All that has happened to you is also connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people…
—Benjamin Vaughan to Benjamin Franklin, January 31, 1783
Benjamin Franklin was a preternaturally talented Renaissance man. He was a world-famous scientist whose insights into electricity are still relevant today; a leading citizen and civic leader; a first-class printer who helped define and expand the world of letters; a preeminent journalist, essayist, and aphorist; a skilled politician and diplomat. His tremendous legacy of political, cultural, scientific and civic organizations continues to influence his city and his country. His Autobiography is an essential feature of the American literary canon.
But Benjamin Franklin’s life also raises deep and disturbing questions for students. He owned slaves and profited from the sale of enslaved persons. He copied and reworked many of his most famous phrases. His sexual habits and behavior are incompatible with the character of the “Me Too” era. He broke promises, circulating—knowing they would become public— personal letters of great political import, which he had pledged to keep private. Through examining Franklin’s life, we will consider weighty questions in history, citizenship, ethics, and science.
This course will explore the life and ethos of Benjamin Franklin. We will study the history of the 18th century, including the American Revolution, the details of Franklin’s life and accomplishments, and six major ethical issues he confronted.
Over the course, students will follow Franklin’s own advice for establishing order in life. Students will keep a detailed moral diary modeled on Franklin’s. For a 5-day period, students will emulate the diet he had as a young— and low-paid—adult.
The course will encourage students to critically examine the 18th Century, the “great man” theory, and the ability to make moral evaluation of people living in other times. They will critically examine the relevance of the life of a world historical figure for how to lead their own civically engaged, ethical life.