Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a leader of America's Revolutionary generation. His character and thought were shaped by a blending of Puritan heritage, Enlightenment philosophy, and the New World environment.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston into a pious Puritan household. His forebears had come to New England in 1683 to avoid the zealous Anglicanism of England's Restoration era. Franklin's father was a candle-maker and skillful mechanic, but, his son said, his "great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgment." Benjamin praised his mother as "a discreet and virtuous Woman" who raised a family of 13 children. In honoring his parents and in his affection for New England ways, Franklin demonstrated the permanence of his Puritan heritage.
Rejecting the Calvinist theology of his father, Franklin opened himself to the more secular world view of Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. He read the deist philosophers, virtually memorized the English paper Spectator, and otherwise gave allegiance to the Enlightenment. Like his favorite author, Joseph Addison, Franklin sought to add the good sense and tolerance of the new philosophy to his Puritan earnestness. Thus, by the time he left home at the age of 17, his character and attitude toward life had already achieved a basic orientation.
The circumstances of his flight from home also reveal essential qualities. Denied a formal education by his family's poverty, Franklin became an apprentice to his brother James, printer of a Boston newspaper. While learning the technical part of the business, Franklin read every word that came into the shop and was soon writing clever pieces signed "Silence Dogood," satirizing the Boston establishment. When the authorities imprisoned James for his criticisms, Benjamin continued the paper himself. Having thus learned to resist oppression, he refused to suffer his brother's petty tyrannies and in 1723 ran away to Philadelphia.
Penniless and without friends in the new city, Franklin soon demonstrated his enterprise and skill as a printer and gained employment. In 1724 he went to England, where he quickly became a master printer, sowed wild oats, and lived among the aspiring writers of London. He returned to Philadelphia and soon had his own press, publishing a newspaper (Pennsylvania Gazette), Poor Richard's Almanack, and a good share of the public printing of the province. He became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia, at the same time operating a bookshop and entering partnerships with printers from Nova Scotia to the West Indies. He was so successful that at the age of 42 he retired. He received a comfortable income from his business for 20 more years.
Franklin philosophized about his success and applied his understanding to civic enterprises. The philosophy appears in the adages of "Poor Richard" and in the scheme for moral virtue Franklin explained later in his famous Autobiography. He extolled hard work, thriftiness, and honesty as the poor man's means for escaping the prison of want and explained how any man could develop an exemplary character with practice and perseverance. Though sayings like "Sloth maketh all things difficult, but Industry all easy" do not amount to a profound philosophy of life (as Franklin knew perfectly well), they do suggest useful first steps for self-improvement. The huge circulation of both the sayings of "Poor Richard" (under the title "The Way to Wealth") and the Autobiography, plus their distorted use by miserly and small-minded apostles of thrift, led later to scathing assaults on Franklin by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and D. H. Lawrence—but they in fact criticize a caricature, not the whole Franklin.
Franklin became involved in civic improvement in 1727 by organizing the Junto, a club of aspiring tradesmen like himself, that met each week. In the unformed society of Philadelphia it seemed obvious to these men that their success in business and improvement of the city's life required the same thing: plans and institutions to deal with needs cooperatively. Thus, Franklin led the Junto in sponsoring civic improvements: a library, a fire company, a learned society, a college, an insurance company, and a hospital. He also made effective proposals for a militia; for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets; and for a night watch. His simple but influential social belief that men of goodwill, organizing and acting together, could deal effectively with civic concerns remained with him throughout his life.
