Benjamin Franklin pioneered the spirit of self-help in America. With less than three years of formal schooling, he taught himself almost everything he knew. He took the initiative of teaching himself French, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish. He taught himself how to play the guitar, violin and harp. He made himself an influential author and editor. He started a successful printing business, newspaper and magazine. He developed a network of printing partnerships throughout the American colonies.
When Franklin saw that something needed doing, he did it. In Philadelphia, he helped launch the city’s first police force, the first volunteer fire company, the first fire insurance firm, the first hospital, the first public library and the academy that became the first institution of higher learning (University of Pennsylvania). As postmaster, he doubled and tripled the frequency of mail deliveries.
Franklin, who reportedly amassed early America’s largest private library, helped expand the frontiers of science and invention. He started the American Philosophical Society which was this country’s first scientific society and maintained the first science library, first museum and first patent office; over 90 members of this society went on to win Nobel Prizes. On his eight trans-Atlantic crossings, Franklin made measurements which helped chart the Gulf Stream. He pioneered the study of water flowing around a hull — hydrodynamics. He investigated meteorology. He invented bifocal spectacles. He was most famous, of course, for his experiments with electricity, especially lightning. His lightning rod helped banish the terror of thunder storms.
Franklin had more to do with founding the American republic than anyone else. As American representative in London, he helped persuade Parliament to repeal despised Stamp Act taxes, giving America an additional decade to prepare for armed conflict with Britain. He was on the committee which named Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. He went to France and secured military help as well as a formal alliance, without which America probably wouldn’t have won the Revolutionary War. He helped negotiate the peace with Britain. He crafted a compromise which helped prevent the collapse of the Constitutional Convention, and he was the one who moved that the Constitution be adopted.
Franklin linked emerging movements for liberty. James Madison recalled that he “never passed half an hour in his company without hearing some observation or anecdote worth remembering.” Franklin dined with Wealth of Nations author Adam Smith. The Scottish philosopher David Hume told Franklin: “America has sent us many good things, Gold, Silver, Sugar, Tobacco, Indigo, &c. But you are the first Philosopher, and indeed the first Great Man of Letters for whom we are beholden…” Edmund Burke, who had opposed Britain’s war against America, called Franklin “the friend of mankind.” When the French wit Voltaire met William Temple Franklin, he quipped: “God and Liberty! It is the only benediction which can be given to the grandson of Franklin.” Jacques Turgot, who implemented laissez faire principles in France, remarked that Franklin “snatched the lightning from heaven and the scepter from tyrants.”
Franklin was a late-blooming radical. During his 30s, he brokered the sale of some slaves as a sideline for his general store. He and his wife owned two slaves. In 1758, when he was 52, he suggested establishing Philadelphia’s first school for blacks. At 70, he abandoned his support for the British Empire and committed himself to the American Revolution. Philadelphia Quakers had launched the abolitionist movement by organizing the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (1775), but its activities ceased during the Revolution; this pioneering society revived in 1787 when Franklin became its president, at 81. Two years later he voiced his support for the ideals of the French Revolution.
While Franklin was generous with his friends and adopted families, he could be insensitive with his own. He disregarded pleas from his dying wife Deborah, whom he hadn’t seen in almost a dozen years, to return home from Britain where he represented American colonial interests. He refused to approve his daughter Sarah’s proposed marriage to the man she loved. His son William’s decision to side with Britain during the American Revolution provoked a bitter break which never healed.
As biographer Ronald W. Clark noted, Franklin “was only an inch or two less than six feet in height, thickset and muscular, with dark brown hair above friendly hazel eyes. He was obviously able to look after himself, a distinct advantage in the rougher eighteenth century…These physical attributes were compounded by a nimbleness of mind, so that in argument as well as in action he tended to be off the mark quicker than most men. Above all, and largely concealed by his instinctive hail-fellow-well-met nature, there was a steely determination to succeed and some impatience with those who got in his way.”
