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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.

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 Northampton shire, 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.


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, but he also 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, 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.

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.

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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