Gleaves Whitney, September 15, 2011
Now, what’s the key to understanding the specifics of Franklin’s leadership? I think they are many. But you know what? I think the secret starts with his apprehension that he knew how to lead himself. All leaders have to figure that out first. It’s not so impressive if you’ve got a whole team of people, a corporation with thousands behind you, but you’re not successful at leading yourself with the discipline that that requires.
Franklin gets it. He gets it early. You see, when he’s promiscuous over in London as a 21 year old, 20 year old, coming back, he decides that he can live a better life than that. And he decides to go on, really, a campaign of moral improvement that I’m going to go into a little bit.
But here’s this relatively tall, muscular, large-chested young man. Stronger than most. Stronger because, as a printer, he has to carry lead, you see. Lead’s heavy. And he had the reputation for not carrying just one tray, like most apprentices and journeyman. He carried two. So here’s a guy who did have a little bit of physical presence. But that gives you a key into his discipline. He said, instead of just carrying one, I’m going to carry two. I’m going to be more efficient.
He wanted to swim. Why did he want to swim? Because he was fascinated by the sea. He told his parents that he wanted to have a life on the sea when he was a boy. And they said, yeah, yeah. Sure, kid. You’re going to come and you’re going to apprentice in my shop first, making candles.
But you know what Franklin did? He went out to a pond there in Boston and he taught himself to swim. He got a French book– he couldn’t even read French at this point– he got a French book with 140 illustrations of all the strokes. He taught himself to swim. Just like he’d go back to shore, look at the sequence of strokes, go out and try it, teaches himself.
But do you think he stopped there? This is an alpha wolf. Again, 500 trillion synapses. He says, what if I take a kite and tie it to my toe, and I do a backstroke, kind of thing, where I’m on my back. And so he lets the kite propel him across the water.
Discipline how do we do something better? It’s fascinating. Always working to find a better way of doing things. All his self-directed study– two years of school, Boston Latin School, but boy, he became the student we teachers dream of. Because what did he do? When he was in James’s print shop, and all the people are working to put together the New England Current, the newspaper, what is Benjamin Franklin doing that he gets his lunch break as fast as he can, he excuses himself, he doesn’t eat with the other apprentices, he goes to the back, and he is reading. He’s reading Addison. He’s reading Steele, Locke. He’s reading the great philosophs. He’s teaching himself geometry, Socratic method. How to argue effectively. And he teaches himself to write.
Benjamin Franklin becomes, as we’ll discuss in just the few minutes, the first great author in American letters. But he taught himself to write, you see, by using that spare time. And what he would do, is he would go, he would retreat to the back room, he would take, say, one of Addison’s essays, he would write it out, and then he would cut the words out, or he would cut the paragraphs out, and he would shuffle them up, and then he would reassemble. And he would rewrite the entire essay that way.
And he would try to improve it, just like that kite on the toe in the pond. He would try to improve on Addison and other great authors of his day. This is how we taught himself to write. This is a driven teenager. fifteen sixteen years old One gets the impression that he would not be asking dad for the keys to the car.
He later worked at his swimming. I’ve got to add one thing. He’s really a Leonardo Da Vinci character. As a teenager, he later works to develop fins. He develops the fins, these are hand fins, to swim and propel him even faster. Always disciplining himself to think, what is a better way to do things?
And he worked hard to improve his character. As I say, he comes back on the ship from London, and he decides that he really has to be a much better man. He had failed, in his own eyes. So he works on this character. He comes up with a list of 13 qualities, and he’s going to work on them week by week. And he writes about this in the Autobiography, it’s very funny, as you go through. Things like temperance, silence– for temperance, eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation. Resolution, order, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility. And remember, he’s practicing these virtues in sequence. The last one is chastity. He figures he’s going to give himself pass. 12 weeks of working on the others, then hey’ll get around to chastity.
He showed the list to a friend, and the friend said, Ben, don’t think you’re missing a virtue here? What’s that? Humility. You have a little bit too much pride in your ability to master these virtues, week after week. So it says, at the end, he says, OK, add humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates. Very modest.
What did I just describe for you? A 13-step program. Sound vaguely familiar? 12-step program? We know where it comes from.
