Benjamin Franklin

(1706 – 1790)
By Karl Williams

‘God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: “This is my country.” ’

Anyone with self esteem problems probably shouldn’t read through this list of Benjamin Franklin’s accomplishments for fear of becoming suicidal. He was a precocious journalist and publisher, establisher of Pennsylvania’s first university and America’s first hospital, prolific scientist and inventor, renowned statesman and author, public official of numerous high posts, pioneering librarian, esteemed diplomat, philanthropist, co-drafter of both the Declaration of Independence and the American constitution, and noted abolitionist. His success in securing French military and financial aid was decisive for American victory over Britain in the War of Independence. Simply, he’s probably the single most multi-talented figure in American history and America’s most loved founding father. But his very great intellectual achievement (though achieved late in life) has virtually gone completely unheralded – Franklin saw the (geoist) cat.

Yet these astronomical heights started from humble beginnings indeed. As the 10th of 17 children of a Boston soap maker, he left school at 10 to help his father and then was apprentice printer to his brother. At the tender age of 15 he anonymously wrote a highly popular series of articles, which foreshadowed a great career as a wordsmith. He didn’t have to wait long to become an successful businessman either, soon moving to Philadelphia where he rapidly graduated to become a highly profitable newspaper printer and editor.

By his early forties he had gained recognition for his philanthropy and the stimulus he provided to such civic causes as libraries, educational institutions and hospitals. Seemingly tireless, he also found time to pursue his interest in science, as well as to enter politics, but had not yet apparently achieved any breakthrough in his geoist understanding, perhaps because he had become so preoccupied in many other fields.

For instance, his scientific inventiveness alone would have made Franklin a famous historical figure. At about this period he invented a heat-efficient stove to help warm houses efficiently (and, as was his bent, as the stove was invented to help improve society, he refused to take out a patent). He also invented swim fins, the medical catheter, the glass armonica (a musical instrument) and bifocal reading lens. Later he turned to the study of electricity and his observations, including his kite experiment which verified the nature of electricity and lightning, which brought Franklin international fame.

As a noted linguist fluent in five languages, Franklin traveled widely. In 1757 he went to England on a political mission and remained abroad until 1775. On his return, he immediately became a distinguished member of the Continental Congress and served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.

But, within less than a year and a half after his return, the aged statesman set sail once again for Europe, beginning a career as invaluable diplomat that would occupy him for most of the rest of his life. Besides the many commercial arrangements he arranged, in 1783 he negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the War of Independence. Returning home, his tireless energies led to him being elected in 1787 as first president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery – a cause to which he had committed himself as early as the 1730s. His final public act was signing a memorial to Congress recommending dissolution of the slavery system.

So just how did the great man stumble upon geoist philosophy and principles? It was through his diplomatic mission to France that he became acquainted with the leading geoists of the day, the so-called Physiocrats. However the crying shame is that his enthusiastic writings on political economy are neglected and forgotten. In a letter to the Physiocrat, Pierre Dupont de Nemours, Franklin wrote “It is from your philosophy only that the maxims of a contrary and more happy conduct are to be drawn, which I therefore sincerely wish may grow and increase till it becomes the governing philosophy of the human species, as it must be of superior beings in better worlds.”

Franklin was also such a great admirer of the Italian geoist, Gaetano Filangieri, that he ordered 8 copies of each of the succeeding volumes of Filangieri’s The Science of Legislation, which contained the following central passages “A direct tax is no other than a tax on land, which is the true and lasting source of public riches, and should bear the whole burthen of public contributions…. On the first appearance the landowner might be supposed to pay the whole, but every class of the community would in reality bear a part of it, in proportion to its fortune and abilities” …and later on… “Every landholder would be taxed in proportion to his rents” …. and then….. “A tax particularly burdensome should be first taken off, its net amount accurately calculated, and an equivalent laid upon the land. When this step is once taken, a similar one should follow, and others gradually”.

Alas, Big Ben gonged out when it came to spreading the good geoist word, not that today’s geoists are any more than voices in the wilderness. But it’s pretty hard to bag a bloke who has this list of feats on his C.V., no?

Image courtesy of Michael Deas