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Review: ‘Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet’

September 12, 2022

Book cover_benjamin-franklin-s-last-betPhilanthropy is about betting on the future. And while certainly not unique to America, American philanthropy has a peculiar and enduring capacity to shape our world and the lives of generations hence. Whether we are supporting disaster relief, refugee resettlement, a community foundation’s scholarship program, or strengthening our alma mater’s endowment, as we engage in philanthropy, we imagine the future lives we are affecting. As Bill Gates once noted in the 1990s, the measure of accomplishment is in the number of lives you can save. Still, few of us would imagine that our philanthropy might reverberate through centuries. Not so, Benjamin Franklin.

In Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet, Michael Meyer, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, illustrates in vivid detail not only how Franklin—printer, statesman, diplomat, inventor of the lighting rod—was present at the creation of so much of early U.S. history, he was equally essential to shaping its philanthropic character across more than two centuries. Franklin was among the founders of the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Philadelphia’s first free library, its fire department, and hospital—a project he launched using, perhaps, the very first matching grant scheme. Long before Elon Musk made his patents for Tesla Motors open source, Franklin never sought licenses or patents for his inventions—which also included bifocals, the Franklin stove, and improvements to the odometer and the rocking chair—instead viewing their use and dissemination as a public good. He was also the progenitor of what today we call microfinance....

Read the full book review by Daniel X Matz, contributing editor at Philanthropy News Digest.

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