Frequently regarded as a “favorite” Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin was one of the most accomplished men in American history. Inventor, scientist, printer, politician, diplomat, philosopher, ladies man (the way Franklin drew young French beauties into his amorous orbit makes JFK look a socially awkward teen-ager), and beer drinker,
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by French artist Joseph-Siffred Duplessis
Franklin was also an essential figure in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. He served on the Committee of Five responsible for drafting and editing the version first submitted to the Continental Congress. Franklin also is the only member of the founding generation who signed the seminal documents of the United States: The Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.
The National Archives opened a Franklin exhibit today that explores the multifaceted intellect of this brilliant and likable figure from the Founding Period. The Washington Post says the display will “explore the life of Benjamin Franklin as a scientist, diplomat, philanthropist and founding father.”
Like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin was a self-made man whose easy humor and bonhomie distracts us from understanding his deepest motivations. Franklin spent a good deal of his life abroad in Great Britain serving as a de facto ambassador for the American colonies. Insult and injury to his reputation by the British government probably did more than patriotism to drive him into the ranks of those calling for independence, but Franklin never looked back. “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” he reputedly said as he signed the Declaration. He abandoned his love all things British to become one of the first iconic Americans. The display at the National Archives looks like a good opportunity to understand this transformation and the subsequent creation of a true of American genius who always was in search of a better world.
The nation’s only copy of Magna Carta — the seminal charter in medieval English history that limited the power of government over the governed and declared that not even a king is above the law — has a new lease on life.
The Washington Post reports a $13.5 million conservation effort to protect the 715-year old copy of the document will allow the National Archives to place it on display by February 17. It is the only copy of Magna Carta in the United States.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Alexander Hamilton are among the most notable members of the Founding Generation who quoted Magna Carta or referred to it in their writings about American liberty. It was often seen as the first statement of rule of law, even part of a tradition that justifies revolution if a free people face a government that does not recognize their rights.
Jefferson in particular had a high opinion of Magna Carta. In 1786 during his only trip to London, he took time off from haunting bookstores and attending theaters to view Magna Carta at the British Museum. He knew that it contained a clause stating the right of subjects to contradict the king’s will if they are endangered by a monarch’s lawlessness. In fact, much of Jefferson’s arguments for revolution align with an idea throughout Magna Carta: Englishmen cannot be alienated from their rights. As Jefferson argues in the Declaration of Independence, the colonists are simply declaring their right to rights they already possess.
The National Archives & Records Administration is the keeper of the United States’ most cherished documents such as the Declaration of Independence. In addition, NARA maintains one of the better federal Web sites dedicated to both history and historical research, providing a number of handy reference tools and on-line document searches for users who are interested amateurs or professional historians.
One of the more helpful resources is a fact sheet on the signers of the Declaration. The information is basic: their names, states, dates of birth and death, religion, and other demographic facts. However, for a quick reference it is unbeatable. You can even download a copy to your computer.