Franklin, Benjamin

Born: 1706-01-17 Boston, Massachusetts

Died: 1790-04-17 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

One of the Founding Father of the United States, Franklin was a diplomat, inventor, natural philosopher, political theorist, printer, scientist, and writer, a leading light of the Enlightenment in America and prominent spokesman on behalf of the colonies in the conflict with Great Britain. Franklin attended school at the South Grammar School (later Boston Latin) and George Brownell's English School. His formal education ended in 1716, and he went to work in his father's tallow candle and soap-making shop. Franklin hated the trade, and when his brother James, a printer, established his own printing shop in 1718, Franklin's father apprenticed Benjamin to James. The twelve year old Franklin signed a nine-year indenture.

In 1721, James established his own newspaper, The New England Courant. Eager to write for the paper, Benjamin submitted a series of essays under the pseudonuym "Silence Dogood." These fourteen essays became the first essay series in American literature. When James ran afoul of the Massachusetts General Court in 1722 and 1723, Benjamin printed the paper under his name. James and Benjamin quarrelled, and James often beat his apprentice. After another quarrel in September 1723, Benjamin left the shop and abandoned his indenture, fleeing first to New York and later to Philadelphia. Franklin found work in a print shop owned by Samuel Keimer, and in early 1724 received a pledge from Pennsylvania Governor William Keith for money to open his own print shop. In November 1724, Franklin sailed for London to acquire supplies for his new venture. Once in London, he found that Keith had duped him. With no money or prospects, Franklin found work at various London print shops. In 1726, he returned to Philadelphia to work as a clerk and bookkeeper in a shop owned by Thomas Denham.

In March 1727, Franklin returned to Keimer's print shop. In the fall, he founded the Junto, a mutual improvement society modelled after coffeehouses in England. In June 1728, Franklin established his own print shop in partnership with Hugh Meredith. In the fall, he purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette from Keimer. In January 1830, Franklin and Meredith received the contract as the colony's official printers, but Meredith's father, who had put up the money for the print shop, withdrew his financial support. Borrowing from his friends in the Junto, Franklin bought out Meredith and paid off the debt.

Prior to sailing for London, Franklin had been betrothed to Deborah Read. As he languished in London, Deborah married one John Rogers. Rogers proved a poor husband, and in December 1727, he absconded, vanishing without a trace. Bigamy laws prevented Deborah from remarrying, so in September 1830, Franklin and Deborah joined together in a common-law marriage. They brought Benjamin's illegitimate son William, born in 1728 to 1729, into their household, and had two other children.

Franklin, meanwhile, moved to improve himself and civic and cultural life in Philadelphia. He studied languages, teaching himself to read, write, and translate German. He also obtained a reading knowledge of French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin. In 1731, he founded the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first subscription library in America. In 1732, he founded America's first German-language newspaper, the Philadelphische Zeitung. He became a Freemason, rising to grand master in 1734. In 1732, he began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac, which he continued until 1757, well after he retired from printing. In December 1736, he organized the Union Fire Company, Philadelphia's first fire protection society. In October 1736, he became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and in October 1737, received appointment as postmaster of Philadelphia.

In the 1740s, Franklin began what would become his ground-breaking experiments with electricity. In 1747, he proved that there were not two kinds of electricity, as current theory suggested, but one, explaining the seemingly two kinds by applying the terms positive (plus) and negative (minus) to electricity. Franklin's law of conservation of charge became a fundamental principle in the field of electricity. In June 1752, he proved lightening is electricity by flying a kite in an electrical storm. Franklin's electricity experiments led to the creation and widespread employment of the lightening rod, and his studies in electricity, demography, meteorology, and other fields made him the most famous Angl0-American naturalist since Isaac Newton. His scientific accomplishments won him honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and the College of William and Mary, and in November 1753, the Royal Society awarded him the Copley Medal. In 1756, Royal Society unanimously elected him to membership.

Franklin also made his first entrance into imperial affairs during the 1740s. During King George's War (1740-1748), Franklin wrote extensively about Pennsylvania's lack of military preparedness and the inability of the Pennsylvania Assembly, dominated by Quakers, to raise militia to defend the colony. Printing America's first political cartoon to dramatize the situation, he called on the colonists to create their own militia association in the absence of government assistance. The association proved a success, creating an important precedent for future imperial wars and the American Revolution.

In 1748, Franklin retired from printing, turning to scientific research, civic affairs, writing, and politics. In 1749, he wrote Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, and launched a subscription campaign to build an academy. The academy became the Academy and College of Philadelphia, later to be known as the University of Pennsylvania. In 1751, he launched a campaign to open a hospital in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Hospital, the first in America, opened in 1752. In 1751, he convinced several fire companies to come together and create an insurance company.

Franklin also received international acclaim as an author of satires, letters, essays, and hoaxes. Some of his finest work was propaganda pieces skewering the British Government for its treatment of her American colonies. In 1751, he won election to the Pennsylvania Assembly, and in 1753, he became joint deputy postmaster for North America. From these vantage points and with his international reputation, Franklin played a pivotal role influencing American opinion toward the home country. In the months leading up to the outbreak of the French and Indian War, Franklin urged the colonies to unite for common defense, printing a cartoon showing a snake cut into pieces with a caption underneath reading "JOIN OR DIE." In the summer of 1754, Franklin attended the Albany Conference, which adopted Franklin's plan of union, only for the colonies to reject it.

