Symbol of Liberty: Benjamin Franklin’s Walking Stick

Transcript From a Lecture Series Produced in Partnership With Smithsonian

Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, cherished his walking stick. This relatively simple object, adorned with a liberty fur cap at the top, conveys a powerful message about America’s national character at its inception.

photo of Ben Franklin's walking stick; gold top represents his fur cap

Franklin’s Walking Stick

Americans are a diverse group of people and the artifacts they’ve left behind and in the collections of the Smithsonian help reveal who they were, and what they reflected about our nation. Take Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, on exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

Franklin willed his cane “to my friend, and the friend of mankind, General Washington…”

Franklin himself described it as, “My fine crab-tree walking stick, with a gold head curiously wrought in the form of the cap of liberty…” He wrote those words in his codicil to his Last Will and Testament in 1789. As he contemplated his life and role in crafting the new republic of the United States, Franklin made his final bequest. Franklin willed his cane “to my friend, and the friend of mankind, General Washington. If it were a sceptre, he has merited it, and it would become it.”

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Franklin in France

What does this walking stick tell us about the American personality during Revolutionary times? What did it tell Franklin’s contemporaries about Benjamin Franklin and about the new United States? Well, just as George Washington fought for independence on American soil, Franklin battled in France as the American commissioner, essentially the first ambassador.

Franklin’s mission was to secure French support for the Revolutionary War effort. French aid, particularly at sea, was essential for American victory. Britain’s naval force was the strongest in the world; its ships could blockade Colonial ports, transport soldiers up and down the Atlantic Coast and bombard Washington’s military positions with impunity. The French, if willing, would provide a counterweight to the British advantage.

Franklin…was America’s most renowned personality—a statesman, a scientist, and a man of cultural and civic accomplishment respected at home and abroad.

Franklin arrived in France as a celebrity in December 1776, less than six months after helping to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was America’s most renowned personality—a statesman, a scientist, and a man of cultural and civic accomplishment respected at home and abroad.

The French were fascinated by his erudition and lack of pretension. They came out in droves to see him. Franklin was taken aback by all of the attention. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, “My picture is everywhere, on the lids of snuff boxes, on rings, on busts. Your father’s face is now as well known as the man in the moon.”

painting of Ben Franklin wearing his fur cap
Franklin wearing his fur cap that came to symbolize freedom

Contributing to Franklin’s popularity was a fur cap he wore to keep warm. To the French, this embodied the frontier spirit and reinforced their belief that Americans were somehow closer to nature than Europeans. French intellectuals at the time were thinking about ideas about human nature, about natural rights, and the state.

Franklin obliged their curiosity with his fur-capped appearances and the principles embedded in such writings as the Declaration of Independence. In contrast to the notoriously elaborate wigs and hats worn by France’s Queen Marie Antoinette and the crown of King Louis XVI, Franklin’s cap became a symbol of freedom, a cap of liberty.

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Diplomacy at Work

painting of the Marquis de Lafayette
Marquis de Lafayette

In 1777, Franklin prevailed upon George Washington to employ an outspoken French supporter of American independence and ideals as the revolutionary commander’s aide-de-camp.

The man was the Marquis de Lafayette, whom Franklin thought could help obtain French support. He was right. In 1778, Franklin secured military and trade treaties allying the United States and France against Britain. The French agreed to recognize the revolutionary government, provide military support and supplies, and encourage other nations to help. Four days later, Britain declared war on France.

Franklin’s diplomatic work conjoined with his social life. An accomplished composer and musician, Franklin played several instruments and was a fixture in the salons of Paris. He also regularly attended the theater. Among his admirers was Maria Anna, the Countess of Forbach.

photo of painting of Ben Franklin in a Parisian salon
Benjamin Franklin was well received in French social circles

She was an unabashed supporter of the American cause. From humble beginnings, the countess had risen to become one of the grand ladies of France and a patron of the arts. She and Franklin dined together, shared a passion for chess, and they corresponded.

The countess cherished her relationship with the American and sought his help to obtain a commission for her nephew to serve in Washington’s army. She was also friendly with Lafayette, who kept her abreast of the war’s progress. The countess’s two sons, Christian and William, both served with Lafayette toward war’s end. They were known to George Washington and were key officers under French General Rochambeau’s command in Virginia.

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The End of the Revolutionary War

photo of Ben Franklin's walking stick; gold top represents his fur cap
The top of the walking stick is adorned with a fur cap

French participation became decisive at the Battle of Yorktown, which, effectively, ended the war. Coordinating strategy with Washington, France sent 29 warships and more than 10,000 troops, forcing the surrender of British General Cornwallis.

After that success, Franklin, the countess, and Lafayette celebrated together in Paris. The countess gave Franklin the walking stick as a very special gift. If you look closely at the top of the walking stick, you’ll see a gold orb in the shape of a fur cap—Franklin’s cap. This Founding Father Franklin cherished that walking stick.

In this relatively simple object, something about the personality of both Franklin and Washington is revealed, as by extension is the essence of early America. These revolutionaries fought a king and resisted the temptation to rule as royalty.

What they accomplished was the transformation of a colonial frontier into a constitutional republic, ruled by its people. The liberty fur cap adorning Franklin’s walking stick conveys a powerful message about America’s national character at its inception.

From the Lecture Series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History.
Taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.
Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, ca. 1783, crabtree wood, gold cap, 46 ½ L X 1 3/8 D X 3/8 dia at tip, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from United States Department of State. Accession: Cat. No. 032011, Accession:  68016; Benjamin Franklin, by Johann Martin Will, 1777 Mezzotint on paper, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution NPG.69.30; Marquis de Lafayette, by Ary Scheffer, c. 1822 Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the John Hay Whitney Collection NPG.82.150;Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-pga-01591; Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, ca. 1783, crabtree wood, gold cap, 46 ½ L X 1 3/8 D X 3/8 dia at tip, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from United States Department of State. Accession: Cat. No. 032011, Accession:  68016.

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