|A Tribute to Benjamin Franklin|
A Tribute to Benjamin Franklin
Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790), American printer, author, diplomat,
philosopher, and scientist, whose many contributions to the cause of the American
Revolution, and the newly formed federal government that followed, rank him among the
country's greatest statesmen.
Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston. His father, Josiah Franklin, a tallow
chandler by trade, had 17 children; Benjamin was the 15th child and the 10th son. His
mother, Abiah Folger, was his father's second wife. The Franklin family was in modest
circumstances, like most New Englanders of the time. After his attendance at grammar
school from age eight to ten, Benjamin was taken into his father's business. Finding the
work uncongenial, however, he entered the employ of a cutler. At age 13 he was
apprenticed to his brother James, who had recently returned from England with a new
printing press. Benjamin learned the printing trade, devoting his spare time to the
advancement of his education. His reading included Pilgrim's Progress by the British
preacher John Bunyan, Parallel Lives, the work of the Greek essayist and biographer
Plutarch, Essay on Projects by the English journalist and novelist Daniel Defoe, and the
Essays to Do Good by Cotton Mather, the American Congregational clergyman. When he acquired a copy of the third volume of the Spectator by the British statesmen and essayists
Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, he set himself the goal of mastering its prose style.
In 1721 his brother James Franklin established the New England Courant, and Benjamin,
at the age of 15, was busily occupied in delivering the newspaper by day and in composing
articles for it at night. These articles, published anonymously, won wide notice and
acclaim for their pithy observations on the current scene. Because of its liberal bias, the
New England Courant frequently incurred the displeasure of the colonial authorities. In
1722, as a consequence of an article considered particularly offensive, James Franklin was
imprisoned for a month and forbidden to publish his paper, and for a while it appeared
under Benjamin's name.
Philadelphia and London
As a result of disagreements with James, Benjamin left Boston and made his way to
Philadelphia, arriving in October 1723. There he worked at his trade and made numerous
friends, among whom was Sir William Keith, the provincial governor of Pennsylvania. He
persuaded Franklin to go to London to complete his training as a printer and to purchase
the equipment needed to start his own printing establishment in Philadelphia. Young
Franklin took this advice, arriving in London in December 1724. Not having received from
Keith certain promised letters of introduction and credit, Franklin found himself, at age 18,
without means in a strange city. With characteristic resourcefulness, he obtained
employment at two of the foremost printing houses in London. Palmer's and Watt's. His
appearance, bearing, and accomplishments soon won him the recognition of a number of
the most distinguished figures in the literary and publishing world.
In October 1726, Franklin returned to Philadelphia and resumed his trade. The following
year, with a number of his acquaintances, he organized a discussion group known as the
Junto, which later became the American Philosophical Society. In September 1729, he
bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, a dull, poorly edited weekly newspaper, which he made,
by his witty style and judicious selection of news, both entertaining and informative. In
1730 he married Deborah Read ( 1705-74), a Philadelphia woman whom he had known
before his trip to England.
Projects and Experiments
Franklin engaged in many public projects. In 1731 he founded what was probably the first
public library in America, chartered in 1742 as the Philadelphia Library. He first published
Poor Richard's Almanack in 1732, under the pen name Richard Saunders. This modest
volume quickly gained a wide and appreciative audience, and its homespun, practical
wisdom exerted a pervasive influence upon the American character. In 1736 Franklin
became clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the next year was appointed
deputy postmaster of Philadelphia. About this time, he organized the first fire company in
that city and introduced methods for the improvement of street paving and lighting.
Always interested in scientific studies, he devised means to correct the excessive smoking
of chimneys and invented, around 1744, the Franklin stove, which furnished greater heat
with a reduced consumption of fuel.
In 1747 Franklin began his electrical experiments with a simple apparatus that he received
from Peter Collinson in England. He advanced a tenable theory of the Leyden jar,
supported the hypothesis that lightning is an electrical phenomenon, and proposed an
effective method of demonstrating this fact. His plan was published in London and carried
out in England and France before he himself performed his celebrated experiment with the
kite in 1752. He invented the lightning rod and offered what is called the “one-fluid”
theory in explanation of the two kinds of electricity, positive and negative. In recognition
of his impressive scientific accomplishments, Franklin received honorary degrees from the
University of St. Andrews and the University of Oxford. He also became a fellow of the
Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge and, in 1753, was awarded its
Copley Medal for distinguished contributions to experimental science. Franklin also
exerted a great influence on education in Pennsylvania. In 1749 he wrote Proposals
Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania; its publication led to the
establishment in 1751 of the Philadelphia Academy, later to become the University of
Pennsylvania. The curriculum he suggested was a considerable departure from the
program of classical studies then in vogue. English and modern foreign languages were to
be emphasized as well as mathematics and science.
