Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Happy Birthday Ben Franklin

Today is Ben Franklin's 300th birthday. The tribute in today's Chicago Sun-Times covered all aspects of Franklin's glorious career, leavening this somewhat with the observation that Franklin was something of a failure as a family man, largely because of the never-reconciled breach with his son William over the question of American independence.

It is an interesting fact of history that William Franklin, the last Royal Governor of New Jersey, chose to cast his lot with Britain even as his father became one of the greatest leaders of the independence movement. Surely William must have realized, because of the unfortunate circumstances of his birth (he was born 'on the wrong side of the blanket'), that he'd fare better as an American, and the heir of an American hero, than as an Imperial bureaucrat.

William was not a dullard: He assisted his father in his world-changing scientific experiments. And William had the formal education his father lacked. He was trained as a barrister in London while his father worked there as what amounts to a lobbyist for several of the American colonies.

It occurs to me that it was William's training as a lawyer in England that made it impossible for him to embrace the Revolution. It's not legal training alone that made it impossible for William to embrace the cause: John Adams was an active, important trial lawyer in Massachusetts before he became a revolutionary. Thomas Jefferson was trained as an appellate lawyer, though he did not practice. But Adams and Jefferson trained in America. The legal system they absorbed was American -- but William Franklin learned the English system, in England. I think something in his training made him unable to see any other alternative to the rule of English law, even though he surely would have fared better had he been able to.

Legal education may not always be a plus....

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