Benjamin Franklin

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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.

Early Life

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...

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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.

Life’s Work

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 of certain branches of the science of his day. On an early transatlantic voyage, he kept careful records of temperatures, of the flora and fauna of the sea, of the positions of the moon and the stars; later he made a map of the Gulf Stream. He believed that knowledge must be useful, and actual inventions came out of many of his studies, including the improved Franklin stove, bifocal spectacles, a glass harmonica (a musical instrument for which even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote music), and other lesser gadgets. His main interest, though, was electricity. His famous kite experiment in 1752 demonstrated the identity of lightning and electricity and gave him an international reputation. He was, as always, interested in practical application, which in this case became the lightning rod. Nevertheless, he was also responsible for naming the concept of polarity, negative and positive, to describe the behavior of electricity.

In 1748, Franklin was able to retire from business, expecting to devote himself to his favorite scientific pursuits. Public affairs, however, became the dominant force throughout the remainder of his life. When the threat of war with France led to a gathering of delegates at Albany in 1754, Franklin was there representing Pennsylvania. He proposed a plan for an inter-Colonial union which the Albany Congress approved, only to see it rejected by both the various Colonial governments and the imperial authorities in London. Franklin always believed that if these governments had not been so shortsighted, the American Revolution might have been avoided. In 1757, as a result of a quarrel between the Pennsylvania Assembly and the proprietors of the colony, he was sent to London as spokesman for the Assembly, the members of which wanted the authorities there to intervene. In this he achieved a partial success. While in England, he received honorary degrees from St. Andrews and Oxford. He was very happy in England and seriously considered a permanent move, but he came home to Philadelphia in 1762.

Another political quarrel in Pennsylvania led to Franklin’s return to England in 1764, where he soon became involved in efforts to forestall the new imperial policies toward the Colonies, which Americans regarded as outrageous. For ten years, Franklin was torn between his profound pride in America and things American, and his enthusiasm for English culture. As the foremost American of his day, he was looked to for the preservation of American rights: He became an agent for Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, as well as the Pennsylvania Assembly. As Anglo- American relations deteriorated, Franklin revealed in private his growing conviction that the American colonists’ claims were sound and that their resistance was justified, while he continued to make every diplomatic effort possible for accommodation.

Early in 1774, however, news arrived of the destruction of tea at Boston Harbor: the “Boston Tea Party.” This was quickly followed by a mighty personal attack on Franklin, occasioned by his part in obtaining and circulating certain letters written by Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, the contents of which inflamed opinion against Hutchinson and led to a petition for his recall. Franklin was dismissed by the royal government from his postal appointment and subjected to a searing public humiliation before a committee of the Privy Council (January, 1774). For another year he tried in many ingenious ways to achieve a reconciliation, but to no avail. He sailed for America in March, 1775.

When Franklin arrived home, the Continental Congress, which had first convened during the preceding fall, was now into its second session at Philadelphia. The deliberations were now becoming extremely anxious because the unthinkable had happened: Actual fighting had broken out with British soldiers at Lexington and Concord. Franklin was made a member of the congress the day after he arrived, and he immediately undertook important work. He drew up a plan of Colonial union—something similar to an early version of a national constitution. He organized a post office and became postmaster general. He served on a number of important committees, including one which in 1776 was to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was, at the age of seventy, the oldest signer. Toward the end of that year, he was sent by the congress, along with Arthur Lee and Silas Deane, to solicit French support for the American cause.

Franklin was well-known in France. He had visited that country before, but more important was his reputation as a scientist, writer (Poor Richard’s witticisms had been translated), and apostle of the latest ideas of the Age of Reason. He played the part well, with fur hat and simple clothes, a genial manner, and appropriate bons mots, and he exuded the spirit of liberty—a veritable backwoods Socrates spreading the truths of nature. Following the American victory at Saratoga (October, 1777), the French became receptive to American suggestions, and by February of 1778 France had become a formal ally. This meant that France was now at war with Great Britain.

Franklin became the sole American ambassador in September of 1778 and, as always, found many interests beyond his principal work. He managed, nevertheless, to keep Franco-American relations good; France provided America with material aid, an army, and, in the crucial autumn of 1781, a navy. After the British defeat at Yorktown (October, 1781), peace negotiations with Britain began. Franklin was joined by John Adams and John Jay in the final talks, but on several occasions the wily old Philadelphian’s role was decisive. It was an excellent treaty for Americans, gaining them a formal acknowledgment of independence and generous boundaries.

