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An E-mail to Ben Franklin

Published: April 17, 2009

To: “Benjamin Franklin”
From: “Stuart Green”
Subject: Keep Out of the Sight of Feasts and Banquets

Dear Doctor Franklin:

As you get out onto the streets of Philadelphia, you will notice a remarkable number of fat people waddling about. Perhaps your return will cause renewed interest in your recommendation: “Eat and drink such an exact quantity as the constitution of thy body allows of, in reference to the services of the mind.” Indeed, we all should heed this advice from Poor Richard: “Excess in all other things whatever, as well as in meat and drink, is also to be avoided.”

While a younger man, you advocated daily exercise and restrained dining; you seemed particularly concerned about the effects of overeating. Poor Richard advised: “Many dishes, many diseases,” and “He that never eats too much will never be lazy.”

Your warning about eating habits and temperance, especially as it relates to a full belly, certainly makes sense to anyone today who walks out of a dining room stuffed to near explosion: “That quantity that is sufficient, the stomach can perfectly concoct and digest, and it sufficeth the due nourishment of the body.…The difficulty lies, in finding out an exact measure.”

Your words, sir, are truer today than in your own time because the portions served are now so large: “If thou eatest so much as makes thee unfit for study, or other business, thou exceedest the due measure.” Your ideas on due measure appear elsewhere in your writing as well: “If thou art dull and heavy after meat, it’s a sign thou hast exceeded the due measure; for meal and drink ought to refresh the body, and make it cheerful, and not to dull and oppress it.”

We’d all find it easier to resist temptation if we followed your suggestion to “keep out of the sight of feasts and banquets as much as may be; for ’tis more difficult to refrain good cheer, when it’s present, than from the desire of it when it is away.”

In fact, after the huge meal I had last night, I’m going to try your proposal to “fast the next meal, and all may be well again, provided it be not too often done; as if he exceed at dinner, let him refrain a supper.”

The hazards of overeating seemed much on your mind, yet in spite of your Puritan upbringing in Boston and your Quaker readers in Philadelphia, you never invoked divine condemnation of gluttony, only sound recommendations any modern nutritionist would offer.
Today’s experts, for example, grumble that our mode of seasoning food stimulates overeating. Their thought is hardly new, considering this query to your club, the Junto Society: “Whether those meats and drinks are not the best, that contain nothing but their natural tastes, nor have any thing added by art so pleasing as to induce us to eat or drink when we are not athirst or hungry.”

You were also centuries ahead of your time with this advice: “Use now and then a little exercise a quarter of an hour before meals, as to swing a weight, or swing your arms about with a small weight in each hand; to leap, or the like, for that stirs the muscles of the breast.” Moreover, my colleagues have confirmed the value of your observation: “A temperate diet arms the body against all external accidents; so that they are not so easily hurt by heat, cold, or labour; if they at any time should be prejudiced, they are more easily cured, either of wounds, dislocations or bruises.”

Finally, I should inform you that modern scientists have determined that rats kept on sparse diets live longer and remain healthier than those allowed unrestricted access to food. I doubt you’ll find such results surprising, considering this statement posed to members of the Junto Society: “Whether it is worth a rational man’s while to forego the pleasure arising from the present luxury of the age in eating and drinking and artful cookery, studying to gratify the appetite for the sake of enjoying healthy old age, a sound mind and a sound body, which are the advantages reasonably to be expected from a more simple and temperate diet.”

Dr. Green is a member of the Board of Directors of Friends of Franklin, Inc. His book, Dear Doctor Franklin: E-mails to a Founding Father about Science, Medicine and Technology, is available at Amazon.com.

To read the first e-mail conversation and more, visit saturdayeveningpost.com/ben-franklin.

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  • Mr. Dave

    While out flying his kite one stormy evening, who’s key was attached to the string of Ben’s
    ever famous invention and where short stories that have been told by folk lure and all of man kind.
    I was told it belonged to a lady in waiting and she demanded for it back and good ole Ben
    refused and thus the old saying was over heard by Ben’s closet friends.
    “Oh! Benjamin, Why don’t you just go fly a kite”.

  • Natalie Newman

    Wow–who in their right mind would call this humor? For real humor, read McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. With all due respect to Dr. Green, this piece only qualifies as humor in the sense that the Dr. is not being serious. But it’s a pathetic attempt at real comedy as practiced by the likes of masters from Dickens and Austen to Andy Borowitz and Teddy Wayne.

  • Ralph Warth

    Ben dug graves for a while. Two doctors walked by. after a while one of the doctors turned around and asked Franklin why he was following them. Franklin said, “I know my place in this parade.”

  • jt lastow

    Franklin was full of good ideas and advice. However, he did not necessarily practice what he preached. He enjoyed life including the excesses of the table. Life is not necessarily about the quantity but rather the quality.

    I have always thought the most unkind act is to wish somone a long unhappy life.”


    Dr. Franklin did not always heed his own advise as to diet. Many of the prints that I have seen of
    the good Dr. show him with a “paunch”. Perhaps
    he too did not have time for exercise since he
    traveled much while trying to create a new country.