Is he winking?

Joseph J. Ellis

  • Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan
    Yale, 339 pp, £19.95, October 2002, ISBN 0 300 09532 5

When Thomas Jefferson was introduced as the new American Ambassador to France in 1784, legend has it that the French minister asked if he was Benjamin Franklin’s replacement, and Jefferson replied that he was merely Franklin’s successor; no one could replace him. Whether or not the story is true, it conveys Franklin’s stature as the only serious rival to George Washington for the title of America’s greatest hero of the age. He was the American Newton, Voltaire and Talleyrand rolled into one: the most distinguished scientist, the most accomplished prose stylist and sharpest wit, the most skilful diplomat. Franklin was present at almost every dramatic event of the American Revolution: at the Continental Congress to help draft and sign the Declaration of Independence; in Paris to negotiate the treaty ending the war with Britain; in Philadelphia for the creation of the Constitution. He had not only an uncanny knack for showing up where history was happening, but an instinctive flair for striking poses, whether holding the kite as the lightning struck, wearing a coonskin cap for his portrait in Paris, or appearing in Philadelphia as a young upstart with two loaves of bread tucked under his arm, the original poor American boy about to make good.

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