Citizen Ben's 7 Great Virtues

He was the most remarkable of the founding fathers: in his time, he was America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, humorist and business strategist. In this second annual chapter in TIME's Making o


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    When he went to Paris as an envoy during the Revolution, Franklin proved himself a master of the diplomatic doctrine of realism by playing an adroit balance-of-power game between France, Spain, the Netherlands and later Britain. In a memo he wrote to the wily French Foreign Minister Vergennes, whose realist outlook was summarized by his maxim that "the influence of every power is measured by the opinion one has of its intrinsic force," Franklin emphasized the cold calculation of national interests that he knew the minister would appreciate. If France and her ally Spain joined the American cause, Britain would lose her colonies and the "commerce that has rendered her so opulent," and America would guarantee that its allies could keep any Caribbean islands Britain lost. However, if France balked, then America might be "reduced to the necessity of ending the war by an accommodation" with Britain.

    But Franklin realized that appealing to a calculus of power was only part of the equation. So even as he catered to France's calculation of her national interest, he also played the rousing chords of America's exceptionalism, the sense that America stands apart from the rest of the world because of its virtuous nature and ideals. Both the hard power that came from its strategic might and the soft power that flowed from the appeal of its liberty and democracy would, he realized, be equally important in assuring its influence.

    On the private press he built at his home near Paris, Franklin printed the inspiring documents coming out of America--the Declaration, the constitution he had written for Pennsylvania--as a way of winning hearts and minds in France and elsewhere. In a letter to Congress explaining his tactics, he gave a classic formulation of the lure of America's ideals: "Tyranny is so generally established in the rest of the world that the prospect of an asylum in America for those who love liberty gives general joy, and our cause is esteemed the cause of all mankind." He ended by echoing the shining "city upon a hill" metaphor used by the great American exceptionalists from John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan. "We are fighting for the dignity and happiness of human nature," he proclaimed. "Glorious it is for the Americans to be called by Providence to this post of honor."

    Ever the great imagemaker, he cast himself to the French public as a symbol both of the virtuous frontier freedom romanticized by Rousseau and of the Enlightenment's reasoned wisdom championed by Voltaire. In a clever and deliberate manner, leavened by the wit and joie de vivre the French so adored, he portrayed the American cause, through his own personification of it, as that of the natural state fighting the corrupted one. He made a point of eschewing powdered wigs and formal dress, instead wearing a fur cap he had picked up years earlier on a trip to Canada. The cap, like that worn by Rousseau, served as his badge of homespun purity and virtue, just as his ever present spectacles became an emblem of wisdom. It helped him play the part that Paris imagined for him: that of the noble frontier philosopher and simple backwoods sage--even though he had lived most of his life in Philadelphia and London.

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