Franklin also knew the importance of perception. You know the story– I’m sure you’ve heard– it was very important for Franklin to be perceived as possessing these virtues in public. For example, industry. Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all the necessary actions.
So what he did was, he would be the first one on the streets of Philadelphia. If he needed more paper, he would fill up the wheelbarrow and he’d make sure the wheelbarrow had a squeaky wheel. He would refuse to oil it. And that way, at 6 AM, he is going down the streets of Philadelphia, and everybody is opening their windows. Why is that young men out there so early? But they got the lesson. He was the first at work. Kind of like Maribeth Wardrop over at Grand Valley. That was Benjamin Franklin. Knowing that the perception of the virtues is also important.
Well, how are some of the other ways he led? I think I just told you the most important way Franklin led, is by leading himself. Always to be better. Always to do better, invent better, be better, as a character and as a mind. But there’s so many other areas. I’m going to race through this a little bit. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on them.
But of course, he’s a business leader. This is a guy that, by the age of 42, is able to retire. He’s made so much money. He’s the Ted Turner of his day. As you probably know, he’s the a Postmaster General. Well, he combines a government post with being a printer and forms this alliance, really this network franchise, almost, of businesses up and down the east coast. And by these business connections with other print shops, he’s able to dominate and print for the colonies, the official government papers. All of up and down. So he becomes enormously wealthy. Not the wealthiest man in the colonies, not the wealthiest in Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia. But certainly somebody who, by the age of 42, he is able to retire.
I want to say this about his making money. There is a perception– a German sociologist named Max Weber came out with a very important book, The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism. And everybody who was in grad school in the ’80s had to read this book.
And the book gives the impression that Franklin is so attached to discipline for the sake of money that he, you know, in sort of popular parlance, he’d be called a money grubber. That’s not an accurate portrayal. Because Franklin would have continued to make money. He wouldn’t have retired at 42. He saw money for its utility– to do the things you really love in life. And just as importantly, he saw money for what you could give back to community. And he did this again and again. It’s the capacity to give that was the measure of success to Franklin. Not the capacity to earn. The capacity to give.
This is where I think the Calvinist Puritan background in Boston made such an impact on him. It was communal. It was what you owed your neighbor to make a better life. And of course, the Calvinists used that as a sign of the elect. If you made money, it was a sign that you had God’s favor. Well, Franklin secularized the idea.
Franklin was also a civic leader. From what I just said, it would stand to reason that if you measured success in your capacity give, you’re going to give a lot as a civic leader. Well, as Ralph Lerner of the University of Chicago points out, Franklin’s genius was social. He says the voluntary association is Franklin’s invention, and it’s what builds America.
Franklin wanted so much to bring people together for all kinds of things. He perceived where there were problems, where there were issues. So he starts a little group called the Junto that you’ve probably heard about. They’re tradesman, as he is. And yet he is so concerned to improve their minds by giving them something interesting to read, that they will debate. They meet on Friday nights. They’re tired, but they’re driven to improve themselves.
But more than just becoming a debating society, or being a rotary club that has nice meals together, they’re more like the active part of a rotary club. What can we as the Junto actually go out and do in the community? And this spurs a lot of the things that you see coming out of Franklin’s imagination. The Library Company, the first lending library in the United States. The Union Fire Company, fire insurance. The Pennsylvania hospital. Then we start working on the post office. He was the first person in the colonies to make the post office operate at a profit. The Fred Smith of his day.
OK. If he retires at age 42, does he go to Tahiti and just sort of relax? No. He decides that he’s going to redouble his efforts. He’s going to do what he loves to do, but again, in the service of humankind. He has all this money. It frees him now to be a scientific leader and inventor.
This is where Franklin– it’s hard to grasp what an international star he becomes. But he is very similar to Newton in the previous century, because he has the power of imagination to be a major scientific figure, even though he’s only an amateur. Kid with two years of school. He’s self-taught.
Newton, recall, really did ask the question, is the same force that made that apple fall on my head the force that holds the moon in its orbit around the earth? Newton possessed the most important quality a scientist needs, and that’s imagination to ask such a question. Franklin has the same capacity of imagination. He asks, is the lightning that we see in the sky the same force as the sparks that we create in a laboratory?
