These days, it’s all about Benjamin

Did you see the July 4 cover of Time with Ben Franklin looking like an aging rock star? Or the recent two-part PBS documentary?

Did you know that in Barnes and Noble and Borders bookstores across the country, books on Ben are getting the prominent entryway display?

Would you be surprised if Dr. Franklin turned out to be “The Sexist Man Not Alive” according to People magazine?

Here in Philadelphia, we are used to Ben being ubiquitous. His name is on a bridge, on a parkway, on a science museum. His likeness is everywhere—on a highway overpass, in the garden of Pennsylvania Hospital, on a bench on Locust Walk. His doppelganger, Ralph Archbold, waves at us from bus shelter posters and tourism brochures.

But until this summer, for the rest of the nation he was most famous as the guy with a kite and the face on a “C-note.”

Several area cultural institutions, including Penn, have joined forces for a huge celebration of Franklin’s 300th birthday in 2006. Has he peaked too soon?

The Current decided to ask history professor and Franklin scholar Michael Zuckerman to comment on this apparent heightened interest in Franklin.

“These things are just whimsical accidents,” said Zuckerman. “Fads come and go and Franklin has absolutely never gone out of fashion. It is certainly the case that Franklin from the beginning set himself up to be the American archetype. What is happening right now is exactly what he always imagined –fantasized—and designed. Maybe people are looking back to a better time and Franklin is the best of that better time.”

Author H. W. Brands, whose biography “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” is riding the crest of the current Franklin wave, attributes it to the revival of patriotic fervor sparked by 9/11. In article in the September issue of The Atlantic titled “Founders Chic,” he chides America’s current obsession with the Founding Fathers. “Their most remarkable quality was their boldness in the face of great risk and uncertainty—the very quality excessive undue reverence…stifles.”

Zuckerman sees it as symptomatic of a longer-term trend. “Every survey shows that since 1980, Americans have lost faith in the country. There is a huge anxiety that propels a certain amount of looking backward nostalgically.

“I think that in certain ways the Founders really did confront a lot of problems that we confront—problems that seemed intractable. The fact that they were able to make some headway—maybe that is encouraging at a time when most Americans are discouraged.”

Franklin is not without his critics in the new millennium. One of the latest books on the sagging Franklin shelf is “Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax.” Author Tom Tucker questions whether America’s first scientist really took that kite out into a thunderstorm.

But no one can really lay a glove on him. “It isn’t just that he is a politician,” explains Zuckerman. “He is a visionary. It is that he can crack off snappy one-liners and sound bites. He is in economics, in science, in social life. If you want someone to be the poster child for individualism, there he is lifting himself by his bootstraps. If you want someone to be the poster child for collectivism, here he is networking. However you see America, you can use Franklin.”

Originally published on September 4, 2003