Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), American printer, author, diplomat, philosopher, inventor, and scientist. Franklin was one of the most respected and versatile figures in colonial America. An exceptionally well-rounded man, he worked in many fields and succeeded in all of them. He wrote a classic autobiography, made lasting contributions to scientific theory, and devised many practical inventions. His many contributions to the cause of the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the newly formed federal government that followed rank him among the country’s greatest statesmen.
|II||EARLY YEARS IN BOSTON|
Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston in the colony of Massachusetts. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler (maker and seller of soap and candles). His mother, Abiah Folger, was Josiah’s second wife. Benjamin was the 15th of Josiah’s 17 children, and Abiah’s 8th child. The Franklin family had little money, like most New Englanders of the time, and could not afford to give their children much education. When Benjamin was ten years old, his father took him out of school and taught him to make soap and candles. Disliking the business, however, he went to work for a cutler, or knife-maker. At age 12 he was apprenticed as a printer to his brother James, who had recently returned from England with a new printing press.
Franklin stayed with his brother for five years, learning the printing trade. During this time he made friends with apprentice booksellers in Boston and borrowed books from them. He also skimped on food to buy books. In this way he taught himself grammar, arithmetic, navigation, and philosophy, as well as several foreign languages. His reading included The Pilgrim’s Progress by British preacher John Bunyan; Parallel Lives, the work of Greek essayist and biographer Plutarch; An Essay upon Projects by English journalist and novelist Daniel Defoe; and the Essays to Do Good by American clergyman Cotton Mather. When Franklin acquired a copy of the third volume of the Spectator by British statesmen and essayists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, he set himself the goal of mastering its prose style.
In 1721 James Franklin established a weekly newspaper, the New England Courant, and Benjamin, at the age of 15, was busily occupied in delivering the newspaper by day and in composing articles for it at night. These articles, published anonymously, won wide notice and acclaim for their pithy observations on the current scene. Because it chose to challenge the Puritan establishment, the New England Courant frequently incurred the displeasure of colonial authorities. In 1722, as a consequence of an article considered particularly offensive, James Franklin was imprisoned for a month and forbidden to publish his paper, and for a while the paper appeared under Benjamin’s name.
|III||PHILADELPHIA AND LONDON|
Because of repeated quarrels with his brother James, Franklin left Boston at the age of 17 and made his way to Philadelphia, where he arrived in October 1723. There he soon found work as a printer and made numerous friends. Among them was Sir William Keith, the governor of Pennsylvania, who offered to back Franklin in a printing business of his own. Keith encouraged Franklin to go to London to complete his training as a printer and to purchase the printing equipment he would need. Young Franklin took this advice, arriving in London in December 1724. Discovering that Keith had not sent the letters of credit he had promised, Franklin found himself, at age 18, without means in a strange city. With characteristic resourcefulness, he obtained employment at two of the foremost printing houses in London: first at Palmer’s and later at Watt’s. He spent a year and a half in London.
In October 1726 Franklin returned to Philadelphia and went back to work as a printer’s assistant. Two years later he set himself up in the printing business with borrowed money. In September 1729 he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, a dull, poorly edited weekly newspaper. By his witty style and careful selection of news, Franklin made it both entertaining and informative. In 1730 he married Deborah Read, a Philadelphia woman whom he had known before his trip to England. They had two children: a son, Francis, who died of smallpox in childhood, and a daughter, Sarah, whom they called Sally.
|IV||PROJECTS AND EXPERIMENTS|
During his time in Philadelphia Franklin engaged in many public projects. In 1727, with a number of his acquaintances, he organized a group called the Junto that met weekly for debate, conversation, and companionship. The Junto attracted some of Philadelphia’s best minds, and it lent its support to many of Franklin’s proposals to improve the city. Members of the Junto pooled their books to create a shared collection, which formed the basis for the first subscription library in America. Founded in 1731, it was chartered in 1742 as the Library Company of Philadelphia. Library subscriptions provided funds to buy books that then could circulate among subscribers. Through the Junta, Franklin also promoted his ideas for creating a fire department and a police force—the first in the colonies.