And you have to realize that in the 18th century, static electricity was essentially a parlor game. I mean, if we were all at a party in the 18th century, say, a high-falutin party, high society, at some point, after four or five glasses of champagne, and things have started getting a little slow, the host of the party would have everybody line up in a circle, start a charge, and they’d all hold hands, and everybody would get shocked at the same time. And that was considered entertainment in those days. And they were called electricians, people who governed these things. That’s what electricians did in those days.
And Franklin says, OK. Let’s try to do something more with this. He goes out on the famous kite experiment with his son. And by the way, his son is, I don’t know why, always depicted as like a 10 or 12 year old kid. William was 21 at that point. And so these two men go out and almost kill themselves. But Franklin succeeds in proving that the force in the sky that we call lightning is the very same force as the static.
What is the significance of that? You have to go back to 17th and 18th century Puritan New England and a more primitive world of magic that was mixed in with the Christianity. Lightning was considered God’s wrath. If your neighbor’s house was struck by lightning, they were sinners. They deserved that house being struck by lightning. And that’s why, in the 18th century, you didn’t have a fire brigade that would go and put out the fire. The family would simply run out. Maybe some helpful neighbors would gather, they’d have bags, and they would gather their things, and they would let the house burned to the ground. It’s god’s judgment on that family. That’s a cheerful view, isn’t it?
When Franklin tames the idea of lightning with that kite experiment, he’s able to show that it is a natural force. And then he says, it’s not enough to understand the lightning. How do I take that understanding and make it service to humankind? And that’s where the lightning rod comes from. And Franklin’s invention of a lightning rod became the basis of every fire code around the world thereafter that’s still in use today.
And Franklin said, furthermore, about this, that he would not seek a patent. He would not seek any income. It’s his gift to humankind, he said. Humankind should not be terrorized by lightning anymore. I will not take one penny for this.
And Franklin took that approach with so many of his inventions. He eschewed making money from it. He was already independently wealthy. We’re talking about the capacity to give back, as a leader.
He also– this is really interesting. This is a list of scientific inventions and technological advancements. The catheter. I’m not sure why he invented the catheter. There’s probably a good story there. His many trips back and forth across the Atlantic made him speculate and write articles on the common cold, and he realized that they’re airborne. And not because God was punishing you. Because it was mysterious, why people caught colds.
He was one of the first people to advocate the eating of fruit. He didn’t know about Vitamin C, but he just observed that people who ate fruit, certain kinds of fruit, did better than people who didn’t. And “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was coined by Franklin as advice to a better life.
And on one of his trips, he had been watching the Gulf Stream, and he noticed the difference in color. And he noticed– he and William, or any others, would take temperatures. I mean, he’s not just sitting in his chaise lounge on the deck. He’s working on all these transatlantic voyages. He’s putting thermometers, and all kinds of glasses, to collect the seaweed. But he notices the change in the color. The greenish color, the warmer water. He’s taking the speed.
So he’s the one who writes this scientific article, proving that going from west to east you take, the Gulf Stream, you will get to Europe much faster, and coming back, you avoid it. He’s the one that also speculated on the climatic changes as a result of the Gulf Stream. This guy was thinking about everything. Nothing escapes his curiosity.
Some of the other technological things, you know, the swim fins, I’ve already talked about. The Franklin stove, you’ve heard of. The extension arm for libraries– Jim you’ll like this one– in a library, you know, the books that are out of reach, he had an extension arm with a grasp to get the book down. The lightning rod, we’ve already talked about. As Postmaster General, he developed the odometer to find the most efficient routes. This is how he turned a profit. A three-wheel clock, which was simplified. I’m benefiting with bifocal lenses, right here and now. The glass harmonica, which is such a beautiful instrument that Beethoven and Mozart composed music on it. That’s how famous Benjamin Franklin was in those circles. A dripless candle. I mean, this guy just was always thinking.
He won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in science, in his day. The Copley Prize. He also got honorary doctorates form St. Andrews in Scotland and Oxford University. So he becomes this international figure, second to none. The Newton of the 18th century.
