In the mid-18th century, America was regarded as little more than a dangerous frontier -- a rough-around-the-edges collection of trading posts where Europeans bought their fur and cotton. Most of the world's most well-known musicians, artists and scientists were headquartered in European capitals. As a witty Renaissance man who could also chop wood, Franklin slipped easily into their ranks, quickly gaining renown as a superstar from a relatively unknown land. He was to 18th century America as Bjork is to modern Iceland.
First gaining acclaim as a respected electrical scientist, then as a statesman and international voice of the new United States, Franklin was handed honorary degrees and awards throughout Europe. France, especially, took to the portly American (England's honeymoon with Franklin ended after he sided with the Americans during the Revolutionary War, of course). When Franklin came to France as the United States' first ambassador, Parisians snapped up all manner of Franklin kitsch. His image was plastered on snuff boxes and medallions, and engravings of the man adorned the walls of any stylish French apartment. After Franklin died, the first published edition of his autobiography would be a French translation.
Like all good American celebrities, Franklin also had a charitable cause. In the years before his death, Franklin freed his two slaves, George and King, and became a vocal abolitionist. "Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils," he wrote in 1789 [source: Franklin].