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In Our Time newsletter: Benjamin Franklin

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 14:09, Friday, 2 March 2012

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.


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.

Benjamin Franklin

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


  • Comment number 1.

    I would just like to make a comment on your extolling of the virtues of George Whitefield, Benjamin Franklin et al in the First Great Awakening in the American North East. Yes, Whitefield reached thousands of people, but it was not only men who brought "the gospel to black areas in America" .... There were many women preachers and missionaries from the Moravian Church, with which Whitefield and Benjamin had much contact, who worked closely with African and Native American women and their husbands, brothers, fathers, that is, within their own familial networks of communication, and brought the Gospel to them. It might be a great idea for a programme to examine the Moravian church and its worldwide networks within the 18th century Atlantic and how it enfranchised women, slaves, Native peoples to speak for themselves in the discourses of slavery and colonisation... In the UK the Moravians had a strong presence in the working class areas of Bristol (the founder Zinzendorf also influenced Wesley), Leeds, Northern Ireland, and, of course, London (the famous Fetter Lane Society). In America, the centers were in Bethlehem, PA and Salem, NC. Missions were around the world, from Suriname and Guyana to Indian, South Africa, Tanzania, Labrador, and Russia.

    Just a thought...

  • Comment number 2.

    American printer, writer, politician, diplomat, and scientist. He invented bifocals and the Franklin stove. He also experimented with Leyden Jars. In 1752, he flew a kite attached to a silk string in a thunderstorm, and showed that a metal key tied to the thread would charge a Leyden jar. His experiments with Leyden jars showed that they discharged more easily if near a pointed surface. He thus suggested the use of lightning rods. He named the two kinds of electricity positive and negative.He showed lightening to be kin to the static electricity we find that builds up on door-knobs and beds.He argued that electricity was of one kind and not,as was then thought, of two kinds. He became an ingenious scientist rather than a profound theorist like Newton due to his poor grasp of arithmetic and his good grasp of writing at the Academy he attended.He was more a gentleman scientist.To the French he was the ‘New Newton’.He acted like a lightning-rod to the enmity between the French and English and drew benefits of trade treaties and
    weaponry from the French to help in the fight against the English.To the French without a wig he was seen as the child of nature from the backwoods.He had French mistresses.Chastity was bottom of his list.

    His intense practical-mindedness drew him away from religion, but drove him to a morality of his own (the “art of virtue,” he called it), based on thirteen virtues each accompanied by a short precept; the virtues were Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility, the precept accompanying the last-named virtue being “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”He practised one virtue a week .He didn’t subscibe to organized religion,but didn’t undermine other people’s beliefs/ practices. Franklin’s response to a manuscript that Paine sent him that advocated against the concept of a providential God was to say “ You strike at the foundations of all religion…leaving no motive to worship a deity.If men are so wicked with religion,what would they be without it?”

    He was the foremost pamphleteer of his age engaged in practical politics,founding academies of education,lending libraries,forming commitees,engaged in diplomacy.His argument against the slave trade was primarily based on economics.Using plain language he changed the florid opening of the Declaration of Independence to read with simple confidence,”We hold these truths to be self-evident,that all men are created equal.”This showed

  • Comment number 3.

    ..the influence of geometry upon philosophy and scientific method.
    Geometry starts with axioms which are self-evident,and proceeds by deductive reasoning to arrive at theorems that are far from being self-evident.It appeared to be possible to discover things about the actual world by 1st noticing what is self-evident and then using deduction. The Declaration is modelling itself on Euclid.The 18th century doctrine of
    natural rights is a search for Euclidian axioms in politics.Theology takes its style from mathematics.Newton’s Principia is dominated by Euclid.

  • Comment number 4.

    I am a great admirer of In our Time, and find the range and content fascinating and informative. It is frustrating, however, when supposed specialists make incorrect comments.. and it does happen! Today Christ's Hospital was described as a school for orphans, and comment then made about that fact in relation to the childhood of Coleridge. Christ's Hospital - a school still flourishing and thriving with much of its orginal ethos intact - was never a school for orphans but for 'poor and homeless children'. Misinformation from specialist scholars in a small but crucial point like this is unfortunate.

  • Comment number 5.

    Lewis Hyde has some fantastic stuff to say about Benjamin Franklin's modesty in his book Common as Air, which is a history of the commons and intellectual property that contains a chapter devoted to Franklin (Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate) but also draws him into other sections of the book.

    One particularly striking passage concerns Franklin's unwillingness to defend his own ideas (an extension of his radical scepticism before the idea of intellectual property). In a speech to the 1787 Constitutional Convention he admits to having doubts about the document before the convention, before explaining how little worth he attaches to those doubts, because a long life had shown him how often he had been "obliged... to change Opinions even on important Subjects."

    It occurs to me that a history of the commons & intellectual property would make an excellent subject for a future edition of IOT.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    On March 7th I caught a snippet (on my car radio) of Melvyn Bragg's "In our time". Did my ears play tricks or did I REALLY hear one contributor speak some lines from Wordsworth's "The Thorn" as:
    "I've measured it from side to side, 'T was three FOOT long and two FOOT wide." If I did, shouldn't we expect a little better English in a item about poetry? No! It must have been my ears!

  • Comment number 8.

    Mine is a suggestion about a topic. Management. Two generations ago no spoke of management but rather administration. We speak of little else but management. Governments say they manage the economy. Vice-Chancellors say they manage universities. I am sure the BBC has managers galore. Managers re-organize the others periodically; they restructure organizers; they change manage; and more.

    But what is management (as distinct administration or leadership)? When did emerge as a social reality? How does it grow and develop? Perhaps that is enough to indicate the idea.


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