Franklin first published Poor Richard’s Almanack, a collection of practical advice and humorous sayings, in 1732 under the pen name Richard Saunders. Both a product and a reflection of colonial America, the almanac proved to be a great success, and Franklin published it regularly for the next 25 years. Its homespun wisdom mirrored the simple virtues of a largely rural society: thrift, industry, and humility. As Poor Richard, Franklin advised and amused his readers with such maxims as: “The sleeping fox catches no poultry,” “The used key is always bright,” and “Experience keeps a dear [costly] school, yet fools will learn in no other.” The introduction to the last issue of the almanac, an essay called “The Way to Wealth,” became one of Franklin’s best-known writings.
In 1736 Franklin gained his first political appointment, as clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The next year he was appointed deputy postmaster of Philadelphia. About this time, he organized a volunteer firefighting company in Philadelphia to which members paid dues and agreed to help one another in the event of fire. He also introduced methods for the improvement of street paving and lighting. In 1743 he founded the American Philosophical Society, an organization for the promotion of useful knowledge in science and the humanities.
Franklin retired from the printing business in 1748 to devote his time to inventions. He always believed that knowledge should have practical applications. He had already invented an open stove that warmed houses efficiently. The so-called Franklin stove worked better, however, after it was improved by others. He also devised ways of reducing excessive smoke from heating stoves.
In 1747 Franklin began his experiments in electricity with a simple apparatus that he received from a friend in England. His experiments involved capturing electrical charge, and he came up with the notion of positive and negative electrical charges. Although he was not the first to suggest the connection between lightning and electricity, he proposed an effective method of demonstrating this link. His proposal to erect an iron rod on a high tower or steeple and draw electricity from a storm was published in London and carried out in England and France before he performed his celebrated but dangerous experiment with a kite in 1752. While clouds rolled by the airborne kite, electricity presumably traveled down the kite string to a metal key attached at the end, and a wire drew sparks from the key. Some doubt remains about whether Franklin actually performed the kite experiment, because he failed to mention it for some time. The European demonstrations, however, made Franklin famous. Franklin also published instructions on how to protect houses with lightning rods.
In recognition of his scientific accomplishments, Franklin became a fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge and, in 1753, was awarded its Copley Medal for distinguished contributions to experimental science. Franklin also exerted a great influence on education in Pennsylvania. In 1749 he wrote the pamphlet Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania; its publication led to the establishment in 1751 of the Academy of Philadelphia, later to become the University of Pennsylvania. The curriculum he suggested departed considerably from the study of the Greek and Roman classics then in vogue. Instead it emphasized English and modern foreign languages as well as mathematics and science.
In 1750 Franklin was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, in which he served until 1764. He was appointed deputy postmaster general for the colonies in 1753; in that job he improved postal service between Philadelphia and New York and instituted a new accounting system to prevent local postmasters from pocketing postal money. As the delegate from Pennsylvania, Franklin attended a 1754 congress that met at Albany for the purpose of uniting the colonies in the face of the threatened French and Indian War (1754-1763). Realizing the need for a common defense, he proposed the Albany Plan, a strategy for colonial cooperation in many ways prophetic of the 1787 United States Constitution. But the plan was too far in advance of public thinking to win ratification. In later years Franklin believed that the adoption of this plan would have prevented the American Revolution.
When the French and Indian War broke out, Franklin acquired horses, wagons, and supplies for British commander General Edward Braddock by pledging his own credit to the Pennsylvania farmers, who thereupon furnished the necessary equipment. The proprietors of Pennsylvania Colony, descendants of Quaker leader William Penn, opposed war on religious grounds and refused to allow their landholdings to be taxed to pay for the war. (As a proprietary colony, Pennsylvania was governed by proprietors, who owned most of the unsettled land.) In 1757, the Pennsylvania Assembly sent Franklin to England to petition the king for the right to tax proprietary lands.
After completing his mission, Franklin remained in England for five years as the chief representative of the American colonies. During this period he did his best to enlighten the British government on colonial conditions. He was a popular figure in England and made friends with many prominent people, including chemist and clergyman Joseph Priestley, philosopher and historian David Hume, and philosopher and economist Adam Smith.
Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1762, where he remained until 1764, when he was once again dispatched to England as the colonial agent of Pennsylvania. This time his mission was to petition King George III to oust Pennsylvania’s hereditary proprietors and make Pennsylvania a royal colony. In London, Franklin actively opposed passage of the Stamp Act, which required payment of a tax on newspapers, legal documents, contracts, and pamphlets. Franklin called the Stamp Act the “mother of mischief,” but even he failed to anticipate the full fury of the colonies’ reaction to it. His popularity at home suffered when it was learned that Franklin had helped a friend obtain a post as a stamp agent in America. Although the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, it soon introduced new plans for taxing the colonies. Franklin continued his patient and sensible attempts to conciliate the colonies and the British home government; Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Georgia named him their colonial agent in England. However, despite Franklin’s efforts, troubles with Britain continued to mount.
