Franklin, Benjamin

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Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790): American Scientist and Politician.

Benjamin Franklin—printer, journalist, scientist, inventor, diplomat and statesman—was one of the central figures of the American Revolution. His influence is still felt today.

Benjamin Franklin was born, 17 January 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the tenth child of a candle and soap maker. He had perhaps two years of formal education, then began working in his father’s shop. After several attempts to find a suitable career, he was apprenticed at 12 to his older brother James, publisher of the New-England Courant. His first published letters, under the pseudonym Silence Dogwood, appeared when Franklin was only 14, although he had to push them under the door at night so his brother would not know the author’s identity. Copying Addison, Joseph and other refined writers, Franklin developed his literary skills while becoming an expert printer. He acted as editor while his brother, who had insulted the Boston authorities, was in hiding or in prison. A disagreement between the brothers led the younger Franklin to run away to Philadelphia.

Arriving in Philadelphia at 17, Franklin found work in the printing office of Samuel Keimer. Aware of his superior skills, Franklin sought funds to open his own print shop. Tricked into traveling to England by Governor William Keith with a bogus letter of credit, Franklin found himself unemployed in London. He took work as a printer, helping to produce William Wollaston’s Religion of Nature Delineated, which he attacked in his Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, printed on his employer’s press. In London Franklin gained quite a reputation for abstemiousness. He was know as a “Water American” for rejecting beer and meat, and swam regularly for exercise.

Franklin traveled back to Philadelphia in 1726 as clerk to an American businessman. When his employer unexpectedly died, Franklin turned to working as manager of Keimer’s print shop. He pursued his literary interests through a club with other young men of the city, the Junto. This group combined two of Franklin’s interests: networking and developing the mind through learned discussion. Breaking with Keimer, Franklin and a partner started a new printing establishment and a newspaper. When Keimer’s paper failed, Franklin took over the Pennsylvania Gazette for which he wrote many satirical pieces under a number of assumed names.

In 1730 Franklin announced his common-law marriage to Deborah Read, who cared for William, Franklin’s existing child of unknown mother. The two could not marry conventionally given the danger that Deborah’s missing and perhaps dead first husband would turn up again. He did not, and the Franklins stayed married for four decades, even through Ben’s long absences in Europe. Expanding his printing business, Franklin introduced his Poor Richard’s Almanack; a huge success, it sold ten thousand copies a year until 1758 and established Franklin’s reputation as an author and aphorist. His humorous sayings (“he that lives upon hope will die fasting,” “a countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats” and “the greatest monarch on the proudest throne is obliged to sit on his own arse”), represent a critical stage in the development of the American character—suspicious of intellectuals, shrewd, and driven to succeed. Many were later collected in The Way to Wealth (1758).

Franklin became one of the leading figures of Philadelphia, acting as clerk of the assembly and postmaster, and helping to found a library, a fire brigade, a self-defense militia, a public meeting hall for religious speakers, the University of Pennsylvania, a hospital, and the American Philosophical Society. A literary magazine, and America’s first German-language newspaper, were among his few unsuccessful ventures.

Franklin’s international reputation grew from his mechanical talent and great curiosity. He invented a more efficient and less smoky wood-stove, promoted in a pamphlet of 1744. Most significantly he became interested in the new science of electricity, proving in his legendary kite experiment of 1752 that static electricity and lightning were the same phenomenon. Letters describing his experiment sent to a friend in England were published, making Franklin the most noted scientist of his day, and earning him the Copley Medal, election to the Royal Society, and honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, St. Andrews and Oxford. Franklin’s reputation was, remarkably, even higher in France than in England. The lightning rod, which he invented to protect tall buildings from lightening strikes, was one of Franklin’s many practical inventions based on his scientific research.

From 1757 to 1762 Franklin was in England, representing Pennsylvania in an on-going dispute with the Penn family, who as proprietors of the colony owned huge estates but paid no taxes. While waiting for the Penns to reply to Pennsylvania’s demands, Franklin joined the literary life of London, writing propaganda pamphlets and letters on British colonial policy. Returning to Philadelphia, Franklin resumed his duties as postmaster and was elected Speaker of the Assembly. Losing in the election of 1764, he accepted reappointment as Pennsylvania’s representative and went back to London for an eleven-year visit.

In London Franklin served as representative for his home colony and at times also Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. He campaigned against the Stamp Act, a deeply unpopular tax on the American colonists that was repealed in 1766. As colonial conflicts over taxation grew, Franklin continued his scientific work, produced masses of propaganda, and befriended Hume, David, Smith, Adam and Kames, Henry Home, Lord. In 1772, Franklin became embroiled in a controversy surrounding letters between the Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson and Britain that asked for military intervention. Franklin, who had sent copies of the letters obtained from another to Boston, was accused of theft and became an object of scorn. Insulted in a parliamentary inquiry, he left for Philadelphia in 1775, already an old man. Remarkably, he had more than a dozen years of service to his country ahead of him.

Franklin was elected to the second Continental Congress (1775) and given numerous roles, including creating a postal service, negotiating with the British, serving on the committee that approved Jefferson, Thomas’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, and unsuccessfully invading Canada. His son William, royal governor of New Jersey, remained loyal to Britain, leading to a lifelong break between father and son. Calling on his diplomatic experience, Congress sent Franklin to Paris in 1776, with two co-commissioners, to seek French military support. Franklin was hugely popular in France, in part for being fashionably rustic. France formally recognized American independence in 1778, and extended huge loans that Franklin managed. With input from John Jay and Adams, John, Franklin negotiated a treaty with Britain to end the Revolutionary War, signed in 1783. He was replaced by Thomas Jefferson as diplomatic representative to France in 1785.

Back in Pennsylvania, Franklin served three terms as president of the state executive council. He was also the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The last part of his life was spent in retirement, writing and campaigning against slavery. He died on 17 April 1790. His popular posthumous Autobiography was enormously influential, establishing the model for all future American “rags-to-riches” stories.

Benjamin Franklin was a remarkable man, and perhaps the greatest member of a remarkable generation of American leaders. His talents were such that along with the achievements already mentioned, he drew the first political cartoon in America (“Join or Die” written under a sliced up snake representing the various colonies), and produced numerous remarkable mathematical tricks known as “magic squares.” The great polymath of the eighteenth century, Franklin was (with George Washington) one of the two key figures who defined the character of the American revolution.

Further Reading:

H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, 2000.

J. Campbell. Recovering Benjamin Franklin: An Exploration of a Life of Science and Service, 1999.

E. S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin, 2002.

Nicholas Hunt-Bull

Southern New Hampshire University