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I have only alluded to that career, this evening, as presenting some striking circumstances, both of comparison and of contrast, with that of the great Syracusan philosopher and mechanic of antiquity, whose history I have just given you, and from a feeling which impressed itself upon my mind, on the first glance at the design of the diploma to which I have alluded, that the figure of Franklin resting on that old original printing-press of his, which is still to be seen in the patent office at Washington, might well have formed a counterpart to the figure of Archimedes resting on his screw. Their names are connected with periods of history two thousand years apart, but they are still, and they will ever be, the names, which mechanics everywhere, and certainly in our own country, will remember and cherish, with an interest and a respect which no other names in that long, long interval, can ever be permitted to share.
If Archimedes signalized his early ingenuity in discovering the defectiveness of King Hiero's crown, Franklin was second to no one in detecting and making manifest the defectiveness and worthlessness of all crowns, for any purposes of American free government.
If Archimedes by his burning mirrors drew down fire from the sun upon the foes of his country, Franklin caught the forked lightning upon his magic points, averted it from the homes of his fellow-men, and conducted it where it might be safely disarmed of its deadly properties.
And, certainly, if Archimedes exhibited a sublime spectacle, in setting at defiance and holding at bay the whole power of imperial Rome on sea and on land, by his marvellous and tremendous enginery, literally laughing a siege to scorn, - Franklin, sending up his kite and holding his key in a thunder storm, in order to draw deliberately down upon himself the flaming bolts of heaven, that he might analyze their character and verify his theory for the good of mankind, presents a picture of even greater and nobler sublimity.
Franklin did not, indeed, devote himself to profound mathematical and geometrical problems and theorems. He lived in a larger and busier world than Archimedes ever conceived of, and at a period when the distractions of an unsettled and uncivilized state of society permitted but little devotion or attention to philosophy or science of any sort. . But he was not a whit behind the great Sicilian in the ingenuity and industry which he displayed, in devising and preparing the instruments and engines by which his countrymen were enabled to improve their condition in time of peace, and to defend their soil and their independence in time of war. And I know not any one in our own history, or in any other history, who, from the variety and multiplicity of the improvements, inventions, and practical suggestions, both for the purposes of peace and of war, of which he was the author, could so well be likened to that hundred-handed Briareus, to whom Marcellus compared the old philosopher of Sicily, as Benjamin Franklin.
Nothing seemed too lofty, nothing too low, for his regard. But the great aim of his mind, unlike that of Archimedes, was undoubtedly that which Lord Mahon in one of his late volumes ascribes to it;—“whether in science and study, or in politics and action, the great aim of his mind was ever practical utility,” — and nothing could be juster or finer than the remark of Sir Humphrey Davy, that Franklin sought rather to make philosophy a useful inmate and servant in the common habitations of man, than to preserve her merely as an object of admiration in temples and palaces.
It is amazing, as we skim over the surface of his career ever so lightly, to contemplate the number and variety of his services to his fellow-men in all stations and conditions of life, and to reflect how many of our most valued institutions and establishments, for the welfare alike of the individual and of the state, were of his original suggestion and introduction.
See him, as early as 1731, setting on foot at Philadelphia, the first subscription library on this Continent, at a time when one of the great obstacles to improvement was the difficulty of access to books.
See him the year after, commencing the publication of that earliest serial, “ Poor Richard's Almanac,” which was to supply the place of so many other books for the spare minutes of the laboring poor, and filling it with maxims and proverbs which made it a fountain of wisdom for every fireside where it found a place, as, indeed, it has remained to this day.
See him, in the city of his adoption, undertaking the improvement of the city watch, projecting the establishment of the first engine company for the extinguishment of fires, and soon after submitting a plan for paving and cleaning and lighting the streets,
Follow him a little further, and see him proposing and establishing the first philosophical society on our continent, and afterwards laying the foundations of an institution for education, which ultimately grew up into the University of Pennsylvania.
See him inventing, at one moment, a fireplace; at the next, a lightning-rod; and, at the next, a musical instrument, making melody which his wife, at least, mistook for the music of angels.
Behold him, in the mean time, presiding with consummate ability and despatch over the Post Office department of the whole American Colonies, - an office which, considering the inadequacy of the means of communication within his command, must have required a hundred-fold more of the hundred-handed faculty, than even now, when its duties and distances have been so incalculably multiplied.
