How tempting it is, to use the birthday of a famous figure like Benjamin Franklin to bemoan the present day!
How very easy it would be to use Franklin’s birthday to write unflattering comparisons of this famous son of Boston and President Obama, or Harry Reid, or Jeb Bush, or John Boehner – or between Franklin and almost any contemporary US political figure.
For who can compare with Franklin’s varied accomplishments as an author, a diplomat, a scientist and inventor, or as a statesman? (Franklin's courage and eloquence give him a lot in common, of course, with another famous American also born in January - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
How effortlessly one could use today to complain that the “golden age” of history is gone and that in 2011, America can point to no “new” Benjamin Franklins.
To twist an anniversary like today, January 17th, the 305th anniversary of Franklin’s birth, for such ends seems like a crime – or at least an abuse, at which Franklin himself would surely frown.
Franklin himself did not believe he lived in some “golden age,” the passing of which he felt his successors should mourn. Rather, he felt humanity’s golden age was still to come. As Franklin wrote towards the end of his life, “I begin to be almost sorry I was born so soon, since I cannot have the happiness of knowing what will be known one hundred years hence.”
And some of Franklin’s contemporaries would likely also find it scandalous if their old comrade was used as a rhetorical weapon in partisan debates. When he took over Franklin’s duties as US Ambassador to France in 1785, for example, Thomas Jefferson was asked by someone “is it you, sir, who replace Dr. Franklin?” Jefferson is said to have replied: “No one can replace him, sir; I am only his successor.”
A far better use of Franklin’s birthday was suggested long ago by a New York printer named John Jewett. As Jewett said on this day in 1849, today is a day for Americans to "refresh [their] minds with a recollection of the wise maxims and virtuous deeds” of Franklin, as “a philosopher and a sage.” Through this, Americans can "quicken [themselves] to renewed exertions in the path of duty,” just as Franklin always did his best for his country’s cause.
I think Jewett was on to something. There can be no better way to celebrate Franklin’s life and accomplishments than by browsing a copy of his Autobiography, or some of his published correspondence, and directly sampling some of the great man’s genius, humor and wise optimism.
And may these qualities of Franklin long continue to be celebrated.