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Franklin, Benjamin - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Benjamin Franklin

franklin’s united poor england

(1706-1790)
Inventor

Overview

Of all of the patriots who helped found the United States, Benjamin Franklin is probably the most respected and most revered. Franklin was a self-made man of many talents who prospered in the diverse arenas of politics, science, religion, education, and international diplomacy. As a writer, he is remembered for both his unfinished Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanack. As a person, he is remembered for his character, his accomplishments, and his role in creating the United States of America.

Personal Life

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, one of his father’s 17 children, all of whom had a staunch Puritan upbringing. Too poor to attend formal schooling, Franklin virtually educated himself. He not only read about the Enlightenment, but he vowed to use science and the scientific method to improve people’s lives. A scholar, he became fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish, and also studied Latin. Franklin had a common-law marriage with Deborah Read; the two could not have a legally binding ceremony because Read had previously been married. Franklin and Read had two children. Franklin also had an illegitimate son, William, whom Deborah Read raised in the family home.

Franklin received recognition from colleges and universities late in life. He was awarded a honorary M.A. from Harvard, a honorary M.A. from Yale, and a honorary M.A. from William and Mary. Franklin was also elected as a fellow to the Royal Society.

During his life, Franklin spent time in Philadelphia, England, and France. Franklin retired in 1748 from active business but he survived financially on income from his businesses for over 20 years after his retirement. He died in 1790 at the age of 84.

Career Details

Franklin’s career began as an apprentice to his brother James in the newspaper business in Boston. It was here that Franklin began to print his own writings, anonymously publishing “Silence Dogood” in the New England Courant. “Silence Dogood” was the pseudonym Franklin used to pen his satirical, and thus critical, pieces. Franklin had two opportunities to manage the Courant. The first was when his brother was jailed for printing articles criticizing Massachusetts authorities. The second time James was jailed, Ben Franklin was named as publisher, a move designed to keep the paper printing. This ultimately ruined the brothers’ working relationship, however, and Franklin then moved to Philadelphia in 1723.

A year later he went to England and became a master printer. In England Franklin became interested in Deism, a movement which advocated natural religion based on man’s reason rather than revelation, and also emphasized morality. In 1725 he wrote and printed the essay “A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain.” Starting from the proposition that God is all-wise, all-good, and all-powerful, Franklin argued that everything created must thus be good, because evil would be opposite to God’s nature, and thus “evil doth not exist.” Printed when Franklin was only 19, this marked the start of a long and successful writing career. His emphasis on logic over emotion stayed with Franklin until the end of his life

He returned to Philadelphia in 1726 to run a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. Soon he was running his own printing office and in 1732 started printing Poor Richard’s Almanack. This volume was printed annually for the next 25 years. Its theme was praise for thrift and hard work. Franklin wanted to start printing an almanac because; almanacs had proven to be lucrative ventures for other area printers. Poor Richard not only made money for Franklin’s business, it made him known as a writer throughout the colonies. In his essay “On Literary Style,” Franklin advocates that good writing must be smooth, clear, and short.

Franklin formed the Junto, a civic improvement society, in 1727. His philosophy was “men of goodwill, organizing and acting together, could deal effectively with civic concerns.” This is evident by the successes of the Junto, including the establishment of the first public library in America; the formation of a fire company; the founding of a college (which later became the University of Pennsylvania); and the founding of a hospital. In addition to being a civic leader, Franklin dabbled in science. His famous kite experiment, which reportedly took place in June of 1752, proved that lightning is a form of electricity.

In addition to his scientific experiments, Franklin is responsible for many inventions, including the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, bifocal lenses, and a harmonica. He charted the Gulf Stream, determined that white clothing does not attract heat as black does, and proposed daylight savings time. Franklin also proposed that the turkey be the national bird, because it was native to the United States, useful, industrious, and courageous.

Franklin’s political accomplishments are equally impressive. In 1751 Franklin was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly—the start of nearly 40 years as a public official. Franklin also revived the dormant Quaker party. Although he originally believed it best for the British Colonies to remain with England, the stubborn stance of King George III eventually pushed Franklin into the arms of the revolutionaries. Franklin even became estranged from his son William, who was a loyalist during the revolution. Franklin helped Thomas Jefferson draft a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and he himself signed it. During the latter stages of the Revolution, Franklin served as minister to France for the United States. His diplomacy proved vital in negotiating the Treaty of Paris to end the war. Following the end of the war, Franklin stayed in France as the American ambassador. He returned to the United States in time to attend the Constitutional Conference, serving as one of the original signers of the Constitution of the United States. In the final year of his life, Franklin introduced a bill to Congress outlawing slavery. This was his last public act.

