In 1785 a French mathematician named Charles-Joseph Mathon de la Cour wrote a parody of Franklin's Poor Richard called Fortunate Richard in which he mocked the unbearable spirit of American optimism represented by Franklin. The Frenchman wrote a piece about Fortunate Richard leaving a small sum of money in his will to be used only after it had collected interest for 500 years.
Fat chance someone would be dumb enough to try that. Ha. Ha.
Franklin, who was 79 years old at the time, wrote back to the Frenchman, thanking him for a great idea and telling him that he had decided to leave a bequest to his native Boston and his adopted Philadelphia of 1,000 pounds to each on the condition that it be placed in a fund that would gather interest over a period of 200 years.
The rest, as they say, is history, an ongoing volume that turned another page last month when a judge in Philadelphia Orphans Court issued a decree regarding the distribution of the $2,256,952.05 that had accumulated in Franklin's Philadelphia trust since his death in 1790.
The court appointed Center City lawyer Gerard J. St. John to be the master in this matter. It was his duty to make sure that the final distribution of the money was in keeping with Franklin's intentions. And Franklin's intentions have been a source of controversy from the very beginning, resulting in two entirely different versions of the fund in Boston and Philadelphia.
One obvious difference was the bottom line. Franklin's Boston trust fund, which is tied up in the Massachusetts courts, is worth almost $5 million, more than twice the amount that has accumulated in the Philadelphia trust fund.
"Boston has always prided itself that it compounded the money wisely. Philadelphia has always had an inferiority complex because it didn't," said Bruce Yenawine, a Syracuse University Ph.D. candidate in history who has spent years researching the Franklin funds in both cities. "But Boston decided to minimize risks and maximize proceeds. Philadelphia, on the other hand, focused on the other side of Franklin's instructions by loaning the money to individuals. I think that's more in keeping with what Franklin wanted."
Franklin stipulated that the 1,000 pounds (the equivalent of $4,444) be invested and used to provide low-interest loans to "married tradesmen under the age of 26" to get them started in business. Over the 200-year life of the trust, money from the Philadelphia fund was loaned to hundreds of individuals, mostly for home mortgages during the last 50 years. Boston, meanwhile, invested the bulk of the money in a trust fund that Yenawine describes as "a savings company for the rich."
Needless to say, trying to give a modern and accurate interpretation to Franklin's intentions based on the language of his will was no piece of cake. ''It was a pain in the butt at first, but after a while I got caught up in it," said St. John, the lawyer who was appointed to represent Franklin's interests. "What astonished me in reading his will was how much energy, intelligence and vigor came through after 200 years. I began to have a greater appreciation for Franklin's place in history."
In 1990, the 200th anniversary of Franklin's death, then-Mayor Wilson Goode suggested that the $2.25 million in the Philadelphia Fund be used to finance a big party featuring entertainers BEN Vereen and Aretha FRANKLIN. Cooler heads prevailed.
St. John recommended, and Common Pleas Court Judge Frank O'Brien so
decreed, that the bulk of Franklin's bequest will be used to assist recent
graduates of Philadelphia high schools to pursue careers in trades, crafts and
applied sciences. The money will be invested and administered by the Commonwealth Community Foundation and the Philadelphia Foundation
(Dr. Sarah's 1998 Update: I searched on the web for
+"Philadelphia Foundation" +"Ben Franklin"
I then called and spoke to the administrators of the Benjamin Franklin Fund. This money they oversee is now being used for scholarships for Philadelphia high school students going on to college in the sciences.)
An oversight committee will meet every decade or so to determine whether the Benjamin Franklin Fund still meets the intentions of the bequest.
"I thought it would be a wonderful thing if it could continue for more than 200 years," Judge O'Brien said. "And I thought it would be unfortunate if this money was just thrown into the pot and its special nature was lost. The fact that it will continue at the Benjamin Franklin Trust Fund will likely attract more contributions from corporations and individuals who will want to be a part of that history."
So watch out Boston, the Philadelphia Franklin isn't history yet.