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Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706-April 17, 1790) was a scientist, publisher, and statesman in colonial North America, where he lacked the cultural and commercial institutions to nourish original ideas. He dedicated himself to creating those institutions and improving everyday life for the widest number of people, making an indelible mark on the emerging nation.
Fast Facts: Benjamin Franklin
- Born: January 17, 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts
- Parents: Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger
- Died: April 17, 1790 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Education: Two years of formal education
- Published Works: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack
- Spouse: Deborah Read (common law, 1730-1790)
- Children: William (unknown mother, born about 1730-1731), Francis Folger (1732-1734), Sarah Franklin Bache (1743-1808)
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Josiah Franklin, a soap and candlemaker, and his second wife Abiah Folger. Josiah Franklin and his first wife Anne Child (m. 1677-1689) immigrated to Boston from Northamptonshire, England in 1682. Anne died in 1689 and, left with seven children, Josiah soon married a prominent colonist named Abiah Folger.
Benjamin was Josiah's and Abiah's eighth child and Josiah's 10th son and 15th child-Josiah would eventually have 17 children. In such a crowded household, there were no luxuries. Benjamin's period of formal schooling was less than two years, after which he was put to work in his father's shop at the age of 10.
Franklin's fondness for books finally determined his career. His older brother James Franklin (1697-1735) was the editor and printer of the New England Courant, the fourth newspaper published in the colonies. James needed an apprentice, so in 1718 the 13-year-old Benjamin Franklin was bound by law to serve his brother. Soon after, Benjamin began writing articles for this newspaper. When James was put in jail in February 1723 after printing content considered libelous, the newspaper was published under Benjamin Franklin's name.
Escape to Philadelphia
After a month, James Franklin took back the de facto editorship and Benjamin Franklin went back to being a poorly treated apprentice. In September 1723, Benjamin sailed for New York and then Philadelphia, arriving in October 1723.
In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin found employment with Samuel Keimer, an eccentric printer just beginning a business. He found lodging at the home of John Read, who would become his father-in-law. The young printer soon attracted the notice of Pennsylvania Governor Sir William Keith, who promised to set him up in his own business. For that to happen, however, Benjamin had to go to London to buy a printing press.
London and 'Pleasure and Pain'
Franklin set sail for London in November 1724, engaged to John Read's daughter Deborah (1708-1774). Governor Keith promised to send a letter of credit to London, but when Franklin arrived he discovered that Keith had not sent the letter; Keith, Franklin learned, was known to have been a man who dealt primarily in "expectations." Benjamin Franklin remained in London for nearly two years as he worked for his fare home.
Franklin found employment at the famous printer's shop owned by Samuel Palmer and helped him produce "The Religion of Nature Delineated" by William Wollaston, which argued that the best way to study religion was through science. Inspired, Franklin printed the first of his many pamphlets in 1725, an attack on conservative religion called "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain." After a year at Palmer's, Franklin found a better paying job at John Watt's printing house; but in July 1726, he set sail for home with Thomas Denham, a sensible mentor and father figure he had met during his stay in London.
During the 11-week voyage, Franklin wrote "Plan for Future Conduct," the first of his many personal credos describing what lessons he had learned and what he intended to do in the future to avoid pitfalls.
Philadelphia and the Junto Society
After returning to Philadelphia in late 1726, Franklin opened a general store with Thomas Denham and when Denham died in 1727, and Franklin went back to work with the printer Samuel Keimer.
In 1727 he founded the Junto Society, commonly known as the "Leather Apron Club," a small group of middle-class young men who were engaged in business and who met in a local tavern and debated morality, politics, and philosophy. Historian Walter Isaacson described the Junto as a public version of Franklin himself, a "practical, industrious, inquiring, convivial, and middle-brow philosophical group that celebrated civic virtue, mutual benefits, the improvement of self and society, and the proposition that hardworking citizens could do well by doing good."
