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22/11/2017
BBC Radio 4

    In Our Time newsletter: Benjamin Franklin

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    Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Benjamin Franklin. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.

    Hello

    Well, although we tried as hard as we could, we covered only a fraction of the field that is Benjamin Franklin. One of the more important aspects we left out was his belief in "the virtue of modesty". He did not patent his inventions but thought they ought to be free for others. He gave libraries and other lending institutions to the people. In his Autobiography he not only articulated the American Dream, but also very firmly pointed out that a principal aim in life was to serve the public and to return to them what you might have been given. He left his great wealth to the public and for the public good.

    One aspect we missed out was his relationship with George Whitefield, the Anglican minister and friend of the Wesley brothers, who preached so successfully in America. All of them were forced out of the Anglican Church and became Methodists. Whitefield was an extraordinary man. Not very tall, not very charismatic to look at, but he could command audiences of thirty thousand in open country, and did so regularly up and down the eastern seaboard of America in what was called the First Great Awakening.

    Franklin was astounded that he could reach so many people and made measurements to satisfy himself that this was humanly possible. It turned out it was. But he also went to so many meetings to do his experiments that he began to listen to what Whitefield had to say. Although Franklin was against any institutionalised Christianity, he was a believer in God and he became a disciple - if I can use that word - of the charismatic speaking manner of Whitefield.

    He himself had little time to cultivate the art of public speaking. To be charismatic to a mass of people was not the way he wanted to live his life. Yet, in article after article in his newspaper, he extolled what Whitefield was doing - mostly in the extraordinariness of his speech and articulation and the operatic reach that he had, but also in the 'gospel' that he preached - the humanity and Sermon on the Mount backbone of Whitefield's message appealed to Franklin very much indeed. It was these men (the Wesley brothers and Whitefield) who first took the gospel to black areas in America. It's worth remembering that if you were baptised a Christian, you couldn't, in principle, be a slave.

    I then went out into the almost absurdly brilliant late winter/early spring sunshine of London in all its glory. You could see why Franklin, once he got here, never wanted to leave until the aristocracy forced him out.

    Down Regent Street, into Savile Row to see how little fashion changed, then through the Burlington Arcade, and across the street there was a crowd, a host. The Queen was about to visit Fortnum and Mason with the Duchess of Cambridge, out shopping while Prince William was away.

    And then onward to my barber to have the spring haircut and then into St James's Park, of course.

    Look, I go to St James's Park a lot but I can't keep writing about it. Nevertheless, it is fantastic at the moment. And there is this combination once more - the daffodils are out and elegant French teenagers are out in hordes and the pigeons are larking about as if they were - well, larks. There was a man sitting on a bench who had heard the Benjamin Franklin programme and wanted to have a long conversation about it, but after I said I had to get a move on, he gave me a message for Jeremy Paxman and I left.

    When I came into the Lords the first remark from a Labour peer was "It's outrageous. It was absolutely outrageous". It took me, I must confess, a few nanoseconds to realise that of course he was talking in the lingua franca of the male members of the House of Lords - football. He was a Tottenham supporter and after being behind 2-0, Arsenal had gone on to beat them 5-2.

    There's something that earths you about the Upper House.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

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