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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    Poor Richard's delightful annual prefaces never, alas, became as famous as the maxims and sayings that Franklin scattered in the margins of his almanacs each year, such as the most famous of all: "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Franklin would have been amused by how faithfully these were praised by subsequent advocates of self-improvement, and he would likely have been even more amused by the humorists who later poked fun at them. In a sketch with the ironic title "The Late Benjamin Franklin," Mark Twain gibed, "As if it were any object to a boy to be healthy and wealthy and wise on such terms. The sorrow that that maxim has cost me, through my parents experimenting on me with it, tongue cannot tell. The legitimate result is my present state of general debility, indigence, and mental aberration. My parents used to have me up before nine o'clock in the morning sometimes when I was a boy. If they had let me take my natural rest where would I have been now? Keeping store, no doubt, and respected by all." Groucho Marx, in his memoirs, also picked up the theme. "'Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man you-know-what.' This is a lot of hoopla. Most wealthy people I know like to sleep late, and will fire the help if they are disturbed before three in the afternoon."

    Franklin's favorite device for poking fun at social mores and political outrages was the hoax. Unlike the frauds perpetrated by Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, Franklin's satires were meant to be playful and to make a moral point, although they did occasionally deceive. "The Speech of Polly Baker," for example, purports to recount the speech of a young woman on trial for having a fifth illegitimate child. Franklin, who had fathered an illegitimate child but taken responsibility for him, was particularly scathing about the double standard that subjects her, but not the men who had sex with her, to humiliation. As Polly says, "I readily consented to the only proposal of marriage that ever was made me, which was when I was a virgin; but too easily confiding in the person's sincerity that made it, I unhappily lost my own honor by trusting his; for he got me with child, and then forsook me. That very person you all know; he is now become a magistrate of this county." By doing her duty to bring children into the world, despite the fact that no one would marry her, and being willing to do so despite the public disgrace she argues that she deserved, "in my humble opinion, instead of a whipping, to have a statue erected to my memory." The court, Franklin wrote, was so moved by the speech that she was acquitted, and one of the judges married her the next day. Only years later, after the account was reprinted in both America and England, did Franklin reveal it was a hoax. As Franklin knew, humor was the gentlest yet most powerful way to make political points, and America would always be strongest when it was confident enough, and self-aware enough, to laugh at itself.

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