Ben Franklin (Virtual Talk – Online Zoom)

Event details

  • September 24, 2020
  • 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
  • Virtual event - Zoom online
  • 803-728-7056
  • 100Attendees

Cost: Free

Restless Genius of Benjamin Franklin, presented by Richard Bell, Ph.D., professor of History at the University of Maryland

Born to a humble family of puritan candle-makers in Boston, Franklin’s rise to the front ranks of science, engineering, and invention was as unexpected as it was meteoric.

Like his hero Isaac Newton, Franklin’s great genius lay in optimizing, in tinkering, in improving, and in never being satisfied with the world as he knew it. In this talk we will examine many of Franklin’s ideas to make life simpler, cheaper, and easier for himself and everyone else. It turns out that those ideas encompassed not only natural science and engineering—the kite experiments and the bifocals—but also all sorts of public works, civic improvements, political trail-blazing, and fresh, new business ideas.

Hardly the tortured genius, Franklin took a schoolboy’s pleasure in everything he made. Experimenting was a constant source of beauty, pleasure, and amusement for him, even when things went wrong (which they did all the time).

Please register in advance for this FREE Online event since enrollment is limited to 75 participants. If you have any questions, please email:


This event is sponsored by Athens Chautauqua in collaboration with Greenville Chautauqua.

Richard Bell, Ph.D.

Richard Bell is a Professor of History at the University of Maryland and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has won more than a dozen teaching awards, held major research fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress, and is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar award.

He is the author of the new book Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home. 

Benjamin Franklin, by Larry Bounds

When Benjamin Franklin appeared before the British Parliament as a colonial representative in 1757, he dressed in the fine silks and powdered wig that were expected of the dignified Englishman that he was. Twenty-one years later, however, representing the new American republic desperately fighting a revolution for independence, he stepped among the silk clad, powdered, and bewigged French aristocracy in a plain, brown, homespun suit with no wig and wearing a rustic, beaver fur cap – his “Liberty Cap.”

Franklin created a new image, singularly American. He represented a new national identity, more enterprising, less refined. He presented the idea of a new nationality that demanded a new nation. His unique style immediately captured the imagination of the French populace, rich and poor, and was the first step in winning over their support.

Ben Franklin became the first American. His life demonstrates the optimism, entrepreneurism, and imagination, that has enabled the America people to reinvent their society for the better throughout its history. Franklin, a distinguished, middle-aged, internationally known celebrity transformed himself from a proud Loyalist into a patriot and Founding Father.  Through his personal transformations he also transformed this nation.

Franklin was born into the superstitious age of witch trials, but he became a beacon of reason and an icon of the Enlightenment. Using the power of the scientific method in his experiments in electricity, optics, and heat conduction, he improved the lives and safety of all Americans. Though raised with a strong Protestant ethic, his journalism popularized rational thought while evangelizing secular morality. Incredibly successful in amassing wealth through the free market capitalism of his time, he established the socialistic institutions of public libraries, community fire departments, mutual aid societies, and public education. His political prowess shaped compromises that transformed a collection of Royal colonies into a democracy that would become the most powerful nation on earth.

Franklin was the fifteenth of 17 children born to a Boston soap and candle maker. Starting at the age of 8 he was formally educated to become a minister, for only two years. But this precocious boy, who read on his own from as far back as he could remember, was not cut out to be a minister nor to follow in his father’s footsteps as a candle dipper and soap boiler. At the age of 17 he fled Boston and settled in the city of Philadelphia (population 4000). No longer his brother’s apprentice, he worked as a tradesman, from printer’s assistant to independent printer. He worked long hours, produced work of high quality, and made sure people recognized his reputation for being industrious.

His passion for self-improvement, for continual personal reinvention, led young Franklin to organize the “Junto,” a club for local tradesmen and working class citizens, (not aristocrats) who gathered once a week to discuss the issues of the day, analyze good and bad business. pointed Postmaster, he organized such an efficient service that mail passed between New York and Philadelphia faster in his day than it does today. He transformed his local newspaper into a nationally syndicate journal made possible by his own improvements to the colonial postal system. As Philadelphia grew to a population of 20,000, Franklin guided the re-engineering of the city with paved roads, improved sanitation, and the first public fire department.

