Professor Caroline Winterer described to the Morning Forum of Los Altos audience March 19 the qualities, contributions and inventions that led Benjamin Franklin to be considered America’s first genius.
Winterer is director of the Stanford Humanities Center, the author of many books and the recipient of numerous fellowships. For mapping the social network of Franklin, she received an American Ingenuity Award from the Smithsonian Institution in 2013.
In her talk “The Remarkable Genius of Ben Franklin,” Winterer said Franklin’s brilliance was different than that of the most famous genius of the 20th century, Albert Einstein. While Einstein’s genius focused on the abstract, Winterer noted, Franklin’s was rooted in the practical, on discoveries and inventions that “we could all understand.”
She said Franklin’s genius was inspired largely through his desire to find ways to make life easier.
Born in 1706 in Boston in a large family of modest means, at 12 Franklin became an apprentice to his older brother, who was a printer. He then went to Philadelphia, where he soon started his own paper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. Soon after, the self-educated man published “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” which was so successful that it allowed him to retire at 42.
Franklin’s determination to improve daily life was manifested in his remaking of Philadelphia with the founding of a public library so that even the poor had access to books other than the Bible.
According to Winterer, Franklin’s desire to control nature was illustrated by his experiments with electricity and his quest to understand the cause of contagious disease. In 1784 while living in France, he invented bifocals to overcome the natural decline in vision that he and so many others experienced.
Winterer said that Franklin’s interest in understanding other people also fueled his genius. During his lifetime, he sent and received more than 20,000 letters. Because he was “such a people person,” she said he was sent to England to negotiate for the province of Pennsylvania and then to France, where his social skills helped win the support of France for the colonies. By 1776, his extensive letter writing made him the most famous American.
One of Franklin’s most notable inventions was his constant reinvention of himself. In his writing, he adopted 40 pseudonyms, as he loved “to try on new identities.”
When he retired from his job as a printer in 1748, Franklin had enough money to hire a portrait painter to present him as a gentleman. He wore a wig and a laced collar and had his hand in his coat to convey that he was no longer from the working class. In 1785, after his successes and correspondences had made him the most admired and well-known American, he hired an even more expensive portrait painter. But this time, he asked him to create a very different image. In this portrait, “the one,” Winterer said, “we associate most with Franklin,” the wig, lace and pompous pose are gone, and he is presented as a rustic, backwoods quintessential American.
In the end, Winterer concluded, Franklin gave people “what they wanted but never revealed himself.” While the real Franklin might have hidden behind many identities, his legacy was his optimism and ability to use his genius “to improve life for all of us” and to establish the enduring image of America’s self-made man.
For more information on the Morning Forum of Los Altos speaker series, visit morningforum.org.