As if this is not enough, no. A full business career. A full scientific career. A full invention career. A full civic career of improvement. A full career as a philanthropist. As if this is not enough, he becomes America’s first literary figure of stature. The one whose autobiography becomes the standard, in the 19th century, to read, and I assign it to this day in my classes. This is remarkable that this man, this self-taught writer, had the time to write Poor Richard’s Almanac after the second year. 10,000 copies of the Almanac are going out. This is a guy who knew how to market, who knew how to use his Pennsylvania Gazette, his newspaper empire, to market his product.
He’s a great journalist. He’s the founder of American journalism. He’s committed to freedom of the press. And one of the reasons his newspapers are so successful, as he’s committed to telling both sides of an issue. And how he does it is so clever. He doesn’t have a writer to do it. He adopts a pseudonym and does it himself. So he’ll write one op-ed under one pseudonym, and he’ll write the equivalent of another op-ed under another. And people were entertained. It was always entertaining.
Going all the way back, if you go back to when he was a 16 year old kid in James’s print shop, and doing the Silence Dogood letters, the 15 Silence Dogood letters, where he imitates the voice, the persona of a widow. A Puritan widow, a New England widow. And he pulls it off, as a 15, 16 year old kid. So he has this– again, I’m coming back to that quality of imagination. Capacious ability to imagine things that other people don’t see. And that’s leadership. He has vision. And he establishes a standard in American journalism that I’m not sure we exceed today.
The autobiography. Let me quote about the autobiography. This classic that’s read around the world. When I taught in Germany, I learned that my German students, independent of whether American or a Brit was there teaching the classroom, I learned that German teachers assign the autobiography. And here’s some of the things that are said about the autobiography.
There are a number of firsts associated with it. It’s consider the first popular self-help book ever published. The first and only work written in American English before the 19th century that has retained bestseller popularity since its release. I challenge you, go to Amazon.com and see how many copies of the autobiography are still selling. How many of us will write anything that anybody would remember, much less be a bestseller two centuries later? It’s unbelievable.
It was the first major secular American autobiography. It was the first real account of the American dream in action, as told from a man who experienced it first-hand. This form would be copied numerous times throughout American history, and you know, the most famous is the Horatio Alger formula.
Franklin often thought of himself as more of a scientist and a political thinker, but this self-identification comes through the autobiography, which does not discuss the Revolution in any capacity. Hardly refers to any events after 1757. Now, here you have Franklin really presenting himself as a kind of Renaissance scholar, interested in doing whatever he could to better the lot of humankind. The human estate is to be better because this man lives. And it’s elucidated in that autobiography how he does this.
As Michael Zuckerman at the University of Pennsylvania says, Franklin is writing not just to his son William. It starts out as a letter to his son, the autobiography. He’s writing not just to William, but to America. Quote, he “wants to teach Americans how to achieve the good life.” He sees that Americans will have limitless opportunities to create wealth, find riches and a new continent, and grow materially rich, but he’s also saying that growing materially rich is not all there is in life. His own sense of wonder and years of service are saying to us that each generation of Americans can go beyond success and find true significance in community.
Now, as if everything I’ve said were not enough– I mean, you have a resume of a guy who could just hang up his spurs, right? He’s also an education leader. He is an education leader from the get-go. What he found that library, that lending library, the first one in America, it’s so that tradesman can improve their minds. So already, he’s looking at working-class people, because that’s his background too. You see it in the Junto. Oh, and in his spare time, he founds an Ivy League university. Penn. Not bad.
He also– and I discovered this, as I was researching for this speech. I didn’t realize the extent to which the American Philosophical Society was really the origin of our land grant universities. Michigan State University can actually claim its origins with the American Philosophical Society. Because the articles that dominated were basically about soil science, crop science, how to improve yields. It’s remarkable. Saying, our country is going to have to feed itself, and more efficiently, as we grow in population.
And Jim, of course, mentioned all the political things that Franklin contributed to. And this is what’s remarkable. I mean, you could have stopped Franklin’s life before the political achievements, and said, this was a brilliant life in itself. And yet, Franklin goes on and achieves arguably his greatest contributions in what he did for this country. He’s the only founder to sign the four documents central to the creation of the American Republic. The Declaration which of course he helped edit in 1776. The Treaty of Alliance with France, 1778. The Treaty of Peace with England and France in 1782, and then the US Constitution of 1787.
