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From Small Town Printer to International Statesmen: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin


FRANKLIN�S name, as he himself states in his Autobiography, shows that his family belonged to that sturdy race of English yeomen, whose stubborn self-reliance and dauntless courage have contributed largely to England�s greatness. For three centuries his ancestors were settled at Ecton, in Northamptonshire, England; but in 1682 Josias Franklin, being a Nonconformist to the Church of England, emigrated to America and settled in Boston. He was twice married and had seventeen children, of whom Benjamin, born January 6, 1706, was the youngest son. Josias was a tallow-chandler, and Benjamin, at the age of ten, was called from school to assist in that occupation. At twelve he went to a cousin�s to learn the trade of cutler; but when his brother James returned from England to open a printing-office, Benjamin found there his true destiny. He was a lover of books, and had already gathered a number, and made himself familiar with Plutarch, Bunyan and Defoe.

In 1721 James Franklin ventured to publish a newspaper, called The New England Courant, the third regularly issued in America. For its columns young Benjamin wrote several articles, and as they were contributed anonymously, he had the gratification of hearing them attributed by frequenters of his brother�s shop to some leading men of the town. The boy worked diligently at case, and saved time from meals to read and study. James Franklin was arrested and imprisoned for publishing a political article which, gave offence to the authorities ; but the paper was still issued in the name of Benjamin. As it prospered under his management, and the secret of his contributions became known, James became jealous of his brother, and treated him with such harshness that Benjamin ran away. He went to New York, but being unable to obtain employment, crossed the Jerseys on foot and assisted in rowing the boat that brought him down the Delaware from Burlington to Philadelphia.

Andrew Bradford, the only printer in Philadelphia, was not able to give Franklin employment, yet gave him lodging till he could secure a place. This he obtained with a man named Keimer, who proposed to start a rival office, though he knew little of the trade, and depended on Franklin, then only seventeen years of age, to make his scheme successful. The Boston runaway proved himself the man for the place, and when his brother James wrote to him begging him to return to his home and friends, Benjamin refused. Sir William Keith, Governor of Pennsylvania, having discovered Franklin�s ability as a writer as well as printer, suggested that he should start in business for himself, and promised to use his influence on his behalf. Franklin therefore asked his father�s assistance ; but the prudent father thought him still too young. Keith then proposed that Franklin should go to London to procure an outfit, and furnished him letters of introduction, which proved worthless. Franklin arrived in London penniless, and was obliged to seek work as a compositor and pressman. However, he wrote and printed on his own account �A Short Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain,� and by it obtained some literary friends, including Mandeville and Sir Hans Sloane. He practiced vegetarianism, and, to the astonishment of his fellow-pressmen, used water only as a beverage, and was called by them the �American Aquatic.�

After spending eighteen months in London Franklin returned to Philadelphia, and became chief clerk in the store Mr. Denham, who had been a fellow-passenger in both his voyages. But Denham soon died, and Franklin returned to Keimer as manager of his business. He next formed a partnership, which proved successful enough to enable him in 1729 to buy out his partner and purchase the Pennsylvania Gazette. The paper had only ninety subscribers; but under Franklin�s judicious management this number soon increased. In September, 1730, he was married to Miss Read, in whose father�s house he had lived for some time after his first arrival in Philadelphia. In 1732, under the name of Richard Saunders, Franklin began the publication of an Almanac, which, being continued for about twenty-five years, became famous as �Poor Richard’s Almanac,� and reached a sale of 10,000 copies annually.

Early in his career as printer, Franklin had formed a club called �The Junto� for the discussion of questions of morality, philosophy and politics. It met on Friday evenings, and was continued for nearly forty years. It was the germ from which sprang, in 1744, the venerable and learned �American Philosophical Society.� To the same source can be traced the first subscription circulating library in America, which was afterwards incorporated, in 1742, under the name of �The Library Company of Philadelphia.� In 1736 Franklin was unanimously chosen clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and held this, his first political position, during the next year. He was then elected by the people as a member of the Assembly, and so continued for ten years. In 1737 he was appointed by the British government Deputy Postmaster at Philadelphia. In 1738 he organized a police force and a fire-company for that city, and procured the paving of its streets.

In spite of the abundant labor involved in these numerous public duties and self-imposed efforts for the general welfare, Franklin prosecuted many physical experiments. The most famous of these is his grand discovery that lightning, the most imposing of meteorological phenomena, is identical with the harmless electricity which is produced by the rubbing of amber (Greek, electron). The remarkable experiment by which he successfully proved this identity has, on account of its danger, rarely been repeated. But Franklin�s thoroughly practical mind did not rest content with the discovery of scientific truth. He proceeded to look for its practical application, and by his invention of lightning conductors sought to save property from the destruction to which it is frequently exposed. Though much of his theory about electricity, or the electric fluid as he called it, has been superseded by later researches, the fundamental discovery and its important application remain his proudest titles to fame.

