What Would Franklin Think of Us Today?

‘Poorer Richard's America' Imagines an Up-to-Speed Founding Father

Posted September 20, 2010 at 3:57pm

Any student of American history at some point wonders what the Founding Fathers would think of today’s United States. Now, one of the most distinctive founders is back and he has a lot to say — or at least author Tom Blair does on his behalf.

In “Poorer Richard’s America: What Would Ben Say?” Blair gets in touch with the Ben Franklin of the beyond and leaves no facet of modern American life untouched. From family life to the state of the economy and feuding political factions, Franklin has plenty to say. He’s pleased overall, but is not without some criticism.

The book is intended to be a “Poor Richard’s Almanac” for the modern American, offering proverbial wisdom both old and new. The advice is dispersed in 39 essays written in a voice reminiscent of Franklin’s writing for the almanac, and the advice proves that many of Franklin’s clever quips are as apt today as they were during his lifetime.

The economy is a frequent topic of discussion in the book. Franklin warns against the excessive creation of federal programs, with Blair borrowing a 1745 Poor Richard’s proverb: “Beware of the little expenses, small leaks will sink the greatest ships.”

Blair’s Franklin has learned a lot since he died in 1790. He’s watched the events of the past 220 years unfold, both in the United States and the rest of the world. He’s read Darwin and jokes about Playboy and has apparently been to Las Vegas, albeit in spectral form.

This up-to-speed Franklin is quick to comment on modern patriotism and is distressed by comments that immigrants to this country are not “real Americans.” This mentality, Blair writes, breeds prejudice and discrimination and will only lead to anger among citizens.

“If as the hangman adjusts the noose around your neck, you proclaim loudly, ‘My only regret is that I have but one live to give for my country,’ you may then lay claim to the mantle of Real American,” Franklin notes.

But Franklin’s comments go beyond the political sphere.

While he’s impressed with the wealth of knowledge available via the Internet and the seemingly limitless possibilities with computers, he worries that today’s Americans aren’t thinking enough. As that chapter’s title puts it, “information caressed is knowledge … information churned is clutter.”

From his perspective, we use computers to discover random facts or share our “random, wandering thoughts.” The devices have shortened person-to-person interactions, shifting what is considered intelligent from what is well-thought-out to what is delivered most quickly.

Some of the comments made by Blair’s take on Franklin are of the tough-love variety. He’s quick to point out where he thinks political leadership and social change have gone wrong — and he’s not afraid to speculate as to what could happen if they do not shape up.

Despite his criticism, Blair’s Franklin concludes by reminding readers that the United States was founded on the belief that the country’s power is in their hands, and they shouldn’t hesitate to speak up.

Though it is impossible to know what Franklin really would say about today’s United States, Blair’s interpretation is witty and often thought-provoking. It may be presumptuous of Blair to speak on the Founding Father’s behalf, but in many ways he says what others haven’t — or maybe just what people haven’t heard.

Perhaps Ben Franklin is just the person we need to hear say it.