American Portraits

He Snatched Lightning from the Sky and the Scepter from Tyrants: Benjamin Franklin, the Kite Experiment, and Purpose

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and work of Benjamin Franklin and how it was shaped by his purpose. They will explore how his actions and his identity helped him achieve great discoveries in science and, through his example, learn how they can pursue their own purpose for the greater good of mankind.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

In June 1752, as the temperatures began to rise in Philadelphia, Franklin and his twenty-one-year-old son, William, assembled a kite made from a silk handkerchief and two wooden crossbars. They attached the kite to several hundred feet of twine, which had a silk ribbon with a metal key tied to it. After their kite was completed, they waited for a stormy day….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Benjamin Franklin’s pursuit of his purpose inspire you to be faithful to your own purpose?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and work of Benjamin Franklin and how it was shaped by his purpose. They will explore how his actions and his identity helped him achieve great discoveries in science and, through his example, learn how they can pursue their own purpose for the greater good of mankind.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Benjamin Franklin’s drive to experiment and discover things about the world around him.
  • Students will understand how they can pursue their purpose in their own lives.
  • Students will apply this knowledge to discover, understand, and pursue their own purpose.

Background

Benjamin Franklin, a Philadelphia printer, dedicated himself to his civic community. In 1748, at the age of forty-two, he had built up enough wealth and annual income to retire from printing and devote himself to the study of science and public service. He served in numerous important capacities as a member of the Continental Congress, diplomat to France during the Revolutionary War, and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

The entire time he was in politics, however, he was also thinking and tinkering. He rarely let an idle hour pass. As a result, he made numerous lasting discoveries and inventions, the most significant and well-known of which was his work on the lightning rod. Franklin’s scientific advances and public service helped sweep in revolutionary changes in the age of Enlightenment. He diligently pursued his purpose of serving others and attained remarkable achievements in his life. Noting his lifelong contributions to science and politics, the French scientist Turgot wrote of Franklin, “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.”

Vocabulary

  • Capacities
  • Tinkering
  • The Enlightenment
  • Scepter
  • Discernable
  • Idle
  • Theoretical
  • Mischief

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

Visit Their Website

Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Other than a Founding Father, a printer, and a businessman, what did Benjamin Franklin consider himself to be?
  • Why did Franklin fly a kite in a thunderstorm?
  • What responsibility did Franklin feel toward his community? How did this shape his purpose in his political and scientific life?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Brands, H.W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.  New York: Anchor, 2000.
  • Chaplin, Joyce. The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius. New York: Basic, 2007.
  • Cohen, Bernard I. Benjamin Franklin’s Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  • Dray, Philip. Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America. New York: Random House, 2005.
  • Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.
  • Lemay, J.A. Leo and P.M. Zall, eds. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. New York: Norton, 1986.
  • Lopez, Claude-Anne and Eugenia W. Herbert. The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family. New York: Norton, 1975.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin.  New York: Penguin, 1991.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Close