Benjamin Franklin Biography: Printer, Inventor, Statesman

Benjamin Franklin testing electrical current theory with kite

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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 the improvement of everyday life for the widest number of people, making an indelible mark on the emerging nation.

Fast Facts: Benjamin Franklin

  • Born: January 17, 1706, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger.
  • Died: April 17, 1790, 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). 

Early Life

Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Josiah Franklin, a soap and candle-maker, and his second wife Abiah Folger. Josiah Franklin and his first wife Anne Child (1677–1689) emigrated 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 tenth son and 15th child—Josiah would have 17 in all. In such a crowded household, there were no luxuries. Benjamin's period of formal schooling was less than two years, and at the age of ten, he was put to work in his father's shop, where he was restless and unhappy.

Colonial Newspapers

Franklin's fondness for books finally determined his career. His older brother James was a printer, and in those days a printer had to be a literary man as well as a mechanic: the editor of a newspaper was most likely also the journalist, printer, and owner.

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 and in 1718 and at the age of 13, Benjamin Franklin was bound by law to serve his brother, and soon Benjamin began writing articles for this newspaper. When James was put in jail in February 1723—he had printed matter considered libelous, and was forbidden to continue as the publisher—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 of 1723, Benjamin ran away, booking passage on a ship and arriving in New York three days later. The only printer in New York was William Bradford, who had no work for him, but he did have a son in Philadelphia who ran a print shop there. On a Sunday morning in October 1723, Benjamin Franklin landed upon the Market Street wharf, Philadelphia, and at once set out to find food, work, and adventure.

In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin found employment with Samuel Keimer, an eccentric printer just beginning business—and he found lodging in the home of John Read, who would become his father-in-law. The young printer soon attracted the notice of Sir William Keith, Governor of Pennsylvania, who promised to set him up in his own business: but to do that, Benjamin had to go to London first 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 those letters and was known to have been a man who dealt primarily in "expectations." Benjamin Franklin remained in London nearly two years working for his fare home.

Franklin found employment at the famous printer's shop owned by Samuel Palmer. Franklin helped Palmer produce "The Religion of Nature Delineated," by William Wollaston, which argued that the best way to study religion was through science. Inspired, in 1725, Franklin printed the first of his many pamphlets, 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 of 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 month 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 he endeavored to make the store a success. Denham died in 1727, however, 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 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 which] 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, funded by Meredith's father. The son soon sold his share, and Benjamin Franklin was left with his own business at the age of twenty-four. He anonymously printed a pamphlet on "The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency" calling attention to the need for paper money in Pennsylvania and he succeeded in winning 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." In 1729, Keimer went bankrupt, and he sold his paper to Franklin, who renamed it "The Pennsylvania Gazette" then with 90 subscribers. The newspaper was later renamed "The Saturday Evening Post."

The Gazette printed local news, extracts from the London newspaper the "Spectator," jokes, verses, humorous attacks on rival Andrew Bradford's "American Weekly Mercury," moral essays, elaborate hoaxes, and political satire. Often Franklin 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. During his long stay in London, Deborah Read had married, so Franklin courted a number of girls, fathering an illegitimate child, William, born between April 1730 and April 1731. William's mother has never been convincingly identified, but his existence was admitted by both father and son.

Deborah's husband was found to be unreliable—he had abandoned a wife in England and when that was discovered, he stole a slave and absconded to the West Indies, leaving quite a bit of debt. In September 1730, Franklin and Deborah began living together as a married couple with William, an arrangement that protected them from bigamy charges, which 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 purchased included science, history, politics, and reference works. Today, the still-thriving Library has 500,000 books and 160,000 manuscripts, the oldest cultural institution in the United States. 

In 1732, Benjamin Franklin published "Poor Richard's Almanack." Three editions of the first were produced and sold out within a few months. During its 25 year run, the sayings of Richard Saunders, the publisher, and Bridget, his wife, 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 at the age of four, of smallpox, an irony since Franklin had become a fierce advocate of smallpox vaccination—he'd planned to vaccinate the boy but his illness intervened.  

Public Service

In 1731, Franklin joined the local Freemasons and was elected Grand Master in 1734. By 1736, Franklin organized and incorporated another public service: 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 1739–1741, before cooling to the enterprise about 1741.

