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Biography of Benjamin Franklin
AUTHOR: Ketcham, Ralph
PUBLISHED ON: March 18, 2003
DOC SOURCE: CCN
PUBLISHED IN: Biographies

BIOGRAPHY: BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

BOOKMAN

After less than two years of formal schooling, Franklin was
pressed into his father’s trade, but his more profound talents
proved to be intellectual. He devoured books by John Bunyan,
Plutarch, Daniel Defoe, and Cotton Mather at home, and, after
being apprenticed to his brother James, printer of The New
England Courant, he read virtually every book that came to the
shop. He general- ly absorbed the values and philosophy of the
English Enlightenment. Like his favorite author, Joseph
Addison, whose essays in the Spectator he virtually memorized,
Franklin added the good sense, tolerance, and urbanity of the
neoclassic age to his family’s Puritan earnestness. He
rejected his father’s Calvinist theology, however, and soon
espoused what became a lifelong belief in rational
Christianity.

At the age of 16, Franklin wrote some pieces for the Courant
signed “Silence Dogood,” in which he satirized the Boston
authorities and society. In one essay he argued that
“hypocritical Pretenders to Religion” more injured the common-
wealth than those “openly Profane.” At one point James
Franklin was imprisoned for similar statements, and Benjamin
carried on the paper himself. Having thus learned to resist
oppression, Benjamin refused to suffer his brother’s own
domineering qualities and in 1723 ran away to Philadelphia.

Though penniless and unknown, Franklin soon found a job as a
printer. After a year he went to England, where he became a
master printer, sowed some wild oats, astonished Londoners
with his swimming feats, and lived among the aspiring writers
of London. Returning to Philadelphia in 1726, he soon owned
his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and began to
print Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732). His business expanded
further when he contracted to do the public printing of the
province, and established partnerships with printers in other
colonies.

He also operated a book shop and became clerk of the
Pennsylvania Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia. In 1748,
Franklin, aged 42, retired to live comfor- tably off the
income from his business, managed by others, for 20 years.

In the sayings of “Poor Richard” like “Early to bed and early
to rise make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” and in his
scheme for moral virtue later set out in his famous
Autobiography, Franklin summarized his view of how the poor
man may improve himself by hard work, thrift, and honesty.
Poor Richard’s Almanack sold widely in North America, and a
summarized version known as The Way to Wealth was translated
into many languages.

CIVIC LEADER AND SCIENTIST

In 1727, Franklin began his career as a civic leader by
organizing a club of aspiring tradesmen called the Junto,
which met each week for discussion and planning. They aspired
to build their own businesses, insure the growth of
Philadelphia, and improve the quality of its life. Franklin
thus led the Junto in founding a library (1731), a fire
company (1736), a learned society (1743), a college (later the
University of Pennsylvania, 1749), and an insurance company
and a hospital (1751). The group also carried out plans for
paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets and for making them
safe by organizing an efficient nightwatch. They even formed a
voluntary militia.

Franklin began yet another career when in 1740 he invented the
Pennsylvania fireplace, later called the Franklin stove, which
soon heated buildings all over Europe and North America. He
also read treaties on electricity and began a series of
experiments with his friends in Philadelphia. Experiments he
proposed, first tried in France in 1752, showed that lightning
was in fact a form of electricity. Later that year his famous
kite experiment, in which he flew a kite with the wire
attached to a key during a thunderstorm, further established
that laboratory-produced static electricity was akin to a
previously mysterious and terrifying natural phenomenon. When
the Royal Society in London published these discoveries, and
the lightning rods he soon invented appeared on buildings all
over America and Europe, Franklin became world famous. He was
elected to the Royal Society in 1756 and to the French Academy
of Sciences in 1772. His later achievements included
formulating a theory of heat absorption, measuring the Gulf
Stream, designing ships, tracking storm paths, and inventing
bifocal lenses.