See him, in time of war, too, or in anticipation of war, exhibiting the same marvellous facility and many-sided genius in providing for every exigency and emergency which the perils of his country might involve. The first of those volunteer militia companies, which are still among the best securities for law and order in our crowded cities, the very first of them, I believe, ever instituted on this continent, were instituted under the auspices of Franklin, and he himself was the first colonel of the first volunteer regiment. The horses and wagons for the advance of General Braddock's army could never have been seasonably obtained, if ever obtained at all, but through his ingenious and indomitable energy, and through the pledge of his own personal credit; and it is a most striking fact, that he warned that ill-starred commander (but warned him, alas ! in vain) of the precise danger which awaited him ; that fatal ambuscade of the Indians, by which he and his forces were so disastrously cut off on the banks of the Monongahela, and from which our own Washington escaped only as by the miraculous interposition of an Almighty arm, - escaped so narrowly, and under circumstances so hopeless, to all human sight, that no one to this day can read the story of that imminent peril and that hair-breadth 'scape, without a holding of the breath, and an involuntary shudder, at the idea of what might have been the consequences to our country, if Washington had thus early been lost to her.
Follow Franklin across the ocean. Witness that impressive and extraordinary examination which he underwent at the bar of the British House of Commons in 1766, when he fairly exhausted the subject of the commerce, the arts, the agriculture, the whole circumstances and condition of the infant Colonies, and of the views and feelings and resolute intentions of the colonists, literally astonishing the world with the information and wisdom of his answers, and furnishing, in the almost off-hand replies to offhand questions, a history which must be consulted to this hour for the best understanding of the times.
Go with him to the bar of the Privy Council, a few years later, and mark his imperturbable patience and equanimity under the reproaches and revilings of the insolent Wedderburn, calling him a thief to his face. Go with him, a twelvemonth afterwards, to the bar of the House of Lords, and mark the same unmoved composure, when the peerless Chatham declares, in his own presence, that all Europe holds him in high estimation for his knowledge and wisdom, and ranks him with the Boyles and Newtons of old England.
Behold him at Court, the shrewd, sagacious, and successful diplomatist, who, bringing his world-wide reputation as a philosopher, and his eminent character as a man, to the aid of his unequalled common sense and practical tact, did more than even Gates's army by their gallant and glorious victory at Saratoga, in bringing about that French Alliance, and securing that French assistance, which finally turned the scale in favor of American Independence. Behold him signing that Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France in 1778, — signing the provisional articles and the definitive Treaty of Independence and Peace with Great Britain in 1782 and 1783, — signing the Treaties of Amity and Commerce with Sweden and with Prussia in 1783 and 1785. Review the whole history of his successes as a minister, and his reception as a man, in so many foreign
courts and by so many crowned heads, and then tell me if Solomon were not a prophet in regard to him, as well as in regard to Archimedes of old, in that memorable proverb, which Franklin himself tells us, in his admirable autobiography, that his father, among other instructions to him while a boy, so frequently repeated in his hearing, -“Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, , - he shall stand before Kings, he shall not stand before mean
See him, finally, and above all, as early as 1754, as a delegate to the Convention at Albany, proposing that plan of Union among the Colonies, which was ultimately to become the mightiest engine which mortal wisdom ever invented for maintaining the freedom, prosperity, and independence of a nation like ours. Franklin was undoubtedly the original proposer of the Union as we now enjoy it; and Mr. Bancroft has not hesitated to style him “the true father of the American Union."
His, indeed, was not the first plan of Union ever proposed on this continent. The old primitive Union of the New-England Colonies, more than a hundred years before, instituted under the auspices of John Winthrop, then Governor of Massachusetts, and his associates, and of whose little Congress he was the first president, — that was the original pattern and model of a political machinery, which has proved more effective than any combination of pulleys and ropes and wheels which Archimedes ever devised or ever dreamed of, for rescuing and defending our country at once from domestic and from foreign foes, and for propelling our Great Republic onward — ever onward — in her mighty, matchless career.
But Franklin knew little of our early Colonial history. He may have known something about William Penn's plan of union in 1697, but not enough even of that to impair his claim as an original proposer of Union in 1754. And thus it is that the little Boston boy, who filled candle-moulds under the Blue Ball at the corner of Union Street, must have the credit of having first set the golden ball of Union in motion. And few men, if any man, did more than he did, to keep that ball rolling on and on, until the Declaration of Independence in ’76 and the Constitution of the United States in '89 - of both of which he was one of the