I want to make a point about his politics before I come to the conclusion. Franklin was a devoted subject of the British empire for almost 70 years. When I first saw H.W. Brands’ book come out, The First American, I wondered how Bill would develop that. You all know Bill. You’ve seen him in this auditorium. We’ve brought him here eight times.
And I was curious how you reconcile a guy who wants to succeed within the framework of the British empire. The British empire was the greatest thing wrought by human ingenuity, in Franklin’s opinion, because it established an ordered liberty. It allowed Franklin to flourish. He became a world-class figure within the context of the British empire. He wanted it to work with the king, and with parliament, and the colonies. And he worked so hard to make that happen.
But it didn’t. And he had to make a decision. And I have a lot more I could say to you, but I think I’m going to skip to the conclusion here. I want to tell you about one story that’s very revealing about Franklin’s life as a way of concluding.
Franklin had gotten in some scrapes. He truly showed poor judgment on several occasions as a diplomat and as an agent for the Colonies. He misjudged, for example, the Stamp Tax of 1765. He was burned by not realizing how angry the Americans were. Because he’s living in London at that point. Spending 16 years of his life in London. Philadelphia is not a big enough town for his big personality. He wants to be in the megalopolis. He’s in London. And the word he’s getting back is not complete enough, and he misjudges.
And then he makes a really stupid error. Somewhat later, he is handed the letters that the governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, has written. And somebody secrets the letters to Benjamin Franklin and says, do with these what you will. Well, Franklin is a printer, a journalist, a publisher. He’s got a nose for a good story. So he sends it to the Massachusetts Assembly back in Boston, and what do they do? They print letters that the Governor of Massachusetts had written that were very incendiary. Letters that really are just scalding in their view toward the Americans. Condescending.
Franklin is going to be called before what’s called the Cockpit. It’s in Whitehall Palace. The solicitor general for the King, a guy named Alexander Wedderburn, he’s going to call Franklin to stand in the cockpit for over an hour as Wedderburn and others are going to teach this Colonial a lesson.
What they say to Franklin– and Wedderburn in particular– is so scurrilous that even the newspapers won’t publish it. And Franklin takes it in silence. Not because it’s true. He did not want to dignify Wedderburn and the King’s position with a reply. But here’s what happens on January 29, 1774, in the cockpit.
Franklin is standing there, and he’s really processing something. He realizes, all of a sudden, that the British, in essence, will not let him be a good Brit. And he has to make a choice. He becomes the first American that afternoon, because he decides he could no longer be British. He will no longer be part of an empire that looks so down on Americans as just mere colonials. Well, since you all aren’t gentleman, since you publish the letters of other gentlemen– you know, Franklin’s saying, maybe I made some mistakes, but your behavior is out of line. And it’s irrelevant. You’re not addressing the reality of the situation back in the Colonies.
Franklin decides that afternoon that he is an American. He is no longer British and in the Empire. And this could have made a person very bitter. It’s been speculated that it was the worst day of Franklin’s life. There were other days they were truly bad, but it’s a good guess that it could have been the worst day of his life.
But here’s the lesson we take from this. Franklin comes back, 1774, and he says, the British Empire’s through for us Americans. We can no longer be part of that Empire. There’s a faulty structure. It has a phony sense of hierarchy. Talent is not recognized. We’re going to strike out on our own. He becomes the first American. He becomes a leading American revolutionary.
He did not take the lesson from the Cockpit to the Constitutional Convention. What happened in the cockpit was a rhetorical act of war. It was a character assassination. Franklin did not take that– what he was subjected to– into the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He had his sights higher. He knew that those qualities we talked about earlier, of American leadership, that it’s not about bullying. It’s not about force. It’s not about your name. It’s about respect for the minds, the ability to reason, of others. It’s about persuasion. It’s about compromise, flexibility, adaptability.
This is what Franklin really sees, I think, as you thread together the significance of his life and the model that he gives to us today. Not to take the people with whom we ideologically disagree as our enemies, as rhetorical warfare. But somebody who makes an earnest effort, no matter what the challenge, to find common ground. That’s Benjamin Franklin.
We will persist in using reason. We will lay passion aside. We will find the common ground to make our lives together better. Thank you.