Benjamin Franklin, Traveler

“Traveling is one way of lengthening life,” remarked Benjamin Franklin, after returning from his very first visit to France. The gentleman from Pennsylvania had only gone for two weeks but felt that his time in Paris was so pleasant and full that it felt like six months had passed. Good travel should feel that way.

For Benjamin Franklin, Paris was “like a pleasing dream from which I was sorry to be awakened by finding myself again at London”. He thought England “a petty island” filled with poverty and always “wet” but with far more “sensible, virtuous, and elegant minds” than back home. As for company, he preferred the French–“I know not which are most rapacious, the English or the French, but the latter have, with their knavery, the most politeness.” Such politeness was not returned by Franklin, who described the Palace of Versailles as ill-kept and shabby: “The fountains don’t work.”

Can you tell that Benjamin Franklin was just a little bit opinionated? Thankfully, that’s one American value that’s survived. He was also a polyglot who studied Italian, French, Spanish, and German. Unfortunately, that’s one American value that has not survived.

The young Ben Franklin got his start traveling at age 17 when he quit his dead end job and ran away to New York City, setting a precedent for generations of Americans to come (e.g. Madonna). This led to a kind of study abroad/apprenticeship that sent him on his first real voyage–to London. Travel was slower back then, and he was already 20 years old when he finally made the return leg home, describing, “On the left hand appears the coast of France at a distance, and on the right is the town and castle of Dover, with the green hills and chalky cliffs of England.”

He fought boredom on the long sea journey by reading, having long conversations, playing checkers or cards, and drinking lots. He witnessed his first solar eclipse and saw an on-board kitchen hand get whipped for using too much flour in the dessert. He bet his travel companions a “bowl of punch” (the 18th century equivalent to a round of beers) that they would make it back to Philadelphia by a certain date . . . and he lost. When one of Ben’s fellow passengers was caught cheating at cards, the others punished him by tying a rope around his waist, hoisting him up and letting him hang there for “a quarter of an hour.”

From that point onward, Benjamin Franklin was a traveler, running up and down through the American colonies and crisscrossing the Atlantic at least a dozen times. In fact, he was probably the most well-traveled American politician in his lifetime–he admitted being accustomed to at least one journey per year, and that the one year he missed it, “I believe it hurt me.”

The founding father believed adamantly that travel improved his health and his spirits, despite the rough conditions of the times. As United States postmaster, he traveled some 1,600 miles by horse, carriage and foot, inspecting post offices from southern Virginia to far off New England. He fell off his horse, twice–an injury that lingered through his lifetime. On his way to Canada (on the eve of the American Revolution), he was delayed by unthawed ice and the April snows of upstate New York. In England and France, he usually traveled by post-chaise, a light carriage where the driver rode on the horse that pulled the cart. (Talk about turbulence.)

Sometimes, he complained. Scotland’s rain exhausted him: “Through storms and floods I arrived here on Saturday night, late, and was lodged miserably in an inn.” But like a good traveler, he made light of a scary situation with sarcasm: “The carriage was a miserable one, with tired horses, the evening dark, scarce a traveler but ourselves on the road; and, to make it more comfortable, the driver stopped near a wood we were to pass through to tell us that a gang of eighteen robbers infested that wood who but two weeks ago had murdered some travelers on that very spot.”

As a traveler, he was highly observant–he noted that traffic was worse in London than in Paris, that Americans speak much louder to people who don’t speak English (as if they were deaf), that travelers caught colds “from one another when shut up together in coaches, breathing each other’s transpiration”, that a certain Atlantic current (the Gulf Stream) made sailing in it much quicker, and that England was very, very expensive (from London he wrote to his wife: “My expenses here amaze me.”)

Franklin was fascinated by all he witnessed in his travels, from the strange kinds of seaweed that he scooped up from the middle of the ocean to the way French ladies applied their rouge. He liked Scottish songs and collected the sheet music like newly-released CDs, singing them alongside his daughter. As souvenirs, Benjamin bought books-he had a vast collection that he had bought up in Germany, Holland and France; books that “contained knowledge that may hereafter be useful to America.” As a gift to his foreign hosts, he bestowed packets of dried apples from America.

Abroad, Ben Franklin was a serious foodie, placing more value on local cuisine than on boring historical monuments. He wrote, “If I could find in any Italian travels a recipe for making Parmesan cheese it would give me more satisfaction than a transcript of any inscription from any old stone whatever.” As Ambassador, he kept a private wine cellar in France, where a servant counted exactly 1,203 bottles–more red Bordeaux, less Burgundy, and lots of sparkling French whites.

Ben Franklin enjoyed the anonymity of travel–that a man or woman could be liberated from cultural obligations and enjoy the outsider’s freedom. After the very unpopular Stamp Act passed in 1765, Franklin wrote a fairly cheeky, pro-American letter to a London newspaper, simply signing his name, “A Traveller”. As a diplomat, he respected dialogue and abhorred violence. He called the Boston Tea Party “an act of violent injustice”.

In 1776, after America was declared independent of Great Britain, Benjamin Franklin was dispatched to Paris as “Minister to France”. He lived in Europe for the next eight and a half years, forging important treaties, raising money for the newborn United States, and doing the mundane work of an ambassador (such as issuing a passport for the great explorer Captain Cook should he need to pass through a blockade of armed American ships).

As an early American abroad, Benjamin Franklin felt it was his duty to sell America to the rest of the world. He spoke of American corn that “delights the eye of every observing traveler” and he threw countless dinner parties where the rugged new American philosophies were discussed. On July 4th, 1778, Franklin celebrated the anniversary of Declaration of Independence by inviting his frenemy John Adams around for dinner to his French home, along with 50 French friends. The table was abundant with American flags.

Franklin was famous in France–very famous. There was a time when medallions and engraving of Franklin’s bust were upon every mantelpiece and on every snuffbox in Paris. He was inducted into several private clubs and academic societies and invited to witness the great inventions of the day.

In 1783, Franklin saw the first flight of a hydrogen balloon on the Champ de Mars in Paris. He invested his own money for a manned balloon flight a little later, and was the very first recipient of a piece of airmail when American loyalist John Jeffries carried a letter to him across the English Channel by balloon. The concept of air amazed Franklin and he dreamt of his own private balloon that could carry him from place to place without tiring his legs.

Too often, today’s politicians feel the need to exhume and abuse our poor Founding Fathers in order to promote their own political agenda. Pundits preach “patriotism” while forgetting the broad spectrum of early patriots and their differing lives and opinions. (For the record, Benjamin Franklin was the only founding father who signed all four principal documents supporting American Independence: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Treaty of Alliance with France, and the United States Constitution. Also, John Adams thoroughly disliked Ben Franklin, finding him too well-liked to be liked).

Whatever one’s political persuasion, if we rely on Benjamin Franklin’s example than one value is certain: a patriot is someone who travels and broadens their minds through travel.

Got that? Real patriots travel. How appropriate then, that the face of our most well-traveled founding father graces our $100 bill, a denomination used more often by Americans traveling abroad.

When Franklin finally left France, he traveled in a private litter and a caravan large enough to carry all 128 pieces of his checked luggage. Somewhere in his carry on bags he also carried his farewell gift from King Louis XVI–a “modest” set of jewelry containing 408 diamonds.

In his journal, Franklin cheerfully reports that on this final voyage back to America, he was the only person not to get seasick.

(Quotes taken from Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin, 1791)