Faculty Feature: Ben Franklin 101, a new twist on an old guy


No, Benjamin Franklin was not a stuffy advocate of bourgeois values. And no, he did not want to be a model for the superb businessman.

If there’s one thing you can say about Franklin, at least according to Michael Zuckerman, it’s that he has been sorely misunderstood.

Zuckerman, a professor of history, is one of the featured talking heads in a three-part PBS series called “Benjamin Franklin,” which will air on WHYY-TV (Channel 12) beginning Nov. 19. The series, described by Zuckerman as a “docu-drama,” follows Franklin from his humble beginnings in Boston to his meteoric rise as an international superstar.

Zukerman said his fascination with Franklin is unsurprising. “It’s not like being in love with some obscure 16th-century Dutch painter,” he said. “Everybody has been fascinated with Franklin.”

But Zuckerman hasn’t always been curious about the University’s founding father.

“For many years, out of ignorance, I thought he was a stodgy old fart and then I started teaching Franklin and found him absolutely fascinating.” This interest dates back more than 10 years ago when Zuckerman started incorporating Franklin in his American national character and American popular culture courses.

He said that the more he delved into Franklin’s life, the more apparent it became “that most everybody had got most of it wrong.”

So many myths have accumulated about Franklin that it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. “He’s larger than life,” said Zuckerman.

Individuals who try to understand Franklin through his writings run into the same problem. Zuckerman described Franklin as a “chameleon” because he was able to assume various personalities in his essays.

“The ‘Autobiography’ is his own voice, but it’s a different voice from part to part. He can’t even hold himself quite still from one section to the next.”

Zukerman said that even the great writers who have spoofed Franklin—Mark Twain, D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams—missed the mark. “I think they don’t really read his autobiography,” said Zuckerman. “They read this tiny little piece of it that goes no more than 10 pages that he called ‘The Project for Moral Perfection.’ They just take off after this thing. They deride it.”

What these writers don’t realize, said Zuckerman, is that Franklin himself was making a mockery of middle-class values like industry, sobriety and chastity.

“For humility he says imitate Jesus and Socrates—two of the most famous people in the history of the West—and he wants to be like them and that’s humility?”

Franklin puzzles even those who have dedicated their lives to understanding him. “To this day, the editors of the Franklin Papers have huge fights. There are a whole bunch of essays that they fight over whether Franklin wrote them or not.”

If there’s one thing that emerges from Franklin’s autobiography, it’s that he believed that selfishness is no way to live. “In a country where people are cutting every corner, he’s saying, I know that’s how you live but in the long run it’s not going to make you happy.”

Franklin left a part of that legacy right here at Penn. “He surely wanted people who went to college not to become clergymen and professors of abstruse religious doctrines,” said Zuckerman. “I think what he had very much in mind was a school that would fit people to be in service to society.”

Originally published on November 14, 2002