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Franklin's words remain relevant

January 28, 2006|By Allan Powell

To the editor:<.h4>

Three hundred years ago, on Jan. 17, 1706, a precocious son of Josiah and Abiah Franklin made his appearance in Boston. Benjamin was destined to become the most illustrious of 11 children born into this family of modest means. At this point in time, Boston was a teeming city of about 7,000 inhabitants.

At age 12, young Benjamin became apprenticed to his older brother James, who had opened a printer's shop in Boston. Benjamin, an avid reader, immediately began preparing his mind for the future, because a life given to typesetting had little appeal.

In the atmosphere of controversy and debate which prevailed in the print shop, Benjamin began to imagine the persona best suited for his temperament and interests. At this juncture, his interests seemed drawn to writing. This is remarkable when it is remembered that this bright lad only had two years of schooling.

Benjamin opened the door to his own future by an imaginative act of self-advancement when only 16 years of age. He was keenly aware of the fact that his older brother would have preferred that his indentured sibling would serve a much longer term as a laborer. Benjamin had to find a suitable means to improve his chances of advancement.

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One morning he secretly slipped an essay he had written under the shop door. Using the pseudonym, Silence Dogood, Benjamin hid behind an imagined widow who was more prudish and less argumentative than his brother James. An ambitious 16-year- old then penned 14 essays without his identity being discovered.

In one essay (speaking as Mrs. Dogood) Franklin aimed a wounding dart at several civic authorities in Boston in the form of a question. He asked, "Whether a Commonwealth suffers more by hypocritical pretenders to religion or by the openly profane?" His response, "after some late thoughts" was to pick the religious hypocrite. The barb went deeper with " especially if he sustains a post in the government."

The basis of his selection came about because he concluded that, "The most dangerous hypocrite in a commonwealth is one who leaves the gospel for the sake of the law. A man compounded by the law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under color of law." The governor of Massachusetts must have known that Franklin had him in mind.

Franklin was 16 - but going on 30 - when he exhibited this prescience about the linkage between religion and politics. He was certainly aware of the repressive power of the theocrats in New England and the abusive authority by the papacy throughout Europe.

Franklin was disturbed about a governor who moved from the ministry to the law and then to politics. These moves cemented the vital connections which then gave the power and social benefits which followed. These overt and covert connections affect legislation and executive decisions that may corrupt public policy.

Franklin's statements are 284 years old. But they could have been uttered yesterday and would be as relevant as they were in the summer of 1722. The only difference is in the multiple and varied connections available in a complex society.

Each day there are new revelations of unsavory conduct by the political class and lobbyists, reporters and their sources of information or blatant overreach by public officials.

Franklin would be alarmed at the advanced stage of the revolving door of influence evident in federal and state governments. The novice goes to the capital and, after serving some time, retires and becomes an agent for the interests that financed his campaigns.

Franklin went on to live a varied, interesting and productive life. He was at home with scientists, intellectuals, diplomats, generals and rulers. His sage wisdom was visible at political gatherings reaching as high as the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In Philadelphia, he founded the "Junto" - a collection of the most able minds - who met regularly to discuss topics of significance.

Three-hundred years have passed since this gentle man began his earthly journey and 216 years since he departed.

He must be missed greatly because new biographies continue to appear. Only rarely does such a combination of talents grace a society. About Franklin it may aptly be said, "E Pluribus Unum."

Allan Powell

Hagerstown

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