By George W. Boudreau
In one of the ironies of our city's history, an electrical storm rolled up the Delaware River just as news that Benjamin Franklin had died spread across the town. When the news arrived, on April 17, 1790 - 225 years ago today - Philadelphians took stock of what Franklin's passing meant to them, their city, and the new nation that the old philosopher had helped create.
For Primus, a "favorite body-servant" of the College of Philadelphia's Rev. William Smith, news of Franklin's death meant trekking from his master's house near the Falls of the Schuylkill to tell Smith, who was dining at the neighboring home of Gov. Thomas Mifflin. Receiving the long-anticipated death notice, Smith took up a quill and composed a poem, connecting the lost life to the natural phenomena raging around them:
Cease! cease ye clouds, your elemental strife!
Why rage you thus? As if to threaten Life?
Seek, seek no more to fill our souls with Dread.
What busy Mortal told you, "Franklin's Dead"?
The following Wednesday, the Philadelphia elites who had gathered around Mifflin's table were joined by thousands in the first public outpouring of national grief that the United States had witnessed. As Franklin's daughter, Sally Franklin Bache, and her family stepped out of the Market Street archway that connected their home garden to the busy main street beyond (now meticulously restored by the National Park Service), the image they encountered was unlike anything ever seen by an American family: Thousands crammed the streets along the funeral procession.
An English friend of the family - one Franklin had encouraged to come join the fun of this new republican experiment - noted that the sight of men and women filling the sidewalks and streets, crowding in open doorways and windows, and even looking down from rooftops on houses was comparable only to the crowds he had seen fill London's streets for the coronation of King George III, in 1761.
Franklin lived an incredibly long time. Eighty-four years was a good age, one beyond biblical expectations for an era that saw epidemics run wild, wars consume soldiers and civilians, and childhood diseases carry off hundreds every year.
But Franklin's death bore special meaning far beyond the end of a very long and productive life. He was the first of the founders to go. In the decades that followed, Americans would mourn George Washington, the men who had signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and one by one the generation that had founded America. But Franklin's departure was first.
Philadelphia never shied away from mourning Franklin or honoring his life and many contributions. Portraits, statues, buildings, schools, the Institute, the Field, the Parkway, all bear his name. I suppose someone could create a GPS-linked iPhone app that would allow a wandering visitor to know the nearest location of a site, plaque, marker, or naming opportunity honoring "the man who stole lightning from the skies, and the scepter from the hand of a tyrant." There wouldn't be much of a walk between those attractions.
But the most obvious naming opportunity - Franklin International Airport - remains undone, perhaps awaiting this 225th anniversary of his death, or perhaps just in time for Oct. 6, 2023, the 300th anniversary of the runaway's arrival in the Quaker City.
The idea has been raised several times, but with no luck yet. "You can't rename a long-existing Philadelphia site," critics noted. But tell that to the people who still respond "Where?!" when a SEPTA conductor announces "Jefferson Station."
Renaming airports can be confusing, of course. But recent presidents - notably Reagan and Bush - now have air hubs named after them, and struggling Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced his support for renaming one of Chicago's airports after his old boss, President Obama. Philadelphians would adjust to a new name for an old spot. We've done it before.
By renaming the airport, Philadelphians would embrace a civic leader, an innovator, and the first of the founders to say goodbye. But they would also be saluting one of the first of his generation to foresee a long-distant time when air travel could connect the world in unimaginable ways.
Living in Paris in August 1783, Franklin observed the first manned balloon flights, wrote careful scientific observations to noted thinkers in the Republic of Letters about it, and revealed that his grasp of science and the ways it might benefit humanity were as keen when he was 77 as when he had been in his 20s. When doubters scoffed that the balloon's ascent had no practical purpose, Franklin saw the bigger picture: "What is the use of a newborn child?"
Franklin crossed the Atlantic four times in his life, and traveled up and down the colonies and into the American interior, far more than any of the Founding Fathers. He knew of the discomforts of travel and also its benefits. He was certainly a man who could have made good use of a plane.
Now, as we look at his legacy and examine our own connection to it, it is a good time to once again consider naming our airport after the man who made better use of the skies in his day than any of the others who brought forth a new nation.