Franklin philosophized about his success in his famous Autobiography, extolling the values and importance of hard work, thriftiness, and explaining how any one could develop an exemplary character with practice and perseverance. Above all else, Franklin valued self-improvement; he staunchly believed everyone—no matter what their social position—could benefit from self-improvement.

Social and Economic Impact

Benjamin Franklin affected all levels of U.S. society. He used his firmly held beliefs in rationalism to improve the quality of life for all people. All citizens in Philadelphia had access to the library, fire department, and insurance agency. He also served as an example of the value of reasoning. As biographer Esmond Wright states in Franklin of Philadelphia, “for him, problems were for solving by reason and compromise.” He exemplified the beliefs of the Enlightenment, which asked for people to explain and understand their place in the world.

The United States, as a country, is indebted to Franklin for getting France into the Revolutionary War and for negotiating an effective peace treaty. Although France was anxious for England to be humbled, it could not openly afford to aid the U.S. rebels unless success seemed probable. For a year (1777) Franklin worked behind the scenes to hasten war supplies across the Atlantic, to block British diplomacy, and to ingratiate himself with the French foreign minister. Franklin helped get the French army and navy on their way to North America. In Paris at the end of the war Franklin set terms close to those finally agreed to: independence, guaranteed fishing rights, evacuation of British forces, and a western boundary on the Mississippi River.

Franklin’s economic views matched those of the French Physiocrats, who provided the foundation for the French Revolution. These views were evident at the Constitutional Convention. His concern for the poor was in part responsible for his suggestion of split representation in the legislature of the newly formed United States. His last famous speech at the Constitutional Convention was written by Franklin but delivered by James Wilson. He appealed to the Convention to adopt the Constitution unanimously.

Finally, as a writer, Franklin achieved immeasurable success. He is best known for his Autobiography, which he started in 1771 and never finished. His other book, Poor Richard’s Almanack, was reportedly the only book besides the bible that colonists read. Many of Franklin’s sayings and maxims, such as “Honesty is the best policy” and “God helps those who help themselves” remain in current usage. As stated in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Franklin holds forever a firm place in the hearts and minds of Americans who honor good humor, common sense, and wisdom—traits in his writing for which he is best known.”

The details of Franklin’s writing of his Autobiography are as interesting as any story in Franklin’s life. Autobiography, though only a fragment, is, ironically, Franklin’s longest work. The first part is a private letter to his son William, a letter Franklin never intended to publish. Originally begun in Philadelphia, Franklin continued to work on it while in France. While there, Franklin’s audience shifted from his son to a younger audience. He did not complete much writing in France, and he tabled the entire work until 1788. Franklin added to the work slowly only recording up until the year 1757.

Chronology: Benjamin Franklin

1706: Born.

1724: Became master printer in England.

1731: Started Philadelphia free library.

1732: Began printing Poor Richard’s Almanack.

1732: Founded Philadelphia’s first fire department.

1752: Equated lightning with electricity with his famous kite experiment.

1762: Served as deputy postmaster general for North America.

1776: Assisted in drafting of Declaration of Independence.

1783: Negotiated Treaty of Paris to end the American Revolutionary War.

1787: Attended the Constitutional Conference.

1790: Died.

Benjamin Franklin is honored and revered because of the many successes he achieved throughout his life. The term “the First American,” coined in 1764, originally referred to Franklin, and only later was it transferred to George Washington. Europeans also admired and honored Franklin, perhaps more so than any American before or since. Not everyone admired Franklin, though. Franklin’s contemporary, John Adams, dismissed Franklin as a politician. William Cobbett, a Federalist, called him a “crafty and lecherous.” And later literary giants like Mark Twain and Herman Mellville did not value him or his work. Critics of Franklin today cite his lack of interest in the humanities, his coarseness, and his opportunism as reasons for belittling him. No one however, can dismiss him. Benjamin Franklin made his mark on America, and is featured prominently on the $100 bill.

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