benjamin franklin

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Ben Franklin was America's first international celebrity. His groundbreaking discoveries in the science of electricity in the late 1740's and early 1750's catapulted him from obscure scientific amateur to status as the most famous American in the world. Franklin's fame thrust him onto an international stage and made possible his pivotal role in the American Revolution.

England awarded Franklin the prestigious Copley Gold Medal in 1753—equivalent to today's Nobel Prize. And when Franklin later moved to London as an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he was invited to join the British Royal Society, awarded honorary degrees at Oxford, Cambridge, and St. Andrews in Scotland and welcomed as a guest at the homes of some of England's leading intellectuals.

However, it was in France that Franklin achieved his greatest celebrity. When Franklin first arrived in Paris in 1776 as America's first Minister to the French court, his presence was hailed by people at all levels of society. The 250-mile trip from the port of Nantes into Paris was like a triumphal procession. He was wined and dined by scientific and literary notables on the way and his entry into Paris caused a sensation. Poems were written in his honor, souvenirs were sold with Franklin's image on them, and pictures of him were everywhere. Franklin scholar H.W. Brands reports that one writer from the period recorded that everyone had "an engraving of M. Franklin over the mantelpiece."

In our own day, Franklin would have appeared on television talk shows and magazine covers, but in an age before mass media, his celebrity was astonishing. John Adams wrote ruefully about Franklin, the superstar: "His reputation is greater than that of Newton, Frederick the Great or Voltaire, his character more revered than all of them. There's scarcely a coachman or a footman or scullery maid who does not consider him a friend of all mankind."

Franklin's fame was due not only to his scientific reputation, but also to the French rage for what philosopher Rousseau called "the natural man." H.W. Brands commented, "There was a vogue for things American in France at this time. Many French intellectuals looked to America as a new world, as a fresh world, as a world where human nature was closer to its natural origins than the human nature that one found in the confines of Europe." And Franklin, of course, was more than pleased to oblige the French expectations. When he arrived in Paris, he was wearing a little fur cap to keep his bald head warm. To the French, the hat was the embodiment of the rugged American frontiersman and proof that Franklin was a true "natural man." In fact, Franklin sent back to America for a large supply of the caps, which he wore everywhere around Paris.

Even to Franklin, all of this attention was surprising, yet he was flattered and wrote to his daughter, "My picture is everywhere, on the lids of snuff boxes, on rings, busts. The numbers sold are incredible. My portrait is a best seller, you have prints, and copies of prints and copies of copies spread everywhere. Your father's face is now as well known as the man in the moon."

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