Franklin next turned to science. He had already invented the Pennsylvania fireplace (soon called the Franklin stove). His attention fastened primarily on electricity. He read the new treatises on the subject and acquired ingenious equipment. In his famous kite experiment, proving that lightning is a form of electricity, he linked laboratory experiments with static electricity to the great universal force and made a previously mysterious and terrifying natural phenomenon understandable. Franklin's letters concerning his discoveries and theories about electricity to the Royal Society in London brought him fame. The invention of the lightning rod, which soon appeared on buildings all over the world, added to his stature. His scientific ingenuity, earning him election to the Royal Society in 1756, also found outlet in the theory of heat, charting the Gulf Stream, ship design, meteorology, and the invention of bifocal lenses and a harmonica. He insisted that the scientific approach, by making clear what was unknown as well as what was known, would "help to make a vain man humble" and, by directing the experiments and insights of others to areas of ignorance and mystery, would greatly expand human knowledge. Franklin the scientist, then, seemed to epitomize the 18th-century faith in the capacity of men to understand themselves and the world in which they lived.
Competing with science for Franklin's attention was his growing involvement in politics. His election in 1751 to the Pennsylvania Assembly began nearly 40 years as a public official. He used his influence at first mainly to further the cause of his various civic enterprises. But he also became a leader in the long-dominant Quaker party, opposing the Proprietary party, which sought to preserve the power of the Penn family in affairs of Pennsylvania. Franklin devised legislative strategy and wrote powerful resolves on behalf of the Assembly, denying Proprietary exemption from taxation and otherwise defending the right of the elected representatives of the people to regulate their own affairs.
At first Franklin had not the slightest thought about America's separation from Great Britain. He had grown up with allegiance to Britain and had a deep appreciation of the culture of the country of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope. In 1751 he celebrated the rapid increase of colonial population as a great "accession of power to the British Empire," a big and happy family wherein the prosperity of the parent and the growth of the children were mutually beneficial.
Franklin expressed his patriotism by proposing a Plan of Union within the empire at Albany in 1754, and a year later in giving extensive service to Gen. Edward Braddock's expedition to recapture Ft. Duquesne from the French. To defend the empire during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Franklin persuaded the Quaker Assembly to pass the first militia law in Pennsylvania, appropriate money for defense, and appoint commissioners (including himself) to carry on full-scale war. As the war progressed, he worked with British commanders to win a North American empire for Britain. For 3 decades or more Franklin allied himself in thought and deed with such men as William Pitt, who conceived of Britain as a vital, freedom-extending realm as dear (and useful) to its subjects in Boston and Philadelphia as to those in London or Bristol.
Even in this patriotism of empire, however, the seeds of disaffection appeared. The Albany plan, Franklin noted, dividing power between the king and the colonial assemblies, was disapproved by the Crown "as having placed too much weight in the democratic part of the constitution, and [by] every assembly as having allowed too much to [Royal] Prerogative." Franklin also thought it incredibly selfish for the proprietor of Pennsylvania to try to avoid taxation of his vast lands. He sided, he declared in 1756, with "the people of this province … generally of the middling sort." Thus, when he went to England in 1757 as agent of the Assembly, he was alarmed to hear the president of the Privy Council declare: "You Americans have wrong ideas of the nature of your constitution; you contend the King's instructions to his governors are not laws…. But those instructions … are … the Law of the Land; for the King is the Legislator of the Colonies." Though Franklin worked within the empire to resist this presumption, it was clear from the start that if it continued to dominate, Franklin's empire loyalty would wither and die.
Franklin lived in England from 1757 to 1762, seeking aid in restraining Proprietary power in Pennsylvania, meanwhile enjoying English social and intellectual life. He attended meetings of the Royal Society, heard great orchestras play the works of George Frederick Handel, made grand tours of the Continent, and was awarded honorary doctor's degrees by St. Andrews (1759) and Oxford (1762).
Back in America for nearly 2 years (1762-1764), Franklin traveled through the Colonies as deputy postmaster general for North America. In 20 years Franklin vastly improved postal service and at the same time made his position lucrative. He also continued his aid to poorer members of his family, especially his sister, and to the family of his wife, the former Deborah Read, whom he had married in 1730. They had two children, Frankie, who died at 4, and Sally, who married Richard Bache. Deborah Franklin also reared her husband's illegitimate son, William, often his father's close companion, who was appointed governor of New Jersey and was later to be notable as a loyalist during the Revolution. Franklin considered Deborah, who died in 1774, a good wife, mother, and helpmate, though she did not share his intellectual interests or even much of his social life.
