This morning Nancy and I are visiting the Franklin Institute. Yesterday we visited Franklin's grave. One the way home, we took a wrong turn and got on the Franklin Bridge. This is called the City of Brotherly Love, it should be called the City of Benjamin Franklin. Philabenjamin.
Ben Franklin has always been a personal hero of mine. In his own time he was compared to Newton, but that was sheer hyperbole. Franklin was no Newton polishing and polishing his Grand Theory until it was perfect. Whenever Franklin attempted a Grand Theory, it always seemed to lay an egg.
As a young up-and-comer in Boston, he got into a public dispute with an elderly Cotton Mather (he of the witch trial fame) over whether it was advisable to inoculate people against smallpox. And Franklin was wrong! Franklin, the budding scientist, said it made no sense giving people a disease to protect them from it; it was Mather, the author of that bizarre justification of the Salem Trials, Wonders of the Invisible World, who said, whether it made sense or not, it worked, and there was a duty to save lives when possible.
Franklin seemed to take this early humiliation to heart and was reluctant ever after to announce any Grand Theory or Design unless he was backed into a corner. He formed a philosophical society, one of the rules of which was you could make no statement without first saying, "It seems to me" or "perhaps." You couldn't hold up anything as an incontrovertible fact. One of his contributions to the Declaration of Independence was replacing Jefferson's portentous phrase "sacred and undeniable" with the milder "self-evident." Careful and moderate, Franklin was: not one for radical ideology or any ideology. An agnostic, he supported Christ Church because even if it was silly, it didn't do any harm and might do some good. (He admired a local religious sect that had no written "Bible" at all.) A philosopher, he never wrote a book of philosophy, but compiled a list of simple practical maxims about saving pennies and stitches in time. He knew his sphere was in the humble world of earthy affairs.
Nevertheless, he made significant scientific contributions, especially in the field of electricity. In the French court, they called him Monsieur Electrique, which sounds a lot better than "Mr. Electric." Franklin, like many other 18th Century scientists, figured electricity was a fluid that flowed in a "current" from wherever there was too much to wherever there was too little. He said the place with too much electricity was "positively charged" and the place with too little was "negatively charged," giving us the term "battery" and the nomenclature to go with it. Except he got it backward! The side he dubbed "negative" which is the side he thought the current would flow into, is where it flows from, and the "positive side," which Franklin thought the wellspring of the current is actually its delta.
Franklin would have laughed. The greatest trait of a great man is not putting too much stock in his own greatness. I stood at his grave, and was touched and puzzled to see the stone covered with pennies and nickles. Why had people put them there? Were they the "pennies saved?" A tribute? Making a wish? Because other people had put their pennies there?
In a famous, and possibly apocryphal dispute, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin argue over what should be the national bird. Adams pumped for the bald eagle; the Adams boys were always a little on the bloodthirsty side; they envisioned America as a new Sparta. Jefferson, naturally, wanted it to be a dove. Hippie. Franklin thought it should be the turkey. Good old Franklin. Pick something native, wild and cunning, and - in a pinch - edible.
I smiled to see the coins on Franklin's grave, shook my head, and walked away. Then I wondered, what would Ben do? He would say it was silly, of course, but it couldn't do any harm and it just possibly might do some good. I asked Nancy for a penny and left it behind.