Ben Franklin National Memorial

Franklin National Memorial

(Photo credit: Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, Philadelphia, courtesy of Michael H. Parker, Flickr Creative Commons)

One thing I want to do with this blog, beyond raising general issues about the role of our public sphere in helping us understand the past, is to focus on specific examples of monuments, memorials, and museums that help us do just that. In other words, I want my blog to act as a forum to bring to light either man-made or natural monuments that I think have a real impact on those who view them. I wasn’t sure where to start in this process, but I think Benjamin Franklin is as good a place as any.

As monuments go, the one I have in mind is a biggie. I’m talking about the Franklin monument located at the entrance to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. It shows Franklin seated on a rather austere-looking chair that looks a bit like the one used to seat Abe Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial 130 miles to the south in Washington, DC, though it’s not as wide. I was actually quite astonished the first time I laid eyes on this monument. Its scale is impressive and frankly a bit overwhelming, especially as it’s located indoors. This is a BIG statue, some 20 feet tall and weighing in at 30 tons. Add in the massive, 92-ton pedestal, and you’ve got a heckuva chunk of marble to gawp at. (It is in fact roughly equivalent in size to the Lincoln Memorial—Franklin’s statue is about a foot taller that Abe’s, but the Lincoln pedestal is higher.) The official name is the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, and technically it’s administered by the National Park Service but cared for by the Franklin Institute as a public good. Its national memorial status (plus maintenance grants made available by the Department of the Interior) explains why you can go into the Franklin Institute and see it without having to pay the museum’s (rather hefty) entrance fee. At the same time, everyone going into the Franklin Institute proper—a science museum and one of the most popular museums in Philly—will see this statue. In fact, you really can’t miss it.

The Memorial Hall in which the statue resides is pretty darned impressive itself, with a huge, self-supporting, 1600-ton domed ceiling that allows light to stream in from above. There’s lots more marble in the surrounding walls and columns. The whole space has that amazing quality of hush that you only find when everything around you is covered in marble. The hall is supposed to be evocative of the Pantheon in Rome, and indeed it is. It’s one of these spaces that you can just spend endless minutes standing and watching, or slowly spin around in circles with your head raised to the heavens, without feeling like a complete fool. I like it.

The statue itself—completed in 1911 by sculptor James Earle Fraser—depicts Franklin as an old man, which is how most people think of him, if they think of him at all. Franklin was a powerful, burly printer in his youth, but he filled out and sagged a bit as he aged, as we all do. He was prominent on the world stage for a long time—right up till his death in 1790, at age 84—and in our imagination he’s always going to be an old man with long, white hair and a gut. That’s how he looks in the statue. I sometimes wonder whether “great men” such as Franklin, who were virile in their youth but lived to a ripe old age when they had the means or the fame to be widely commemorated in portrait or sculpture, would prefer to be remembered in the public imagination as their younger selves.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about Franklin, but for now here’s the odd thing I think bears comment. In his final years, Franklin was not generally accorded the same Great Man status as Adams, Jefferson, Washington, etc. By the time he returned to Philadelphia in 1785, he was still highly regarded by many of his “founding father” peers, but ordinary Americans—at least outside of Philadelphia—were no longer quite sure what to make of him. As historian Gordon Wood notes, “They knew he was an international hero, … but they weren’t quite sure why.” They knew he was a patriot and a famous scientist, but it was all a bit vague; he hadn’t led armies or become president, or been in the vanguard of the Patriot movement at home (as, say, Adams had been).

At his death in 1790, even as he was lauded in France—the French still loved him—the U.S. Senate refused a resolution honoring him. His eulogy at the American Philosophical Society he had founded—many of whose members had become somewhat embarrassed at Franklin’s lowly origins—“was a half-hearted affair.” In fact, argues Wood, it was only the publication of Franklin’s now-famous Autobiography, in 1794, that began to resurrect his image and give him a new prominence in the minds of his fellow Americans. The Autobiography—plus sections of Poor Richard’s Almanac, first written when he was still young and fit—was reprinted many times in subsequent years. This work presented Franklin the “bourgeois moralist,” the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps businessman, the epitome of American can-do values. As Americans in the 19th century began to reinvent themselves and pull away from the elitist values of most of the Founding generation, the model and archetype they looked to was, increasingly, the Franklin of the Autobiography.

 That’s why, in some ways, Franklin is really the Founder who most accurately represents the future of the United States, in all its raucous glory.

Anyway, I think the story of Franklin after Franklin’s death is interesting because it reminds us that remembering the past is not an inevitable process of atrophy where memories of great historical figures just fade away over time to nothing. Important figures from the past can and do “come back” from obscurity, especially when they epitomize certain strengths and values that we hold important—especially when we can learn lessons from their stories. But it does take an effort to keep these memories alive. Franklin can still speak to us today, if we are willing to listen.

Sources: Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Ben Franklin and Revolutionary Characters.

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