George Washington is commonly known as the "Father of His Country." What claim, if any, does Franklin have to this title?
Franklin probably does not deserve the title "Father of His Country" more than Washington, as Washington led the nation through a dangerous war and a difficult period as the first President. However, Franklin may be the runner-up for this title. His accomplishments remind us that the founding of the United States relied on much more than just military victory. On one hand, Franklin was a master diplomat. He brought his fame as a scientist and man of letters to the task of impressing Europeans, who generally scoffed at Americans as ignorant backwoodsmen. Franklin's political skill was indispensable in securing French aid for the Revolution; without this aid, America could not possibly have won the war. Franklin also was crucial in negotiating a peace treaty with Britain that ensured America would have enough territory to expand. These two accomplishments fundamentally shaped the outcome of the turbulent Revolutionary years. On the other hand, Franklin also helped to shape his country by expressing–in his writings and his life–a sense of Americanness. He spoke and dressed plainly, combining a Puritan's sense of self-improvement with a belief in limitless opportunity. He defined a new "American" type, creating a model for future Americans to follow. In this sense he may not have been the "Father of His Country," but he was arguably the "Father of His Country's Identity."
Franklin obsessed about his image. He believed it was essential to always appear honest and morally upright in order to achieve respect and power. Is this more or less true today than it was then?
It is arguable that the appearance of honesty and moral uprightness is more important today, in the sense that leaders and public figures in today's world are under closer scrutiny than ever before. We know lurid details of President Clinton's affairs; we hear scandalous reports of President Bush's cocaine addiction as a younger man. In the past (even just a generation ago), the personal lives of public figures were largely private. Personal faults, such as Franklin's fathering of an illegitimate son, were less likely to be widely known. Also, Franklin's society was more stratified. While Franklin came from a poor family, he was the exception: most leaders came from the wealthy and established families. The importance of a morally upright image is also less true today, however, insofar as that today's society is more diverse and more tolerant. Our sense of what is morally acceptable has expanded. On balance, it may be that image is no more or less important today than it was in Franklin's day; rather, it is important in different ways.
What do you consider Franklin's single most important accomplishment?
It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify a single biggest achievement from Franklin's long and impressive life. However, a possible candidate for the title of "most important" is Franklin's Autobiography. His scientific discoveries fundamentally affected the way we live, but other scientists in Franklin's era were making similar, if less momentous, discoveries. It seems plausible that someone else would have made Franklin's discoveries had he not made them. No one else in America or Europe, however, expressed Franklin's unique vision of self-improvement and self-reinvention. These values have become cornerstones of modern life, and of American life in particular. They have motivated people to head West for a new life among deserts, mountains and prairies. They have motivated immigrants from poor countries all over the world to seek their fortune in America and other wealthy countries. They influence the way our political leaders talk and act. None of this is directly the result of Franklin's book, but it is the result of a uniquely American mindset that was and is best expressed in Franklin's book. (Keep in mind that there are clearly other possible answers for this question.)