Benjamin Franklin, Genius Or Ruthless Egomaniac?

Benjamin Franklin is a prominent and very well-known name in American History. He is, perhaps, best known for his scientific achievements; Franklin and electricity are almost inseparable in the minds of Americans. In addition to being a scientist of great renown, Franklin was printer, a statesman, a patriot, and a writer. Benjamin Franklin was one of the five men who drafted and edited the Declaration of Independence, was one of the 59 signatories, and was the publisher of the wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac. He was well read, well-spoken and quite charismatic. His diplomacy is credited for the French support of the American bid for independence in the Revolutionary war and negotiating with Britain for peace at the conclusion of it. Despite his long pedigree of admirable accomplishments, Benjamin Franklin had a decided dark side.

Benjamin Franklin, despite his prolific publications under real and assumed names, was quite secretive. He fathered an illegitimate son named William, but little is known about the details. The name of William’s mother and his exact date of birth have never been ascertained. Benjamin and William became permanently estranged following the war. Benjamin never forgave his son for remaining loyal to the crown, and left him with almost none of his immense wealth upon his death. Franklin had a rather large ego, evidenced in his own autobiography, and by many accounts of those who were close to him. John Adams described Franklin as “slippery and opportunistic,” and he had a long standing feud with William Penn. This feud led him to attempt to switch the entire government of Pennsylvania from proprietary to royal based on his hatred for the man. This was not a popular idea either with the colonists or the English crown. There are many descriptions of Benjamin as egotistical, but none so damning as recently declassified CIA documents claiming that Franklin’s massive ego nearly sank the Revolution before it began.

According to the documents, the strong personality of Benjamin may have contributed to divisions in the three man Commission to France, the concerted effort to win much needed French support for the American Revolution. The lack of trust among the three men allowed for the loss of information to the British government, almost unchecked, despite one of the men of The Commission accusing the eventually discovered spy — Franklin’s secretary and longtime friend, Edward Bancroft. Even though the British gained access to large number American secrets through the Commission to France, they were unable to tailor their national policies to be able to put the knowledge to good use. The Revolution was won by the Americans with French support, and Benjamin Franklin went on to be remembered as a staunch patriot and the First American. It’s ironic that he disowned his son for remaining loyal the British crown, while his friend gave that same crown American intelligence that could very well have lost the war.