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Benjamin Franklin: A Tradesman in the Age of Reason

“What is the American, this new man?,” Franklin seemed to provide the answer to this question first asked in 1784.

Benjamin Franklin, to his contemporaries the greatest figure America had yet produced, was born two hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1706. Publisher, printer, essayist and author, scientist, philologist, politician, “General,” diplomat, Fellow of the Royal Society, Doctor of Laws of Oxford and St. Andrews, federalist, though not in a party sense, in all the roles he played he remained still very much himself.

In his range, his origins, his success, Franklin seemed to be the living answer to Hector St. John de Creve-coeur’s famous question in 1784, “What then is the American, this new man?” David Hume thought Franklin “the first philosopher, and indeed the first great man of letters for whom we are beholden to America.” Some of his own compatriots bracketed him with Washington, but honest, splenetic John Adams wrote, rather spitefully, to Dr. Rush,

“The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and thenceforward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.”

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