Other than George Washington, Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American of his generation. Any noteworthy activity in Philadelphia had his fingerprints, including the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Franklin was a philanthropist, entrepreneur, scientist, philosopher, diplomat, statesman, printer, and reluctant patriot whose morals and social activities were more in line with the “commoners” than men of society. He was called a “citizen of the world,” a title that has its pitfalls and is out of place with other men from his generation, but he often called England his “home” and admired French society. Franklin provided humor, good will, and dignity to the important events of his time and is one of the most quotable men of the Founding generation. In contrast to the other “Big Six,” Franklin never held a position in the federal government, but his contributions to American political and social life were, nevertheless, important. He championed compromise and resisted rash decisions. Without Franklin, the history of the early republic would be drastically different— less humorous, if nothing else.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 17 January 1706 to Josiah and Abiah Franklin. His father had immigrated to New England around 1682 from Northamptonshire, England. His mother was the daughter of Peter Folger, one of the first settlers of Nantucket and an American Indian interpreter. Franklin was Josiah’s youngest son and the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations. Josiah Franklin intended for his gifted son to enter the ministry and sent him to the prestigious Boston Grammar School, but as a poor soap and candle maker, he could not afford the fees and within a year transferred him out. Franklin worked with his father for a year or two and later was apprenticed at his half-brother’s printing shop.
James Franklin, his brother, established the New England Courant in 1721, and young Benjamin learned every aspect of the printer’s trade, even writing fourteen humorous letters under the pseudonym “Mrs. Silence Dogood” for the paper. When his brother was imprisoned for “seditious” language, Franklin ran the paper by himself. He also had access to a small library and read voraciously. The two brothers eventually had a falling out, and Franklin ran away to Philadelphia at the age of seventeen. Because he broke his apprenticeship, this made him a legal fugitive, and though he had little money and a poor appearance, he quickly found work in another printing shop. He acquired a circle of friends that included the royal governor of the colony. The governor convinced Franklin to travel to London to buy printing equipment on credit. After arriving in London in 1724, no letters of credit followed and Franklin was left to his own devices again.
He took another job in a printing house and saved enough money to buy a trip home. Franklin befriended a Quaker merchant on his return trip and worked at his Philadelphia shop learning the art of commerce. He formed a business partnership in 1728 with Hugh Meredith and bought The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. By the age of twenty-four, Franklin had two illegitimate children and decided to settle down to arrest his “youthful passions.” In 1730, he took a wife, Deborah Reed, through a common-law union. They had two children, and Reed proved to be a “good and faithful helpmate.” She did not share Franklin’s zeal for intellectual pursuits, but Franklin never complained and strove to make the marriage work.
His career took a decided turn for the better after his marriage. Franklin published the Gazette and ran a shop that traded in a variety of commodities, possibly including slaves. He acquired the contract for all Pennsylvania government printing and printed books, broadsides and other material. He lived a frugal and thrifty life. Franklin wrote that he not only wanted to lead a life of thrift and industry, he wanted to “avoid all appearances to the contrary.” He dressed plainly and never appeared idle. This lifestyle eventually made him a household name in both the colonies and in Europe.
In 1732, Benjamin Franklin began publishing a series titled Poor Richard’s Almanac. His bits of wisdom made him the undisputed spokesman of the “common man” and exemplified the prudent and practical colonial spirit. The Almanac was second only to the Bible in popularity and “As poor Richard says” became a widely used phrase in the colonies. Bits of wisdom such as “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” “Don’t throw stones at your neighbours, if your own windows are glass,” and “Haste makes Waste” have survived into the modern era. The Almanac is also a fine example of one of Franklin’s important character traits: self-promotion. He made friends with the “right” people, always found time for the “right” activities, and was rarely in the minority on any given subject. Franklin was always described as honest, but he knew when to make the right moves and appear genuine. His philanthropic ventures were also noteworthy. Franklin took an active part in virtually every public enterprise in Philadelphia. He organized fire brigades, helped establish nonsectarian churches, sponsored the creation of Pennsylvania Hospital, and helped found the University of Pennsylvania.
He reformed police patrols and worked for better lighting on Philadelphia streets. He created the first circulating library in the colonies and helped broaden American scientific achievements through his own invention and exploration. He wrote about weather, earthquakes, geography, climate, agriculture, economics, and physics. He might have been the first to recognize Atlantic storms or “nor’easters” move against the wind. He was fascinated by electricity and developed a theory of lightning—by famously flying his kite—that led to the lightning rod.Benjamin Franklin’s inventions included a more efficient stove, a better clock, and bifocals. Because of his contributions to science, Harvard (1753), Yale (1753), and the College of William and Mary (1756) conferred honorary Master of Arts degrees, and Scotland’s St. Andrews University (1759) an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. He established a Philadelphia debating club, urged the creation of an American Philosophical Society, and was ultimately accepted into the elite British Royal Society. “Dr.” Franklin was the “American Sage” and the most respected man in the colonies in the pre-Revolutionary period.