During this period in his life, Franklin also kept a shop where 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 increased rapidly.

American Philosophical Society

About 1743, Franklin created yet another American institution that exists today: an intercontinental version of his Junto society, the American Philosophical Society, which based in Philadelphia would include scientists and thinkers from other cities in the colonies, who would share studies by post and be published by Franklin.

From its beginning, the society had among its members many leading men of scientific attainments or tastes from all over the world. In 1769 the society was consolidated with another of similar aims, and Franklin, who was the first secretary of the society, was elected president and served until his death. The first important undertaking was the successful observation of the transit of Venus in 1769, and many important scientific discoveries have since been made by its members and first given to the world at its meetings.

The American Philosophical Society was formally organized on Franklin's motion in 1743, but the society uses the organization of the Junto in 1727 as the actual date of its birth. 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, ten thousand 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 that treason" was communicated to the British governor. 

In 1748, at the age of forty-two, 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 in 1749, the "Pennsylvania fireplace," a wood burning stove that could be built into fireplaces to maximize heat while minimizing smoke and drafts. The device ("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 spectacles; 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; he investigated fertilizers in agriculture. His scientific observations show that he foresaw some of the great developments of the nineteenth century.

Electricity

His greatest fame as a scientist was the result of his discoveries in electricity. On a visit to Boston in 1746, he saw some electrical experiments and at once became deeply interested. A 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 made with a little 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 is always restored its equilibrium. He developed the theory of positive and negative electricity, or plus and minus electrification.

The same letter tells of some of the tricks which the little group of experimenters was accustomed to playing upon their wondering neighbors. They set alcohol on fire, relit candles just blown out, produced mimic flashes of lightning, gave shocks on touching or kissing, and caused an artificial spider to move mysteriously.

Lightning

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 by iron rods. Using an iron rod he brought electricity into his house, and studying its effect upon bells, he concluded that clouds were generally negatively electrified. In June of 1752, he 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.

Benjamin Franklin's letters to Peter Collinson were read before the Royal Society which Collinson belonged to but otherwise went unnoticed. Collinson gathered them together, and they were published in a pamphlet which attracted wide attention. Translated into French, they created great excitement, and Franklin's conclusions were generally accepted by the scientific men of Europe. The Royal Society, tardily awakened, elected Franklin a member and in 1753 awarded him the Copley medal with a complimentary address.

Education and the Making of a Rebel

In 1749, Franklin proposed an academy of education for the youth of Pennsylvania, that 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 became known as the University of Pennsylvania

He also raised money for a hospital; and began to argue 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, then keeping an enslaved person as a servant on occasion later his life. But in his writings he attacked the practice on economic grounds and in the late 1750s became instrumental in the establishment of schools for black children in Philadelphia. In later life he became an ardent and active abolitionist. 

A Political Career Begins

In 1751, Franklin took his first official political seat, on the Pennsylvania Assembly. He was primarily concerned at first with (literally) cleaning up the streets in Philadelphia: establishing street sweepers, street lamps, and paving.

Franklin also took a hand in the final struggle between France and England in America. 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 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 fought on the side of the French. 

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 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 towards 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. 

Post Office

In his new role 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. 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 still only seventy-five post offices in the entire country.

Defense Funding

Raising funds for the defense was always a grave problem in the colonies, for the assemblies controlled the purse-strings and released them with a grudging hand. When the British sent General 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's 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 defense of the colony, and succeeded.

In January 1757, the Assembly decided to send 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. 

Statesman

Benjamin Franklin, accompanied by his son William, 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 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. In 1765, that petition was made obsolete by the Stamp Act, and Franklin became the representative of the American colonies against King 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 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, was 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.

Franklin's stay in America this time 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 with France

In September 1776, Benjamin Franklin was appointed envoy to France and sailed soon afterward. 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; shopkeepers hung his portrait on their walls, and the people drew aside in the streets so 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.

Death and Legacy

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 all his suggestions for the Constitution were followed. With pride, he added 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, and from them, it is clear that as long as he lived, Franklin looked forward. His interest in the mechanical arts and in scientific progress seems never to have abated.

America's most famous citizen lived on until near the end of the first year of George Washington's administration. On April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia, his unconquerable spirit taking final flight.

Sources

  • 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.