Jim Ritter: The First American: Benjamin Franklin

Roundup: Talking About History

Today, America celebrates the 300th birthday of the Founding Father who called himself Benjamin Franklin, printer.

Ben Franklin was much more than that, of course. Take your choice: scientist, diplomat, inventor, civic booster, publishing magnate, politician, writer, celebrity, ladies' man and the most famous kite flier in history.

"He probably had more IQ points than most anyone else who has walked the American earth," said University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Zuckerman.

Philadelphia, his hometown, is planning a big party. There's a commemorative silver dollar, a commemorative beer (Poor Richard's Ale) and an endless stream of books.

A Ben Franklin traveling exhibit, "In Search of a Better World," will stop in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Paris. But other than a cake-and-coffee birthday party at Fox River Grove Memorial Library, not much is happening locally.

He was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706. His father was a candle- and soap-maker who married twice and had 17 children. Ben was the youngest of 10 sons. He learned to read at an early age but had just two years of schooling. Ben went to work at age 10, first for his dad, then for an older brother as an apprentice printer.

Franklin ran away to Philadelphia at age 17. He made a fortune as a printer and publisher, and he retired at age 42 to pursue his many other interests.
He was the American Renaissance man. "Leonardo da Vinci can't hold a candle to him in terms of the realms in which he operated," Zuckerman said.

Historians call Franklin the First American. He was a self-made man with middle-class values, an entrepreneurial spirit and a genius for founding quintessentially American organizations such as the volunteer fire department.

"He was us at our best," Zuckerman said.

[Editor's Note: For more, see the Chicago Sun Times.]

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