A productive public career followed his fame. Franklin became the clerk of the Pennsylvania assembly in 1736 and was the leading man in that body from 1751 to 1764. He served as postmaster of Philadelphia and eventually as deputy postmaster general for all the colonies. Franklin helped organize Pennsylvania frontier defenses during the French and Indian War and was elected a colonel of the Pennsylvania militia in 1757. He also favored a union of the colonies for defensive purposes and advanced an early design for such a union called the “Albany Plan” in 1754. His famous image depicting a severed snake representing the various colonies with the phrase “Join, or Die” has been called the first American political cartoon.
Benjamin Franklin was an Anglophile who valued the role of the crown and sought its protection, and though he believed the North American colonies were a component of the British Empire, he thought administratively they were two separate entities. Parliament, in his estimation, had no right to impose taxes on the American colonies because American interests were not represented in that body, but he did not think violence was required or even justified to resist them. For a time, his fellow Pennsylvanians even considered him an agent of the crown and threatened to burn his house when Franklin implicitly supported the Stamp Act of 1765. But Franklin allayed their fears with a masterful performance before the House of Commons that questioned the legality of the measures. At once he was considered a firm colonial advocate.
In fact, from 1766 to 1770, the legislatures of Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts chose Benjamin Franklin to act as their colonial agent in London. He urged his American friends to exercise caution with the British, while defending the colonies in private conversations with his British friends, a group that ultimately included Edmund Burke and William Pitt. He often felt like a man stuck in a half-way house. He complained that people in England classified him as “too much of an American, and in America, of being too much of an Englishman.” He thought the American colonists were “abusing the best constitution and the best King . . .” and believed they deserved punishment, but he longed to return to Philadelphia out of an “indelible Affection . . . for that dear country.”
By 1770, Benjamin Franklin was convinced that Parliament lacked the authority to legislate for the colonies. He encouraged Benjamin Franklin peaceful resistance to “illegal” Parliamentary acts and wrote two political tracts that irritated anti-American forces in London. The second, “Rules by which a Great Empire may be reduced to a Small one,” chastised Parliamentary practices in North America and was widely printed in both England and the colonies.
He also helped make public a series of letters written by Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson that urged for the “abridgement of what are called English Liberties.” After the letters were printed in Boston and London and Franklin admitted to his role in their “theft,” he was brought before the Privy Council in London, denounced as a man of “no honour” who had made the term “man of letters” a “libel” statement and who had “forfeited the respect of societies and of men.” His attempts to persuade British leaders that the end result of their coercive policies would be a long, disastrous war were in vain. He had arrived at a sad conclusion: independence was the only option to preserve the rights of Englishmen.
Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, a philosopher, and a student of the English Enlightenment; he was also deeply conservative—a loyal subject of the crown who felt pushed into agitating for independence as the only way to preserve the true British constitution in America. He once wrote that the American Revolution was “a resistance in favour of a British constitution, which every Englishman might share in enjoying, who should come to live among them; it was resisting arbitrary impositions, that were contrary to common right and to their fundamental constitutions, and to constant ancient usage. It was indeed a resistance in favour of the liberties of England, which might have been endangered by success in the attempt against ours [America].” In other words, Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence because the crown and Parliament had ceased to respect the British constitution and the rights of Englishmen. It was a conclusion his own son William, the colonial governor of New Jersey, could not endorse, and father and son were never reconciled.
The man in the fur cap
Upon returning to America in 1775, Benjamin Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress. He drafted a proposal for a union of the colonies that was initially struck down, but later became the basis for John Dickinson’s “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.” He served as Jefferson’s editor on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence and as a member of the diplomatic team that presented the British with the ultimatum of independence before any further negotiations.
He presided over the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1776 and placed his stamp on the new document. Franklin also established the new United States Post Office. But it was his role as minister to France from 1776 to 1785 that highlighted his long public career. Before he left, he lent around 4,000 pounds of his own money to the American government, the equivalent of roughly $500,000 in 2007 dollars. Franklin was chosen to represent the United States in France because of his international fame and his relative familiarity with the French people.
He was nearly seventy when he left the United States for Paris in 1776, and he was charged with arguably the most important political job in the Revolution: winning French recognition and support for American independence. The French greeted him in December 1776 with a hero’s welcome. His unpretentious manners, plain dress, fur cap, charm, wit, and wisdom appealed to the French. It was the age of “reason,” and Franklin persuaded the French that supporting the United States was a natural extension of French rational ideals. He promised them a return to a “Golden Age” when men lived simple lives of reason and leisure; America would be a new republic, the modern rival of the Greeks and Romans of classical antiquity.
He attended the French Academy of Sciences, entertained the leading members of French society, and visited the most important French philosophes of the day. He became a cult figure, a man whose bon mots were celebrated and repeated, whose picture hung in public buildings and private residences. John Adams, jealous of Benjamin Franklin’s stature, once remarked that “his name was familiar to government and people . . . to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him as a friend to human kind.”
