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Ben Franklin's effort to define America — hundreds of years after his death

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We know Benjamin Franklin as a founder, a diplomat and an inventor.

MICHAEL MEYER: He invented bifocals. He invented the lightning rod. He proved that lightning is electricity. He coined words we use every day - electrician, battery, conductor, electric shock. He perfected the odometer. He invented a better catheter.

FADEL: That's author Michael Meyer, who adds another invention to the list - microfinance. Meyer's latest book, "Benjamin Franklin's Last Bet: The Favorite Founder's Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife And Blueprint For American Prosperity," follows a bequest Franklin left in his will to two cities. Our co-host Steve Inskeep asked him why he started the book at the end of Franklin's life with his last will and testament.

MEYER: I was blown away when I read it because I didn't know that his will was essentially another chapter of his life, that he used his will to settle scores with family, with enemies, and he used his will to pass on his legacy and his values and to place a large bet on the survival of the working class in the United States.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What was his concept?

MEYER: His concept was, I'm going to take a thousand pounds and put it in a pot for Boston, the city in which I was born and apprenticed as a printer. I'm going to take a thousand pounds and put it in a pot for Philadelphia, the city in which I rose to fame and fortune. And I want this money to be lent in small amounts to young married men who had just finished their apprenticeships. And I want them to use this money in order to start their own businesses.

His idea is that you'd pay the loan back over a period of ten years at below-market interest - it was a 5% rate - and then as you paid the money back, the principal would rise. And then, he said - this is the part I love - that after a hundred years, I want Boston and Philadelphia to figure out, what can you build that will benefit the common good with a big chunk of this money? But then he wasn't done. He said, put the rest back in. Loan it out to apprentices and skilled tradespeople for the next hundred years. And then on the bicentennial of my death, you'll have a jackpot. You'll have this enormous windfall. And then you can decide democratically what you want to spend it on to benefit the common good.

INSKEEP: I want to underline he's making a statement here about class, which is a statement that still feels very relevant today, and he's deciding to support apprentices specifically. But what kinds of apprentices in what trades, and why them?

MEYER: Franklin was not a self-made man, contrary to the myth that is passed down over the centuries. You know, in the book I outline how much help he got from his common-law wife, Deborah. Franklin also owned slaves, and so he was benefiting from unpaid labor in his rise to riches as well. But in his will, what he said was, OK, I want to repay the help that I had been given in Philadelphia. And as far as the trades, you know, it was bricklayers, glaziers, candlers (ph) like his father had been - somebody who made candles - saddlers, shoemakers, jewellers, hairdressers, bakers. It's really fun to turn the ledger's pages, and you sort of see a village, you know, assembling before your mind as you turn the pages, because it seemed like one person for every single kind of trade got a bit of the money in the beginning.

INSKEEP: But as time goes on, did people pay the loans back?

MEYER: Things started sliding rather quickly. Franklin did not foresee the demise of the apprenticeship system that he so loved. He dies in 1790, and three years later, a man named Eli Whitney applies to Thomas Jefferson for a patent for his cotton gin. Skilled labor is no longer as important as unskilled labor in many ways. And there's a big debate in Boston when they get to the centennial, and they talk about what to do with the money. And one of the men who stands up, who's a union leader, says, you know, nowadays, if you want to hire someone to make shoes or boots, the foreman is going to say, I don't want the cobbler that could do it on their own. I'd rather have someone who's learning this trade for the very first time because they can work the machine, and it's in 17 different steps now, materially different.

INSKEEP: So did Franklin's fund evolve or just decline?

MEYER: Franklin's fund went in two separate directions. So in Boston, a person takes over the management of his fund and decides, you know what? If you look closely at the way Franklin wrote this, I think we should be focusing on the bottom line of the money that will be opened at the centennial and then the bicentennial of his death. And so we should focus on accumulation. On the other hand, you have Philadelphia, and there you have a mayor who had apprenticed as a hatter, had a decided distaste for learning. And in Philadelphia, they say, no, we're going to adhere to Benjamin's idea here that this money should keep circulating to fund tradespeople. And over time, the definitions enlarge.

This is a very American story, and what I mean by that is there are lots of lawsuits and court battles that - they try to change the terms of the loan so women are allowed to borrow. They expand the idea of what a trade is. Like, isn't a dentist, isn't a nurse, also a trade of a sort? And so although the final money amounts differ greatly in Boston and Philadelphia, I think one of those cities did a much better job at adhering to Franklin's wishes and his idea of what this money should be used for. In Philadelphia, his money is still being used to fund young people who don't want to go to a four-year college, but instead want to learn a trade or a craft. So this money lives on, and I think that's the happy ending of this story, is that Benjamin Franklin's money still lives on.

INSKEEP: What does that story tell you about America?

MEYER: I think - look, our founders all wrestled with the question, what does America mean? But only Franklin seemed to continue that conversation after his death. And he wanted to ensure that his name and his idea was on our minds 100 years, 200 years after his passage. And he felt very strongly, again, that working-class people not only need support, but they also need to be a voice in our government because they see the effect of taxation and policies at the ground level every day. And I think if Franklin came back today, he'd probably be really happy to see that his money still survives. But I think he'd be really disheartened to find that although over half of Americans identify as working class, less than 2% of Congress people have ever held a working-class job. I think he'd also be disheartened that our apprenticeship system right now has about 600,000 people in it, where over 17 million young people are enrolled in four-year degrees. And I say that as an English professor, I should add - that there are other ways to succeed in life than going to a four-year college and taking on debt.

INSKEEP: Michael Meyer is the author of "Benjamin Franklin's Last Bet." Thanks so much.

MEYER: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: And he spoke with our co-host, Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.