Greatest American Ever?

One of the joys of being a professor is that I have enjoyed deep, enriching, fascinating conversations, many over food (!) as part of my job.  This includes Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, Neil DeGrasse Tyson (who I had a monumental argument with), Rebecca Skloot (author of the award-winning Henrietta Lacks book), and Neil Gaiman; I also have met less- famous but very important people like many Bucknell trustees like Charlie Collier or David Scadden.  Or the Bucknell alumna, Jennifer Jackley who co-founded Kiva.

My first thought was George Lucas, creator of Star Wars to ask him how he could have so horribly screwed up the Star Wars mythology with the first three films.  George, hire real writers and directors, you suck at it.  But, no, that is not a good choice.

But, of course, if I could pick anyone, I would go for someone impossible to meet, someone dead!

Benjamin Franklin!  He embodies, to me, some of the best qualities of America: literary, clever, astute, creative, funny, unpretentious, and wise.  Franklin, like many 18th century, Age of Enlightenment types, could “do it all:” science, art (literature in his case), business, and politics.  Imagine someone now who combines Tim Berners-Lee (invented the WWW), Obama, Mitch Albom (autor of best-selling books about life’s meaning like Tuesdays with Morrie), Shuji Nakamura (won Nobel Prize this year for LED lights), and Doug Lebda (founded Lending Tree).  I can’t do all the research I should for this post, but on trips to Philly, I recall the following facts in support of my argument.

Franklin Portrait by John Trumbull
Franklin Portrait by John Trumbull

Franklin developed the press business which enabled many of the sweeping changes of Colonial America (like Berners-Lee and the social impact of the WWW as information technology).

Franklin was a leading figure at the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Conventions (ok, maybe you don’t likeObama, but he does see himself as trying to bridge deep divisions like Franklin did).

Franklin’s Poor Richards Almanac, a book of pithy quotes and insight like “A penny saved is a penny earned” outsold the BIBLE, yes, the fricking BIBLE in colonial America.  Take that you “America-was-a-Christian-nation” people! (hence Mitch Albom).

Franklin invented stuff, that was useful, like Nakamura did.  Like, for example, an improved urinary catheter (Look, I needed one once after surgery and can attest to how useful they are).  More like LEDs, he invented a much improved stove for heating homes more efficiently.

Finally, Franklin was an entrepreneur in the financial services sector.  Yes!  He helped pioneer fire insurance, which, in a comapct city made of wood with every house having unregulated fire-based heating, was a real worry.  A fire could wipe out a whoel family’s wealth and livelihood.

In 1751, Franklin and members of his Union Fire Company met with firefighters from other brigades for such a purpose. Over several meetings, insurance articles were discussed, drawn up, and presented publicly.


And, he liked wine (not beer, as he is misquoted as saying, but he probably did too).

“Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”


So, over a dinner of such Colonial American delicacies as eel pie, venison stew, and salted lima beans, with some French wine he stowed away after being ambassador, i might ask him about:

1) What did you REALLY think the 2nd amendment was about?  I’d explain tanks and jet planes and ask him if citizens should have those.

2) If he knew that two parties dominated our politics, and those parties’ budgets were mostly from wealthy individuals or powerful interests, what would he think?

3) That modern America aspires to treat people of all religions RACES, GENDERS, nationalities the same.  And that the civil rights issue of our time is gay rights.  What do you think Ben?

4) That we went to the moon…

Top that!

Featured image is of a Franklin Stove.  Which he didn’t patent!


2 thoughts on “Greatest American Ever?”

  1. I’ve always found that there is a special type of genius in these, as you say, Age of Enlightenment types. While depth of knowledge is certainly valuable, broad knowledge can, actually create expertise in each specific field through abductive reasoning and pattern-seeking (another example I really find inspiring is Leonardo da Vinci). This whole point makes me happy to be a liberal arts student 🙂

    Another point that struck me was your potential question about the 2nd Amendment, which I’ve found very interesting. While I don’t like taking rigidly defined stances in the whole democrat/republican debate, any law is made to respond to a historical context, which holds, I think, as high of an importance as the law itself. Analyzing how the context may or may not have changed can hold clue on which direction is better for a society.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. About the 2nd amendment, yes. I always read it as being much more clearly about the right of the people to organize militias to OVERTHROW the government, which of course, they had JUST DONE.

    It is not about hunting or home defense and so on.

    And, if we mean to uphold it, then state militias of citizens could or should have access to the full range of weapons.

    However, I think the civil war in political and legal reality pretty clearly established that we do not actually mean to allow state or other sub-federal government entities to have military autonomy.

    The current NRA-led 2nd amendment discussion I see mostly as about a business-interest, gun makers, using law and history and culture to protect their business sector.


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