In a series of prose sketches of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, William Pierce of Georgia noted of Benjamin Franklin that, while he was “well known to be the greatest phylosopher of the present age,” he did not “seem to let politics engage his attention.” Franklin fostered this impression in his Autobiography, where he wrote that his first election to the Pennsylvania assembly “was repeated every Year for Ten Years, without my ever asking any Elector for his Vote, or signifying either directly or indirectly any Desire of being chosen.”

Contemporaries and credulous readers of the Autobiography might believe this, but we should not. More than any of the Founders, Franklin was a man of multiple and shifting identities. One of the best known today is the one that dazzled Pierce: Franklin the scientist-sage, flying his kite, inventing his stove, and writing his almanacs....


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