Becoming a Newspaper Man
By 1728, Franklin and another apprentice, Hugh Meredith, set up their own shop with funding from Meredith's father. The son soon sold his share, and Benjamin Franklin was left with his own business at the age of 24. He anonymously printed a pamphlet called "The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency," which called attention to the need for paper money in Pennsylvania. The effort was a success, and he won the contract to print the money.
In part driven by his competitive streak, Franklin began writing a series of anonymous letters known collectively as the "Busy-Body" essays, signed under several pseudonyms and criticizing the existing newspapers and printers in Philadelphia-including one operated by his old employer Samuel Keimer, called The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette. Keimer went bankrupt in 1729 and sold his 90-subscriber paper to Franklin, who renamed it The Pennsylvania Gazette. The newspaper was later renamed The Saturday Evening Post.
The Gazette printed local news, extracts from the London newspaper Spectator, jokes, verses, humorous attacks on rival Andrew Bradford's American Weekly Mercury, moral essays, elaborate hoaxes, and political satire. Franklin often wrote and printed letters to himself, either to emphasize some truth or to ridicule some mythical but typical reader.
A Common Law Marriage
By 1730, Franklin began looking for a wife. Deborah Read had married during his long stay in London, so Franklin courted a number of girls and even fathered an illegitimate child named William, who was born between April 1730 and April 1731. When Deborah's marriage failed, she and Franklin began living together as a married couple with William in September 1730, an arrangement that protected them from bigamy charges that never materialized.
A Library and 'Poor Richard'
In 1731, Franklin established a subscription library called the Library Company of Philadelphia, in which users would pay dues to borrow books. The first 45 titles purchased included science, history, politics, and reference works. Today, the library has 500,000 books and 160,000 manuscripts and is the oldest cultural institution in the United States.
In 1732, Benjamin Franklin published "Poor Richard's Almanack." Three editions were produced and sold out within a few months. During its 25-year run, the sayings of the publisher Richard Saunders and his wife Bridget-both aliases of Benjamin Franklin-were printed in the almanac. It became a humor classic, one of the earliest in the colonies, and years later the most striking of its sayings were collected and published in a book.
Deborah gave birth to Francis Folger Franklin in 1732. Francis, known as "Franky," died of smallpox at the age of 4 before he could be vaccinated. Franklin, a fierce advocate of smallpox vaccination, had planned to vaccinate the boy but the illness intervened.
In 1736, Franklin organized and incorporated the Union Fire Company, based on a similar service established in Boston some years earlier. He became enthralled by the Great Awakening religious revival movement, rushing to the defense of Samuel Hemphill, attending George Whitefield's nightly outdoor revival meetings, and publishing Whitefield's journals between 1739 and 1741 before cooling to the enterprise.
During this period in his life, Franklin also kept a shop in which he sold a variety of goods. Deborah Read was the shopkeeper. He ran a frugal shop, and with all his other activities, Benjamin Franklin's wealth rapidly increased.
American Philosophical Society
About 1743, Franklin moved that the Junto society become intercontinental, and the result was named the American Philosophical Society. Based in Philadelphia, the society had among its members many leading men of scientific attainments or tastes from all over the world. In 1769, Franklin was elected president and served until his death. The first important undertaking was the successful observation of the transit of Venus in 1769; since then, the group has made several important scientific discoveries.
In 1743, Deborah gave birth to their second child Sarah, known as Sally.
An Early 'Retirement'
All of the societies Franklin had created up to this point were noncontroversial, in so far as they kept with the colonial governmental policies. In 1747, however, Franklin proposed the institution of a volunteer Pennsylvania Militia to protect the colony from French and Spanish privateers raiding on the Delaware River. Soon, 10,000 men signed up and formed themselves into more than 100 companies. It was disbanded in 1748, but not before word of what Pennsylvania colony's leader Thomas Penn called "a part little less than treason" was communicated to the British governor.
In 1748 at the age of 42, with a comparatively small family and the frugality of his nature, Franklin was able to retire from active business and devote himself to philosophical and scientific studies.
