“Hero” is a term highly subject to personal interpretation. At the same time, there are aspects typically attached to “hero” in a general sense, and in ways that reflect a wider appreciation of the individual as such. The quality of courage is common here, and whether that courage lies in undertaking a dangerous task, resisting unjust authority, or exploring the unknown. Then, there is usually a sense of nobility attached to a hero. The hero is “big” because they care more for a greater good, and this is why there is usually a quality of saintliness identified with heroes (Fisher, Harris, & Jarvis, 2008, p. 23). If any trait consistently identifies a hero, in fact, it seems to be that of an unconcern with the self. No matter the scope or actual nature of the heroic life or action, the hero is looking beyond personal cares to create some kind of change for the better. The change may be slaying a dragon or inventing a life-saving vaccine, but the impulse is the same and the heroism is then in place.
Personally speaking, and with no intention of dismissing the value of more spectacular instances of heroism, I am drawn to the hero who makes valuable impacts in more “steady” ways. Destroying an enemy is excellent, but it is no more heroic that creating the device that saves people enormous effort or helping to formulate the ideas that build a free and just nation. This being my view, it is not surprising that my concept of an ideal hero is Benjamin Franklin. To some, it my seem strange to select a man who is, while esteemed as a statesman and founding father of the United States, unexciting. Franklin was born in America and, his work abroad aside, lived a life quintessentially American. It is known and appreciated that he contributed enormously to the rise of the nation, but he nonetheless lacks the charisma so associated with a heroic personality. For me, however, Franklin represents the heroism I most admire. It is not showy or “big,” and it exists as a steady force that creates good for others. This relates to another appeal of Franklin for me, in that his kind of heroism is the kind that may be achieved by all of us, if we only commit to the values and ideals he himself held. The best heroes, I think, inspire heroism, and that is my idea of Benjamin Franklin.
An examination of Franklin’s entire life reveals a number of traits actually associated with heroes. What occurs is that his persona, both as remembered and during his life, overshadows the individual acts and blends them within a being who is more accessible than the typical hero. He is unique among the founding fathers by virtue of this strange, very human persona. Others who worked with Franklin and endure as heroes of American history are distant. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are seen as great men, but they are iconic images; Franklin, in his writings and letters, still survives as a breathing, warm, living presence (Isaacson, 2004, p. 2). He was and is famous for his wry humor, and this is an immense attribute for a hero. It brings him nearer to the people he serves and reinforces how alike we are as human beings. Franklin “winks” at us, even today, and this reveals that this man of great ability and foresight never took himself entirely seriously. Humor emphasizes a sense of common experience, and I believe a true hero must always represent such commonality.
Once Franklin’s accessibility is set aside, however, the true reality of all he was may be seen. To begin with, the portraits of him in middle age do not do justice to the powerful – and heroic – form and energy of the young Franklin. Working in London in his youth, Franklin was a physically active, muscular, commanding presence. His intellectual energy was just beginning to evolve, but his charm, humor, and sexuality were attractive to most who came in contact with him (Morgan, 2004, p. 4). Just as importantly, it is likely that Franklin’s devotion to fitness early in life served him well in providing him with the strength needed for the challenges to come later. It is ironic that this man, so commonly seen as plump and sedentary, was early in his life a dashing and strong heroic figure.
Many volumes have been dedicated to identifying all of Franklin’s influences and efforts in his lifetime, and the range of his achievement alone is “heroic.” That Franklin was so diverse goes to another aspect of his character; fiercely intellectual, he was essentially self-educated, so there were no constraints on his learning; he pursued whatever intrigued him, and then typically sought to improve it. Some of these efforts have passed into myth, and are mistakenly viewed. Franklin, for instance, certainly did not “invent” electricity, nor is there much basis for the legendary image of him flying a kite with a key hanging from it. He did, however, first have the inspired and pragmatic idea of the lightning rod. Perhaps even more pragmatically, his famous invention of bifocal glasses was due to nothing more than his own impatience with his failing eyesight and the limitations of glasses then available (The Franklin Institute, 2013). In attending to his own need, he saw as well the benefits for others. A lesser known example of Franklin’s creativity, and also of a heroic motive to serve others, lies in his inventing of the first flexible urinary catheter, inspired to relieve the suffering of his brother, John (The Franklin Institute, 2013).
The list of Franklin’s inventions is long, including the iron “Franklin” stove that saved people fuel and reduced the dangers of fire. Each, however, supports a consistent commitment to serving the needs of others. There can be no question, based only on the evidence of history, that Franklin’s primary concern was public service, and for the greater part of his life (Morgan, 2004, p. 23). In his many roles as a politician, political thinker, and statesman, Franklin’s influence on the actual establishing of the United States is incalculable. It is easy to overlook the reality today but, before independence was declared, the most influential leaders of the colonies adamantly believed that the issues were not with England’s king, but with his badly managed government. It was Franklin’s political ideology that greatly altered this thinking, for it was Franklin who ensured that Thomas Paine’s remarkable pamphlet decrying kingship, Common Sense, was published and distributed widely (Isaacson, 2004, p. 308). What renders this all the more remarkable was that Franklin had been for many years residing in England, and something of a champion for the traditional rule over the colonies. Franklin’s eventual championing of the Declaration of Independence then provides the ultimate evidence of his evolution as a thinker and leader, and finally hero. There are heroes who are praised for great acts, but I know of none who so steadily served the common good, and in so many ways.
Fisher, R., Harris, A., & Jarvis, C. (2008). Education in Popular Culture: Telling Tales on Teachers and Learners. New York: Routledge.
Isaacson, W. (2004). Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
National Parks Service (NPS). Biographical Sketches: Ben Franklin. 4 May 2013. Retrieved from <http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/declaration/bio11.htm?
The Franklin Institute. Benjamin Franklin: Inventions. 4 May 2013.