The US Founding Father who travelled the globe


Benjamin Franklin is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Though he has never fully disappeared from the public eye, partly because his face is on the $100 bill, his story is being revisited and celebrated once again. Last year, director Ken Burns released a two-part documentary about him. Now, there’s a new TV series on Apple TV+ called “Franklin,” starring Michael Douglas. This eight-episode series, concluding on May 17, focuses on Franklin’s secret mission to France during the American War of Independence.

Franklin’s lasting appeal is easy to understand. He accomplished so much that it’s hard to know where to start. He was the most famous American of his time and would have been well-known even if there had been no Revolutionary War. Franklin was a printer, publisher, satirist, scientist, diplomat, inventor, postmaster, debunker, and enthusiast. He was also an avid traveler, journeying farther and longer than any other American of his era.

Unlike Franklin, my achievements are modest. I haven’t invented anything or founded any institutions. I’m not a famous American, haven’t won any wars, signed important declarations, and Michael Douglas has never portrayed me.

However, a few years ago, I became fascinated with Franklin. My interest grew into an obsession as I approached a significant birthday. Initially, I tried to ignore this milestone, but it gradually became all I could think about. Reflecting on my life, I felt dissatisfied and wondered what my efforts had amounted to and what good I had done.

That’s when I turned to Franklin for inspiration. Despite being an unconventional role model for someone like me—who loves foreign cultures and is more artistic than scientific—Franklin’s story resonated. My travels taught me to question assumptions and ask, “What if?” I wondered if I had been looking in the wrong places for wisdom and if Franklin might have the guidance I needed for aging and living well.

Over four years, I followed in Franklin’s footsteps, visiting places he lived and worked, such as Philadelphia, Paris, Boston, and London. The more I learned, the more I believed Franklin could be the mentor I had been searching for. The last third of his life was particularly interesting, and even the first two-thirds were fascinating.

I discovered many similarities between us. Both Franklin and I need to lose some weight. We both believe humor is a powerful way to connect with people. And, like Franklin, I believe in the transformative power of travel.

Franklin and I were both captivated by the idea of travel from a young age. I grew up in the 1970s in Baltimore, watching planes at Friendship Airport (now Baltimore-Washington International) and dreaming of becoming a pilot. Franklin, growing up in 1710s Boston, watched ships at Boston Harbor and dreamed of becoming a sailor, though his father didn’t allow it. Instead, Franklin traveled in his mind, looking at world maps and reading travel books.

Eventually, Franklin didn’t need his father’s permission to travel. He covered 42,000 miles over his lifetime, living until age 84. As deputy postmaster, he traveled extensively across the US Northeast. At age 70, he undertook a difficult journey to Montreal to convince the Canadians to join the American Revolution, though this mission failed. At age 76, he considered traveling through Italy but decided the trip would be too strenuous.

Franklin crossed the Atlantic eight times at a time when such journeys were perilous. He spent a third of his life abroad, living in London and Paris and visiting Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Portuguese island of Madeira. He cherished small pleasures, like Madeira wine, believing that accumulating these could lead to great happiness.

Franklin could be boastful about his travels, proud of his extensive journeys and his strong stomach that withstood rough seas. He was also a discerning traveler, knowing exactly what he liked and didn’t. If TripAdvisor existed then, he would have been a tough customer for hoteliers. In France, he often argued with innkeepers over trivial matters, even as he charmed the locals with his wit and folksy manner. In England, he criticized a Portsmouth hotel as a “wretched inn” and described Gravesend as a place where locals skillfully overcharged travelers.

For Franklin, travel was essential. Without his annual summer trip, he became irritable. He wrote to his wife, Deborah, saying he felt the need for his usual journey and would set out soon. Travel allowed Franklin to see beyond the confines of Puritan Boston and the still-developing Philadelphia. He believed travel was a way to “lengthen life.” With the right attitude, two weeks in Paris could feel like six months anywhere else.

Travel also gave Franklin time to think and write. He produced some of his best work while on the road or at sea. On a carriage ride from Philadelphia to Albany, New York, in 1754, he conceived his plan for colonial unity. On an Atlantic crossing to London in 1757, he wrote “Father Abraham’s Speech” (later known as “The Way to Wealth”), a collection of sayings that helped cement his reputation as a symbol of American industriousness.

People struggled to pin Franklin down to one persona. Fellow Founding Father John Adams called him “The Old Conjurer.” In London, Franklin played the proper English gentleman, while in France, he adopted a folksy, backwoods philosopher persona, complete with a fur cap. The French loved it. Wherever he went, he attracted crowds of admirers, including many young women.

Franklin’s different personas were not fake. He was all of them and more. He understood that travel allows people to reinvent themselves. We remain the same person on the road as at home, but travel lets us explore different sides of ourselves. You might feel more romantic in Paris or more relaxed in Rio de Janeiro, but that’s because you allow yourself to be. The places don’t change you—you change yourself in those places.

In conclusion, Franklin’s life and travels offer valuable lessons. He knew how to balance different aspects of his personality and used travel as a tool for growth and reflection. His story teaches us that we can find wisdom and inspiration in unexpected places and that travel can help us see the world—and ourselves—in new ways.


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