Everyone has heard of Benjamin Franklin and the kite, with which he proved that lightning is electricity. But how many today know that in his time he was very likely the most famous man in the Western world? When Franklin arrived in France in late 1776 as a commissioner of the newly independent United States to the Court of Versailles, he was one of the best-known scientists of the age, a longtime colonial agent to England, a philosopher and a businessman and one of the most important Founders of his new nation. Fashionable French women wore bracelets set with his profile.
As he embraced the idea of independence for America, he held to a vision of the kind of country he wanted it to be: a democratic republic whose political power flowed from its citizens. To build such a society, he had many years before devised a plan with three simple, practical steps: the creation of "virtuous" citizens, the formation of small groups with a common purpose and commitment to the collective good, and the establishment of networks that grew from these groups.
Yet his life had been very different from that of most of the other Founders. He was a "leather apron man," in the slang of his day, was proud of it, and never forgot it. He began his working life as a printer's apprentice and established himself first as a printer.
He was an omnivorous reader, interested in nearly every facet of life, nature and philosophy. But he also helped to put the finishing touches on the Declaration of Independence at the Continental Congress in 1776, where at 70 he was the oldest delegate. He lent his stabilizing influence to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he was again the oldest delegate.
Franklin died on April 17, 1790, three months past his 84th birthday. His was the largest funeral that had ever been held in America. It was estimated that 20,000 people witnessed the procession and ceremony.
In his philosophy, Franklin was far ahead of his time. His plan for the creation of groups of civic-minded citizens would replicate for generations throughout the Republic. Today we owe much to this "leather apron man."