Benjamin Franklin was born in a Milk Street, Boston house January 17, 1706, the tenth son of Abia Folger, daughter of an indentured servant. His father Josiah Franklin made candles.
At eight, he was sent to Boston’s Latin school, then a school for writing and arithmetic. He apprenticed in his father’s candle-making shop. Because he began to enjoy books, his father arranged for him to apprentice with his 21-year-old brother James who was a Boston printer. “All the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books,” Franklin recalled.
Franklin went to Philadelphia where he heard a printer was looking for help. “I was dirty from my Journey,” he wrote about his arrival at the Market Street Wharf, “my Pockets were stuff’d out with Shirts & Stockings; I knew no Soul, or where to look for Lodging. I was fatigued with Travelling, Rowing & Want of Rest. I was very hungry, and my whole Stock of Cash consisted of a Dutch Dollar and about a Shilling in Copper.”
Franklin got a job, impressed people and was sent to England for printing equipment. Financing for it fell through, but in 1725 and 1726 he worked for a couple big London printers and gained valuable experience. London, an intellectual capital of Europe, expanded Franklin’s vision. During the tedious 79-day voyage home, he wrote down some principles for success. His original draft was lost, but the main points were probably similar to what he remembered later: “1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe. 2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance, to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action; the most amiable excellence in a rational being. 3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of growing suddenly rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty. 4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever…”
Within months after his return in late 1726, he was in business for himself. He landed a contract to print Pennsylvania’s currency. He printed the first novel published in America (Samuel Richardson’s Pamela) and sold material printed by others, including Bibles and all kinds of legal forms. Franklin bought a failing newspaper, changed its name to The Pennsylvania Gazette and wrote many of the articles himself. The December 28, 1732 issue announced that he would be offering Poor Richard: an Almanac. It offered memorable aphorisms about success. For instance: “God helps them that helps themselves…Diligence is the Mother of Good-Luck…Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise…When you’re good to others, you are best to yourself….” Poor Richard’s Almanack was published annually until 1758. It sold some 10,000 copies a year — a big number in those days — and helped make Franklin a household name.
Meanwhile, in 1727, Franklin started a group called the “Junto” which he described as “a Club for mutual Improvement.” Participants included young apprentices, and they made presentations to each other. They met weekly on Friday evenings, initially at a tavern and later in a rented room. During the next three decades, Franklin’s Junto helped pioneer many of Philadelphia’s institutions, starting with the city’s first public library. To provide greater security against crime, Franklin started City Watch which organized neighborhood patrols at night. He promoted the paving, cleaning and lighting of streets. He provided crucial support for Philadelphia’s first hospital. In 1744, he helped organize the American Philosophical Society. He thought college education should be available in Pennsylvania, and he recommended that it focus on basic skills like writing and speaking. His proposed reading list included the 17th century radical author Algernon Sidney. In 1749, Franklin was elected the first president of this new Academy. It became the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin was quite a successful self-made man, but his life wasn’t complete. He had some romantic adventures, one of which brought a son William. On September 1, 1730, he began a common law marriage with Deborah Read, a carpenter’s daughter. They had a son Francis who died four years later from smallpox and a daughter Sally (Sarah) who was born in 1743. Franklin’s first son William lived with them. Deborah seems to have been barely literate homebody, and she couldn’t begin to keep up with him. During the next 45 years, she displayed phenomenal patience as he spent decades away on business throughout the colonies and Europe.
With his buoyant curiosity, Franklin pursued myriad scientific interests. He investigated weather patterns. He speculated about the origin of mountains. He invented a more efficient wood-burning stove, connected to a radiator, and in 1744, he started popularizing this stove as the Pennsylvania Fire Place. Franklin began to experiment with electricity. In June 1752, he climbed a Philadelphia hill, flew a silk kite during a thunder storm, touched one knuckle to a key on the wet string — and felt an electrical shock. He published Experiments and Observations on Electricity, and it was translated into French, German, Italian and Latin. He developed lightning rods which could draw lightning away from a house and protect it from fire. Lightning rods earned Franklin the gratitude of people throughout America and Europe. He was elected a Fellow of the English Royal Society and the French Academie des Sciences.