In 1748 Franklin, whose time was becoming engrossed with public affairs, took David Hall, one of his most intelligent workmen, into partnership in the printing business, and was thus released from its active management. In the next year he was the leader in a scheme for the advancement of education, which, starting with a well-arranged academy, has grown into the large and flourishing University of Pennsylvania. The plan which he proposed for this institution in its successive stages has received the highest commendation from professional educators as plainly anticipating many improvements which have only recently been introduced into practice. Before this scheme was fairly developed, Franklin�s public spirit had found another outlet in raising subscriptions and procuring from the Legislature an auxiliary grant to establish the first hospital in Pennsylvania. This institution has long been recognized as a model in every department.

In 1750 Franklin was appointed to his first public mission, being sent to negotiate with a tribe of Indians; and in this, as in all his diplomatic missions, he was eminently successful. In 1753 he was appointed by the Crown Postmaster-General for the American Colonies, with a salary of (pound sterling) 300. This oversight of the interests of several Colonies easily led the way to his plan for a union of the Colonies against invasion from Canada, when the French War began in 1754. The plan was approved by the first Congress, composed of deputies from six Colonies or Provinces, which met at Albany in 1754. But the attempt was premature, and the plan, however great its merits, was rejected by the colonial assemblies, as well as by the British Government. Eleven years later a more successful Congress was held in New York City, and again, after an interval of nine years, came the First Continental Congress. But Franklin, who had started the movement, was in England while these later bodies were in session.

The Proprietaries of Pennsylvania, descendants of William Penn, claimed immunity from taxation on the large possessions which they held. The Assembly, pressed by the burdens required for the public defence, insisted that all property and property-holders should be treated alike. The Governor, being appointed by the Proprietaries and responsible only to them, vetoed such bills. After the controversy had continued for some time with increasing animosity, Franklin, in 1757, was appointed a commissioner to visit England and present the case of the people and Assembly. After some vexatious delays he was successful. The Penns gave up their claim, and agreed that their property should bear its proper share of taxation. During the period of five years thus spent in England, Franklin received many honors from learned and scientific bodies. The Universities of Oxford and St. Andrews conferred on him their highest degrees. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, which thus made amends for its former refusal to print in its Transactions an account of his electrical experiments. To the �Annual Register,� of which Edmund Burke was then editor, Franklin contributed a paper on �The Peopling of Countries,� which called forth much comment To Franklin�s advice is attributed the withdrawal of certain troops from the Continent of Europe and the sending of them against the French in Canada. The direct result of this movement was the permanent transfer of that dominion from the French to the English.

Franklin returned to Pennsylvania in 1762, and received from the Assembly for his services a grant of (pound sterling) 5000. In 1764 his election to that body was strongly opposed by the Proprietary party, and he was defeated by a small majority. This victory of his opponents, however, proved a Pyrrhic one, for he was again appointed by the Assembly to be its agent in England. He sailed November 1, 1765, and in the next year he was called to the bar of the House of Commons, and underwent a memorable examination, which greatly increased his political fame. He defended the cause of the American Colonies with firmness and moderation. Had the Proprietaries of Pennsylvania been wise, they would have appointed Franklin Governor of that Province, and have allowed him abundant discretion in the use of his power.

But with the same obstinacy which characterized the British Ministry, they refused to make concessions until it was too late for their own interests.

During this period Franklin paid some visits to the Continent of Europe, and was everywhere received with the most distinguished and respectful consideration. In Paris he was introduced to many of the literary men; was elected an associate of the Academy of Sciences, and was presented to the King, Louis XV., and his sisters. He was thus prepared for his future diplomatic work at the same court

The closing of the port of Boston in 1773, and the quartering of troops in that town, defeated part of Franklin�s mission. He was at this time agent not only for Pennsylvania, but also for New Jersey, Georgia and Massachusetts. He was busily engaged in presenting their remonstrances not only before the Ministry and Parliament, but before the British people, whose rights, he maintained, were involved in the treatment accorded to the Colonists. At length, finding his endeavors to secure an equitable and honorable settlement of the difficulties fruitless, he sailed for Philadelphia on March 4, 1775. The day after he landed he was elected a member of the Continental Congress, then assembled. Shortly after he had entered on his duties there, he wrote a letter to a member of Parliament, who claimed to be still his friend in spite of political differences, which is worth reproducing as showing his spirit and his wit:

Philadelphia, July 5, 1775.

Mr. Strahan, You are a member of that Parliament, and have formed part of that majority, which has condemned my native country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns, and to destroy their inhabitants.

Look at your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations and your acquaintances.

You and I were long friends. You are at present my enemy, and I am yours, Benjamin Franklin.