In 1774 a scandal broke concerning letters that Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts had written urging the English government to adopt sterner measures toward the colonists. The letters had come into Franklin’s hands from a member of the British Parliament. Shocked by what he considered Hutchinson’s treason to the colony, Franklin revealed the contents of the letters to a friend in Massachusetts. He warned against having them published, but the letters found their way into print. Through Franklin, Massachusetts presented a petition to the British government asking that Hutchinson be removed from his post as governor, and a hearing was held on the matter. At the hearing Franklin was accused of having stolen the letters and was insulted as a man without honor. He lost his job as deputy postmaster general for the colonies as a result of the scandal.
In 1775, fearing a break between the colonies and Britain, Franklin sailed for America. Before leaving London, he encouraged writer Thomas Paine to immigrate to America. Franklin reached Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, after an absence of 11 years, to find that the opening engagements of the Revolution—the battles of Lexington and Concord—had already been fought.
|VI||DIPLOMAT OF THE REVOLUTION|
The day after his arrival in America, Franklin was chosen a member of the Second Continental Congress. The Continental Congress voted to have a postal system and chose Franklin to be the first postmaster general. It also sent him to Canada as part of a commission to persuade Canada to join the revolution against Britain. He was nearly 70 years old when he made this difficult winter journey, and the mission was a failure. Upon his return from Canada, Franklin became one of the committee of five chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was also one of the signers of that historic document, reportedly advising the assembly with characteristic wit: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
In September 1776 the Continental Congress chose Franklin and two other Americans, Arthur Lee and Silas Deane, to seek economic assistance from France for waging the war against Britain. Franklin’s scientific reputation, his integrity, and his wit and gracious manner made him extremely popular in French political, literary, and social circles. Against the vigorous opposition of the French minister of finance, Jacques Necker, he managed to obtain liberal grants and loans from Louis XVI of France. While in France, Franklin also encouraged and assisted American privateers operating against the British navy, especially John Paul Jones.
The victory over British forces at Saratoga in 1777 was a triumph for the Americans, and it convinced France that supporting America might be backing the winning side against its longtime enemy, Britain. As a result Franklin negotiated a treaty of commerce and defensive alliance with France in February 1778. This treaty represented, in effect, the turning point of the American Revolution. French aid enabled the newly formed United States to win the war, although it also helped bankrupt France, thereby contributing to the French Revolution (1789-1799). Seven months after the treaty was concluded, Congress appointed Franklin the first minister plenipotentiary (ambassador with full powers) from the United States to France.
In 1781 Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay were appointed to conclude a treaty of peace with Great Britain. The final treaty was signed at Versailles on September 3, 1783 (see Paris, Treaty of), almost two years later. About this time Franklin remarked, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Franklin stayed in France until 1785 and was accorded many honors.
|VII||A FRAMER OF THE CONSTITUTION|
In 1785 Congress finally yielded to Franklin’s long-standing request to relieve him of his duties in France. He returned to Philadelphia, where he was immediately chosen president of the executive council of Pennsylvania. He was reelected in 1786 and 1787. In 1787 he was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia, which drew up the Constitution of the United States. Franklin favored a single-chamber legislature and an executive board, and he opposed paying salaries to executive officials. Although the convention passed over his proposals, the final document received his support, and he used his influence in ensuring that Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution. One of Franklin’s last public acts was to sign a petition to the U.S. Congress, on February 12, 1790, as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, urging the abolition of slavery and the suppression of the slave trade. Two months later, on April 17, Franklin died in his Philadelphia home at 84 years of age.
Franklin’s most notable service to his country was the result of his great skill in diplomacy. To his common sense, wisdom, wit, and industry, he joined great firmness of purpose, matchless tact, and broad tolerance. Both as a brilliant conversationalist and a sympathetic listener, Franklin had a wide and appreciative following in the intellectual salons of the day. For the most part, his literary reputation rests on his unfinished Autobiography. He began the Autobiography in 1771 and worked on it at random intervals throughout the rest of his crowded life. The book presents a vivid picture of colonial life and illustrates Franklin’s own homespun wisdom. Its lack of pretension and simplicity of style have made it a classic work.