Benjamin Franklin and His Times

Benjamin Franklin and the Post Office

Benjamin Franklin PO
Statue of Benjamin Franklin outside Old US Post Office, Washington DC, USA. Getty Images

Benjamin Franklin was appointed as one of the two Deputy Postmasters General of the colonies in 1753. He 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.

Before Franklin there had been one mail a week in summer between New York and Philadelphia and one a month in winter.

The service was increased to three a week in summer and one in winter.

The main post road ran from northern New England to Savannah, closely hugging the seacoast for the greater part of the way. Some of the milestones set by Benjamin Franklin to enable the postmasters to compute the postage, which was fixed according to distance, are still standing. Crossroads connected some of the larger communities away from the seacoast with the main road, but when Benjamin Franklin died, after serving also as Postmaster General of the United States, there were only seventy-five post offices in the entire country.

 

Benjamin Franklin - Defense of the Colonies

Benjamin Franklin took a hand in the final struggle between France and England in America. On the eve of the conflict, in 1754, commissioners from the several colonies were ordered to convene at Albany for a conference with the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and Benjamin Franklin was one of the deputies from Pennsylvania.

On his way to Albany he "projected and drew a plan for the union of all the colonies under one government so far as might be necessary for defense and other important general purposes."

Raising funds for defense was always a grave problem in the colonies, for the assemblies controlled the purse-strings and released them with a grudging hand.

Benjamin Franklin opposed the suggestion of a general tax to be levied on the colonies by Parliament, on the ground of no taxation without representation, but used all his pull to bring the Quaker Assembly to vote for money for defense, and succeeded.

 

Continue > Benjamin Franklin as Statesman

Benjamin Franklin, accompanied by his son William, reached London in July, 1757, and from this time on his life was to be closely linked with Europe. He returned to America six years later and made a trip of sixteen hundred miles inspecting 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. Presently that petition was made obsolete by the Stamp Act, and Benjamin Franklin became the representative of the American colonies against King and Parliament.

Benjamin Franklin did his best to avert the 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 examination before the House of Commons in February, 1766, marks perhaps the zenith of his intellectual powers. His wide knowledge, his wonderful poise, his ready wit, his marvelous gift for clear and epigrammatic statement, were never exhibited to better advantage and no doubt hastened the repeal of the Stamp Act. Benjamin Franklin remained in England nine years longer, but his efforts to reconcile the conflicting claims of Parliament and the colonies were of no avail, and early in 1775 he sailed for home.

Benjamin Franklin's stay in America lasted only eighteen months, yet during that time he sat in the Continental Congress and as 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 Washington at Cambridge; went to Montreal to do what he could for the cause of independence in Canada; presided over the convention which framed a constitution for Pennsylvania; 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 of Alliance with France

In September, 1776, Benjamin Franklin was appointed envoy to France and sailed soon afterwards. The envoys appointed to act with him proved a handicap rather than a help, and the great burden of a difficult and momentous mission was thus laid upon an old man of seventy.

But no other American could have taken his place. His reputation in France was already made, through his books and inventions and discoveries. To the corrupt and licentious court he was the personification of the age of simplicity, which it was the fashion to admire; to the learned, he was a sage; to the common man he was the apotheosis of all the virtues; to the rabble he was little less than a god. Great ladies sought his smiles; nobles treasured a kindly word; the shopkeeper hung his portrait on the wall; and the people drew aside in the streets that he might pass without annoyance. Through all this adulation Benjamin Franklin passed serenely, if not unconsciously.

The French ministers were not at first willing to make a treaty of alliance, but under Benjamin Franklin's influence they lent money to the struggling colonies. Congress sought to finance the war by the issue of paper currency and by borrowing rather than by taxation, and sent bill after bill to Franklin, who somehow managed to meet them by putting his pride in his pocket, and applying again and again 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.

 

Continue > Benjamin Franklin's Final Years

Not until two years after the Peace of 1783 would Congress permit the veteran to come home. And when he did return in 1785 his people would not allow him to rest. At once he was elected President of the Council of Pennsylvania and twice reelected in spite of his protests. He was sent to the Convention of 1787 which framed the Constitution of the United States. There he spoke seldom but always to the point, and the Constitution is the better for his suggestions.

With pride he axed his signature to that great instrument, as he had previously signed the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, and the Treaty of Paris.

Benjamin Franklin's work was done. He was now an old man of eighty-two summers and his feeble body was racked by a painful malady. Yet he kept his face towards the morning. About a hundred of his letters, written after this time, have been preserved. These letters show no retrospection, no looking backward. They never mention "the good old times." As long as he lived, Franklin looked forward. His interest in the mechanical arts and in scientific progress seems never to have abated.

Benjamin Franklin on David Rittenhouse

He writes in October, 1787, to a friend in France, describing his experience with lightning conductors and referring to the work of David Rittenhouse, the celebrated astronomer of Philadelphia. On the 31st of May in the following year he is writing to the Reverend John Lathrop of Boston:

"I have long been impressed with the same sentiments you so well express, of the growing felicity of mankind, from the improvement in philosophy, morals, politics, and even the conveniences of common living, and the invention of new and useful utensils and instruments; so that I have sometimes wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will, before that period, be produced."

Thus the old philosopher felt the thrill of dawn and knew that the day of great mechanical inventions was at hand. He had read the meaning of the puffing of the young steam engine of James Watt and he had heard of a marvelous series of British inventions for spinning and weaving. He saw that his own countrymen were astir, trying to substitute the power of steam for the strength of muscles and the fitful wind.

John Fitch on the Delaware and James Rumsey on the Potomac were already moving vessels by steam. John Stevens of New York and Hoboken had set up a machine shop that was to mean much to mechanical progress in America. Oliver Evans, a mechanical genius of Delaware, was dreaming of the application of high-pressure steam to both road and water carriages. Such manifestations, though still very faint, were to Franklin the signs of a new era.

And so, with vision undimmed, America's most famous citizen lived on until near the end of the first year of George Washington's administration. On April 17, 1790, his unconquerable spirit took its flight.

 

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