Ben Franklin’s Lasting Legacy

American Icons, People
on November 28, 2004

Although Founding Father Ben Franklin died more than 200 years ago, the scientist, diplomat and writer remains a hot topic to this day. Walter Isaacson’s biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, is a national best seller, while author Stephen Covey studied Franklin’s foundation of success to write his popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

At 9 p.m. ET Dec. 5, The History Channel unveils a two-hour documentary, Ben Franklin, which examines the life of the brilliant yet elusive man who helped edit the Declaration of Independence and was the driving force behind the first public lending library and the first non-religious college.

Isaacson, the former chairman of CNN and the current president of the Aspen Institute, a non-profit organization that fosters leadership, discusses Franklin’s ongoing appeal:

AP: Why is Franklin so popular now?

WI: Because America has lost touch with Main Street values, shopkeeper values, and that’s what Franklin represented. He represented the ability to show simple virtues like honesty and hard work, and being tolerant of other people and taking care of your community. That is what Franklin was all about, taking care of your community, working together and forming associations. And in America, we now sometimes worry that we’re divided or torn apart and he was about bringing people together in clubs and do-good societies and libraries and volunteer fire departments. Secondly, he was not very ideological. He was a pragmatic politician who wanted to see what worked and find effective compromise around policies. He is sort of in contrast to the very partisan and bickering politicians we have today.

AP: You’ve said he’s the Founding Father people can relate to. Why?

WI: He is made of flesh and blood, not carved in marble on a pedestal. He had his own flaws—he was not a great husband—but he loved his family and loved his country. He was not too pretentious and didn’t try to be an aristocrat, like some of the others. He was very much a believer in the middle class. He wrote his autobiography to try to convince his son, who was putting on a lot of airs, to remember his humble roots and to be proud of coming from a long line of shopkeepers.

AP: Franklin has been described as the one Founding Father easiest to imagine living in the 21st century. If he were alive today, what would he be like?

WI: He would be the type of person who would love technology and love free choice and free competition and free markets and free minds and a free press. He was a great believer in freedom. He thought the average person should be trusted to make his or her own choices. He was the type of person you would want to show your new cell phone to, or discuss foreign policy with or tell the latest joke about a priest and a rabbi.

AP: What would the patron saint of self-improvement guides think of our culture?

WI:He would not be snobby about Oprah Winfrey or Dr. Phil. He thought an earnest but also a humorous approach to self-improvement was a great thing. He used to make a list of all the virtues he wanted to acquire. Poor Richard’s Almanack is the first self-help book, and he wrote it to help young tradesmen in Philadelphia become better citizens.

AP: In America (The Book), Jon Stewart jokes that if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he would like actress Halle Berry. Which celebrity would Franklin like?

WI: He would’ve liked Jon Stewart because Jon Stewart is non-ideological but he has a sense of humor that rivals the one Franklin showed in Poor Richard’s Almanack. Jon Stewart is the direct descendant of Ben Franklin’s sense of political humor.

AP: Who today most embodies Franklin’s talents or spirit?

WI: Franklin was the best diplomat of his age, the best scientist, the best writer, the best inventor, the most practical politician and the great civic leader. Nobody today can come close to doing all of that.