By the time Franklin had become famous for his experiments on electricity, he was in the thick of Pennsylvania politics. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in August 1751. As Britain and France struggled for control of North America, the French won over many Indian tribes as allies, and Pennsylvania was vulnerable to attack. Franklin helped organize a people’s militia. In 1754, he proposed a federal union of the colonies under the British crown.
He published The Way to Wealth (1758) which, based on Poor Richard, went into nine Spanish printings, 11 German printings, 56 French printings and 70 English printings. Moreover, it also appeared in Bohemian, Catalan, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Gaelic, Greek, Polish, Russian, Swedish and Welsh.
Pennsylvania politics intensified. Many people resented the Penn family because their vast landholdings were tax-exempt, which meant they didn’t help pay defense costs. The Pennsylvania Assembly sent Franklin to London where, hopefully, he could promote their interests against the Penns. He wrote more than 60 newspaper articles. The result was that the Penns were taxed like everybody else.
Massachusetts and Georgia asked Franklin to help them resist British taxes too. Parliament passed the Stamp Act which became law November 1, 1765. It called for taxes on legal documents, newspapers and playing cards in the colonies. Franklin spoke out against “the mistaken Notion…that the Colonies were planted at the Expence of Parliament…[America] was possess’d by a free People.” He warned there would be armed resistance, the Stamp Act was repealed. Parliament tried again to assert its supremacy over the colonies, and Franklin worked for some kind of compromise.
In Britain, Franklin met Anthony Benezet, the Philadelphia Quaker teacher who was earliest advocates of liberating black slaves. Benezit urged Franklin to condemn the slave trade, and he subsequently spoke out against the “pestilential, detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men.” He served on the board of Bray Associates, an organization which established schools for black boys and girls in Newport, New York, Philadelphia and Williamsburg.
Franklin got his hands on six explosive letters by Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson who wrote: “there must be a great restraint of natural liberty.” Samuel Adams saw the letters, made them public, and there was an uproar. British officials humiliated Franklin, ending his desire for reconciliation.
He sailed for America on March 21, 1775, soon after learning about the death of his wife whom he hadn’t seen in 11 years. While he was at sea, armed conflict had begun as British soldiers fired on Americans in Lexington, Massachusetts. On May 6th, the day after Franklin reached Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Assembly made him a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and a week later the British government issued an order for his arrest. He was asked to help secure war supplies from abroad. Since the government didn’t have any credit, Franklin advanced L353 in gold from his personal funds.
In October 1775, Franklin talked with an impassioned English immigrant whom he had met in London, suggesting the young man write “a history of the present transactions.” The young man, Thomas Paine, was already at work on such a project and showed Franklin a draft of his pamphlet Common Sense which, after publication in January 1776, convinced Americans to embrace independence.
On June 21, 1776, Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston (New York) and Roger Sherman (Connecticut) were appointed to a committee for producing a declaration which would announce American independence. The committee asked Jefferson to draft it. Franklin, for one, suggested a number of changes
When time came to sign the Declaration on August 2nd, John Hancock, President of Congress reportedly remarked: “We must be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.” According to legend, Franklin added: “we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The best bet for help was France which, having lost a war with Britain, would surely like to see the British Empire come apart. But the French were wary. The Americans were a long shot, and nobody wanted to back a loser. King Louis XVI saw danger in supporting revolution. Americans felt some uneasiness seeking help from a king who claimed absolute power.
When Franklin was asked if he would go to France, he noted his gout and other infirmities and reportedly replied, “I am old and good for nothing.” But he agreed, then withdrew more than L3,000 from his bank and loaned it to Congress. French intellectuals respected him for his pioneering experiments with electricity, and ordinary people knew that his lightning rods saved homes from fire. As John Adams put it: “there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with [Benjamin Franklin], and who did not consider him as a friend to human kind.”
