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Benjamin Franklin Gets the Last Laugh
Last uploaded : Friday 19th Dec 2003 at 00:43
Contributed by : Cay Philips


Being a Philadelphian and a fan of Benjamin Franklin (we are known as ?Franklinophiles?) I could not resist the temptation to reflect on the juxtaposition of Ben?s face with the squalid hole in which Saddam Hussein had lived before being captured by American forces.

Shown across the world this week was a photograph of a briefcase full of $100 bills to the total sum of $750,000, Ben Franklin?s face peering out from the American currency. My mind leapt to the scenario of Franklin and Saddam sharing the same lodgings. What would one have made of the other?

Benjamin Franklin was one of most celebrated of all the Founding Fathers never to have been President of the United States. A printer by trade, his legend arose from the diversity of his gifts. He was an inventor, philosopher, statesman and diplomat. His famous experiment with electrical conduction is depicted in an image known by every American schoolchild: Ben flying a kite during a thunderstorm, a metal key suspended on the string. In various versions of this event, artists have shown a child standing alongside Franklin and a bemused dog watching the proceedings. Franklin invented bifocals and his work with optics is honoured in the splendid headquarters of the College of Optomestrists a few doors away from the Benjamin Franklin House at 36 Craven Street, London.

Franklin was fascinated by people and by the human condition. The lack of sanitation in London when he lived here from 1757 to 1775 is likely to have caused him dismay.

It is inconceivable that had he become President he would have sanctioned the torture and extermination of hundreds of thousands (one million killed by Saddam according to the ?Daily Telegraph?) of his own people, as did Hussein. Franklin encouraged the work of Dr William Hewson, whose enquiries into anatomy and the illumination of tissue -- the precursor of radiology --had got the doctor into disfavour with the Royal College of Surgeons. Franklin saw that Hewson?s work was in aid of the saving of life, and stood by him throughout his banishment by the College and death from blood poisoning. His surviving family emigrated to the colonies and Hewson?s descendants are still practicing doctors in Philadelphia.

What does this have to do with Saddam Hussein? Seeing Ben?s face, with that trademark smile, looking out from the dollar bills in Saddam?s lair alongside the ancient River Tigris of Biblical fame, one could imagine him asking Saddam what could motivate him to kill and torture hundreds of thousands of his own people. He might ask him why he sent piles of money to Palestinian families of suicide bombers. At a Pentagon briefing this week, American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked ?If you had a question for Saddam, what would you ask him? to which Rumsfeld replied, ?Oh, come on.? I suspect Ben Franklin would have had a list of questions , as well as recommending an air bath -- one of his favourite activities -- to the Iraqi despot. He might have asked Saddam how such a magnificent land could be rendered infertile and impoverished when so many natural riches abound, and when so many brilliant minds were set to dreaming up ways of killing people rather than doing the kind of research generated by Dr Hewson some two-hundred and fifty years before in his own basement hideaway in Craven Street. Would that the Middle East could produce a Franklin instead of an Assad, Gaddafy or Arafat.

In these columns I have often lamented the waste of youth in the Arab world and in the Palestinian territories. From the time he was a boy Ben Franklin, like so many Americans today, immersed himself in learning and enterprise. Despite the mountain of clippings I have accumulated since September 11, 2001 from the British and European media condemning every aspect of American traditions, history and culture, I believe Americans have an extraordinary capacity for resourcefulness and enterprise that transcends social class, race or religion. Pennsylvania Dutch country is not just religious Amish communities; it is filled with successful restaurants, craft shops and dairies. Franklin left England as the Revolutionary War was about to explode, his status in this country no longer a sought-after celebrity but that of agent of the rebellious colonists. (When one reads about this period one believes he would have preferred peace to war.) He is said to have remarked that nowhere on this earth could a man find a place in the wilderness, build a home and prosper unshackled by class barriers or edict except in the fledgling American nation.

No two men could be as different as Saddam and Franklin. The American genius spent every waking hour exploring the positive avenues of human endeavour. He invented the glass armonica, a ?descendant? of which was used this month at the Royal Opera House?s production of ?Lucia di Lammermoor.? When he returned to the colonies and became one of the framers of the great documents of democracy drafted at the birth of the nation in Philadelphia, Franklin wanted only the best and most noble destiny for his fellow colonists.

Saddam Hussein, a descendant of a great and ancient civilisation, wanted none of the gifts for his people that Franklin had coveted in 1776. Despite many dark moments in its history, and its continuing imperfections, the American nation remains a formidable bastion of democracy and enterprise. Notwithstanding Roy Hattersley?s absurd column about the decline of western culture and its cause, exported American garbage -- Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse -- it gives one pause to think that Franklin represented everything that is still admirable in American culture. Were he around today he would have held sparkling discussions with Bill Gates, but one doubts his time with Saddam in the filthy bunker would have been inspiring. A man whose only goal in life was to terrorise and destroy would not have had a commonality with Franklin.

One can hope that the new Iraq will bear a resemblance to the new nation Franklin helped build. The colonists if 1776 overthrew a mad tyrant -- with the help of the French! -- and after many crises created a thriving democracy. Though riven by the legacy of slavery and a murderous Civil War, the United States managed to endure as a nation, and now Iraq must nurture its finest attributes to generate a luminous democracy. Tribal rivalries and hatreds are deep and passionate, and the months to come will be crucial for this ancient but tormented people.

Today the United States has manifold problems, and many Americans lament the time, money and blood spent on liberating Iraq when elderly citizens of Bush?s country cannot afford pharmaceuticals to keep them alive and young people cannot afford college fees, whilst the middle aged cannot find insurance to provide them with proper health care.

For the time being, however, it does lift the spirit to rejoice that another nation thousands of miles away has been freed from tyranny.
Those hundred dollar bills with the Franklin smile were smirking at Saddam in his lair, as if to say ?We endure.? The infantrymen who captured him, some of them descendants of the ragtag army who triumphed over King George III?s red-coated legions, represented the new spirit of post-9/11 America. In the words of the Revolutionary War banner, Franklin?s face on those dollar bills was uttering the immortal words:

?Don?t tread on me.?



Carol Gould is a filmmaker and writer in London; she wrote 'Spitfire Girls,' a novel about the women pilots of Air Transport Auxiliary and was Script Executive at Anglia TV/ITV for many years.

The Benjamin Franklin House website:



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