There are few professions in American society that haven’t claimed Benjamin Franklin as one of their own. Inventors and scientists chime in first, followed by newspaper editors, typographers, postal workers, astronomers, engineers, diplomats, civil rights advocates, libertarians, socialists, and revolutionaries of all flavors.
Mr. Franklin has also picked up some fans among hedonists and voluptuaries of late, especially after the Parisian bathtub scene in the recent HBO series John Adams, which tweaked a rediscovery of his interesting essay on how to choose a mistress.
We thought the great man had been carved up into as many occupational and philosophical pieces as possible. But then we stumbled across Lewis Hyde’s diverting new book Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, which includes a chapter titled, “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate.”
In his essays, letters, and actions, Franklin was a “commonwealth man in the style of Jefferson,” Hyde writes. He understood the United States Constitution’s copyright language “as a balance between a short-term monopoly and a long-term grant to the public. That the clause might become the ground for creating a perpetual property right for individuals and private corporations would have astounded him.”
Benjamin Franklin rebelled against knowledge as eternal property through his whole life. Hyde gives us a portrait of him that reveals this in his writings and works.