Ben Franklin portrait by by Joseph Duplessis in 1776; Aretha Franklin Aretha Franklin sings "My Country 'Tis Of Thee'" at the U.S. Capitol during the 56th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

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In the 1990s, Philadelphia nearly spent a bunch of Benjamin Franklin’s money to put on an Aretha Franklin concert. Yes, really.

We can start tracking this chain, chain, chain of events with an advertisement in the 1791 Pennsylvania Gazette.

The “advertisement” is a notice about Franklin’s last will and testament.

He had died the prior year, in 1790.

Ever the innovator, Franklin left an unusual set of instructions in his will.

In the codicil, Franklin bequeathed 1,000 pounds sterling (roughly four grand) each to Boston and Philadelphia.

Franklin was born in Boston and lived most of his adult life in Philadelphia.

He hoped to help the people of both cities after he died.

But Franklin didn’t just *give* each city 1,000 pounds.

The money would be loaned at low interest to young, married tradesmen (yes, all men). In his will, Franklin wrote: “ I wish to be useful even after my death, if possible, in forming and advancing other young men.”

Franklin felt he was paying it forward. His career as a printer began thanks to loans from a pair of friends.

But this arrangement would serve a second purpose. The interest paid on the loans would help grow his original gift.

To prevent Boston or Philadelphia from raiding the piggy bank, Franklin put limits on the money.

None of it could be spent until 100 years had passed. And *most* of the money had to remain in trust until 200 years after his death.

Then, after two centuries, it *had* to be spent.

That 200-year anniversary arrived in 1990 — at which point Franklin’s original investment was worth millions.

Philadelphia’s portion was worth about $2 million.

Boston, thanks to different management, had about $4.5 million.

Per Franklin’s instructions, the money had to be split between the governments of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. That left Philly with about $520,000 to spend.

No surprise, this inspired quite a bit of debate.

At first, a city official told Inquirer journalist Tom Ferrick Jr. that Franklin’s money would be used to subsidize a pair of festivals, one called the Festival of Firsts and another called the Freedom Festival.

The city was basically broke, so officials figured they could use Franklin’s money to plug the budgetary hole *and* honor Franklin.

To make it fit better, they proposed inviting BEN Vereen and Aretha FRANKLIN to perform.

Many in the public…did not care for this plan.

Some felt it contradicted the spirit of Ben Franklin’s will, which mentioned investment in public works. (Franklin himself speculated that the money might be used to build pipes from Wissahickon Creek.)

After the concert debacle, Mayor Wilson Goode convened a panel of scholars to help decide how the money should be used.

Suggestions flowed in.

One proposed housing for homeless youth. Another suggested a garden. Apparently there was even a proposal centered on smoke alarms.

Ultimately, the city decided on a plan rather similar to Franklin’s original idea: The money was used to fund scholarships for young people learning a craft or trade.

Some of the money was used to fund the Franklin Institute — on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

In Boston, the will’s funds led to the establishment of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

At every turn, there was debate.

Perhaps that’s fitting.

Ben Franklin himself was no stranger to vigorous arguments, be they over a new constitution — or how to spend a few bucks.

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on May 11, 2023.

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Avi Wolfman-Arent

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...