Politics occupied most of Franklin's busy months at home. He opposed the bloody revenges frontiersmen visited on innocent Native Americans in the wake of Chief Pontiac's Conspiracy, and he campaigned to further restrict the proprietor's power. On this and other issues Franklin lost his seat in the Assembly (after 13 consecutive victories) in an especially scurrilous campaign. His Quaker party retained enough power, however, to return him to England as agent, commissioned especially to petition that Pennsylvania be taken over as a royal colony—a petition Franklin set aside when the perils of royal government loomed ever larger.
Franklin played a central role in the great crises that led to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He first advised obedience to the Stamp Act. But learning of the violent protest against it in America, he stiffened his own opposition, notably in a dramatic appearance before Parliament in 1766, when he outlined, plainly and bluntly, American insistence on substantial self-government. Encouraged by repeal of the act, Franklin again expressed his faith in the grand prospects for America within the empire and worked with Pitt, Lord Camden, and other Englishmen who wanted to liberalize both government at home and relations with the Colonies.
Yet Franklin mounted a strong propaganda assault on the Townshend Duties of 1767. In fact, Franklin's position was increasingly untenable. He was in countless official, personal, and sentimental ways committed to the British Empire, but he was more committed to the life-style he knew in America and which he now began to record in his Autobiography. The ideal solution, of course, was to find fulfillment for the life-style under the British flag. He only slowly realized that, at least under the policies of George III and Lord North, the two were incompatible.
Franklin's personal fame, as well as his appointment as agent for Georgia (1768) and for Massachusetts (1770), made him the foremost American spokesman in Britain for 10 crucial years, from 1765 to 1775. Protesting the Tea Act in 1773, he wrote two of his most skillful and famous political satires, An Edict by the King of Prussia and Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One. These were merely the best of hundreds displaying Franklin's clever pen in aid of his chosen causes.
In 1774-1775 Franklin's agency in England came to an unhappy end. His friends in Massachusetts, against his instructions, published letters of Governor Thomas Hutchinson that Franklin had obtained in confidence. Exposed as an apparently dishonest schemer, Franklin was chastised before the Privy Council in 1774 and simultaneously deprived of his postmaster general's office. Then, in danger of being imprisoned as a traitor, Franklin continued to work with Pitt and others for conciliation, but the Boston Tea Party, the Coercive Acts, and the buildup of British troops in America doomed such efforts. When Franklin left England in March 1775, he was sure that "the extream corruption … in this old rotten State" would ensure "more Mischief than Benefit from a closer Union" between England and the Colonies.
In the next 18 months in America, Franklin reveled in the "glorious public virtue" of his compatriots. He served on the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and in the Continental Congress, submitted articles of confederation for the united colonies, and helped draft a new constitution for Pennsylvania. He even went to Montreal to entice Canada to join the new union. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and was among those who readily subscribed his name to it—at the age of 70 he had become a fervent revolutionist.
Franklin's skill was most in demand, though, as a diplomat to secure desperately needed aid for the new nation. In October 1776, appointed commissioner to France, he embarked with his two grandchildren. In France he began the most amazing personal success story in the history of diplomacy. His journey to Paris was a triumphal procession, and in the capital the literary and scientific community greeted him as a living embodiment of all the virtues the philosophes extolled.
Franklin played the role of the simple Quaker, exalted by his plainness amid the gaudy pomp of the court of Louis XVI. In a dramatic encounter at the French Academy, Franklin and the aged Voltaire embraced amid cheers. French intellectuals lionized Franklin, who, still a minister of an unrecognized country, established residence in the suburb of Auteuil, where he created friendships that became part of the legend of Franklin among the ladies of Paris. As usual, Franklin wrote witty letters, printed bagatelles, told stories, and otherwise displayed his brilliant personality.
