On a beautiful spring day I walked down the brick streets of Old City Philadelphia in search of Ben Franklin. It’s not hard to find him as this is his home town, but I was seeking a more intimate, well-rounded portrait of the man. I was headed for the Benjamin Franklin Museum, part of the Independence National Historical Park.
I entered a sunlit brick courtyard dominated by two giant steel frames that loomed over the space. These are the outlines of Franklin’s house and print shop, which were torn down more than 200 years ago. The museum is underground, directly beneath the site of Franklin’s last dwelling.
After I descended the stairs, I saw that there were few visitors. While this allowed me to explore Franklin’s life at a leisurely pace, the relative emptiness of the museum made me a little sad. Ben Franklin is rightly celebrated in Philadelphia but less so in the rest of the US.
Had he been President, I think he would have a place in the pantheon of greatest Americans along with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. There is no great Franklin Memorial in Washington, but there should be.
The museum portrays the many sides of Franklin the quintessential American: author, printer, founding father, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. In his lifetime he was the most famous American in Europe, first as the scientist who captured electricity and later as a diplomat during and after the Revolutionary War.
Each exhibits presented a vignette from his life, often in his writing, giving the visitor an intimate portrait of the man. Franklin is the most approachable founding father. I can imagine sharing a mug of beer with him at an inn, but I can’t imagine the same with the patrician Washington and Jefferson. Unlike the Virginians, Franklin was a son of a working man. Like Lincoln, he was a genius who had little formal education, and he epitomized the American ideal of the self-made man.
While he was a polymath who espoused 13 virtues, he had his faults and poked fun at himself. My favorite exhibit explored the effects of Franklin’s excessive eating and drinking. In 1780, he wrote a dialogue between “Gout” and himself, a copy of which was displayed in a glass case. In the dialogue, Franklin bemoans the pains caused by gout and claims innocence. Gout remonstrates Franklin, who reminds Ben that “you eat an inordinate breakfast, four dishes of tea, with cream, and one or two buttered toasts, with slices of hung beef, which I fancy are not things the most easily digested.” It is a good reminder that Franklin was many things, including a hypocrite (like the rest of us) who struggled with the virtue of moderation.
Franklin’s willingness to poke fun at his own shortcomings is what I admire most about him.
The backstory behind the thirteenth virtue portrays a flawed man who seeks to overcome these failings: “My list of virtues contained at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud…(so) I determined … to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list.”
As I walked back to my car on that crisply beautiful spring day, I thought about how few great men–and few were as great as Franklin–reveal their personal struggles to the world. Franklin’s self-deprecation, so wittily portrayed in his dialogue with Gout, gives us mortals the permission to take a clear-eyed, if a bit wry, look at ourselves in the mirror. Franklin demonstrates that humility is the most important virtue. It is the mirror, the gateway, to personal improvement and growth.
Henry Edwards is an assistant instructor at Penn’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program. He blogs about human progress and flourishing at Gettingbetterblog. His book The Daily Better: 365 Reasons to Feel Better about Our Present and Hopeful for Our Future will be published in late 2018. Henry lives in Annandale, Virginia, with his wife Marissa Regni and daughter Sofie and runs a Ben Franklin Circle there.