On October 26, 1776, Franklin secretly left Philadelphia with his grandsons William Temple Franklin and Benjamin Franklin Bache. They reached Paris on December 22nd.
Franklin established his headquarters at Passy, a chateau in the town of Chaillot which was about one mile from Paris and seven miles from Versailles. The chateau belonged to a friendly entrepreneur. Franklin described himself as “very plainly dressed, wearing my thin, gray straight hair, that peeps out under my only coiffure, a fine fur cap…” Pictures of Franklin appeared in paintings, engravings and aquatints, on medallions, wall plaques, rings, bracelets, snuffboxes and hats. He wrote his daughter Sally: “These, with pictures, busts and prints (of which copies upon copies are spread everywhere), have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.”
On one occasion, Franklin was dining at a Paris restaurant and learned that Edward Gibbon, the British historian who chronicled ancient Rome’s decline and fall, was there, too. When Gibbon declined to sit with Franklin, a rebel, Franklin replied that if Gibbon ever wanted to write a history of Britain’s decline and fall, he would provide “ample materials.”
Despite all Franklin’s savvy, he might not have accomplished much without evidence that the Americans could win. Washington provided that when he crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776 and won the Battle of Trenton, capturing over 900 enemy soldiers. Franklin negotiated two treaties (“Alliance” and “Commerce”) with France, giving important diplomatic recognition to the American republic. Franklin arranged a succession of shipments to America. That they included the most basic stuff suggests how desperate America was. One shipment, for instance, included: 164 brass cannon, 3,600 blankets, 4,000 tents, 4,000 dozen pairs of stockings, 8,750 pairs of shoes, 11,000 grenades, 20,000 pounds of lead, 161,000 pounds of gun powder, 373,000 flints and 514,000 musket balls.
Franklin handled many more tasks. For example, he met the Scottish-born naval captain John Paul Jones and encouraged his bold raids along Britain’s coast, undermining British morale. Jones’ flagship, the Bon Homme Richard, honored the “Poor Richard” of Franklin’s Almanack.
Franklin’s diplomacy and French support helped clinch victory. The valiant Frenchman Lafayette helped George Washington corner the British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The fleet of French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse prevented British ships from rescuing Cornwallis, and the Revolutionary War ended on October 19, 1781.
Franklin had worked wonders even though London knew what he was doing. His chief assistant at Passy was his friend Dr. Edward Bancroft, an American who worked as a British spy. Jonathan Dull, author of Franklin the Diplomat, remarked that “The American mission was so full of people stealing information it is surprising they did not trip over each other.”
Congress named Franklin to a committee which would negotiate peace terms with Britain. After eight and a half years, missions accomplished, he left Paris on July 12, 1785. He sailed for America with Jean-Antoine Houdon, the sculptor who had done a noble bust of Franklin and would help immortalize Jefferson, Lafayette and Washington.
Soon after arriving, Franklin declared: “I shall now be free of Politicks for the Rest of my Life.” But at 80, he joined Philadelphia’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention which gathered in May 1787 at the State House, Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress had met and where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. It looked like the Convention might collapse because of conflict between small states and big states (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia) over how they would be represented. Franklin recommended there be two legislative bodies — an idea which others had suggested — because this made possible a compromise: states would have equal representation in one legislative body (the Senate) and representation according to population in the other legislative body (the House of Representatives). This “Great Compromise” assured the small states that their interests would be protected, and they were more willing to compromise on other issues, helping to move the proceedings forward. Finally, Franklin made a motion that the Constitution be adopted. He remarked that the new Constitution looked like it might last, but “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
In late 1787, Franklin had a bad fall going down steps to his garden, and he suffered excruciating pain from a kidney stone. He wrote his will and resumed work on his autobiography which he had started back in 1771 when he was in London. As the French Revolution exploded across the Atlantic, Franklin wrote his friend David Hartley: “God grant that not only the love of liberty, but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man, may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface, and say, ‘This is my country.’”
