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Studying for a test? Prepare with these 4 lessons on The founding fathers of the United States of America.
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Interviewer: So I'm here with Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute, and it looks like we're going to be talking about Benjamin Franklin. So one question I have is he's clearly considered one of the founding fathers, but he's the one that was never president. So why do we care so much about him? Walter: You know he's the unintimidating founder. The one who winks at us from history's stage. He's older than the rest, so by the time we have a country, you know, he's in his late 80s, a little too old to be president, but he's the one who was the glue who brings us together. He also helps invent the American character. That sort of spunky, chatty, populist, democratic person who wants to bring people together and, form a new type of nation based on the unity of various different types of peoples and ethnic groups, so he gets that America is going to be a middle class nation, more even than George Washington, or Jefferson, or Madison, or John Adams, who are much more from the elite. You know, this is a shopkeeper. He's middle class. Interviewer: So just to get a sense of his life, we have a timeline up here, and I drew the timeline ahead of time because I do find it confusing. He wasn't in America his whole life and he wasn't in one town his whole life. Walter: He was, he lived 84 years, and he was America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, and one of the most practical of our political thinkers, and he does it in various phases of his life. He is born in Boston, the tenth son of a Puritan refugee to Boston, and he runs away as a kid, so then he goes to London for a little while to buy printing equipment, to work and make enough money to buy printing equipment, and then he comes to Philadelphia in his early 20s in order to be a printer, and then he becomes a great businessman. He not only has a print shop, but he has a newspaper, a publishing business. He franchises his print shops up and down the coast. He creates the American postal system in order to tie together a lot of his printing and publishing houses, and then semi-retires in Philadelphia to become a civic leader. To do things like his electricity experiments, which were very important, but also to do things like founding a lot of civic groups, like what becomes the University of Pennsylvania. So most of that period he's become a middle-class shopkeeper and then become sort of the head of the good business group in Philadelphia. Interviewer: This is a pretty interesting period because as he likes to recount, he kinda showed up in Philadelphia penniless at a fairly young age, and then over this time period he becomes, as you just mentioned, kind of a leader of his community. Walter: That is another reason why he is the American archetype. He is a self-made man. He's a Horatio Alger myth. The rags to riches. He does take great pride, in his autobiography, talking about coming into Philadelphia with only three coins in his pocket all bedraggled, and yet his remarkable rise in the world as he calls it, when he opens a print shop, does the newspaper, creates Poor Richard's Almanac. Suddenly he's the most successful business entrepreneur in all of the American colonies, and that's the first time we've ever had in our history a person who was just a poor runaway become one of the richest and most successful businessmen. Interviewer: Just to understand his, and we'll in other videos, we'll go into more depth in all these periods, but why did he, he ran away, he was working for his brother and he just didn't get along? Walter: Well he apprenticed to his brother, and that's something that's interesting when you look at the early colonies. An apprenticeship is when you sign over that you're going to work seven, eight years until you're at least 21 for somebody else. You get just at most small wages, and you're bound. It's not, of course, like being a slave, but it's also not like being a free man. You were bound as an apprentice. Unseen interviewer: He was apprenticed under his brother when he was 12. Walter: Who was a printer and ran a newspaper in Boston, and Franklin does not, this makes him an American too, he doesn't like arbitrary authority. He doesn't like his brother being his boss. He doesn't like the theocratic authority in Boston. He wants freedom, so he runs away. Interviewer: He literally had to run away because he owed his brother time as an apprentice. Walter: Right, he had signed an indenture. He was apprenticed to his brother. He could not legally leave. He actually pulls off a little trick on his brother, because his brother has to pretend that Ben is running the newspaper because his brother is in a little bit of trouble, so with that trick, he knew that his brother could not send somebody out to capture him. So late at night he runs away by sea, leaves Boston, and ends up about a week later bedraggled and wet and almost penniless in Philadelphia. Interviewer: But then he immediately goes to London. Why does he go to London in this time period? Walter: Well he wants to be a printer, and this is the good old days, there are about ten newspapers in Philadelphia. He wants to make the 11th. He wants a print shop. He had worked for his brother as a printer. His brother was a printer, so that's the trade he knew, but in order to be a printer, you had to have a printing press and fonts and stuff like that. So he runs away to Philadelphia to set up shop, and he realizes he needs to buy the printing equipment, and he wants to go to London himself to get it. One of his backers in Philadelphia, an older man he met, said he would pay for it, but the guy reneged on the deal, so Franklin goes to London and has to get a job there in order to make enough money to buy his printing equipment. Interviewer: I see, and that's why he had to stay there, get the equipment, come back, and that's kind of what launched his Walter: Yeah, and then he comes back with his printing equipment a couple of years later, and that's what launches him on his career as a publisher and printer. Interviewer: And it was really kind of near the end of this phase, I guess his midlife, that as you mentioned, he's a civic leader, inventor, and we'll talk more about that in depth, and that's kind of what launches him into his role as a, I guess for lack of a better word, founding father. Walter: Well exactly. He becomes a civic leader in Philadelphia. He becomes a bit of a political leader in Philadelphia in the assembly, and then Pennsylvania as a colony decides it needs an ambassador to London, because we're having all the problems with the British Parliament and their ministers and they were imposing taxes, and they were doing all sorts of bad things, and so he's like being an ambassador of the colonies to London. He was appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly, but four or five other colonies, Massachusetts and others, decided we'll use him too. He'll be our ambassador as well. You've got to remember, we were not one country back then. We were just a collection of colonies. So each of the colonies had to decide who to send as their ambassador. So he spends a lot of time, really, over almost a 20-year period, off and on in London, acting as an ambassador of the colonies, trying to keep us together as an empire, prevent the American Revolution. But in 1775 he basically fails, comes back to Philadelphia in 1776, becomes part of the Continental Congress, and helps write the Declaration of Independence. Then right after they do it, he has to go to Paris, even though he's a bit old by then, because in order to make the Declaration a reality, we had to get France in on our side in the war. So there's about nine years in Paris, acting as an ambassador to Paris, and he's successful in getting France in on our side in the war, and then as a pretty old man, as he's pushing 80, he comes back to what is then the United States and helps write the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention and is a very elder statesman. Interviewer: Wow! Fascinating life. Walter: Oh, it's totally amazing, and an American life too. It helps define what an American is and what a country is.