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Ben Franklin: Early Life
In his many careers as a printer, moralist, essayist, civic leader, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, and philosopher, for later generations of Americans he became both a spokesman and a model for the national character. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts on Jan. 17, 1706, into a religious Puritan household. His father, Josiah, was a candlemaker and a skillful mechanic. His mother, Abiah Ben?s parents raised thirteen children–the survivors of Josiah?s seventeen children by two wives (#1).
Printer & Writer
Franklin left school at ten years old when he was pressed into his father’s trade. At twelve Ben was apprenticed to his half brother James, a printer of The New England Courant. He generally absorbed the values and philosophy of the English Enlightenment. At the age of 16, Franklin wrote some pieces for the Courant signed “Silence Dogood,” in which he parodied the Boston authorities and society (#3). At one point James Franklin was imprisoned for his liberal statements, and Benjamin carried on the paper himself. Having thus learned to resist oppression, Benjamin refused to suffer his brother’s own domineering qualities and in 1723 ran away to Philadelphia (#1).
Soon Franklin found a job as a printer. After a year he went to England, where he became a master printer, sowed some wild oats, amazed the locals with his swimming feats, and lived among inspiring writers of London. By 1726 Franklin was tiring of London (#1). He considered becoming an itinerant teacher of swimming, but when a Quaker merchant by the name of Thomas Denham offered him a clerkship in his store in Philadelphia, he decided to return home (#5).
Returning to Philadelphia in 1726, he soon owned a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and began to print Poor Richard’s Almanac. In the Pennsylvania Gazette, a citizen asked editor Franklin the following question: “If A found out that his neighbor B was sleeping with his wife, was he justified in telling B’s wife, and persuading her to seek a little revenge with A?” The editor’s response: “If an ass kicks me, should I kick him again? (#4)” His business expanded further when he contracted to do the public printing of the province, and established partnerships with printers in other colonies. He also operated a bookshop and became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia (#3).
Civic Leader & Scientist
In 1727, Franklin began his career as a civic leader by organizing a club of aspiring tradesmen called the Junto. They aspired to build their own businesses, insure the growth of Philadelphia, and improve the quality of its life. Franklin led the Junto in founding a library (1731), fire company (1736), learned society (1743), college (later the University of Pennsylvania, 1749), and an insurance company and a hospital (1751). The group also carried out plans for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets and for making them safe by organizing an efficient night watch. They even formed a voluntary militia (#1).
Franklin had steadily extended his own knowledge by study of foreign languages, philosophy, and science. He repeated experiments of other scientists and added his own ideas that led to inventions of the Franklin stove, bifocal eyeglasses, and a glass harmonica. The phenomenon of electricity interested him deeply, in 1748 he turned his printing business over to his foreman, intending to devote his life to science (#5). Experiments he proposed, showed that lightning was in fact a form of electricity. Later that year his famous kite experiment, in which he flew a kite with the wire attached to a key during a thunderstorm, further established that laboratory-produced static electricity was akin to a previously mysterious and terrifying natural phenomenon (#1). He was elected to the Royal Society in 1756 and to the French Academy of Sciences in 1772(#3). His later achievements included formulating a theory of heat absorption, measuring the Gulf Stream, designing ships, and tracking storm paths.
Statesman & Diplomat
Franklin held local public offices and served twelve years as a postmaster for Philadelphia. In the Plan of Union, which he presented (1754), to the Albany Congress, he proposed partial self-government for the American colonies. When he went to England in 1757 as agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he was alarmed to hear Lord Granville, president of the Privy Council, declare that for the colonies, the king’s instructions were “the Law of the Land: for the King is the Legislator of the Colonies,? (#2). In England from 1757 to 1762, Franklin worked to persuade British officials to limit proprietary power in Pennsylvania.
He enjoyed English social and intellectual life. Ben attended meetings of the Royal Society, heard great orchestras play the works of Handel, made grand tours of the continent, and received honorary doctor’s degrees from the universities of St. Andrews (1759) and Oxford (1762) (#5). He created a pleasant family-style life at his Craven Street boarding house in London, and began a long friendship and scientific-humorous correspondence with his landlady’s daughter, Mary Stevenson. Their letters reveal his gifts for lively friendship, for brilliant letter writing, and for humane understanding. At home from 1762 to 1764, Franklin traveled throughout the colonies, reorganizing the American postal system (#2).