Franklin the Scientist
Although Franklin had neither formal training nor grounding in math, he now undertook a vast amount of what he called "scientific amusements." Among his many inventions was the "Pennsylvania fireplace" in 1749, a wood-burning stove that could be built into fireplaces to maximize heat while minimizing smoke and drafts. The Franklin stove was remarkably popular, and Franklin was offered a lucrative patent that he turned down. In his autobiography, Franklin wrote, "As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously." He never patented any of his inventions.
Benjamin Franklin studied many different branches of science. He studied smoky chimneys; he invented bifocal glasses; he studied the effect of oil upon ruffled water; he identified the "dry bellyache" as lead poisoning; he advocated ventilation in the days when windows were closed tight at night, and with patients at all times; and he investigated fertilizers in agriculture. His scientific observations show that he foresaw some of the great developments of the 19th century.
His greatest fame as a scientist was the result of his discoveries in electricity. During a visit to Boston in 1746, he saw some electrical experiments and at once became deeply interested. His friend Peter Collinson of London sent him some of the crude electrical apparatuses of the day, which Franklin used, as well as some equipment he had purchased in Boston. He wrote in a letter to Collinson: "For my own part, I never was before engaged in any study that so engrossed my attention and my time as this has lately done."
Experiments conducted with a small group of friends and described in this correspondence showed the effect of pointed bodies in drawing off electricity. Franklin decided that electricity was not the result of friction, but that the mysterious force was diffused through most substances, and that nature always restored its equilibrium. He developed the theory of positive and negative electricity, or plus and minus electrification.
Franklin carried on experiments with the Leyden jar, made an electrical battery, killed a fowl and roasted it upon a spit turned by electricity, sent a current through water to ignite alcohol, ignited gunpowder, and charged glasses of wine so that the drinkers received shocks.
More importantly, he began to develop the theory of the identity of lightning and electricity and the possibility of protecting buildings with iron rods. He brought electricity into his house using an iron rod, and he concluded, after studying electricity's effect on bells, that clouds were generally negatively electrified. In June 1752, Franklin performed his famous kite experiment, drawing down electricity from the clouds and charging a Leyden jar from the key at the end of the string.
Peter Collinson gathered Benjamin Franklin's letters together and had them published in a pamphlet in England, which attracted wide attention. The Royal Society elected Franklin a member and awarded him the Copley medal with a complimentary address in 1753.
Education and the Making of a Rebel
In 1749, Franklin proposed an academy of education for the youth of Pennsylvania. It would be different from the existing institutions (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William & Mary) in that it would be neither religiously affiliated nor reserved for the elites. The focus, he wrote, was to be on practical instruction: writing, arithmetic, accounting, oratory, history, and business skills. It opened in 1751 as the first nonsectarian college in America, and by 1791 it became known as the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin also raised money for a hospital and began arguing against British restraint of manufacturing in America. He wrestled with the idea of slavery, personally owning and then selling an African-American couple in 1751, and then keeping an enslaved person as a servant on occasion later in life. But in his writings, he attacked the practice on economic grounds and helped establish schools for black children in Philadelphia in the late 1750s. Later, he became an ardent and active abolitionist.
Political Career Begins
In 1751, Franklin took a seat on the Pennsylvania Assembly, where he (literally) cleaned up the streets in Philadelphia by establishing street sweepers, installing street lamps, and paving.
In 1753, he was appointed one of three commissioners to the Carlisle Conference, a congregation of Native American leaders at Albany, New York, intended to secure the allegiance of the Delaware Indians to the British. More than 100 members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) attended; the Iroquois leader Scaroyady proposed a peace plan, which was dismissed almost entirely, and the upshot was that the Delaware Indians fought on the side of the French in the final struggles of the French and Indian War.
While in Albany, the colonies' delegates had a second agenda, at Franklin's instigation: to appoint a committee to "prepare and receive plans or schemes for the union of the colonies." They would create a national congress of representatives from each colony, who would be led by a "president general" appointed by the king. Despite some opposition, the measure known as the "Albany Plan" passed, but it was rejected by all of the colonial assemblies as usurping too much of their power and by London as giving too much power to voters and setting a path toward union.
