An Ode to Old Ben For Bastille Day
BEN FRANKLIN, our finest American, does not have his birthday observed, and my modest proposal for now is to give the French Bastille Day over to his memory. I can support this suggestion, because Bill and I are big on Bastille Day. Bill and I go on our annual Grandfathers' Retreat every July, and far up in the Maine woods we give Bastille Day over to fervent attention. We have French toast for breakfast, sing La Marseillaise, fly the Tricolor along with the Union Jack and Old Glory, and recite the position of the pronouns before the verb - me, te, se, etc. The remote wilderness township we have for our vacation is otherwise untenanted, and if any French-speaking Canadian should chance our way he likely wouldn't know a thing about the Bastille and 14 juillet 1789. Jacques Cartier, le sieur du Monts, and Sam Champlain started the Canadian French culture well before the revolution flamed in La Belle France. There is a quirk to our American history as she is taught - I think most tykes know more about Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier - Marquis de Lafayette - who came to our aid in our moment of peril and need, than they do about good Ben Franklin. Yet the gracious diplomacy of Uncle Ben paved the way for French assistance when we needed it. Ben stuck his finger in the light socket, invented the library, and thought up fire insurance, but in a thousand other ways he became Great. He deserves a na tional birthday. Benjamin Franklin's connection with Bastille Day is by no means tenuous, or frivolous. As our first minister to the court of France, he was there in the crucial days of our beginnings, and while the revolution was fomenting there. He advised against an embroiled uprising in France, and there were those who agreed with him at the time. He was much respected in France, where his effective diplomacy was tempered with a gentle wit and his wisdom strengthened by his friendly manners. I think the real story of the Bastille amused Franklin. The real story has, you see, been lost in the symbolism that took over. Built in the 14th century, the Bastille became more a prison than a fortress, and during the times of the lettres-de-cachet the story was not pretty. But by 1789 the Bastille was little more than a left-over remnant, and when it was "stormed" by the mob it was a harmless relic with only seven "prisoners." A couple were in for small offenses, and some were "non compos" who had be en "put away" by their families. One, of course, became grist for Dickens in his tale of two cities, but Author Dickens improved on the facts. The "attack" on the Bastille met no particular defense - instead, some of the King's soldiers helped the mob. So it was, and a torture "rack" found in a dungeon turned out to be a printing press once used by another Defoe. Anyway, the Bastille was razed and the spot is now an open square where patriotic exercises are held every 14th of July. But if you chance to be in Paris on Bastille Day, I suggest you go to quite another place and pay some overdue homage to Benjamin Franklin. That place is the courtyard of the United States Embassy, where you will find Old Ben seated on a bench under a linden tree, his bifocal spectacles resting a moment, waiting to be placed on his nose, and an open book in his hand. If you don't know this statue is there and you come upon it, you will certainly think it is real, and Ben is alive and alert. A Marine in the embassy guard told me a lot of people speak to the statue in a momentary presumption, and he said he had no doubt but many of them got an imagined reply. At the time of our latest visit to Paris, there was anti-American feeling in the city, and French soldiers were protecting our embassy in a very noticeable manner. We thus entered the front gate through something of a military context and found Old Ben in his usual serenity, meditating on important things, and probably wondering if all w ere well in Philadelphia. Here, then, is a great monument to a great American. I'm dismayed that my book gives his birth as 1706, but no month and day, Old Style or new. Benjamin was one of 17 children, Boston born, and Bill Nye asked us to consider his daily puzzle of finding his own cud of spruce bum every morning on the kitchen window sill. He should have his day, and with his French connections Bastille Day is just right. Bill and I will read a bit of Poor Richard.