Jefferson vs. Franklin: Renaissance Men

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

What were the achievements of Franklin and Jefferson in their various fields of interest? What connections existed between their shared thirst for knowledge and individual political philosophies?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

List a variety of interests and achievements of Franklin and Jefferson

Take a position that one or the other's interests and achievements were more wide-ranging or that they were equivalent