When Franklin returned to Philadelphia, he discovered the British government had finally given him the job he had been lobbying for: deputy postmaster for the colonies.
As deputy postmaster, Franklin visited nearly all the post offices in the colonies and introduced many improvements into the service. He established new postal routes and shortened others. Postal carriers now could deliver newspapers, and the mail service between New York and Philadelphia was increased to three deliveries a week in summer and one in winter.
Franklin set milestones at fixed distances along the main post road that ran from northern New England to Savannah, Georgia, to enable the postmasters to compute postage. Crossroads connected some of the larger communities away from the seacoast with the main road, but when Benjamin Franklin died, after also serving as postmaster general of the United States, there were still only 75 post offices in the entire country.
Raising funds for the defense was always a grave problem in the colonies because the assemblies controlled the purse-strings and released them with a grudging hand. When the British sent General Edward Braddock to defend the colonies in the French and Indian war, Franklin personally guaranteed that the required funds from the Pennsylvania farmers would be repaid.
The assembly refused to raise a tax on the British peers who owned much of the land in Pennsylvania (the "Proprietary Faction") in order to pay those farmers for their contribution, and Franklin was outraged. In general, Franklin opposed Parliament levying taxes on the colonies-no taxation without representation-but he used all his influence to bring the Quaker Assembly to vote for money for the defense of the colony.
In January 1757, the Assembly sent Franklin to London to lobby the Proprietary faction to be more accommodating to the Assembly and, failing that, to bring the issue to the British government.
Franklin reached London in July 1757, and from that time on his life was to be closely linked with Europe. He returned to America six years later and made a trip of 1,600 miles to inspect postal affairs, but in 1764 he was again sent to England to renew the petition for a royal government for Pennsylvania, which had not yet been granted. In 1765, that petition was made obsolete by the Stamp Act, and Franklin became the representative of the American colonies against King George III and Parliament.
Benjamin Franklin did his best to avert the conflict that would become the American Revolution. He made many friends in England, wrote pamphlets and articles, told comical stories and fables where they might do some good, and constantly strove to enlighten the ruling class of England upon conditions and sentiment in the colonies. His appearance before the House of Commons in February 1766 hastened the repeal of the Stamp Act. Benjamin Franklin remained in England for nine more years, but his efforts to reconcile the conflicting claims of Parliament and the colonies were of no avail. He sailed for home in early 1775.
During Franklin's 18-month stay in America, he sat in the Continental Congress and was a member of the most important committees; submitted a plan for a union of the colonies; served as postmaster general and as chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety; visited George Washington at Cambridge; went to Montreal to do what he could for the cause of independence in Canada; presided over the convention that framed a constitution for Pennsylvania; and was a member of the committee appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence and of the committee sent on the futile mission to New York to discuss terms of peace with Lord Howe.
Treaty With France
In September 1776, the 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin was appointed envoy to France and sailed soon afterward. The French ministers were not at first willing to make a treaty of alliance, but under Franklin's influence they lent money to the struggling colonies. Congress sought to finance the war with paper currency and by borrowing rather than by taxation. The legislators sent bill after bill to Franklin, who continually appealed to the French government. He fitted out privateers and negotiated with the British concerning prisoners. At length, he won from France recognition of the United States and then the Treaty of Alliance.
The U.S. Constitution
Congress permitted Franklin to return home in 1785, and when he arrived he was pushed to keep working. He was elected president of the Council of Pennsylvania and was twice reelected despite his protests. He was sent to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the creation of the Constitution of the United States. He seldom spoke at the event but was always to the point when he did, and all of his suggestions for the Constitution were followed.
America's most famous citizen lived until near the end of the first year of President George Washington's administration. On April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin died at his home in Philadelphia at age 84.
- Clark, Ronald W. "Benjamin Franklin: A Biography." New York: Random House, 1983.
- Fleming, Thomas (ed.). "Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words." New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
- Franklin, Benjamin. "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin." Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909.
- Isaacson, Walter. "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life." New York, Simon and Schuster, 2003.
- Lepore, Jill. "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." Boston: Vintage Books, 2013.