At age 40, with numerous investment properties and ownership of his colony’s most successful printing business – a chain of franchised printers – he retired to pursue his interests in science and invention. After seeing a demonstration of electricity generated and stored, Franklin spent ten years researching the nature of electricity. He created much of the language we use today to describe it: “battery,” “electrical current,” “negative charge,” and “positive charge.” With his famous kite experiment he proved that lightning was just an electric spark. Later he proved this spark could be attracted and rendered harmless by his invention the lightning rod, thus saving countless structures and lives. His pioneering work with electricity earned him honorary Doctorate degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale. “Dr. Franklin” was born.

His international reputation as one of the world’s great scientists led to his celebrity as a world famous diplomat. In the 1750s Franklin became an agent (lobbyist) in London representing the interests of several of the 13 colonies. In 1754 Franklin was the principle architect of the Albany Plan in 1754 – an early effort to give the British colonies more say in their own affairs through their colonial legislators. This push for increased self-determination was blocked by Parliament, fearing it gave too much power to the colonials.

A speech he made before Parliament was one of the primary reasons that the hated Stamp Act was repealed in 1765. Yet all this time Franklin was a staunch Loyalist working to keep the colonies unified happily with the rest of the British Empire. Despite Franklin’s efforts he could not get repeals of the Townsend Acts that taxed such things as glass, lead, and tea. Franklin responded to  the infamous Boston Massacre, placing the blame on the colonial governor. That  led to him being censured by Parliament. Franklin the Loyalist hoping to preserve the Empire became Franklin the Patriot who recognized the necessity of American independence.

Returning to the colonies in 1775, he helped draft The Declaration of Independence. As a member of the Second Continental Congress Franklin created America’s first independent government using his Albany Plan as the basis of the Articles of Confederation. He then sailed to France and cajoled the French aristocracy into supporting American independence. His arrival in Paris has been compared to the Beatles arrival in America. He was a superstar who then returned to America as its senior founder and went on to help draft the US Constitution, including his ideas for representation in the House and Senate.

In this final act of his storied career Franklin reshaped the structure of the American government. Franklin foresaw the success our nation has enjoyed for more than 200 years, a nation capable of infinite self-reinvention.

1706 – Born in Boston

1718 – Apprenticed as printer to brother James

1723 – Ran away to Philadelphia

1732 – Publishes Poor Richard’s Almanack

1747 – Creates America’s first political cartoon

1753 – Honorary doctorates from Harvard and Yale

1757 -1775 colonial representative in London

1776 – Helps draft the Declaration of Independence

1777-1784 – Ambassador to France

1787 – Helps draft US Constitution

1790 – Dies in Philadelphia

Haste makes Waste.

No gains without pains.

He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.

He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.

Better slip with foot than tongue.

Well done is better than well said.

What you seem to be, be really.

Pardoning the Bad, is injuring the Good.

Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.

Glass, China, and Reputation, are easily crack’d, and never well mended.

Wish not so much to live long as to live well.

*  Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home by Richard Bell (2019) Also available in Athens, Buncombe, Transylvania  and Spartanburg county libraries

* The First American: the life and times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands. (2000) This national bestseller draws upon previously unpublished letters and other sources for a well told biography.

Benjamin Franklin – A Biography by Ronald W. Clark (1883) A well respected volume.

* Benjamin Franklin – An American Life by Walter Isaacson (2003) The current standard text on Franklin.

* The Life of Benjamin Franklin (3 volumes) by J.A. Lemay (2006) An enormous collection of information on Franklin and his times.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, J.A. Lemay & P.M. Zall eds, (1986) This is the best starting place for any Franklin study, and the Norton Critical edition has excellent explanatory notes.

* Book of Ages – The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lenore (2013) The surprising story of Franklin’s youngest sister with whom Franklin corresponded his whole life.

* Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan (2002) An excellent short introduction to Franklin.

* A Great Improvisation – Franklin, France, and the Birth of America by Stacy Schindler (2005) The most thorough look at Franklin in Paris.

* Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren (1938) A joy to read and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 

(Starred items are available in the Greenville County Library System.)