After the defeat of General Edward Braddock by a combined French and Indian force near Pittsburgh in July 1755, Franklin convinced the Pennsylvania Assembly to pass a militia bill to raise troops to protect the colony. Franklin assumed command of the militia in February 1756, but the British Board of Trade vetoed the militia bill. In February 1757, Franklin sailed to London to petition King George II on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He remained in England five years. Finding the British ignorant about conditions in America, he engaged in a propaganda campaign promoting the military and strategic importance of the colonies for Great Britain. Enlisted initially to protest Parliament's acts against the colonies, Franklin's mission transformed slowly into advocating for the assembly against the prerogatives of the Penn family, proprietors of the colony who were exempt from taxation and had power to veto legislation. He succeeded in removing the tax exempt status, but the Penn family continued to opposed acts taxing their lands.

As time allowed, Franklin engaged in scientific pursuits. He created a clock from only three wheels, designed a damper for stoves and chimneys, and perfected his new musical instrument, the glass harmonica. Among his other inventions were the Franklin Stove, bifocals, and a urinary catheter. He traveled widely throughout England and Scotland, and in 1761, he toured the Austrian Netherlands and the Dutch Republic. Honorary degrees continued to come his way: the University of St. Andrews gave him an honorary doctorate of law in 1759, and Oxford awarded him an honorary doctor of civil law in 1762.

During his time in England, Franklin won annual election to the Pennsylvania Assembly. Upon his return in 1764, he joined the anti-proprietary party against the Penn family. In March 1764, the assembly passed a series of resolutions against the proprietors and proprietary government. In May, Franklin became speaker of the Pennsylvania House. Franklin urged the colonists to seek royal government, but many religious dissenters feared a change would eliminate religious freedom and make the Church of England the established church in the colony. Because of these fears, and personal attacks on Franklin's religious views and character, Franklin lost his seat in the October elections for assembly.

Despite Franklin's loss, the anti-proprietary party retained its majority, and in late October, appointed Franklin to again represent the assembly in England. The purpose of this second mission, which would continued until 1775, was to convince the king to replace proprietary government with royal government. Announcement of the impending Stamp Act, however, intervened. In February 1765, Franklin and other colonial agents protested the duties, and Franklin offered an alternative tax, but he could do nothing to prevent the Stamp Act from taking effect. Franklin expected the colonies to tolerate the duties, but Franklin's lengthy absence had put him out of touch with growing American resentment of royal authority. American resistance prompted Franklin to write dozens of articles attacking the Stamp Act. Franklin's propaganda campaign succeeded in convincing Parliament to repeal the duties in February 1766.

Over the next five years, Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts joined Pennsylvania in appointing Franklin as their agent in London. He continued to produce propaganda promoting the American cause. When time permitted, he travelled and pursued his scientific interests. He toured Germany, France, Ireland, and Scotland. In 1768, he developed a phonetic alphabet, conducted studies on the relationship between the depth of canal water and the speed of canal boats, and experimented with the interaction of oil and water. In 1769, the American Philosophical Society named him its president, an honor annually bestowed on him until his death.

In 1772, Franklin obtained correspondence between Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver, governor and lieutenant government, respectively, of Massachusetts, proving that they had encouraged the home government to enact repressive measures against Boston. Franklin leaked these letters in June 1773, exacerbating tensions in the colony and infuriating British authorities. Franklin petitioned the British government to remove Hutchinson and Oliver, but the preliminary hearing, scheduled for January 29, 1774, came nine days after word reached London of the Boston Tea Party. Hopes of a peaceful resolution evaporated when British solicitor general Alexander Wedderburn ridiculed, denounced, and excoriated Franklin before the Privy Council during the January 29 hearing. Two days later, the British Government dismissed him as deputy postmaster general of North America. Further efforts by Franklin at reconciliation failed, and he left England in January 1775, his mission a failure.

While at sea, Pennsylvania elected Franklin as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Radicalized by his experiences in England, Franklin urged creation of a confederation asserting American sovereignty, but Congress rejected his plans in July 1775 and January 1776. From March to May, 1776, he served on an abortive mission to Canada to convince the Canadians to join the American cause. Upon his return, he served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. After signing the Declaration, he assumed the presidency of the Pennsylvania State Constitutional Convention. The constitution crafted under his guidance proved one of the most egalitarian of all state constitutions, with a unicameral legislature, council of revision, and weak executive.

Elected by Congress as a commissioner to France, Franklin sailed for Paris in October 1776. Landing in December, Franklin and his fellow commissioner formally requested aid in January 1777. In February 1778, Franklin negotiated a treaty of alliance with France. In October 1778, he became minister plenipotentiary to France. As minister plenipotentiary, he borrowed money, issued letters of marque for American privateers, and negotiated exchanges of American prisoners of war. He also wrote American propaganda for distribution in Europe and Britain, and worked to establish friendly relations with French intellectuals and politicians.

In June 1781, Congress appointed Franklin one of the commissioners to negotiate peace with Great Britain. Following the lead of John Jay, Franklin proposed peace terms without following Congress's dictates that France be kept informed. Franklin continued to negotiate without French involvement, signing a preliminary peace treaty in November 1782. The French complained, but Franklin admitted the impropriety, apologized, and got French assent. Franklin was one of the commissioners to sign the Treaty of Paris in September 1783.

In May 1785, Franklin received permission to leave France, and he sailed for home in July. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, he won election to the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council, and became its president in October. In April 1787, he became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. From May to September, he represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention. It was Franklin who moved the "Great Compromise" that allowed for proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate. In October 1788, Franklin retired as president of the supreme executive council. In 1789, he wrote and signed the first remonstrance against slavery addressed to the U.S. Congress, and in 1790, he penned a cleverly satirized vindication of the peculiar institution. He died at his home of pleurisy.

Gravestone, Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia, PA; J.A. Leo LeMay, "Franklin, Benjamin," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 8:382-95.