In March 1790, Thomas Jefferson visited him and reported: “I found him in bed where he remains almost constantly. He had been clear of pain for some days and was cheerful & in good spirits…He is much emaciated. I pressed him to continue the narration of his life…”The last letter Franklin ever wrote, nine days before his death, was to Jefferson.
Franklin developed a fever and complained about pain on the left side of his chest. Then a lung abscess burst, and breathing became ever more difficult. He died on April 17th, about 11:00 at night. He was 84. Four days later, a funeral procession began at the State House, and he was buried at Christ Church cemetery. Some 20,000 people paid their respects.
He had written his wry epitaph long ago: “B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost, For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.”
Part One of Franklin’s Autobiography — a pirated French edition - was published in 1791. Then came two English editions. There were 14 reprintings before 1800. Franklin’s selected works, including the Autobiography, weren’t published until 1817 because of delays by William Temple Franklin who inherited his grandfather’s manuscripts. The rest of Franklin’s manuscripts were stored in a stable and eventually recovered by the American Philosophical Society.
The Autobiography had many factual errors, since Franklin recalled events years after they happened. The story only went up to 1760. Franklin revealed little about his feelings. But the book appealed to people because he wrote in a plainspoken manner, he chronicled his failures as well as his successes, and he identified principles for building strong character. Franklin, noted American historian Carl Becker, was “a true child of the Enlightenment…its passion for freedom and its humane sympathies…its profound faith in common sense, in the efficacy of Reason for the solution of human problems and the advancement of human welfare.”
German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe organized a “Friday Club” modeled after Franklin’s Junto. Franklin inspired Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin, who helped people in South America gain independence. In Japan, Fukuzawa Yukichi promoted Franklin’s principles and inspired entrepreneurs. Florentine painter Gaspero Barbera published an Italian translation, explaining: “At the age of 35 I was a lost man…I read again and again the Autobiography of Franklin, and became enamored of his ideas and principles to such a degree that to them I ascribe my moral regeneration…Now, at the age of fifty-one, I am healthy, cheerful and rich.”
During the heyday of American individualism, Franklin’s story was taken up by educators whose books sold in the tens of millions. For instance, drawing on the Autobiography, Noah Webster included an 11-page account of Franklin’s life in his Biography For the Use of Schools (1830). Peter Parley wrote a Life of Benjamin Franklin (1932). William Holmes McGuffey included selections from the Autobiography in his enormously popular Readers.
By the 1850s, the Autobiography had been reprinted almost 100 times. Between 1860 and 1890, Franklin was reportedly the most popular subject for American biographers. The Autobiography inspired James Harper to leave his Long Island farm and launch what became a major publishing house (now HarperCollins). Thomas Mellon was inspired to quit farming, become a banker and make his family fortune. The Autobiography inspired steel entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie. Harvard University President Jared Sparks told how the Autobiography “taught me that circumstances have not a sovereign control over the mind.” Savings banks across America were named after Franklin. Altogether, reported American historian Clinton Rossiter, Franklin’s Autobiography has been “translated and retranslated into a dozen languages, printed and reprinted in hundreds of editions, read and reread by millions of people…The influence of these few hundred pages has been matched by that of no other American book.”
As individualism fell out of fashion, intellectuals belittled personal responsibility and self-help. In 1923, for instance, novelist D.H. Lawrence ridiculed Frankling for seeming to cherish reason over passion. In recent decades, some professors claimed the Autobiography was an elaborate pose, covering up Franklin’s “dark side.”
But nobody denied Franklin’s stupendous achievements. He championed personal responsibility, intellectual curiosity, honesty, persistence and thrift — principles which have helped people everywhere lift themselves up. He nurtured an entrepreneurial culture which creates opportunity and hope through peaceful cooperation. He affirmed that by improving yourself and helping your neighbors, you can make a free society succeed. His most glorious invention is the American dream.
Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.