The American scholar Benjamin Franklin developed a prolific activity on fronts such as publishing, culture, science, diplomacy and politics. He was an inexhaustible and outstanding man in all the fields of knowledge that he cultivated.
At 42, he had become rich enough from his publishing activity to dedicate himself exclusively to science. As he recounts in his memoirs, having retired from business, many of his fellow citizens considered him an idle man. Though he was busy with his “scientific distractions,” as he called them, he was required time and again to accept public office.
He was elected Justice of the Peace of Philadelphia in 1749, a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1751, a delegate to the Postmaster General of North America in 1753… In 1757 the Assembly sent him to London as a representative of Pennsylvania to settle a dispute on the payment of taxes, a conflict that would be repeated frequently and would become one of the triggers for the revolution that broke out in 1775.
That would be the first of several trips he made to the capital of the Empire as a representative of the colonies, of whose union he was a fervent defender. Although Franklin had always considered himself British and did not want North American independence – only greater economic-administrative autonomy and representation in Parliament – King George III’s centralist and restrictive policies would make him question his loyalty to the Crown.
During his long stays in London – he spent almost two decades there – he became aware of the great fame and prestige he had acquired on the other side of the Atlantic (he would be elected a member of the two most prestigious science academies in the world at that time, the Royal Society of London and Paris). His presence was highly required and appreciated in cultural circles and high society. They invited him to scientific demonstrations, cultural meetings, chess games (another of his passions), dinners, dances… And he returned these expressions of admiration with his courageous and gallant manner, his witty conversation and his predisposition to share ideas and knowledge. .
Freemason and libertine?
Between enlightened progressivism and classic chaos
Freemasonry, whose lodges were centers for the transmission of Enlightenment ideas, seduced a good number of intellectuals during the 18th century, including Franklin. In 1730 he published a laudatory article in his newspaper, reporting on the establishment of Freemasonry in Pennsylvania. A year later he entered Saint John’s Lodge in Philadelphia, becoming Grand Master. In 1734 he contributed to its popularization by publishing as a printer Anderson’s Constitutions, the founding document of British Freemasonry.
In London he came into contact with enlightened men and freemasons from all over Europe, but also with members of high society who had a somewhat different concept of associationism. Like Francis Dashwood, an aristocratic member of the British Parliament who, in his spare time, presided over the Hellfire Club, a libertine society that met in secret in the mansions of its exclusive members. It is known that Franklin attended these meetings, although not the content of them. It was rumored that they performed satanic rituals, although they were possibly recreational evenings in the Dionysian spirit, accompanied by alcohol and prostitutes.
This popularity was even greater when he was in France. During the nine years that he spent there as ambassador, from 1776 to 1785, the elderly and widowed Franklin (his wife died in 1774, while he was in London) became a regular presence in Parisian salons, both in those of the academies scientific as in those of the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. There he acquired a reputation as a seducer and met the brilliant salonnière Madame Helvétius, widow of the philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius, with whom he fell madly in love and asked to marry her. She discreetly rejected him, although they remained friends throughout their lives.
The birth of a nation
Franklin did not come to Paris for pleasure, but with an important diplomatic mission: to convince France to support the American rebels in their fight against Great Britain. The war had begun in 1775. A year later, on July 4, 1776, he signed and participated in the writing of the United States Declaration of Independence.
His search for support in Paris was as fruitful as his time in the great halls. He achieved a military alliance with the kingdom of Louis XVI in 1778, decisive for the victory of the Americans, and was one of the signatories of the peace treaty of Paris of 1783, by which Great Britain recognized the independence of its North American colonies.
In 1785, at the age of 79 and suffering from gout due to his obesity (which had increased in France due to his taste for haute cuisine), Franklin returned to the United States. Despite his age and state of health (he also suffered from kidney stones and had psoriasis), he remained involved in building his newly created country. Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, he was elected Governor of Pennsylvania. Two years later he participated as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, where the Constitution of the United States was written and signed. In the last years of his life, he was involved in defending the abolition of slavery, which he considered contradictory to what was ratified in the Magna Carta.
Affected by pleurisy, he died on April 17, 1790. On his deathbed, he had time to finish the last part of his autobiography and write a letter to a scientist friend with one of his most famous phrases: “Nothing can be said which is true in this world, except death and taxes. A letter that he signed in the same way as his epitaph begins: “Benjamin Franklin. Printer”.
This text is part of an article published in number 617 of the magazine History and Life. Do you have something to contribute? Write to us at email@example.com.