|Benjamin Franklin Biography: Scientist, Inventor, Writer (1706–1790)
Benjamin Franklin is best known as one of the Founding Fathers who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”
Born in Boston in 1706, Benjamin Franklin organized the United States’ first lending library and volunteer fire department. His scientific pursuits included investigations into electricity, mathematics and mapmaking. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the U.S Constitution, and negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the Revolutionary War.
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston in what was then known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His father, Josiah Franklin, a soap and candle maker, had 17 children, seven with first wife, Anne Child, and 10 with second wife Abiah Folger. Benjamin was his 15th child and the last son.
Despite his success at the Boston Latin School, Ben was removed at 10 to work with his father at candle making, but dipping wax and cutting wicks didn’t fire his imagination. Perhaps to dissuade him from going to sea as one of his brothers had done, Josiah apprenticed Ben at 12 to his brother James at his print shop. Ben took to this like a duck to water, despite his brother’s hard treatment. When James refused to publish any of his brother’s writing, Ben adopted the pseudonym Mrs. Silence Dogood, and “her” 14 imaginative and witty letters were published in his brother’s newspaper, The New England Courant, to the delight of the readership. But James was angry when it was discovered the letters were his brother’s, and Ben abandoned his apprenticeship shortly afterward, escaping to New York, but settling in Philadelphia, which was his home base for the rest of his life.
Franklin furthered his education in the printing trade in Philadelphia, lodging at the home of John Read in 1723, where he met and courted Read’s daughter Deborah. Nevertheless, the following year, Franklin left for London under the auspices of Pennsylvania Governor William Keith, but felt duped when letters of introduction never arrived and he was forced to find work at print shops there. Once employed, though, he was able to take full advantage of the city’s pleasures, attending theater, mingling with the populace in coffee houses and continuing his lifelong passion for reading. He also managed to publish his first pamphlet, "A Dissertation upon Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain."
Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1726 to find that Deborah Read had married. In the next few years he held varied jobs such as bookkeeper, shopkeeper and currency cutter. He also fathered a son, William, out of wedlock during this time. In late 1727, Franklin formed the “Junto,” a social and self-improvement study group for young men, and early the next year was able to establish his own print shop with a partner.
After publishing another pamphlet, "The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency," Franklin was able to purchase The Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper from a former boss, and was elected the official printer of Pennsylvania. He was also able to take Deborah Read as his common-law wife in 1730, after her husband disappeared after stealing a slave. Their first son, Francis, was born in 1732 (although he died four years later of smallpox).
Franklin’s prominence and success grew during the 1730s, especially with the publication of Poor Richard’s Almanac at the end of 1732. Franklin amassed real estate and businesses, organized the Union Fire Company to counteract dangerous fire hazards, established a lending library so others could share his passion for reading, and was elected Grand Master of the Pennsylvania Masons, clerk of the state assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia.
The 1740s saw Franklin expanding into entrepreneurship with invention of the Franklin stove, and also into scientific pursuits. His pamphlet "A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge" underscored his interests. His beloved daughter Sarah was born in 1743. He became a soldier in the Pennsylvania militia at the age of 42, but his abiding interest in electricity was ignited at this time, too. He conducted the famous kite-and-key experiment in 1752 after some of his theories on electricity were published in England the previous year.
Franklin was tapped as a foreign diplomat and represented the Pennsylvania Assembly, and subsequently Massachusetts, Georgia and New Jersey, in England, but he continued to work toward colonial union and in 1766 supported the repeal of the Stamp Act.
In 1775, Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress and as postmaster general for the colonies, having mapped the postal routes in 1762. And in 1776, he was one of five men to draft the Declaration of Independence. Franklin was also one of the 13 men who drafted the Articles of Confederation.
Much has been made of Franklin’s life in Paris as essentially the first U.S. ambassador to France, chiefly his romantic life. Deborah, his wife of 44 years, died in 1774, two years before he accepted the post, and Franklin had a rich romantic life in his nine years abroad. He even proposed marriage, to a widow named Madame Helvetius, at the age of 74, but she rejected him.
Franklin was embraced in France as much, if not more, for his intellectual standing in the scientific community and for his wit, as for his status as a political appointee from a fledging country. His reputation facilitated respect and entrees into closed communities, including that of King Louis XVI. And it was his adept diplomacy that led to the peace treaty with England in 1783 and other foreign alliances and trade treaties.
After almost a decade in France, Franklin returned to America in 1785. He was elected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, which drafted and ratified the new U.S Constitution, and participated in electing George Washington as the country’s first president, inaugurated in April 1789.
He also served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, wrote many tracts urging the abolition of slavery and petitioned the U.S Congress for it in 1790.
Successes and Failures
With so many of America’s early heroes, successes take the spotlight, while failures are rarely mentioned. But with any great entrepreneur the failures are just paving stones to the triumphs. Franklin himself said, “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”
He took his own advice. Franklin mapped the Gulf Stream, invented swim fins, the lightning rod and musical instruments, established colleges, and amassed scores of other accomplishments. His self-education earned him honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford University in England, and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
But he also began a magazine that failed, devised a new “scheme” for the alphabet that proposed to eliminate the letters C, J, Q, W, X and Y as redundant, and made disastrous political decisions that involved the leaking of letters, called the “Hutchinson Affair.” He also made an ill-advised recommendation for Pennsylvania’s stamp distribution that caused the public to misconstrue where he stood on American support. His own son William, whom he helped to achieve the governorship of New Jersey, opposed him on the unification of the colonies, which stung Franklin to the point where he mentioned it in his will almost 25 years later.
Franklin’s voracious capacity for knowledge, investigation and finding practical solutions to problems was his primary focus, as was his commitment to “doing good,” which led to the concept of paying it forward.
Death and Legacy
Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the home of his daughter, Sarah Bache. He was 84, suffered from gout and had complained of ailments for some time, completing the final codicil to his will a little more than a year and a half prior to his death. Franklin had actually written his epitaph when he was 22: The body of 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 Lost; For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More In a New and More Elegant Edition Revised and Corrected By the Author. In the end, however, the stone on the grave he shared with his wife read simply, “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin 1790.”
The image of Benjamin Franklin that has come down through history, along with the image on the $100 bill, is something of a caricature—a bald man in a frock coat holding a kite string with a key attached. But the scope of things he applied himself to was so broad it seems a shame. Founding universities and libraries, the post office, shaping the foreign policy of the fledgling United States, drafting the Declaration of Independence, publishing newspapers, warming us with the Franklin stove, pioneering advances in science, letting us see with bifocals and, yes, lighting our way with electricity—all from a man who never finished school but shaped his life through abundant reading and experience, a strong moral compass and an unflagging commitment to civic duty, and an overall wit, good humor and integrity. Franklin illumined corners of American life that still have the lingering glow of his attention. He was a true polymath and entrepreneur, which is no doubt why he is often called the First American. Perhaps it is a fitting image after all.
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