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Biography of Benjamin Franklin

Written by: Ketcham, Ralph    Posted on: 03/18/2003

Category: Biographies

Source: CCN



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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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