King Louis XVI ultimately subscribed to Franklin’s pitch that support for the United States would keep the English world divided and the war hounds of Britain away from their “natural enemy,” France. Louis sent his money, his army, and his navy to help secure American independence. In the process, he deepened France’s conflict with England, wrecked France’s economy, and inspired a bloody revolution against his own rule, which led to a trip to the guillotine. The Continental Congress granted Franklin almost complete autonomy in France. He operated as an ad hoc “secretary of state” who handled almost all aspects of American foreign relations personally, including correspondence with British representatives and French officials. When peace finally arrived, Franklin brokered the deal that resulted in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. Independence would not have been possible without his diligence and charm.
Benjamin Franklin moved easily in French society because he was a natural born diplomat, a man who learned to “sell” his craft years earlier and promote his cause with unmatched eloquence. He was a salesman and a shameless self-promoter who feigned humility when it suited his needs. This is not to call him disingenuous, though he once called himself an “amiable chameleon.” He firmly believed in American independence; and though he genuinely liked the French people and French society, he knew his job was to secure the best “deal” for the United States. This, of course, is the job of every diplomat, but Franklin did it better than almost anyone in American history.
The grandfather of the Republic
Franklin returned to the United States in 1785 and wished for retirement. He was seventy-nine, and he wanted to complete his Autobiography, a work he began ten years earlier but had not finished. Franklin instead was elected to the Executive Council of Pennsylvania and served for three years. Poor health began to derail his public activities, and he was originally not selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
When his health improved, the Pennsylvania legislature unanimously elected him to serve, and though he was the oldest member of the Convention, he attended almost every session. He did not play a prominent role at the Convention, but like Washington, served to lend authority to the proceedings. He had long favored a revision of the Articles of Confederation, for he believed that document did not provide a true “union.” His consistent promotion of moderation led to one of the more famous events of the Convention. When it appeared that the Convention had broken into factions, Franklin rose and delivered a brief but powerful appeal for moderation and divine intervention.
“We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances. . . . I therefore beg leave to move—that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business. . . . ”
Benjamin Franklin’s appeal worked. Conservative men took control of the Convention and work moved forward. He lent his support to the easy naturalization of foreigners and believed all monetary bills should originate in the House of Representatives. He argued against a salary for the executive and a one-term limit. Above all, Franklin wished to avoid the problems Americans had faced twenty years earlier. If the powers of the government were not limited and defined, he feared the United States would be faced with tyranny and political unrest. He did not “entirely approve” of the Constitution as it stood in September 1787, but he urged its ratification “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.” He also understood that the Constitution was “likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” He had no utopian visions for American progress or perfection. Always the practical sage, he accepted the best “possible” rather than the best “conceivable” society.
He led, for all practical purposes, a “retired” life after 1787. He entertained friends and admirers at his home in Philadelphia and took the time to revise his Autobiography. His mind never aged, and friends marveled at his detailed recollection of events many years earlier. He battled gout—once writing a satirical “conversation” with the disease—and chronic lung problems in his final years and died at the age of 84 in 1790. Twenty thousand people attended his funeral. In his twenties, he penned a humorous epitaph: “The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.” His final stone simply read “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”
Benjamin Franklin’s reputation has in many ways eclipsed his actual accomplishments and activities. One needs to look no further than the rumors of his sexual improprieties. His humor has been “rediscovered” in recent years through the publication of Fart Proudly and other essays on the more salacious side. It has become “cool” and “trendy” to like Franklin and think of him as a pure expression of enlightened eighteenth-century American society. Yet, Franklin only represented one element of that society, and a small one at that. Philadelphia was a cosmopolitan city during Franklin’s life and was much less imbued with the old order of society than any other American “metropolitan” area. Most eighteenth-century Americans still considered themselves to be Virginians or Bostonians or New Yorkers.
Their state was their country. Franklin was wealthy and he lived in and among the elite of his community, but he was not a landed aristocrat like Washington or Jefferson. He cherished order and ultimately believed that a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain or France would best suit the United States. He was not an egalitarian, and before the war he worried that large numbers of immigrants (non-English-speaking Germans in particular), would overwhelm the colonies. He craved fame and the “limelight.” He hoped his Autobiography would perpetuate his fame after his death and keep his memory alive with that of the other Founding Fathers.
Benjamin Franklin was, as the modern phrase has it, a “citizen of the world,” but one who privately considered himself an Englishman. He publicly petitioned against slavery but possibly sold slaves and kept one in his home. He instructed men on how to seduce women and had two illegitimate children, but in his Autobiography recommended chastity. He favored form, wit, and humor in his public pronouncements, often at the sacrifice of content. He was not so much a man of contradictions as a man who accepted life as it was—and who was willing to defend America and its traditions of liberty to the end.
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