Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790), American printer, author, diplomat, philosopher, and scientist, whose many contributions to the cause of the American Revolution (1775-1783), 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.
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 (1754-1763). 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 one year.
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 (see Paris, Treaty of). 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 (1789-1799), upon whose political thinking he exerted a profound influence. Although he favored a liberalization of the French government, he opposed change through violent revolution.