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Episode 9 - Ben Franklin Bets on America

America’s wisest old man was writing his last will and testament.

Benjamin Franklin had followed his own life advice and been frugal with his money, unlike some of the more debt-ridden big spenders of the Revolutionary generation like Thomas Jefferson, who asked the state of Virginia to let him conduct a lottery in order to pay off his $170,000 in debt, which would be about two million dollars today. And this in spite of his free labor force and a number of high-paying government jobs.

He had plenty of people to leave his fortune to – his son William Franklin, former royal governor of New Jersey. His grandson, Temple Franklin, who had been Ben’s secretary during the negotiations with France that got the colonies some much-needed assistance with that whole “give the British a whuppin’” thing. Sally Bache, his daughter. Benjamin Bache, Sally’s son. Or even his sister Jane Franklin.

Everyone in the family got a little something. William got debt-forgiveness for all the money he had borrowed from his father throughout his life. Temple got Ben’s papers and a nice bit of money. Sally got most of Ben’s Philadelphia properties and Benny Bache got his grandpa’s printing presses, which he used to attack his grandfather’s old friends George Washington and John Adams in the American Aurora, a newspaper he founded in 1794.


But Ben Franklin’s most interesting bequest was the one he made to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia. He had been born in the first and grew to manhood in the second. He set up a trust of a thousand dollars for each of his hometowns—about a hundred thousand dollars in today’s money--to be used to provide loans to tradesmen like himself who were trying to set themselves up in business. The trusts would expire after two hundred years. Franklin said the cities could then use what was left for municipal improvements. He calculated the bequests in 1990 would be worth about four million dollars each.

In a generation of founding fathers who always seemed to have their eyes set on a distant American future where the nation spanned the entire continent and was a world power, Ben’s bequest was far more practical and stayed close to the two cities he called home. He believed that two centuries after his death America would still have a thriving middle class that would be the backbone of the country.

And he was right.

We take a look at Benjamin Franklin’s long-term bet on America, and compare it to the rampant short-term thinking of our country’s leaders (and far too many of its citizens) on this episode of I’m Not Allowed to Watch the News.


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