In 1748 Franklin sold his printing business and, in 1750, was elected to the Pennsylvania
Assembly, in which he served until 1764. He was appointed deputy postmaster general for
the colonies in 1753, and in 1754 he was the delegate from Pennsylvania to the
intercolonial congress that met at Albany to consider methods of dealing with the
threatened French and Indian War. His Albany Plan, in many ways prophetic of the 1787
U.S. Constitution, provided for local independence within a framework of colonial union,
but was too far in advance of public thinking to obtain ratification. It was his staunch
belief that the adoption of this plan would have averted the American Revolution.
When the French and Indian War broke out, Franklin procured horses, wagons, and
supplies for the British commander General Edward Braddock by pledging his own credit
to the Pennsylvania farmers, who thereupon furnished the necessary equipment. The
proprietors of Pennsylvania Colony, descendants of the Quaker leader William Penn, in
conformity with their religious opposition to war, refused to allow their landholdings to be
taxed for the prosecution of the war. Thus, in 1757, Franklin was sent to England by the
Pennsylvania Assembly to petition the king for the right to levy taxes on proprietary lands.
After completing his mission, he remained in England for five years as the chief
representative of the American colonies. During this period he made friends with many
prominent Englishmen, including the chemist and clergyman Joseph Priestley, the
philosopher and historian David Hume, and the philosopher and economist Adam Smith.
Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1762, where he remained until 1764, when he was
once again dispatched to England as the agent of Pennsylvania. In 1766 he was
interrogated before the House of Commons regarding the effects of the Stamp Act upon
the colonies; his testimony was largely influential in securing the repeal of the act. Soon,
however, new plans for taxing the colonies were introduced in Parliament, and Franklin
was increasingly divided between his devotion to his native land and his loyalty as a
subject of George III of Great Britain. Finally, in 1775, his powers of conciliation
exhausted, Franklin sorrowfully acknowledged the inevitability of war. Sailing for America
after an absence of 11 years, he reached Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, to find that the
opening engagements of the Revolution—the battles of Lexington and Concord—had
already been fought. He was chosen a member of the Second Continental Congress,
serving on ten of its committees, and was made postmaster general, an office he held for
Diplomat of the Revolution
In 1775 Franklin traveled to Canada, suffering great hardship along the way, in a vain
effort to enlist the cooperation and support of Canada in the Revolution. Upon his return,
he became one of the committee of five chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence.
He was also one of the signers of that historic document, addressing the assembly with the
characteristic statement: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang
separately.” In September of the same year, he was chosen, with two other Americans,
Arthur Lee and Silas Deane, to seek economic assistance in France. His scientific
reputation, his integrity of character, and his wit and gracious manner made him extremely
popular in French political, literary, and social circles, and his wisdom and ingenuity
secured for the U.S. aid and concessions that perhaps no other man could have obtained.
Against the vigorous opposition of the French minister of finance, Jacques Necker, and
despite the jealous antagonism of his coldly formal American colleagues, he managed to
obtain liberal grants and loans from Louis XVI of France. Franklin encouraged and
materially assisted American privateers operating against the British navy, especially John
Paul Jones. On February 6, 1778, Franklin negotiated the treaty of commerce and
defensive alliance with France that represented, in effect, the turning point of the American
Revolution. Seven months later, he was appointed by Congress as the first minister
plenipotentiary from the U.S. to France.
In 1781 Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay were appointed to conclude a treaty of peace
with Great Britain. The final treaty was signed at Versailles on September 3, 1783 .
During the remainder of his stay in France, Franklin was accorded honorary distinctions
commensurate with his notable and diversified accomplishments. His scientific standing
won him an appointment from the French king as one of the commissioners investigating
the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer and the phenomenon of animal magnetism.
As a dignitary of one of the most distinguished Freemason lodges in France, Franklin had
the opportunity of meeting and speaking with a number of philosophers and leading
figures of the French Revolution, upon whose political thinking he exerted a profound
influence. Although he favored a liberalization of the French government, he opposed
change through violent revolution.
A Framer of the Constitution
In March 1785, Franklin, at his own request, left his duties in France and returned to
Philadelphia, where he was immediately chosen president of the Pennsylvania executive
council (1785-87). In 1787 he was elected a delegate to the convention that drew up the
U.S. Constitution. Franklin was deeply interested in philanthropic projects, and one of his
last public acts was to sign a petition to the U.S. Congress, on February 12, 1790, as
president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, urging the abolition of slavery and the
suppression of the slave trade. Two months later, on April 17, Franklin died in his
Philadelphia home at 84 years of age.
Franklin's most notable service to his country was the result of his great skill in diplomacy.
To his common sense, wisdom, wit, and industry, he joined great firmness of purpose,
matchless tact, and broad tolerance. Both as a brilliant conversationalist and a sympathetic
listener, Franklin had a wide and appreciative following in the intellectual salons of the
day. For the most part, his literary reputation rests on his unfinished Autobiography, which
is considered by many the epitome of his life and character.
Links to Benjamin FranklinThe Benjamin Franklin National MemorialThe World of Benjamin FranklinBenjamin Franklin NewspaperWorld History Compass, United States HistoryOverview of Rediscovering America: The Real Ben Franklin
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