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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    It worked. Medallions of his fur-capped head were struck, engravings were hung in homes, and his likeness graced snuffboxes and signet rings. The fad went so far as to mildly annoy, though still amuse, King Louis XVI himself. He gave a lady of his court, who had bored him often with her praise of Franklin, a Sevres porcelain chamber pot with Franklin's cameo embossed inside. Neither the King nor his ministers were instinctive champions of America's desire, which they correctly feared might prove contagious, to cast off hereditary monarchs. But the combination of Franklin's realist and idealist appeals eventually brought France into the war on America's side, which proved critical to its victory in the Revolution. It also showed that even France, at least back then, could be charmed.

    When Franklin visited Versailles to receive the King's formal assent to the treaties, he declined to wear the ceremonial sword and regalia that were considered de rigueur at court. Seeing no reason to abandon the simple style that had served him well, he dressed in a plain brown suit with his famous spectacles as his only adornment. His one fashion concession was that he did not wear his fur cap and instead carried a hat of pure white under his arm. "Is that white hat a symbol of liberty?" asked an aristocratic woman at whose salon Franklin had worn his fur cap. Whether or not he meant it to be, white hats for men were soon in vogue in Paris.

    After the ceremony, Franklin had the honor, if not pleasure, of being allowed to stand next to the Queen, the famously haughty Marie-Antoinette, as she played at the gambling tables. Alone among the throng at Versailles, she seemed to have little appreciation for the man who, she had been told, had once been "a printer's foreman." As she noted dismissively, a man of that background would never have been able to rise so high in Europe. Franklin would have proudly agreed.

    Better than most diplomats in the nation's history, Franklin understood that America's strength in world affairs would come from a mix that included idealism as well as realism. When woven together, as they would be in policies ranging from the Monroe Doctrine to the Marshall Plan, they were the warp and woof of a sturdy foreign policy. And when countries such as France felt that the soft suasion of idealism was lacking, as has recently been the case, it proved harder to attract them to a cause. "America's great historical moments," historian Bernard Bailyn has noted, "have occurred when realism and idealism have been combined, and no one knew this better than Franklin."


    When he returned from France to become the sage at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was not America's most profound political theorist. But he did embody one crucial virtue that was key to the gathering's success: a belief in the nobility of compromise. Throughout his life, one of his mantras had been, "Both sides must part with some of their demands." He used this phrase many times, but never more notably than when the Constitutional Convention became deadlocked on the issue of whether the new Congress should be proportioned by population or have equal votes for each state.

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