Politics is a game of chess
Beyond his accomplishments in science Benjamin Franklin had a keen mind for creating. Not only instruments based on his scientific studies, but also institutions. This talent would make him an even more prominent figure among his contemporaries and solidify his role as one of the key minds of the American Revolution. Practicality and logic, self taught and tested, became a hallmark of his activities. Which were leading up to the Declaration of Independence and beyond.
Considering Chess still an upper class activity during this time. The idea of tactics and planning was thought to show keen minds. As well as to prepare gentlemen of the upper classes for positions of responsibility. Business deals and politics happened over chess boards. Ben, of course, became an avid chess player.
He became renown for it around 1733. This made him the first known player in the American colonies. The game helped him learn more than just tactics and diplomacy, it was also useful in learning languages. Ben learned challenged a friend to a game of chess to learn Italian. The winner decides what parts of the language to be learn.
During his time spent in England throughout much of his life he was able to practice the game against skilled opponents. In fact, he made many important connections over the chessboards in London and Paris, sowing the seeds of connection that would assist him through several diplomatic events. In 1786, at the age of eighty, he published an essay on chess which was widely translated. The essay, “The Morals of Chess”, praised chess and the codes of behavior expected of a player. He was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 1999.
The music of the eighteenth century was a popular endeavor amongst the upper class and well-to-do of the time. Ben himself could play several instruments including the violin, the harp, and the guitar. His interest in music drove him to try his hand at composing music, most notably a work for a string quartet. In addition, he developed an improved version of the glass harmonica, an instrument that involved the musician moving their fingers over stationary water glasses. Ben’s version involved the glasses rotating while the player held their fingers steady. This became a popular version of the instrument in Europe and is still used occasionally in orchestras today.
Chess and music were ways that Ben signalled himself as a “gentleman of leisure”, a person who was successful enough to be able to engage in his own pursuits. It was primarily due to his popular publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack which allowed him to also pursue his great scientific achievements. In 1747, he was able to retire from the printing business by forming a partnership with his foreman.
Through this arrangement he would continue to receive half the profits from the press for the next 18 years. This freedom gave him the ability to pursue the experiments and ventures that would make him famous.
Organizing Change in Society and Science
While he had developed the concept of a library in his early years, it was not the last institution that would become invaluable to a fledgling America. Ben was a part of creating one of the first volunteer firefighting companies in America in 1736.
In a time when structures were all made of wood and close together, organization of such a task force was paramount otherwise an entire town could be lost.
During that time, Ben also created a paper currency for the colony of New Jersey. Using anti-counterfeiting techniques that he had devised. In 1729, he had published an essay on the usefulness of paper money, something he would advocate for his entire life.
Then, Ben put his printing press to work. So he can make paper money for the middle colonies for monetary experiments to stop deflation without increasing inflation.These experiments were successful and in 1766 he spoke to the British House of Commons about using paper money throughout the British holdings.
By the time he reached his late thirties, Ben became more and more interested in politics and public affairs. As a successful businessman and inventor, he was able to branch out into other means of making a difference in his society.
In 1743, he began pitching the idea of a public education and charity schools. The idea didn’t get much traction at first, but by 1751 the Academy and Charity schools were opened allowing more youth in Pennsylvania to attend school without the need for tuition, something that had stymied his own education as a child.
A start in Politics
While working on his electrical experiments, Ben also found time to start the American Philosophical Society so that scientists throughout the colonies could come together and discuss their scientific research. He would continue to be a part of this institution for the rest of his life, sharing ideas and growing his reputation. He moved into politics in 1748, when he was elected as a councilman for Philadelphia.
Several subsequent political appointments followed, with the most notable being his appointment as deputy post-master general of British North America in 1753 after being postmaster for Philadelphia since 1737.(I include a link to his post office here. You can visit it next time in Philadelphia. It’s one of the coolest real-place museums I ever visited.)
He began a reform of the postal system and it would be one of his most significant achievements of domestic policy. In 1753, British North America spanned from Newfoundland in modern day Canada and down to Georgia in the modern day United States.
The post of deputy postmaster was split, with Ben in charge from Newfoundland to Annapolis, Maryland, with William Hunter overseeing the southern colonies from Virginia. One of his first acts was improving the accounting system of the postal service. With that in hand, he began working on the speed of delivery between New York, Philadelphia and Boston. By 1761, the colonial postal system turned a profit for the first time.
After the French and Indian War brought New France under British control, the newly formed British province of Quebec was added to Ben’s responsibilities. He got to work immediately, expanding the postal service to improve the postal movement between Montreal, Quebec City, and New York.
This work become all the more impressive since Ben was doing it via correspondence from England. There, he was making connections and talking up the American colonies to influential British citizens at the same time. The British court dismissed him in 1774.
Because he was holding this passion for his home. On the eve of American revolution.
Despite that setback. His role with the post office led him to be named the first Postmaster General of the United States in order to create a new system that would be needed on the eve of American independence in 1775.
In between the start of his political ambitions in North America and become one of the Founding Fathers, he was also involved in the creation of what would become the first hospital in the United States, the Pennsylvania Hospital. He worked alongside Dr. Thomas Bond, a surgeon, to get a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature.
It was within this momentum that Ben joined with several other prominent intellectual members of society to design a new model for colleges. Essentially, this new style of college focused on professions as opposed to religious philosophy. This was a rather revolutionary idea, because churches ran many colleges of the time. It set the stage for other American colleges and universities of the future, a focus on skills taught by experts, as opposed to divinity and religious exams in Latin.
A Patriot, defender of his fellow Americans
Ben Franklin’s focus on education and independent thought was what helped him become the statesman he is remembered for being. From the 1750s and 1770s, he became a spokesman of sorts for the American colonies and defended his countrymen’s interests. It was during this time Ben saw a great change. His people in the American colonies were becoming culturally different from the people of Great Britain. While he may not have been able to predict the nature of the conflict that would arise. Benjamin certainly seeing the foundation laid.
As an artist, musician, philosopher and self-made man. Ben Franklin set forth a model that other Americans sought to emulate both in his own time and today.
I admire the discipline Ben Franklin used to accomplish whatever he set out to do. To better himself, to better his community, his nation and ultimately our world.