One of the strange habits of professors is that whenever we embark on a new venture, the first thing we do is assemble a reading list. So since I was appointed the inaugural head of Benjamin Franklin College, I have been reading up on the life and activities of the college’s namesake.
Benjamin Franklin was a remarkable character, well deserving of the honorary degree he received from Yale in 1753. He was a printer by profession, with a great love for books as such, as well as the narratives and information contained within them. He was a revolutionary in the literal sense of the word but also a canny negotiator and a Machiavellian political operative when the occasion called for it. And he was America’s first world-renowned scientist. Thus, while he did not himself attend Yale, he combined in one person three of Yale’s proudest traditions: humanistic study, political activism and scientific research.
He was a true public intellectual — his words and deeds were publicized, discussed and admired throughout the Atlantic world. He wowed the French court with a carefully curated persona as a rough-hewn but wildly insightful backwoodsman, wearing a fur hat instead of a powdered wig, speaking deliberately barbarous French with a homespun wit that charmed staid diplomats and bon vivants alike. His freewheeling approach proved much more successful than that of the more sophisticated, uptight (and Harvard-educated) John Adams.
Franklin loved conversation. He talked on equal terms with whoever was around — small children, hardworking tradesmen, courtiers and courtesans. And he listened even better than he spoke — he learned from everyone, and his evident respect for other people’s concerns formed a large part of his charm. As a result, his views and attitudes continuously evolved, and he was strongly committed to personal improvement and what we would now call “lifelong learning.” For example, his attitude toward slavery changed dramatically over the course of his life, shifting from tacit support to fierce public opposition. When he returned from France, he joined and soon rose to become president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. His last public act was to submit a formal petition to the newly formed U.S. Congress demanding that slavery be abolished throughout the land. A reproduction of his signed petition and other information on Franklin’s attitude toward slavery can be found on the website of the U.S. National Archives. In this, as in many other things, Franklin was ahead of his time.
The character of this new residential college will be determined by its 21st century inhabitants, not by the name carved in stone above the gate. The books in its library; the scholarly endeavors of its faculty and students; the political, social and cultural upheavals weathered by its community: These will not be those of Franklin’s time.
But Franklin would, I think, have relished the opportunities of Yale’s residential colleges, where actors, athletes, dining hall workers, student journalists, distinguished professors, world-renowned visitors and many others rub shoulders. Social media would have delighted him — he was a prodigious letter writer, and the production of definitive editions of the Franklin papers has been underway in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library for over half a century. Twitter in particular seems designed for Franklin — his “Poor Richard’s Almanac” generated an astonishing number of pithy and apt aphorisms, many still in current use. It is hard to imagine a better model for how respectful communication might be conducted in our fractious age.
In some ways, Benjamin Franklin is a throwback: He is undeniably dead, white and male. So it is worth remembering that Benjamin is not the only Franklin who has received an honorary degree from Yale — I refer, of course, to the great rhythm and blues singer Aretha Franklin. She, too, is an American worthy of study and emulation, whose personal characteristics are perhaps more in tune with the culture and demographics of the current and future denizens of Benjamin Franklin College than are those of the founding fathers. And thus, despite the fact that the 18th-century Franklin is one of the most quotable figures in American history — second perhaps only to Mark Twain — I will close these musings with a paraphrase of Aretha:
That’s what “Franklin” means to me.
Charles Bailyn is the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy and Physics and inaugural head of Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at email@example.com.