Article abstract: Franklin helped shape most of the important political, social, and intellectual developments in eighteenth century America. He became a veritable symbol of America by the end of his life, both at home and abroad, and he remains an influential folk hero.
Among Benjamin Franklin’s English ancestors, one had owned a bit of land only twelve miles from the English ancestral seat of the Washingtons. His father, Josiah, had repudiated the Church of England and removed from England to Boston in the 1680’s; his mother’s forebears had arrived somewhat earlier. When Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, the modest household was already teeming with children, for he was a tenth son—and, incidentally, the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back. The salient facts of Franklin’s life were extraordinary from the start.
Although his father was a struggling tradesman (a candle maker and soap boiler), there was much in the way of reading, thinking, and discussing as well as hard work in his home. Franklin learned to read when very young, and by the age of twelve he had progressed through the Bible, the works of John Bunyan, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (105-115), and certain essays of Daniel Defoe and of Boston’s Cotton Mather. He had very little formal schooling, and his family could not afford to send him to Harvard College.
Instead, an effort was made to bring him into the family business. He disliked the work, and he hated the smell. At that point, an older brother, James, returned from London, where he had been trained as a printer. Thus, the restless, bright, bookish twelve-year-old Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to his high- spirited brother, who in 1721 started a newspaper, The New England Courant. It was the fourth newspaper in the colonies. These years were supremely important in shaping the man who later became so famous. He learned a trade which would bring him profits and prominence. He had access to many books, especially those loaned by patrons and friends. He discussed and debated matters with men who loitered in the shop and also with friends after hours. The principal subjects were the two which would be commonly avoided centuries later: religion and politics. He worked hard at learning to write and he experienced the thrill of seeing his first piece, an anonymous letter to the editor, in print. When the pugnacious James got into trouble with the authorities and was jailed, his brother, then sixteen, functioned as the editor.
The brothers often quarreled and the younger Franklin, a mere apprentice, was often treated severely. He resented this and decided to run away. He arrived in Philadelphia in October, 1723, munching on a large roll, with one Dutch dollar and a copper shilling in his pocket. The scene became a memorable passage in the memoir he later wrote, which included the fact that his future wife happened to see him and laughed at the ridiculous sight he made. He soon found work, for he was an excellent printer, and he soon found adventure as well. An eccentric governor of the province, William Keith, proposed that Franklin go to England to purchase equipment for a new printing business which Keith hoped would outdo all competition. He would send letters of credit and letters of introduction.
Franklin was in London by Christmas, 1724, but no letters came from the governor. The eighteen-year-old did find work, however, in a printing house, and as always he read intensively and grappled with ideas. After setting type for a religious book, he became convinced that the author was all wrong. In response, Franklin composed and printed a pamphlet which set forth a radical refutation. He later regarded this as a mistake, but it did gain him some attention and some new acquaintances, a few of them prominent writers of the day.
Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1726, and he was soon employed again in his old shop. Before long, he left it to form a new business with a partner, on credit. By dint of very long hours of work, ingenious planning, and excellent workmanship, they survived—barely. Then the partner wanted to leave, and Franklin, borrowing money, bought him out. By July, 1730, he was the sole proprietor of a promising business, which included the printing of a newspaper begun the year before, The Pennsylvania Gazette. Six weeks later, he married Deborah Read, the daughter of his first landlady. Though she was uneducated and ignorant (thus never an intellectual companion), she was frugal, industrious, and loving. Franklin, at twenty-four, had become a solid Philadelphia burgher.
The foundation of Franklin’s renown was his success as a businessman. Both he and Deborah worked very hard, and they lived frugally for some time. It was, however, more than routine drudgery, for new projects were always appearing: Franklin established a stationery shop; Deborah collected and prepared rags for the papermakers; he imported books in both English and foreign languages; he printed almanacs for those who compiled them—and then decided to compile his own. Poor Richard’s Almanack, begun in 1732 and published between 1733 and 1758, was ultimately to become the best known of the many which were printed in eighteenth century America. Franklin enjoyed borrowing and reworking phrases from his reading and sometimes wrote new adages, which delighted his readers. For many, he and his fictional wise man, Richard Saunders, became one. The central themes of Richard’s concern were thrift, industry, and frugality, and Franklin at the time appeared to be practicing what “Poor Richard” preached.
Political connections quickly became an important feature of Franklin’s business success. He printed much of the provincial government’s work: laws, records of legislative voting, and even the new paper currency in favor of which Franklin had argued in his first political pamphlet, A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency (1729). He became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1736. The following year, he secured an appointment as postmaster for Philadelphia, a position which gave him immediate access to the latest news—very helpful in his newspaper business. Later, he was deputy postmaster general for all the colonies (1753-1774), and under his administration the governmental department showed a profit. He was always heavily involved with public affairs and often managed to influence their course.
It was during his years as a businessman that Franklin’s remarkable flair for civic improvement by private initiative appeared. In 1727, he founded a discussion group, or club, of tradesmen, clerks, and mechanics, which he called the “Junto.” Often Franklin would first propose to his friends at the Junto for discussion an idea for a public project, and then follow his proposal with an article in his newspaper. Soon the project would be under way. He was prominent in the founding of a circulating library, a fire company, a hospital, and an academy which evolved into the University of Pennsylvania, among many other projects. Ever the keen observer of daily life in his beloved city, he was always alert to possibilities for improvement.
Franklin was also a particularly astute observer of nature itself, and this ultimately led him to the forefront...
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