The crisis caused by the Stamp Act (1765) launched Franklin into a new role as chief defender of American rights in Britain. At first he advised obedience to the act until it could be withdrawn, but news of violent protest against it in America stiffened his own conflict. After an abolition of the Stamp Act, Franklin reaffirmed his love for the British Empire and his desire to see the union of mother country and colonies “secured and established,” but he also warned that “the seeds of liberty are universally found and nothing can eradicate them (#2).” He opposed the Townshend Acts (1767) because such “acts of oppression” would “sour American tempers” and perhaps even “hasten their final revolt.” When the British Parliament passed the Tea Act (1773), that hurt the colonial merchants, Franklin protested in a series of finely honed political essays, including “An Edict by the King of Prussia” and “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.” As these sarcasm?s circulated in England, Franklin wrote his sister: “I have held up a Looking-Glass in which some of the Ministers may see their ugly faces, and the Nation its Injustice (#4).”
From April 1775 to October 1776, Franklin served on the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and in the Continental Congress, submitted articles of confederation for the united colonies, proposed a new constitution for Pennsylvania, and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He readily signed the declaration, allowing him to become a revolutionist at the age of 70. For seven years he acted as diplomat, purchasing agent, recruiting officer, loan negotiator, admiralty court, and intelligence chief and was generally the main representative of the new United States in Europe. Though nearly 80 years old, he oversaw the dispatch of French armies and navies to North America, supplied American armies with French munitions, outfitted John Paul Jones and secured a succession of loans from the nearly bankrupt French treasury (#1).
Though in his 80th year and suffering from painful bladder stones, he nonetheless accepted election for three years as president of Pennsylvania and resumed active roles in the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, although he was too weak to stand, Franklin’s good humor and gift for compromise often helped to prevent bitter disputes (#2).
Franklin’s final public pronouncements urged ratification of the Constitution and approved the inauguration of the new federal government under his admired friend George Washington. He wrote friends in France that “we are making Experiments in Politicks,” but that American “affairs mend daily and are getting into good order very fast.” Thus, cheerful and optimistic as always, Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia on Apr. 17, 1790 (#3). His keen mind and eloquent tongue made him a truly inspirational speaker. Many of his quotations and maxims conveyed important truths relevant to modern society. Franklin, hailed as an outstanding contributor in the fields of science, politics, and literature, was also renowned for his witty tongue and humorous perspective on life (#4).
The Autobiography and Other Writings of Benjamin Franklin by Frank Donovan contains the complete text of the Autobiography, generous sections of Poor Richard?s Almanac, and Franklin?s best writings from the Junto. In the autobiography, Benjamin began with the first twenty-four years of his life, ? penniless and unknown? as he struggled to overcome the lack of a formal education. The adventures of a friendless and humble indirect character continued in Philadelphia and London. Along the journey he established his own printing press, the beginning of a financial success, and started his own newspaper.
His purpose in life gradually changed as he grew older. Analyzing his behavior contributed to his personal growth: he focused on his faults and tried to rectify them. He was content in an imperfect state. He gave advice on how to achieve a successful and useful life. Ben was particularly writing to instruct the young people.
Benjamin attempted to achieve virtuous excellence through the art of virtues. To acquire moral perfection a person must concentrate on one virtue per week. These virtues include temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity, and humility. The Autobiography is not the full story of Franklin?s life. It terminates approximately in his fifty-third year, before he became America?s greatest diplomat.
Poor Richard was an uneducated but experienced homespun philosopher, created and edited by Ben Franklin from 1732-1757. Although Poor Richard of the early almanacs was a dim-witted and foolish astronomer, a round character soon replaced him who was a rich source of prudent and clever aphorisms on the value of economy, hard work, and the simple life.
1. ?Benjamin Franklin.? Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. 1998 ed. CD-ROM. Danbury: Grolier Interactive Inc., 1998.
2. Franklin, Benjamin The Autobiography and other writings of Benjamin Franklin. Donovan, Frank, ed. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963.
3. Ketcham, Ralph ?Benjamin Franklin.? Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia. Vol.8. New York: Lexicon Publications Inc., 1989. 282-284.
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