Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America

How did 13 weak, fragmented, and isolated colonies governed from across the ocean transform themselves into a new kind of society based on pragmatism, optimism, innovation, and cooperation; a society capable not only of defeating a much larger and stronger foe, but also of inventing entirely new forms of self-government that have stood the test of time? Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), during his long and incredibly productive life, epitomized many aspects of the remarkable transformation that eventually led to the establishment of the first modern constitutional state. With his passion for self-improvement and gift for institutional innovation, Franklin constantly reinvented himself: printer’s apprentice, successful Philadelphia printer, storekeeper, bookshop owner, journalist, writer of Poor Richard’s Almanack and the Autobiography, and social entrepreneur and environmentalist 1731-style. Franklin invented the Franklin stove, swim fins, the glass armonica, and bifocals. He tamed lightning with his kite. He was a politician, diplomat, colonial patriot, ambassador to France, president of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania, signer of the Constitution, and author of an anti-slavery treatise. In one person, Benjamin Franklin helped create the American civil society. He was called, by the time of his death at 84, the “harmonious human multitude.”

Moderator: Dee Andrews (Chair of History, CSU East Bay)

Friday, October 17, 2008

8 pm to 10:15 pm

Benjamin Franklin, Social Revolutionist, in Philadelphia, America’s First City
Gary B. Nash (Emeritus, History, UCLA)
Ben Franklin went to Philadelphia at 17, and became an active leader in its social, political, economic, and cultural life for decades. A passion for self-improvement combined with gift for institutional innovation helped lay the foundation for a very successful civil society. He was instrumental in founding a society for sharing knowledge, a community library, a public hospital, a college, a volunteer fire department, and an efficient postal service. These activities, plus his work as a printer, publisher, and author, helped create a civil society that was increasingly self-confident, self-sufficient, and innovative.

Dennis JamesMusica Curiosa
A witty survey of the history of the glass music focusing on the development Benjamin Franklin’s 1761 musical instrument invention, the glass armonica. Original 18th and 19th century compositions specifically composed for glass instruments by such composers as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig von Beethoven, Joseph Schmittbaur and many others are interspersed throughout. The slide-illustrated presentation balances music, scientific and historical information.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

10 am to noon and 1:30 to 4 pm

Benjamin Franklin, Scientist
Jessica Riskin (Associate Professor, History, Stanford)
As a scientist and inventor, Franklin always tried to apply knowledge to practical problems and to ensure that society would benefit from the widespread sharing of knowledge. His discoveries related to electricity led to the invention of the lightning rod. His many household inventions improved the quality of life for the masses, while his founding of the American Philosophical Society encouraged collaboration among leading intellectuals. Partly through his efforts, a culture of pragmatism, optimism, and experimentation took deep root in the American colonies. In addition to a brief discussion of the impressive breadth of Franklin’s activities as a scientist and inventor, Professor Riskin will discuss Franklin’s particular approach to natural science and focus largely on his electrical physics: what he considered to count (or not to count) as a good explanation, what sorts of assumptions he made, and how his natural science was deeply connected with his moral thinking and with the contemporary cultural and political context.

Benjamin Franklin, Democrat and Diplomat
Jack N. Rakove (Professor of History, Stanford University and Pulitzer Prize Winner)
Benjamin Franklin became America’s Ambassador to the World. Much of his later life was spent in England and France, defending the interests of the American colonies first from within the structure of the British Empire, and eventually working with Britain’s enemies to win full independence. For many European intellectual and political leaders, Franklin came to personify the spirit of Colonial America: open, direct, confident, persistent, practical, and trustworthy.

Musical Performance
London Quartet (Marin)
Movements from Benjamin Franklin’s Quartet No. 2 in F major for Three Violins and Cello and from W. A. Mozart’s Quartet No.14 In G Major, K.387. Steve Machtinger on viola, Zina Schiff and Oscar Hasbun on violin, and Louella Hasbun on cello.

The Invention of Ben Franklin

Dee Andrews (Professor and Chair, History, CSU East Bay)
This lecture will explore Franklin’s conscious manipulation of his own image through writings like the Autobiography and images in the elite and popular media in America and Europe, including souvenirs and artifacts from his years as a renowned scientist and as a diplomat in France. It will also touch on the growth of his reputation in America long after his death.

Panel Discussion
The moderator will lead a discussion with audience participation welcome.


Dee Andrews, History, Cal State East Bay

Dennis James, glass armonica

London Quartet

Gary Nash, History, UCLA

Jack Rakove, History, Stanford

Jessica Riskin, History, Stanford