Benjamin Franklin is a man for all centuries. His relevance today is as fresh as the latest headlines about computer hackers' breaking corporate security fire walls, or nerdy perverts' posting stolen naked photos of celebrities.
He was called a
"modern Prometheus" in his own 18th century by no less an intellectual luminary than Immanuel Kant. In the adolescent decade of the 21st century, the current human comparisons applicable to Franklin - Julian Assange and Edward Snowden - are less lofty and more complicated.
We know how the story of Prometheus ends. After stealing fire from Olympus and giving it to mankind, the immortal Prometheus was chained to a rock as punishment by Zeus. Every day for all eternity, an eagle would eat Prometheus' liver, which would conveniently grow back the next day.
The book is still out on the punishment awaiting WikiLeaks founder Assange and NSA-whistle-blower Snowden, both of whom allegedly stole top-secret information from government authorities and gave it to the public via the Internet. Both sought sanctuary from foreign governments - Assange in Ecuador, Snowden in Russia - and each could someday face charges.
Franklin was a bit of a whistle-blower himself 240 years ago, leaking damaging letters written by the royal governor of Massachusetts, and his punishment came swiftly. It radicalized the then-moderate Philadelphian. Franklin had been looking for ways to keep the American colonies British while winning from Parliament and the king the political rights of Englishmen for colonial citizens.
After the public humiliation and coarsely worded condemnation Franklin suffered Jan. 29, 1774 - at the hands of the Privy Council during a parliamentary hearing before a standing-room-only audience - he knew a separation between England and America was inevitable. And he knew on which side he stood.
"I am too much of an American," Franklin wrote in a letter explaining why he was leaving London after almost two decades representing the interests of Pennsylvania and other colonies before Parliament.
Franklin had official business with the Privy Council that turning-point day when he was sandbagged by the lawyer representing Parliament, Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn. The letters Franklin leaked were written to and from the governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and they revealed plans to repress colonial freedoms.
"There must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties . . . a great restraint of natural liberties," wrote Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, whose salary was paid by Parliament. "I wish to see some further restraint of liberty, rather than the connection with the parent state should be broken."
Franklin wanted the content of the letters quietly circulated among American political leaders but didn't want the source revealed. But as he noted in Poor Richard's Almanac: "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."
The letters were published in a Boston newspaper and, later, throughout the colonies. The Massachusetts Assembly sent Parliament a petition to replace Hutchinson, and it was on that matter that Franklin appeared before the council.
Like an attack dog, Wedderburn tore into Franklin nonstop for an hour. He accused the most famous American in the world of obtaining the letters "by fraudulent or corrupt means for the most malignant of purposes." Franklin leaked the letters so he could be named governor, Wedderburn charged.
Calling Franklin "the first mover and prime conductor" of a conspiracy, Wedderburn bellowed: "I hope, my lords, that you will mark and brand the man, for the honor of this country and Europe and of mankind. He has forfeited all respect of societies and of men." This over-the-top invective was greeted with whoops of laughter from many in the audience.
During the tirade, Franklin stood stoically and erect, looking like he'd rather be having his liver eaten by an eagle. One observer described Franklin's emotionless expression "as if his features had been made of wood."
The gleeful response by members of Parliament to this unprecedented and hyperbolic evisceration of a man of Franklin's reputation was seen as an attack on the integrity of all Americans. The ugly scene succeeded in "giving date to the American war," commented a journal editor.
Dismayed by the lack of dignity and proportion by his peers during the spectacle, the great British statesman Edmund Burke sensed the outcome. "A great empire and little minds go ill together," he said.
In America, Franklin's mistreatment was seen as a national insult. In Philadelphia, crowds marched through the streets carrying effigies of Hutchinson and Wedderburn.
"Such monsters are a disgrace to human nature and justly merit our utmost detestation and the gallows, to which they are assigned," read the sign under Wedderburn's effigy. That sign ended with a note of hometown pride: "And then burnt by electric fire."