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Franklin Exhibit Heralds Founder’s Varied Work

Benjamin Franklin died a decade before the nation’s capital moved to the swamps along the Potomac River. This week, he makes a grand entrance.

“Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” which opens Friday in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives, is a midwinter gift for American history junkies.

Older, more worldly and with broader life experiences than many of the Founding Fathers, Franklin was “a man of amazing talents who not only helped shape the Declaration and the Constitution, but whose influence we still feel today in many other ways,” Deputy Archivist of the United States Debra Wall said at the exhibit’s unveiling earlier this week.

The project is a joint venture between the Foundation for the National Archives and the General Motors Foundation, with the foundation donating $100,000 to bring it to fruition. The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary and the Minnesota Historical Society organized and designed the project. 

Before coming to the District, the exhibit made stops in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and France, a testament to the global reach Franklin still holds more than two centuries after his death. 

The National Archives Experience will give the exhibition its own flavor through rare encased documents, including:

• The Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783.

• A 1777 letter from Franklin to the Continental Congress, updating the body on his diplomatic efforts at the French Court as a member of the Committee of Secret Correspondence. 

• A journal of the Constitutional Convention, detailing Franklin’s involvement in the compromise over Congressional representation.

• A printed version of the Constitution from 1787, an original rough draft that was sent to New York before the final document was signed. 

Franklin’s interests were wide and varied. He was a postmaster, publisher, scientific wizard, philanthropist, shrewd diplomat and statesman. To many Europeans of the age, he was the prototypical American.

Exhibition curator Michael Hussey told Roll Call that Franklin opted to use his scientific, mechanical and political talents for the greater good rather than self-advancement, though he certainly understood the importance of profit.

That’s not to say that he didn’t have foibles or possess a healthy ego, Hussey said, but his character flaws — he was a bad husband and a worse father, for example — shouldn’t overshadow or undermine his contributions to public life. 

“[We] need to understand his contribution and why we are here today,” said Hussey, who hopes the exhibit will convey to visitors the influence Franklin had on the world around him and spark a younger generation into fields Franklin excelled in. 

Greg Martin, director of public policy and Washington communications for General Motors, had a slightly different perspective on the exhibit’s core purpose, one not too far removed from the theme of Franklin as grand contributor. 

“Our goal through this exhibit [is to] get a glimpse into the mind of a person like Ben Franklin, we can inspire that next generation of scientists and engineers to design and build great cars,” Martin said. 

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