The greatest of them all. August 27, 2009Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Founding Fathers, George Washington, Kennedy Dynasty, Ted Kennedy
It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to ask who was the greatest Founding Father of them all. I was thinking about this in the wake of Senator Ted Kennedy’s death, contemplating the Kennedy dynasty in all their idealistic greatness and with all their human failings. This led me to wonder which of the Founding Fathers was the most moral of them all?
Sadly, my good friend Google couldn’t give me an answer to this question, but it did give me a list of the seven Founders who were considered greatest of all: Benjamin Franklin (our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac), George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, and John Jay.
Ahem. I myself believe the triumvirate of Founders who actually effected the Revolution were George Washington, who led the fight and whose towering, regal figure became a rallying point; Ben Franklin, who negotiated support from the French at the critical moment and despite overwhelming odds against his success, and whose wit and wisdom were ever at the service of his country and helped to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution pass into law; and Thomas Paine, the disreputable Brit who had the common touch and won the common people in the Colonies to the cause of Revolution through his inspired writings, which explained the point of rebelling in terms any blacksmith or shoemaker could understand and support. (“These are the times that try men’s souls… “)
The absence of the disreputable Paine from that list of seven disturbs me. The absence of the early firebrands, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Paul Revere, those men who touched off the Revolution but never served in the federal government they brought into being, disturbs me. The absence of great patriots like George Mason and Gouverneur Morris disturbs me.
But one thing encourages me. The historian who compiled that list gave Benjamin Franklin pride of place. Not George Washington, the acknowledged first among equals, the universally recognized peerless one, the uncrowned king, in his day. He comes second on the list. Ben comes first.
Getting back to my original question, which Founding Father was the most moral, Washington certainly deserves a top two vote. Though he married for convenience rather than love and spent his entire life passionately pining for his best friend’s wife, he enjoyed a faithful and happy marriage to Martha, his partner in all things. But what gives him the high vote as far as morality is concerned was not just his lifelong attempts to live up to the highest possible moral standards, which he set for himself at an early age and strived to measure up to all his life, but what many consider his crowning achievement: walking away from an American kingship or, at the very least, an appointment as President-for-Life. By doing so, by retiring to Mount Vernon after two terms as President, Washington not only stunned his contemporaries and won the amazed admiration of monarchs and statesmen across the globe, including King George III; he set a precedent for politics in America that has endured to this day.
Okay, what of Ben? Much as I admire General Washington, I actually think that Benjamin Franklin deserves the title of most moral Founder. Why? Contemporaries like John Adams loved to portray Ben as a wastrel and womanizer, revelling in costly luxuries (this last was actually true of Thomas Jefferson, not Ben). Old Ben certainly knew how to flirt with the ladies, but there is not one shred of evidence that he carried his witticisms into the bedroom. And his good sense and love of frugality and good old American ingenuity have been preserved for all times in Poor Richard’s Almanack, his autobiography, and other writings. While Thomas Jefferson drove his family into poverty and debt through his extravagance—they were forced to sell Monticello and everything in it in an attempt to pay off his debts—Ben Franklin (and George Washington, for that matter) quietly established comfortable, sustainable fortunes for their own families, not to mention freeing their slaves, unlike Jefferson, whose slaves were ruthlessly sold off during his life and after his death.
But Ben went further, laying the groundwork for what we have come to know as American democracy. It was Ben who established communal societies that would benefit all citizens, from the lending library to the hospital, university, and firehouse. It was Ben who truly understood the saying “one for all, and all for one.” It was Ben who uttered the indelible, defining comment on independence, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together in this, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” It was Ben who founded the first Abolitionist society. It was Ben who stressed religious tolerance and respect for all religions to the extent that leaders of every faith in Philadelphia, including a rabbi, marched in his funeral procession. It was Ben who, finally, understood that there could be no independence without interdependence, that we were all in this together. It was he who recognized the need for a “Band of Brothers,” a band that stretched from sea to shining sea. It was he who first defined the concept that the more one had, the more one owed one’s fellow man.
Who was the most moral of the Founding Fathers? For my money, it was Benjamin Franklin. Who was the greatest of the Founding Fathers? Without question, it was Benjamin Franklin. Scientist, statesman, genius, writer, adventurer, wise man, composer, prophet, inventor, friend, fellow man: Ben was all that, and so much more. His entire life was one long effort to better society for everyone who would come after, and thanks to his efforts, he succeeded in establishing a foundation, in the truest sense, “of liberty and justice for all.” Second without question is George Washington, revered above all in his day and for a century thereafter, and justifiably so. Without Washington, there would be no America. But without Ben Franklin, there would be no reason for America. No wonder he ranked first in the list.