Profiles in Greatness: Benjamin Franklin

The founding father was a man of many faces.
January 2, 2010

No single word can describe Benjamin Franklin. He was a publisher and author, a scientist and inventor, a civic leader, a diplomat and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Today, he is remembered for his wit, wisdom and perseverance in the face of adversity.

“From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.”

Franklin was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706, one of 17 children to a candle maker. Franklin’s education ended at age 10, and he was a printer’s apprentice to his brother James by age 12. For the next several years, he learned the printing trade, read voraciously and taught himself to master the art of writing as a means of rising above his station. “Prose writing,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “has been of great use to me in the course of my life and was a principal means of my advancement.”

At 16, Franklin began contributing to his brother’s weekly newspaper under the pen name “Silence Dogood.” The humor and insight of Dogood’s essays made readers, including Franklin’s own brother, believe they were written by an accomplished and older man.

“Diligence is the mother of good luck.”

After spending two years in London, Franklin returned to the colonies and established a partnership with a friend in Philadelphia. By 1730, he was sole proprietor of his own print shop.

Later that year, he married Deborah Read. In addition to Franklin’s son, William, from a previous relationship, the family grew to include son Franky, who died of smallpox at age 4, and daughter Sarah, who worked alongside her father as a young woman, hosting political gatherings and doing relief work during the Revolutionary War.

In his 20s and 30s, Franklin was increasingly in the public eye for his writings. He was a member of the Freemasons, and he formed a club called the Junto, which met to discuss intellectual, business and community issues. Through this group, Franklin executed innovative community measures, such as volunteer firefighting groups, a paid police force, library and public hospital.

Thanks to Franklin’s initiative and networking, his printing business secured the contract for Pennsylvania’s paper currency and later did work for New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. He published the Pennsylvania Gazette beginning in 1729 and Poor Richard’s Almanack annually from 1732 to 1757. His final preface for Poor Richard’s was later printed separately to wide acclaim and became known as The Way to Wealth, composed of advice based on biblical proverbs.

His fortunes increased as he invested in rental properties and created franchises and partnerships with other printers. Franklin became a silent partner in his company at age 42 and devoted himself to intellectual pursuits.

“At 20 years of age, the will reigns; at 30, the wit; at 40, the judgment.”

Franklin began to investigate the phenomenon of electricity through the invention of a lightning rod. His famous experiment with the kite during a thunderstorm was an alternate version of an experiment that had been performed by a French scientist, but most of Franklin’s findings on electricity were original and groundbreaking, including his invention of a battery and his understanding of the nature of positive and negative charges.

He also invented bifocal glasses, the odometer and a wood-burning stove that Americans would use for the next 200 years. In his almanac and other writings, he proposed theories on the nature of the Gulf Stream and the cause of the common cold. And we credit him for the idea of daylight saving time.

“Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor liberty to purchase power.”

Despite his personal success and notoriety, his ambition had always been to establish himself in British politics. He held several local offices in the 1730s and ’40s, including Philadelphia city councilman, justice of the peace and member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. In 1753, he became deputy postmaster general, overseeing the mail in all northern colonies and officially joining the British political ranks.

Franklin traveled to England in 1757 and spent most of the next 18 years there, living with widow Margaret Stevenson and her daughter. After a brief visit home, Franklin cut off all ties to his wife in 1764.

In England, Franklin’s fame preceded him, and he shared company with royalty and celebrity. He was awarded two honorary degrees, and his miniature portrait was a favorite souvenir. But his enjoyment of British society was cut short with the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the resulting unrest back home.

Mobs prevented the printing of royal stamps in the colonies, and Franklin’s business partner was nearly killed in the effort. Franklin testified before parliament in favor of repealing the taxation. He noted what he called his growing “Americanness,” but spent the next several years trying to bring reconciliation to the British and their colonists through his published articles. Unfortunately, the growing hostility toward Americans in Britain spread to Franklin, and in 1774, he was dismissed as deputy postmaster. He returned to America in 1775, just in time for the war.

“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

When he returned to Philadelphia, Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress, which was managing the Revolutionary War effort and drafting the foundations of an independent America. Along with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others, he served on the committee that composed the Declaration of Independence, which he and 55 colonial representatives signed in 1776.

His next commission was a journey to Europe where he not only achieved diplomatic and military alliances but also multiple loans to finance the war effort. The French loved Franklin, extolling his folksy wisdom and painting his image on everything from snuff boxes to jewelry. In turn, Franklin played up his image by wearing a plain brown-and-white suit and a fur cap to the court of Versailles. He learned that diplomacy was earned not at the negotiating table but at the dinner table, and he was a hit among the social elite. In 1779, he became the first American minister to a foreign government.

In 1783, Franklin and other representatives signed the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War. Then in 1787, despite his poor health, he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and played a leading role in outlining the bicameral legislative branch, ensuring equal representation for large and small states. After he signed the new Constitution, he held the unique status among the founding fathers of having signed all three documents that led to an independent United States of America.

“As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence.”

In his 80s, Franklin served as president of an abolitionist group in Pennsylvania. He freed his own slaves and petitioned Congress for not only the freedom of those held in bondage, but also their education and equal opportunity in the new free society.

His final years were somewhat difficult, as his social ways while living in France had garnered him a reputation for debauchery, and his abolitionist beliefs were considered radical for the time. When Franklin passed away in 1790, only the House of Representatives declared a month of mourning for him, and the French outpouring of honor and affection made the single American eulogy pale in comparison.

However, when his Autobiography was published in 1794, Franklin was redeemed. The determination and self-taught success of his early years showed the world the real man behind the legend: a man who rose from poor beginnings to build fame, fortune and influence through sheer will, a man who changed the quality of life for millions and helped free a nation from tyranny.

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