Searching For Ben

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There is something comforting about a historian who does things in a way that looks historical.

At age 86, it's the way Ed Morgan has always done it — putting pen to paper to bring history alive.

"You want to write something that no one else has written, you want to point out something that hasn't been pointed out before, you want to make connections that haven't been made before, that's exciting," says Morgan.

His latest connections come in a new biography, "Benjamin Franklin" — a figure so large and complex that Morgan begs his readers from page one to start with a clean slate.

"The first thing to do is to overcome the image of a man perpetually at his desk, scribbling out the mountain of words that confronts US," says Morgan.

In short, give up the Franklin we thought we knew — the stuffy, portly old Philadelphian, mingling with colonial aristocrats, plotting the American Revolution.

"He's a guy who likes to be outdoors," says Morgan. "So, why should we picture him always the way a portrait painter pictures him? I'm not constrained by portrait painters, I've got his papers. I can give you the man."

The man Morgan wants you to know begins as an athletic 20-year-old, who on a return voyage to America from England in 1726 didn't have his nose in a book, or over the side getting seasick. Instead he's jumping off the ship and swimming around it

"People didn't swim at the time," says Morgan.

At least not for exercise. It's just the first of what Morgan hopes will be many surprises about a man who loved surprises himself.

Perhaps Franklin, more than anyone, might appreciate a book that is as much about who he wasn't, as who he was, especially when it came to his politics.

CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan says one of the quotes from the book that sticks out most for him, was: "Franklin's objective was not to attain independence, but actually prevent it."

"Yes, 'cause he wanted America to stay in the British empire, as long as the British recognized American rights, and treated Americans as equals," says Morgan.

Franklin is a reluctant revolutionary, but, a very ardent one, according to the historian.

But not so ardent that he wanted the privileges of the new world to be afforded to everyone.

In fact, Morgan writes, Franklin, for a time, actually wanted to "keep America white" — exclude everyone, unless they were English.
Was he a racist?

"That's an interesting question and I don't know the answer to it," says Morgan. "When you're talking about Franklin's attitude toward race, you're talking about a developing thing."

Morgan's fascination with Franklin is no accident. He taught at Yale since 1955 as a Sterling Professor of History Emeritus. He is widely considered one of the two or three most distinguished living scholars on Revolutionary America.

But, he never intended to write a book.

"I got carried away by Franklin," he explains.

Morgan was only supposed to write a simple introduction to a massive collection of Franklin's papers now available on CD-ROM. It is a device, by the way, Franklin would have found just as intriguing as Morgan does today.

"Oh, it's wonderful, it's just unbelievable the way you can just push buttons," says Morgan.

He is one of the few people in the world who has read every word in that Franklin collection from the original documents — many in French.
When published, the papers will consume 46 volumes - a feat to read by anyone's account, except Morgan, who like Franklin himself, is all too modest.

"It took me seven or eight years. It's no big deal. And I read very slowly, " says Morgan.

Perhaps that is why he admits his first inclination was to be a cattle rancher instead of a historian. Sometimes he still wonders if he made the right choice.

"I have a terrible memory, it's an unfortunate thing for a historian," laughs Morgan.

"I have a terrible memory of dates, places."

It's not that he doesn't have other talents to fall back on. He's also a professional wood worker — making everything from tables, to turning bowls, which he signs and sells for hundreds of dollars.

"After reading all morning long, or writing all morning long, there a point where you need to," says Morgan. "There's a point where I need to do something like this … something with my hands, I need to get dirty."

His sense of humor mirrors the kind he thinks Franklin had, whose playful wit was outmatched only by his genius.

Long before the Revolution that made the other Founding Fathers famous, Benjamin Franklin was already a household name, or at least his sayings were. Does "early to bed early to rise" sound familiar? It was just one.
His curiosity knew no limits. He helped chart the Gulf stream, invented a better street lamp, and created the first odometer. He created all of those in his spare time.

But, it was his experiments with electricity that are undoubtedly his greatest scientific achievement — impossible to underestimate.
"He is just about the brightest person that I've ever encountered, just on the basis of his papers, but at the same time, he can talk to anybody. He can talk to the gardener, he can talk to the guy next door, he can talk to the beggar in the street," says Morgan.

A kind of humility that led Franklin to refuse patents on any of his inventions — not the lightening rod, not his bi-focals, not anything.
"Because he and the rest of mankind have benefited from other inventions, and he wanted other people to benefit from his," says Morgan. "Doing good to others was his idea of religion."

Morgan says he can't think of one person today who can match the impact on so many different levels, both political and scientific, as Benjamin Franklin.

If Franklin had any faults, it may have been in his personal life. He had an illegitimate son named William, whose identity remains unknown to this day. When William sided with England instead of the colonies, Frankin showed a rare streak of stubbornness.

"Franklin virtually disowned him," says Morgan. "Cut him off, never spoken another kind word to him. It's hard to fathom."

He was married to Deborah Reed of Philadelphia, but he spent nearly 20 years overseas without her, and never exactly wanting for female compainionship.

"He wrote to her regularly and affectionately," says Morgan. "But at the same time enjoyed the company of other women."

Was he a womanizer?

"No, I don't think he was," says Morgan.

Just what he was, in the end, remains a bit of a mystery. Frustrating in the eyes of an old historian, who despite spending years with Franklin, still wants to get closer.

"You kind of have an impression, "Gosh, if you could only talk to this guy, wouldn't you learn a lot,'" explains Morgan. "You can never read his body language. You can never really get the meaning of a silence."

Morgan believes he would like the founding father but realizes he can only wish to meet Franklin in person.

Don't we all.

For the CD-ROM of the papers of Benjamin Franklin, both published and
unpublished, created by the Packard Humanities Institute, please write:

Packard Humanities Institute
300 Second St., Suite 201
Los Altos, CA 94022