your conduct, and join in giving you the character of one of the greatest captains of the age.

“I can see why Ben kept a full length portrait of you in uniform on the wall of his study in France.”

“After the British surrendered at Yorktown, my first thought was getting a letter to Ben.  I persuaded Admiral de Grasse to put it on the fastest frigate in his fleet.  I knew the French politicians had lost their nerve and were close to negotiating a semi-surrender with the British.  They dropped the idea when Ben spread the word all over Paris before it even got into the newspapers,”

“You saw him in action a few years later, at the Constitutional Convention, didn’t you?”

“That was another amazing political performance.  Ben held that bunch of quarrelsome characters together with his arguments for compromise.  I was the convention chairman, which meant I couldn’t say a word to stop them from self-destructing.  But Ben did it again and again.  His ultimate triumph was persuading them to sign the finished document, even though fifty percent of them disagreed with all sorts of things in it.  Ben urged each of them to “doubt a little of his own infallibility” and join him in signing it as witnesses to “the unanimous consent of the states.”  That was pure genius.  A majority of each state delegation had already voted their approval.  The soreheads and the grouches were outmaneuvered.”

“I wrote a book about Ben.  It got rave reviews but it didn’t sell very well. My publisher told me most books on Franklin don’t sell. What’s your explanation?”

“That can be summed up in two words:  John Adams.”

“Can you explain that a bit?”

“When Congress sent Johnny to France as a diplomat in late 1777, he thought he was on his way to fame.  He saw himself negotiating an alliance with King Louis XVI and returning home as a national hero.  Instead, when he got there, he found out that Ben had already done the deed.  The treaty was about to be signed.  Worse, Johnny found out every man and woman and child in France was crazy about Ben. Johnny couldn’t deal with it.”

“What did he do?”

“He tried to swallow being second fiddle but it didn’t last.  He started finding fault with Franklin.  He criticized his unsystematic working habits, his sloppy paperwork.  Then Johnny saw Ben in action with the French ladies.  They swarmed around him, giving him kisses.  He kissed them back—which they more or less expected, being French.  Johnny started writing to people in Congress, calling Ben a dirty old man.  It’s amazing how many people still believe those slanders.”

“How old was Ben at the time?”

“Seventy-one or seventy-two.  Johnny couldn’t get those puritan ancestors out of his bloodstream.  Tom Jefferson told me a story that explains Ben’s supposed amours better than anything I’ve heard or read elsewhere.  Congress appointed Tom as Ben’s successor.  When Tom reached Paris and called on Ben he found him surrounded by beautiful mesdames and madamoiselles, kissing and being kissed.  Tom asked him if it would be possible to transfer these privileges to the new ambassador.  Ben said: “You are too young a man.”

“I seem to recall Ben wrote you another letter, when he was dying.”

“I’ll never forget that one either.  He told me that for his own personal ease, he would have died two years ago.  But in spite of spending each day in excruciating pain, he was glad he had lived to see the growing strength of our new government under my presidency.  I wrote him a reply straight from the heart.  The words just poured out.” 

“I’d like to hear them.”

“I started by telling him I wished I could do something to relieve his pain.  I knew he understood this was impossible.  But I also knew he had within himself a unique resource, the only one to which a man in his situation can turn:  a philosophic mind.  Then came those words from the heart:”

If to be venerated for benevolence, if to be admired for talents, if to be esteemed for patriotism, if to be beloved for philanthropy, can gratify the human mind, you have the pleasing consolation to know that you have not lived in vain.  And I flatter myself that it will not be ranked among the least grateful occurrences of your life to be assured that as long as I retain my memory, you will be thought of with respect, veneration and affection by your sincere friend,

George Washington

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