POLITICIAN AND PROVINCIAL AGENT

In 1751, Franklin was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly,
thus beginning nearly 40 years as a public official. He
intended at first merely to enlist political support for his
various civic enterprises, but partisan politics soon engulfed
him. He opposed the Proprietary party that sought to preserve
the power of the Penn family in Pennsylvania affairs, and as
the legislative strategist and penman for the so-called Quaker
party, he defended the powers of the elected representatives
of the people. Franklin thus knew the virtues of
self-government a generation before the Declaration of
Independence.

Franklin did not at first, however, contemplate separation
from Britain, which he regarded as having the freest, best
government in the world. In the Plan of Union, which he
presented (1754) to the Albany Congress, he proposed partial
self-government for the American colonies. A year later
Franklin supported the ill-fated expedition of Gen. Edward
Braddock to recapture Fort Duquesne, and he persuaded the
Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania Assembly to pass the colony’s
first militia law. He himself led a military expedition to the
Lehigh Valley, where he established forts to protect
frontiersmen from French and Indian raiders. As Franklin
helped the empire fight for its life, however, he saw that
colonial and ministerial ideas of governing the colonies were
far apart. When he went to England in 1757 as agent of the
Pennsylvania Assembly, he was alarmed to hear Lord Granville,
president of the Privy Council, declare that for the colonies,
the king’s instructions were “the Law of the Land: for the
King is the Legis- lator of the Colonies.”

In England from 1757 to 1762, Franklin worked to persuade
British officials to limit proprietary power in Pennsylvania.
He also immensely enjoyed English social and intellectual
life. He attended meetings of the Royal Society, visited David
Hume in Scotland, heard great orchestras play the works of
Handel, made grand tours of the continent, and received
honorary doctor’s degrees from the universities of St. Andrews
(1759) and Oxford (1762).

He created a pleasant family-style life at his Craven Street
boarding house in London, and began a long friendship and
scientific-humorous correspondence with his landlady’s
daughter, Mary Stevenson. Their letters reveal his gifts for
lively friendship, for brilliant letter writing, and for
humane understanding.

At home from 1762 to 1764, Franklin traveled throughout the
colonies, reorganiz- ing the American postal system. He also
built a new house on Market Street in Philadelphia–now
reconstructed and open to visitors–and otherwise provided for
his family, which included the former Deborah Read, his wife
since 1730; their daughter Sally, who married Richard Bache
and had a large family of her own; and his illegitimate son,
William. Though he was appointed governor of New Jersey in
1762, William became a Loyalist during the American
Revolution, completely estranged from his father.

As an influential politician, Franklin opposed the bloody
revenges of frontier people against innocent Indians after
Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763) and helped to defend Philadelphia
when the angry pioneers threatened its peace. In 1764 he lost
his seat in the assembly in an especially scurrilous campaign.
However, his party sent him to England in 1764 to petition
that Pennsylvania be taken over as a royal colony.

DEFENDER OF AMERICAN RIGHTS

The crisis precipitated by the Stamp Act (1765) pushed that
effort into the background and propelled Franklin into a new
role as chief defender of American rights in Britain. At first
he advised obedience to the act until it could be repealed,
but news of violent protest against it in America stiffened
his own opposition. After repeal of the Stamp Act, Franklin
reaffirmed his love for the British Empire and his desire to
see the union of mother country and colonies “secured and
established,” but he also warned that “the seeds of liberty
are universally found and nothing can eradicate them.” He
opposed the Townshend Acts (1767) because such “acts of
oppression” would “sour American tempers” and perhaps even
“hasten their final revolt.” When the British Parliament
passed the Tea Act (1773), which hurt the colonial merchants,
Franklin protested in a series of finely honed political
essays, including “An Edict by the King of Prussia” and “Rules
by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.” As
these satires circulated in England, Franklin wrote his
sister: “I have held up a Looking-Glass in which some of the
Ministers may see their ugly faces, and the Nation its
Injustice.”

In 1773, Franklin’s friends in Massachusetts, against his
instructions, publi- shed letters by Gov. Thomas Hutchinson
that Franklin had obtained in confidence. Apparently exposed
as a dishonest schemer, Franklin was denounced before the
Privy Council in January 1774 and stripped of his postmaster
general’s office. Although he continued to work for
conciliation, the Boston Tea Party and Britain’s oppressive
response to it soon doomed such efforts. In March 1775,
Franklin sailed for home, sure “the extream corruption . . .
in this old rotten State” would ensure “more Mischief than
Benefit from a closer Union” between Britain and its colonies.