Franklin's diplomatic tasks proved more difficult. Though France was anxious that England be humbled, it could not afford openly to aid the American rebels unless success seemed probable. For a year (1777) Franklin worked behind the scenes to hasten war supplies across the Atlantic, block British diplomacy, and ingratiate himself with the French foreign minister and others who might help the United States. He also worked with the other American commissioners, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, as those two strange compatriots quarreled with increasing bitterness. In December 1777 news of the American victory at Saratoga persuaded Louis XVI and his ministers to enter into an alliance with the United States, finally signed by Franklin and the other commissioners. Lee and Deane soon returned, quarreling, to America, leaving Franklin behind as the first American minister to the court of Versailles.
For 7 years Franklin was the premier American representative in Europe, conducting normal diplomacy and acting as purchasing agent, recruiting officer, loan negotiator, admiralty court, and intelligence chief. Nearly 80, Franklin carried his immense and varied burden effectively and in a way that retained French goodwill. He helped get French armies and navies on their way to North America, continued his efforts to supply American armies, outfitted John Paul Jones and numerous American privateers, and secured virtually all the outside aid that came to the American rebels.
When, after Yorktown (1781), peace with independence became possible, Franklin made the first contact with British emissaries. During the summer of 1782 as the other peace commissioners, John Adams and John Jay, made their way to Paris, Franklin set terms close to those finally agreed to: independence, guaranteed fishing rights, evacuation of all British forces, and a western boundary on the Mississippi. Though Franklin insisted on working closely with French negotiators, he never subordinated American to French interests as his critics have claimed. In fact, the subtle Franklin, the intrepid Adams, and the resourceful Jay made an ideal team, winning for the United States a peace treaty of genuine national independence in 1783.
Viewing America's place in the world as his mission to France drew to a close, Franklin combined realism with idealism. "Our firm connection with France," he noted, "gives us weight with England, and respect throughout Europe." Thus balancing between the great nations, Franklin thought "a few years of peace will improve, will restore and increase our strength; but our future safety will depend on our union and our virtue." He stated many times there was "no such thing as a good war or a bad peace." Not the least isolationist or aggressive, he thought the peaceful needs of the United States required it to trade and cooperate honorably with nations all over the world.
Franklin left France in 1785 and landed in Philadelphia to the cheers of his countrymen. Honored as a living sage, he accepted election for 3 years as president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and resumed his activity in the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, and other civic projects. Though suffering from a physical disorder, he also maintained his large correspondence, wrote essays, and finished the last half of his Autobiography.
Franklin's most notable service, however, was his attendance at the daily sessions of the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. Too infirm to speak much in debate and less creative in political philosophy than some of his younger colleagues, he bolstered the confidence of the convention and, through good humor and suggestions for compromise, helped prevent its disruption in animosity. He gave decisive support to the "Great Compromise" over representation and dozens of times calmed volatile tempers and frayed nerves. At the convention's close, he asked each member, who like himself might not entirely approve of the Constitution, to "doubt a little of his own infallibility" and sign the document to give it a chance as the best frame of government human ingenuity could at that time produce. His last public service was to urge ratification of the Constitution and to approve the inauguration of the new government under his longtime friend George Washington. Franklin died peacefully on April 17, 1790.
Franklin's writings are in Albert H. Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (10 vols., 1905-1907), and Leonard Labaree and others, eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (11 vols. to date, 1959-1968) and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1964). The best biography is Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (1938). For special studies see Carl and Jessica Bridenbaugh, Rebels and Gentlemen: Philadelphia in the Age of Franklin (1942); Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (1954), on Franklin's politics; Gerald Stourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (1954); I. Bernard Cohen, Franklin and Newton (1956), on Franklin's scientific work; Alfred O. Aldridge, Franklin and His French Contemporaries (1957); Ralph L. Ketcham, Benjamin Franklin (1965), for Franklin's thought; and Claude A. Lopez, Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (1966).