Jefferson vs. Franklin: Renaissance Men

Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776
Photo caption

Thomas Jefferson (right), Benjamin Franklin (left), and John Adams (center) meet at Jefferson's lodgings, on the corner of Seventh and High (Market) streets in Philadelphia, to review a draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Virginia Historical Society

At a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners from the Western Hemisphere, President John F. Kennedy paid homage to Thomas Jefferson's wide-ranging interests and talents when he remarked, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Although the term 'Renaissance man' was not coined until the nineteenth century, Jefferson has become, for us, its exemplar.

Under different circumstances, President Kennedy could have invoked Benjamin Franklin's name as well. If we compare his achievements with Jefferson, Franklin would equally qualify as a Renaissance man.

Yet when one thinks of a Renaissance man from Colonial America, Jefferson invariably comes to mind first. Was Jefferson simply the right age at the right time? Or do his achievements justify his preeminent position? Has posterity given short shrift to Dr. Franklin? Who would your students select as the undisputed champion Renaissance man of the Founding Fathers?

Note: For additional activities comparing the achievements of Franklin and Jefferson, see the complementary EDSITEment lesson plan Jefferson vs. Franklin: Revolutionary Philosophers.

Guiding Questions

To what extent were Jefferson and Franklin leaders of and ahead of their times?

Learning Objectives

Analyze the writings of Jefferson and Franklin to determine the thinkers and writings that influenced them and who their writings influenced. 

Analyze primary and secondary sources to determine how contemporaries and historians have responded to the writings and philosophies of Jefferson and Franklin. 

Evaluate the short and long term effects of the inventions, philosophies, and political ideologies of Jefferson and Franklin.