>From April 1775 to October 1776, Franklin served on the
Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and in the Continental
Congress, submitted articles of confederation for the united
colonies, proposed a new constitution for Pennsylvania, and
helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He readily
signed the declaration, thus becoming a revolutionist at the
age of 70.

DIPLOMAT

In October 1776, Franklin and his two grandsons sailed for
France, where he achieved an amazing personal triumph and
gained critical French aid for the Revolutionary War. Parisian
literary and scientific circles hailed him as a living
embodiment of Enlightenment virtues. Wigless and dressed in
plain brown clothes, he was called le Bonhomme Richard.
Franklin was at his best creating the legend of his life among
the ladies of Paris, writing witty letters, printing
bagatelles, and telling anecdotes.

He moved slowly at first in his diplomacy. France wanted to
injure Britain but could not afford to help the American
rebels unless eventual success seemed assured. Franklin thus
worked behind the scenes to send war supplies across the
Atlantic, thwart British diplomacy, and make friends with
influential French officials. He overcame his own doubts about
the possibly dishonest dealings of his fellow commissioner
Silas Deane in channeling war materials to American armies,
but the third commissioner, Arthur Lee (1740-92), bitterly
condemned both Deane and Franklin. Despite these quarrels, in
February 1778, following news of the American victory at
Saratoga, the three commissioners were able to sign the vital
French alliance.

Franklin then became the first American minister to France.
For seven years he acted as diplomat, purchasing agent,
recruiting officer, loan negotiator, admiralty court, and
intelligence chief and was generally the main representa- tive
of the new United States in Europe. Though nearly 80 years
old, he oversaw the dispatch of French armies and navies to
North America, supplied American armies with French munitions,
outfitted John Paul Jones–whose famous ship the Bonhomme
Richard was named in Franklin’s honor–and secured a
succession of loans from the nearly bankrupt French treasury.

After the loss at Yorktown (1781) finally persuaded British
leaders that they could not win the war, Franklin made secret
contact with peace negotiators sent from London. In these
delicate negotiations he proposed treaty articles close to
those finally agreed to: complete American independence,
access to the New- foundland fishing grounds, evacuation of
British forces from all occupied areas, and a western boundary
on the Mississippi. Together with John Jay, Franklin
represented the United States in signing the Treaty of Paris
(Sept. 3, 1783), by which the world’s foremost military power
recognized the independence of the new nation.

Franklin traveled home in 1785. Though in his 80th year and
suffering from painful bladder stones, he nonetheless accepted
election for three years as president of Pennsylvania and
resumed active roles in the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting
the Abolition of Slavery, the American Philosophical Society,
and the University of Pennsylvania. At the Constitutional
Convention of 1787, although he was too weak to stand,
Franklin’s good humor and gift for compromise often helped to
prevent bitter disputes.

Franklin’s final public pronouncements urged ratification of
the Constitution and approved the inauguration of the new
federal government under his admired friend George Washington.
He wrote friends in France that “we are making Experiments in
Politicks,” but that American “affairs mend daily and are
getting into good order very fast.” Thus, cheerful and
optimistic as always, Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia
on Apr. 17, 1790.

RALPH KETCHAM

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crane, Verner W.- BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AND A RISING PEOPLE (1954;
repr. 1962) Franklin, Benjamin – AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BENJAMIN
FRANKLIN, ed. by L.W. Labaree et al. (1964) Hawke, David F. –
FRANKLIN (1976) Ketcham, R. L. – BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1965)
Labaree, Leonard W. – et al., eds., THE PAPERS OF BENJAMIN
FRANKLIN, 16 vols. to date (1959-1977) Lopez, Claude-Anne, and
Herbert, E. W. – THE PRIVATE FRANKLIN (1975) Van Doren, Carl –
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1938; repr. 1973)

‘Copyright 1987, Grolier Inc, Academic American Encyclopedia,
Electronic Version’

USED BY PERMISSION, granted January 9, 1988

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