George Washington might have been the father of his country, but Ben Franklin was, as one expert put it, its “foxy grandpa.”
“He had wit at will,” Paul M. Zall quoted John Adams as saying. “He had humor that, when he pleased, was delicate and delightful. He had a satire that was good natured or caustic . . . at his pleasure. He had talents for irony, allegory and fable, that he could adapt with great skill to the promotion of moral and political truth.”
This is July, when we celebrate our founding fathers. It is fitting that one of them, Benjamin Franklin, was a man of remarkable humor. “He valued humor as not an end in itself but a means to gaining a competitive edge, disseminating information, or promoting a program,” wrote Zall, the late English professor and expert on humor at California State University, Los Angeles. “Humor gave him “a shield for both attack and defense. . . . No wonder that Balzac praised Franklin’s three greatest inventions as the lightning rod, the republic and the put-on.”
Franklin was shy. Humor helped him mask it. He was a leading public figure in Philadelphia and a member of the Second Continental Congress, where he assisted in shaping the Declaration of Independence. He became a popular diplomat in Paris, who secured the treaty with France that funded the Revolution, as well as the treaty with Britain that granted America its freedom. He delivered the closing speech to the Constitutional Convention and asked everyone to doubt a little of their own infallibility and sign the document. All but three delegates did.
At age 12, he was apprenticed to a brother as a printer. Ben Franklin called himself a printer until he died. He worked in London and Philadelphia. At 23, he and a partner bought The Pennsylvania Gazette. Three years later, Franklin published the first edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack. (He spelled it with a “k”.) Animated, cheeky, even daring, it sold out in two days. Sales peaked at 10,000 copies annually and came to provide about a third of his income.
Here is a sample of Franklin’s humor from his speeches, The Pennsylvania Gazette and Wit and Wisdom from Poor Richard’s Almanack, edited by Kathy Casey and published by Dover Publications. Franklin admitted that not all of his aphorisms were original. But, Zall said, “he would sharpen the point of each one, clarify the sense, or distill the essence.”
- He that lives upon hope will die fasting.
- A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one.
- He does not possess wealth, it possesses him.
- He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.
- Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.
- Who has deceived thee so often as thyself?
- He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.
- Tricks and treachery are the practice of fools that have not enough wit to be honest.
- People who are wrapped up with themselves make small packages.
- A country man between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.
- The way to be safe is never to be secure.
- He that teaches himself hath a fool for his master.
- There are no fools so troublesome as those that have wit.