Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Happy 300th Birthday, Ben Franklin

Today is Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday.

Franklin was an extraordinary genius, on the order of Leonardo da Vinci.

Perhaps the best illustration of his incredible intellect is the "Silence Dogood" letters. The story is amazing.

As a 16 year old he was working as an apprentice in his brother James' newspaper in Boston.

Franklin was much more talented than his brother, who was quite threatened by his younger sibling's precociousness. James wouldn't let Benjamin write anything for the paper - he just ran the press and performed laborer's duties.

Frustrated, Franklin wrote a letter to the newspaper under a pen name, and slipped it under the door of the newspaper at night. The letter was from "Mrs. Silence Dogood," a 45 year old widow of a country parson. In the letter she spoke with the wry wit and self-deprecating wisdom of a mature, worldly woman. The letter shocked and delighted Boston society with her satirical, sometimes racy observations and comments.

He wrote a total of 14 letter from Mrs. Dogood, and by this time was the talk of the town. Readers speculated as to who she could be. Who was this woman, with her sometimes impertinant musings?

In one letter, she satirizes Harvard College, where she wanted to send her son. She describes entering the campus:

"The Passage was kept by two sturdy Porters named "Riches" and "Poverty", and the latter obstinately refused to give Entrance to any who had not first gain'd the Favour of the former; so that I observed, many who came even to the very Gate, were obliged to travel back again as ignorant as they came, for want of this necessary Qualification."

Many scholars consider the Dogood letters to be America's first newspaper columnist.

James Franklin never admitted that it was Benjamin who wrote the Dogood letters. Too embarrasing to admit that your kid brother was so much smarter than you.

Benjamin Franklin was an American genius. Read a biography of him sometime. You won't regret it.

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