“Franklin is Dead”: Celebrity, Genius, and Religion in the Age of Revolutions

By Bryan A. Banks

On June 11, 1790, an emotionally wrought Mirabeau took to the rostrum of the National Constituent Assembly after numerous days away suffering from ophthalmia to announce Benjamin Franklin’s death. After several attacks of pleurisy, Franklin took his last breath on April 17, 1790. In what followed, Mirabeau eulogized the lost printer, man of science, diplomat, and revolutionary. Franklin was a man of “reason,” who poured “torrents of light” on Europe. Mirabeau called for “three days of mourning” in honor of the late Benjamin Franklin.[1] Few objected. To do so would have seemed insensitive, irreligious, and woefully unpopular. Mirabeau’s éloge or eulogy harnessed religious rhetoric for political purposes — to simultaneously mourn and memorialize.

Newspapers headline about the death of Benjamin Franklin.

When Mirabeau called for a mourning period, he did so in the name of the “genius who freed America.”[3] Franklin’s celebrity was propped up most prominently on his “genius”. Celebrity and genius were intricately related in the eighteenth-century Age of Revolutions. As Darrin M. McMahon argues in his Divine Fury: A History of Genius, the concept of genius became a singular quality in the eighteenth century. Both McMahon and Antoine Lilti have shown that the cult of the philosophe crossed oceans and was exalted by the literate and cosmopolitan elite.[4] Franklin’s “genius” was transcendent, but it was also a goal to be achieved. 

Franklin’s genius took on a religious element. Mirabeau announced to the Assembly that the United States Congress called for two months of mourning — “A tribute of veneration and remembrance for one of the fathers of the Constitution.” For Mirabeau, France needed to unite with America “in this religious act,” because [those of] antiquity elevated high altars to the powerful genius who, for the benefit of mortals, embracing in his memory both heaven and earth, was able to tame lightning and tyrants.”[5] Franklin became god-like in Mirabeau’s estimation — at least in metaphorical  terms. Both he and Zeus tamed lightning. Franklin was a new Prometheus who captured the sky’s fire.   

Engraving of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin had recognized the cult of himself while traveling in France. In a letter to his daughter in 1779, he complained of the ubiquitous nature of his face. Clay cameos of Franklin’s face adorned rings and snuff box lids. Prints of his face and busts appeared in great numbers during his life. His culte had symbols and idols.[6] After his death, the image of Franklin remained a venerable one suitable for a variety of purchasable goods. Prints like the image above proliferated after his death, proving once again that Franklin’s visage was a hot commodity with a religious tone.

What does this brief discussion of celebrity and genius at the time of Franklin’s death tell us about the political culture of the French Revolution? The narrative of the celebrity and genius around Franklin exemplifies the continuing importance of religious rhetoric during a supposedly secular era.  Is this the moment when the “transfer of sacrality” occurred as Emile Durkheim would have it?[7] Was Franklin becoming Zeus? Was the cross being replaced with trinkets featuring Franklin’s visage?

The culte of Franklin was not a means of “disenchantment,” when the political replaced the religious. Rather it was an extension of the religious into the political. Alexis de Tocqueville was correct when he referred to the French Revolution as a political revolution with all the characteristics of a religious revolution – e.g. political proselytizers, ideological catechisms, and new sacred texts.[8] More recently, Ronald Schechter has argued that we should take seriously religious rhetoric as indicative of genuine religious belief and feeling.[9] If we view Mirabeau’s éloge of the fallen Franklin in religious terms, then the traditional narrative of the French Revolution as a period of deChristianization needs to be challenged.The French Revolution vested new symbols with hallowed significance and christened new saints like Benjamin Franklin.

Bryan A. Banks is a religious and intellectual historian of France with an interest in Atlantic and World History. You can tweet him @Bryan_A_Banks.

[1] J. Madival and E. Laurent, et. al., eds. Archives parlementaires de 1789 à 1860: recueil complet des débats législatifs & politiques des Chambres françaises. Paris: Librairie administrative de P. Dupont, volume 16 (Paris: 1862-), 170. The rest of the citations to this text are cited as AP.

[2] AP vol. 16, 171.

[3] Darrin M. McMahon, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2013); Antoine Lilti, Figures publiques: L’Invention de la célébrité, 1750-1850 (Paris: Fayard, 2015).

[4] AP vol. 15, 171.

[5] AP vol. 11, 152.

[6] “Benjamin Franklin to Mrs. Sarah Bache, June 3, 1779,” in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, eds. by Leonard W. Labaree et al., 40 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959-1999), 29: 613.

[7] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life trans. by Joseph Ward Swain (New York: Dover Publications, 2008); Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution, trans. by Alan Sheridan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[8] Alexis Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 21.

[9] Ronald Schechter, “The Holy Mountain and the French Revolution,” in Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques 40, no. 2 (2014), 80.

Further Reading:

Chaplin, Joyce C. The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Gaehtgens, Thomas W. and Gregor Wedekind, eds. Le culte des grands hommes, 1750-1850. Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2010.

Lilti, Antoine. Figures Publiques: L’invention De La Célébrité, 1750-1850. Paris: Fayard, 2014.

McMahon, Darrin M. Divine Fury: A History of Genius. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

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