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Mon, Sept. 16

The Mystery of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is without a doubt one of the most revered men in American history. His incredible list of accomplishments and honors include inventor, scientist, soldier, statesman and diplomat. The philosopher and author was the first postmaster. He was a Masonic grand master and was instrumental in establishing one of the first fire stations, hospitals, a university, and was also the founder of the first public library in America.

He is the only Founder who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the treaty of Alliance with France and the United States Constitution.

For his scientific achievements, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Law degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 1759. In 1762, Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate and from then on he went by "Dr." Franklin.

But despite his many honors and accolades, there are still some mysteries about his life, questions that if left unanswered, will continue to cast doubt upon his honesty and integrity. Franklin was indentured as an apprentice printer to his brother. Because he left without permission, he was considered a fugitive. He was rumored to be a British spy while serving as an ambassador to France. It was also said that Franklin was unable to speak the French language even though he had spent many years living in France.

Franklin was born Jan. 17, 1706, in Boston. His father, Josiah Franklin, had 17 children with his two wives. Benjamin, their eighth child, was Josiah Franklin's 15th child and 10th and last son.

His father wanted Ben to attend school with the clergy but had only enough money to send him to school for two years. He attended Boston Latin School but did not graduate. His schooling ended when Franklin was 10, and he began working for his father, a candle maker.

When he was 12, he began working for his brother, James, a printer, who taught Ben the printing trade. When Ben was 15, James created the New-England Courant, the first truly independent newspaper in the colonies. It was during this period that Franklin began writing "anonymous letters." Being carried away with the success of these letters, Ben revealed himself as the author, which did not quite please James as Ben had hoped.

This occasioned difference between the brothers, and as James had often beaten him, Ben found himself wishing for some opportunity of shortening his apprenticeship. When one of the pieces in the newspaper on some political point gave offense to the assembly, James was taken up, censured, and imprisoned for a month. Then, as Ben stated in his autobiography, "I, too, was taken up and examined before the Council; but, though I did not give them any satisfaction, they contented themselves with admonishing me and dismissed me, considering me, perhaps, as an apprentice who was bound to keep his master's secrets."

It was also an order of the Assembly that James could no longer print a paper called the New England Courant. It was then decided that the paper be printed under the name of Benjamin Franklin. It was also contrived to avoid censure that Ben's old indenture should be returned with a full discharge on the back. He was also required to sign new indentures for the remainder of the term which were to be kept private.

With fresh differences arising between the brothers, Ben decided to assert his freedom, presuming that his brother would not venture to produce the new indentures. So realizing that Ben would leave him, James took care to prevent Ben from getting employment in any other printing house in town. Ben had little recourse except to leave town, and although it would be some years hence, James and Ben would reunite as brothers with no ill will between them.

Franklin first traveled to New York City, but being unable to find employment there, traveled to Philadelphia were he again apprenticed himself as a printer. Eventually, after his apprenticeship was completed, Ben managed to establish his own print shop.

In 1733, Franklin began to publish the famous "Poor Richard's Almanack" under the pseudonym Richard Saunders. Although it was no secret that Franklin was the author, his Richard Saunders character repeatedly denied it. "Poor Richard's Proverbs," adages from the almanac, such as "A penny saved is twopence dear" (often misquoted as 'A penny saved is a penny earned"), "Fish and visitors stink in three days" remain common quotations. He sold about 10 thousand copies per year (a circulation equivalent to nearly 3 million today).

In 1736, Franklin created the Union Fire Company, one of the first volunteer firefighter companies in America. In the same year, he printed a new currency for New Jersey based on innovative anti-counterfeiting techniques which he had devised.

In 1751, Franklin was approached by Dr. Thomas Bond who had conceived the idea of establishing a hospital in Philadelphia. The proposal being a novelty in America, and not well understood, Dr. Bond sought the assistance of Ben. With Franklin's assistance, sufficient subscriptions were obtained to permit completion of the project.

Paris of 1778 was a hotbed of intrigue. Spies were everywhere. In his biography, John Adams was quoted as saying, "If I was sure, therefore, that my valet de place was a spy, as probably he is, I think I should not discharge him for that, if in other respects I liked him."

Of the Americans around Franklin, the closest and most trusted was Dr. Edward Bancroft, a New England physician and a warm friend from Franklin's London years. But what neither Franklin nor Adams was ever to know was that Bancroft, too, was a British spy. Anything of importance that transpired within the American commission, or between Franklin and the French foreign minister, all instructions received from Congress, any confidences shared, were known by the British cabinet in London within days.

Bancroft's dispatches, written in invisible ink, were placed in a hole in a tree on the south terrace of the Tuileries Gardens regularly every Tuesday. The system worked to perfection for several years. The ease with which the information was passed on to London led historians to question if Franklin had been a spy for the British. The truth about Bancroft's treachery would not be learned for many years

As time passed, John Adams' ability to speak the French language had improved. As he progressed, he realized that Franklin, although able to read and write the language, spoke the language poorly and understood considerably less.

Never verbose in social gatherings even in his own language, "the good doctor" sat in the salons of Paris, looking on benevolent, a glass of champagne in hand, rarely saying anything. When he did speak in French, he was, one French official told Adams, almost impossible to understand. Franklin never bothered with the French grammar, which he had admitted to Adams, but to his French admirers this, with his odd pronunciation, was but another part of his charm.

Adams noted that Franklin, "his venerable colleague," had the enviable privilege, because of his advanced age, to embrace the ladies as much as he pleased and to be "perpetually" embraced by them in return. But then the adoration of Franklin to be found in all quarters was extraordinary.

Crowds in the streets cheered the good doctor. His likeness appeared everywhere - in prints, on medallions, on the lids of snuff boxes, making his face, as Franklin himself said, as well known as that of the man in the moon. Possibly the likeness of no one human face had been so widely reproduced in so many forms. Reputedly, the King himself, in a rare show of humor, arranged for it to be hand-painted on the bottom of a Sevres porcelain chamber pot, as a New Year's Day surprise for one of Franklin's adoring ladies at court.

Franklin had a lively sense of humor, and today, if asked, I am sure his reply would be, "I don't get no respect."

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