There are two theories of history. One is that leaders arise, creating the history of their time out of who they are. The other theory is that events and forces create history, and the leaders we so often praise – or hate – are just men and women who rose to the challenge of their day. I suppose that discussion will go on forever, but no matter which is true, whenever we look around we see men and women who seem to affect everything around them.
One of those was Benjamin Franklin, who seems to have left the stamp of who he was on everything around him. Something that’s interesting, though, is that Franklin was as an ultra-conservative human being in an even more ultra-conservative era, but when we look at what he did he comes across as downright liberal.
Don’t worry about there being any politics in this column though. I’m writing this on the 21st of October, a day when we’re all tired of the amount of... uh, sugar we’ve been putting up with. I can hardly wait for the 6th of November to get here, can you, Johnny? And you’ll be reading this around the 7th of December, when most of our election year memories have faded.
Back to Ben. In 1731, Franklin, who loved reading, got the idea for a public library. He thought he might create one by getting people to subscribe to it, and being the persuasive person he was he began work on it. Not only did he succeed, but the library he founded, now known as the Library Company, was the largest in the country right up until the Civil War.
It’s amazing that Franklin’s library, founded 281 years ago, is still running, isn’t it? You can visit it on the net at: http://www.librarycompany.org/
Can you imagine yourself starting anything that would be around almost three hundred years later?
I’d settle for three years, but that’s the least of what Franklin did. In 1737, Franklin became concerned about the way the wooden homes of his day so often caught fire and burned down. He reasoned that it was partly because the materials needed to fight a fire were not readily at hand, so he suggested the formation of a fire company, gathered up volunteers, and organized them. Each man kept fire-fighting materials in his house, mostly just leather buckets at first, and then responded when a fire bell was rung.
Franklin was very clever. He suggested, almost with tongue in cheek, that anyone who failed to show for a monthly meeting be assessed a small fine. Writing about it 50 years later, he says of his fines, “...and now at the time of this writing... the Union Fire Company still subsists and flourishes, tho’ the first Members are all deceas’d but myself and one who is older by a Year. The small Fines that have been paid by Members for Absence at the Monthly Meetings, have been applied to the purchase of Fire Engines, Ladders, Firehooks, and other useful implements.”
Sneaky, but effective.
Franklin was always at the center of things. When trouble brewed with Spain in the 1740s, Franklin worked to raise an army among Pennsylvania Quakers, a difficult task because they did not believe in violence. Having done the impossible, once the trouble with Spain faded he calmly turned his thoughts elsewhere.
“Peace being concluded,” he says, “I turn’d my thoughts to the Affair of establishing an Academy.”
Never one to let grass grow beneath his feet, Franklin then wrote an article putting forth a plan to found a school supported by people who pledged to pay for its operating costs “in Quotas yearly for Five Years.” In 1749, he raised the amazing sum of five thousand pounds, over $200,000 in our dollars.
On Aug. 13, 1751 the Academy of Philadelphia seated its first secondary students. It wasn’t long before Franklin chartered another school, the College of Philadelphia, an undergraduate college. Then, in 1765 a medical school was added, the first in America. And so was born The University of Pennsylvania, the first school in America able to call itself a university.
You might think that would be enough accomplishments for one man, and one lifetime, but Franklin, even as he was working on the academy was also pushing another project, one that many would say was even more important – a public hospital.
This one was no pushover. The County Board objected – worried that it might not be able to build and operate the type of facility Franklin had in mind. They would not approve the plan until he came up with an addition to the hospital charter that said that he would raise enough money so they were off the hook.
Why was it so hard to get a hospital approved? Because Franklin wanted it to be for “...the Accommodating of the Sick Poor in the said Hospital, free of charge for Diet, Attendance, Advice, and Medicines...” In other words, the first free public hospital in the United States. And so was founded the still-operating Pennsylvania Hospital, our first teaching hospital and the location of the first medical library in the nation.
There isn’t room enough to go into everything Ben Franklin did for his fellow citizens, his city, his state, and the budding nation of which he was so much a part. He seemed to be everywhere. In fact, due to his efforts the streets in Philadelphia were paved and lighted at a time when such things were rarity.
One more thing, Franklin was an inventor, but when he was offered a patent on one of his inventions he replied, “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours.”
That’s true greatness, isn’t it, Johnny?