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The Lasting Influence of Benjamin Franklin’s Writings
Benjamin Franklin is one of the best known figures in Amercian history. His industrious rise to seccess, his role in this country’s struggle for independence, and his investigations into the mysteries of electricity are among his famous accomplishments. Yet, his fame is due not only to these achievements but also to his remarkable ability to communicate his views and ideas effectively. A self-taught writer, Franklin immortalized himself with his book on electricity, his world-famous Autobiography and his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence. While Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to many areas of American and international life, including science, politics, and social reform, are in themselves extraordinary, his writings are the key to his widespread and lasting influence.
A large part of Benjamin Franklin’s reputation rests upon his scientific writings. Eighteenth-century science was not divided into differenct specialized fields such as physics, geology, biology, and chemistry. Instead, there was only one broad area of study known as natural philosophy. Franklin, a brilliant natural philosopher, wrote about a wide range of scientific subjects, from meterology to hypnotism. His studies gave scientific credibility to the field of electrostatics (the study of electric charges), influencing renowned scientists such as Count Alessandro Volta and Henry Cavendish and setting the course for all future development in the field (Crane 52).
Within Franklin’s studies, even individual words have been of great significance. For example, Franklin invented a number of electrical terms, such as “positive charge’ and “negative charge,” which are still used today.
Franklin achieved even greater fame as a scientist thorought his personal correspondence with scientists acress North American and Europe. This sharing of ideas, according to writer Verner Crane, helped to spread knowledge and to unify the scientific opinion of the eighteenth century (57).
Franklin’s highly influenctial book Experiments and Observations of Electricity was compiled from letters Franklin sent to a colleague in England (Hornberger 557). Recognized for its descrption of the scientific method, the book is ranked with Sir Isaac Newton’s work as being among the greatest examples of scientific writing (Crane 41). These internationally acclaimed writings helped Franklin to become the first American to gain worldwide fame. He was made a member of the prestigious Royal Society of London, and he was presented with honorary memberships to learned societies across American and Europe (Crane 58).
Franklin’s writings also played an important part in the political evolution of the United States. For ten years in London, Franklin acted as an agen for several of the American colonies. During this time, he wrote letters and articles that were printed in British newspapers, explaining the position of the American peiole as they sought to avoid the taxes being imposed on them (Fleming 196). Although Franklin initially worked toward keeping American within the British Empire, his personal letters written during the early 1770s reveal his growing conviction that America had to break away from British rule (Fleming 222).
When the American break with England finally appeared to be inevitable, Franklin’s international fame as a scientist made him the natural choice as key diplomat for America in Europe. Always referring to himself as a “simple American,” Franklin was in fact a shrewd political operator (Benjamin Franklin: Citizen-Sage). In France, he began a letter- and essay- writing campaign to gain French support for the American colonies’ cause (Fleming 287). He became extremely popular with the French people, “lionized and idolized as the great natural philosopher, the august champion of liberty, and the friend of humanity” (Trent 100). As a result, Franklin was able to arrange an alliance with France that secured loans and arms from the French, which were vital to the success of the American Revolution.
Franklin’s writings were also instrumental in laying the foundations of the United States government. As a firm supporter of colonial unity, Franklin offered sound, well-thought-out suggestions. Franklin’s “Plan of Union” which he presented at the Albany Congress of 1754 was especially influential because it introduced the concepts of divided sovereignty between local and national authorities, a president as the head of the executive branch, and a representative legislature based upon population (Ketcham x1). In The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Ketcham states that Franklin’s plan was one of the first steps toward colonial union and the final United States Constitution (x1).
As the American Revolution progressed, Franklin wrote another highly important work titled the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union”. It, like the “Plan of Union,” contained many ideas, such as representation by population, ratification by state legislature, and an orderly process of amendment, that became incorporated into the Constitution of the United STates (Ketcham xli). At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the elderly Franklin “played his favorite role of conciliator and compromiser,” his final public service to the nation he loved (Fleming 395).
In addition to his political activities, Franklin was greatly concerned with improving American social conditions. He introduced many institutions that became fundamental to American life. In 1729, he wrote “A Modest Inquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency,” which resulted in the printing of paper currency in several northeastern colonies (Fleming 127). Written anonymously, his “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsilvania” led to the founding of the Academy of Philadelphia that later became the University of Pennsylvania (Fleming 122). Plans for hospitals, police forces, libraries, fire departments, and insurance companies were all drafted by Franklin. As Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., states, Franklin wrote constatnly: letters, petitions, regulations, histories, and bylaws. He was also called upon to write a great deal as secretary for most of the organizations and boards he bolonged to (Fleming 6).
The improvement of social morality was yet another are that concerned Franklin. Many of his most famous and influential works promote the simple, utilitarian virtures of industry and thrift. Poor Richard’s Almanac, still quoted today, was published for twenty-five years beginning in 1732. Containing a mix of origial maxims, humorous anecdotes, anonymous folk proverbs, and epigrams from such authors as Jonathan Swift and William Bacon, the almanac was sold throughout America. Franklin once stated that he considered Poor Richard’s Almanac a “proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common peiole, who bought scarcely any other books” (148). “The Way to Wealth,” a collection of more that a hundred proverbs taken from Poor Richard’s Almanac, made Franklin’s name synonymous with saving (Baida 100).
Franklin’s most famous work, his Autobiography, has played a significant role in American literary history. Published after his death, this pioneering self-help book covers the first fifty years of his life, describing his successes in science, business, social reform, and writing. According to Peter Baida, Franklin’s Autobiography, which has been translated into almost every language and ready by millions, is as instructive now as ever (105). It also occupies a priminent place in American literary history in a different sense. Robert Sayre, in his book The Examined Self, says, “In that work American biography came of age, and it remains one of the best pictures of American life we have” (vii-viii).
Benjamin Franklin himself recognized the importance of his writings: “Prose writing has been of great use to me in the course of my life and was a principal means of my advancement” (Fleming 7). Beyond Franklin’s own life, the writing of this “quintessentially American” genius have helped to shape ideals, standars, and traditions in almost every spere of American society (Goodwin). On an even larger scale, his contributions to the field of science gained international recognition through the powerful influence of his writings. Thus, it was through his writings that Benjamin Franklin achieved fame and prestige that have endured from his day into our own time and will continue to endure far into the future.
Baida, Peter. “Flying Kites with Ben Franklin.” Harvard Business Review
January-February 1986: 98-107.
Benjamin Franklin: Citizen-SAge of a New Age. Videocassette.
Director Anne Zane Shanks. Zenger Video, 1986. 24 minutes.
Crane, Verner W. Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People. Boston: Little, 1954.
Fleming, Thomas, ed. Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in His Own Words. New York:
Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. New York: Black, 1941.
Goodwin, Ralph. Personal interview. 31 July 1996
Horberger, Theodore. “Franklin.” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia. 1985 ed.
Ketcham, Ralph L., ed. Introduction. The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin.
Indianapolis: Bobbs, 1965. xxvii-lvi.
Sayre, Robert F. Preface. The Examined Self: Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Henry
James. By Sayre. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1964. vii-xiii.
Trent, William P., et al., eds. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature. New York: Putnam, 1918. Vol. 1. of The Cambridge History of American Literature. 3 vols.
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