When I was a child, I was surprised to learn that Benjamin Franklin wasn’t one of the Presidents of the United States.
And yet, he is pictured on the hundred dollar bill.
Of course, Ben Franklin made many contributions to the founding of the United States, and also to science and literature; he deserves the honor.
But much of his popularity is probably the result of those vivid stories.
Who could forget the fat-faced madman flying a kite in a thunderstorm to prove that lightning is electricity?
Or the crazy old man taking an “air bath” naked at his window because he believed it was healthy?
Or the worldly wise grayhead full of aphorisms from his Almanac, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” being only one of the most familiar?
Vivid figures abound in popular American history.
Americans admire people with big personalities, personalities puffed up to folkloric types, as unbelievable as cartoons; Ben Franklin is an exemplar of this phenomenon.
What might explain this admiration for the big and outrageous?
The United States of America is a young country, so young that it affects an American’s understanding of time.
“Celebrating fifty years!” -- or even ten years -- is a common boast made by American companies of all sizes.
A fifty-year anniversary is significant in a nation whose newest state (Hawaii) joined the union only fifty-nine years ago.
But in any European country a celebration of fifty years would be absurd.
For example, Germany boasts the Weihenstephaner brewery founded in 1040, a fact sometimes not even printed on its labels.
The situation is quite different in the United States. Advertisements from 1908 and earlier brag of being “ten years in business.” And the tradition continues today.
It’s as though, for Americans, anything even as old as ten years is as wonderful as a child’s birthday!
Big things are expected of such a child.
It’s the American experience to grow suddenly to giant heights.
In the 1820s, Americans were living in log cabins long after Europeans had built the Vatican and the Palace of Versailles.
By 2018, schools in log cabins has long given way to the modern high school, a facility much larger and impressive than most European high schools.
The United States has such a short history, and such an outstanding economic growth, that it seems apt for everything in its past to be both big and amazing, or at least quirky enough to suggest that the next great leap will happen as soon as a few days from now.
The United States still has the expectations of a child, and its heroes—despite the real weight they command—are nevertheless presented with all the innocence and exaggeration of a cartoon.
Happy Fourth of July!
* Orlando Bartro is the author of Toward Two Words, a comical, literary novel about a man lost in a Mansion of Left Turns who finds yet another woman he never knew, available at Amazon. He is currently writing two new novels.