In the next year Franklin was a member of the committee that drafted the famous Declaration of Independence, of which it has been truthfully said:� “The burning page of Jefferson bears Franklin�s calmer lines.� When the members were about to vote on this document, Franklin�s ready wit was displayed again. �We must be unanimous,� said John Hancock, the President of Congress, �there must be no pulling different ways: we must all hang together.� � Yes,� said Franklin, �we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.�

The British ministry had now begun to see its error in the harsh treatment of the Colonies. Lord Howe was sent with full powers to concede everything but absolute independence; but Franklin and the other Commissioners whom Congress had appointed to confer with him were instructed to insist upon this basis, and the negotiations came to an abrupt termination. Franklin was next despatched, in company with Samuel Chase and Rev. John Carroll, to persuade the French Canadians to join the American cause. These people had been too recently brought under the British domination to appreciate the causes of the present strife, and the mission was fruitless. Franklin returned to Philadelphia to become president of the Convention for framing a State Constitution for Pennsylvania. When this task was successfully completed, the veteran statesman was, at the age of seventy, sent to France, in conjunction with Arthur Lee and Silas Deane, to present the cause of the United States to the favorable consideration of the French Government. Deane was a faithful helper, and Lee was a captious critic; but Franklin was the effective negotiator who obtained from the French Government the material aid absolutely necessary to the success of the American cause. The French Government was finally induced to form an offensive and defensive alliance with the United States, February 6th, 1778. Franklin had fixed his residence at Passy, near Paris, and his political engagements were interspersed and even furthered by his attention to science and by various publications, which were the constant subject of talk. He became for a time the idol of the French Court and people; but amid all the acclamations and flatteries which attended him, he never lost the practical wisdom which had ever distinguished him, nor did he ever neglect the interests of his country to promote any private ends. He remained in France until England was brought to consent to recognize the independence of her late Colonies. The definitive treaty was signed on September 30, 1783, by himself, and, on the part of Great Britain, by David Hartley. He continued to represent the United States at the French Court for two years more.

At last Franklin was recalled by his own request, and was succeeded by Jefferson. “You replace Dr. Franklin, I hear,� said the Count de Vergennes to Jefferson, when they first met.

“I succeed him; no one can replace him,� was Jefferson�s significant and magnanimous reply.

Franklin, on his return, was elected a member of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, and was soon made its President In 1787 he was one of the delegates from that State in the convention called to frame the Constitution of the United States. His long experience in statesmanship and his acknowledged practical wisdom were constantly brought into requisition in the arduous task of forming a permanent Federal Union. His last political act was an address to his colleagues entreating them to sacrifice their own private views with regard to various details on which they desired amendments, for the sake of unanimity in recommending to the people the new Constitution as determined by the majority. He had the pleasure of seeing this document ratified by a sufficient number of States to give it vitality, and of witnessing a revival of prosperity after the depression and exhaustion of the Revolutionary War.

Franklin�s last printed essay appeared in the Federal Gazette of March, 1789, and was signed �Historicus.� After a short illness, he died April 17th, 1790, at the age of 84. He was buried in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, where a small marble slab, level with the surface of the earth, and close to a busy street, bears the simple inscription� Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.

Franklin�s son, William Temple, was the Royal Governor of New Jersey at the time of the Revolution, and, to the grief of his father, adhered to the Royal cause. He subsequently fixed his residence in England.

Franklin made various bequests and donations to cities,

public bodies and individuals. Among his papers, written when he was but twenty-three years of age, was found this original epitaph:�











It is rare that a single mind establishes claims so various as those of Benjamin Franklin. Unceasing industry, perseverance, business-like habits, general information and readiness in the use of his pen, secured to him a large circle of friends, and raised him from poverty to affluence. He was bold, speculative and inquiring in physical as well as in metaphysical science. He carried into public life the same characteristics which had marked his private career, and by honesty, fair dealing and a zealous and patriotic spirit, he achieved the highest success as a statesman and diplomatist A sincere believer in the equal rights of all men, he estimated at their true worth the various distinctions which he found introduced into the civilized nations and polite society of Europe. In his personal bearing Franklin was sedate and weighty. He had no stately eloquence; he spoke and wrote sententiously. Men instinctively felt his worth, and submitted themselves to his wisdom. “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings.�

“His country,” says Bigelow, “owes much to Franklin for his service in various public capacities; the world owes much to the fruits of his pen; but his greatest contribution

to the welfare of mankind, probably, was what he did by his example and life to dignify manual labor. While Diderot was teaching the dignity of labor in France and the folly of social standards that proscribed it, Franklin was illustrating it in America, and proving by his own most conclusive example that �Honor and fame from no condition rise.� There are few bom into this world so ill-conditioned that they cannot find comfort and encouragement from some portion of the life of Franklin; none of any station who may not meditate on it with advantage.”