When Franklin returned to Philadelphia in September, 1785, he was nearly eighty years old. Yet he was chosen president of the executive council of Pennsylvania, and he became the president of an antislavery society. He was chosen as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, which drew up the United States Constitution in 1787, and he gave his prestigious support to its ratification. His last public act was signing a petition to Congress for the abolition of slavery. He died on April 17, 1790.


Franklin’s life was so varied and his achievements so diverse that it seems as though there were several Franklins, though one tends to overlap the other. The most familiar is the successful businessman who rose from humble circumstances to dine with kings, substantially by his own efforts. His life symbolized the rags-to-riches success of a self-made man, a theme of great importance in American thought. His version of his life, as presented in the didactic Autobiography (1791) and in the sayings of Poor Richard, stressed thrift, industry, and frugality—important elements of his own Puritan heritage, rendered in secular, easily understood forms. His zest for useful knowledge became the main style of American science and technology, yet he had great respect for learning and for intellectual curiosity, and he believed that educational opportunity was indispensable for a great future nation.

He was civic-minded from the start. He demonstrated what could be done by private, voluntary community effort to care for human needs, but he also stressed the importance of alert participation in the prevailing political system. His style was egalitarian, tolerant, and democratic before such a style was expected and common; yet he understood well the importance of dignity and deference in human affairs. Americans, during his later years, repudiated kings and hereditary aristocrats, but they also yearned for heroes. Franklin provided them with a hero unlike any other known before.


Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Benjamin Franklin: Philosopher and Man. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1965. An effort to explain Franklin’s human qualities as much as his achievements, this is a judicious, authoritative biography by one who has done much to expand knowledge of Franklin and who has written extensively about him. Some unconventional frankness, but without debunking.

Cohen, I. Bernard. Benjamin Franklin’s Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Cohen, I. Bernard. Franklin and Newton. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. In this reprint of the excellent 1956 study of eighteenth century scientific thought, Cohen, distinguished historian of science, places Franklin in the context of prevailing notions about scientific method; he appreciates Franklin as a scientist without overstating the case. Especially good depiction of human qualities which affect scientific work.

Conner, Paul W. Poor Richard’s Politics: Benjamin Franklin and His New American Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Systematic discussion of Franklin’s political ideas. This is a thoughtful, well-informed book, filled with materials regarding Franklin’s intellectual world. Strong effort to arrive at balanced judgments about Franklin as a thinker.

Crane, Verner W. Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1954. Succinct, extremely informative, and reliable. Neither very short nor very long, this book gets to the essentials about Franklin in a commonsense way reminiscent of the good Dr. Franklin himself. Especially strong on philosophical, social, and political ideas.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Leonard W. Labaree et al. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Franklin’s memoirs (the word “autobiography” was not used in the eighteenth century) have been printed a bewildering number of times, and most readers may well believe that they are familiar with them. It is one of those classics, however, which deserve repeated readings, even though it presents only one of the several Franklins.

Granger, Bruce I. Benjamin Franklin: An American Man of Letters. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964. Skilled presentation of Franklin’s literary achievements. Each chapter is devoted to a kind of writing, such as essays, letters, almanacs, and so on. Strong claims are made for Franklin, many of them persuasive.

Jennings, Francis. Benjamin Franklin, Politician. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Lopez, Claude-Anne. Mon Cher Papa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966. Unusually charming account of Franklin’s life in France during the American Revolution by one of the editors of the Franklin papers. The author does a good job of dispelling some of the myths and the nonsense about Franklin and the ladies and makes a strong case for his greatness as a diplomat. A very entertaining book.

Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Stourzh, Gerald. Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. Searching, learned analysis of some major features of Franklin’s thought. This account begins with a review of prevailing currents of thought in the eighteenth century, featuring the Great Chain of Being, the belief in progress and in reason, and other basic notions; then it proceeds with the way Franklin developed such materials in the course of his diplomatic career.

Van Doren, Carl C. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Viking Press, 1938. Magisterial biography, massive and still impressive. This is the kind of book to which one might turn for reliable information about nearly anything regarding Franklin’s life. An excellent literary achievement containing profound, extensive scholarship.

Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A lively, well- written biography. Much new knowledge about Franklin has come to light since Van Doren’s biography, and even since that of Aldridge, and this work incorporates it gracefully. In some ways, Wright says, Franklin was “ the most modern-minded of all the Founding Fathers.”