N.B. This is the first History post that doesn’t rely extensively on Wikipedia. Instead, I’ve done my research for this in 1958’s first book of Daniel Boorstin’s scintillating trilogy The Americans, subtitled The Colonial Experience. The entire text can be found here.
We Americans have pretty much agreed that Benjamin Franklin was a fairly smart guy and probably the closest thing our country has to Leonardo da Vinci. He “discovered” electricity with a kite and all that, inventing the lightning rod and thereby saving dozens of houses from burning to the ground. He drew that “Join or Die” snake to help unite the colonies in the decades before the American Revolution. He came up with bifocals and streamlined the post office and gave some important speeches. In fact, Ben Franklin is so smart that we’ve more or less forgiven him for the positive/negative fiasco regarding electrical charge.
But, as smart as we think Ben Franklin was, it’s not even close to how smart Ben Franklin himself thought he was.
Ben Franklin thought he was so smart that he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” From the eighth chapter of his nauseating autobiography: