American statesman, printer, scientist, and writer, b. Boston. The only American of the colonial period to earn a European reputation as a natural philosopher, he is best remembered in the United States as a patriot and diplomat.
Printer and Writer
The son of a tallow chandler and soapmaker, Franklin left school at 10 years of age to help his father. He then was apprenticed to his half brother James, a printer and publisher of the New England Courant, to which young Ben secretly contributed. After much disagreement he left his brother's employment and went (1723) to Philadelphia to work as a printer. Industry and thrift—qualities he was to praise later—helped him to better himself.
After a sojourn in London (1724–26), he returned and in 1729 acquired an interest in the Pennsylvania Gazette. As owner and editor after 1730, he made the periodical popular. His common sense philosophy and his neatly turned phrases won public attention in the Gazette, in the later General Magazine, and especially in his Poor Richard's Almanack, which he published from 1732 to 1757. Many sayings of Poor Richard, praising prudence, common sense, and honesty, became standard American proverbs.
Franklin also interested himself in selling books, established a circulating library, organized a debating club that developed into the American Philosophical Society, helped to establish (1751) an academy that eventually became the Univ. of Pennsylvania, and brought about civic reforms. His writings are still widely known today, especially his autobiography (covering only his early years), which is generally considered one of the finest autobiographies in any language and has appeared in innumerable editions.
Franklin had steadily extended his own knowledge by study of foreign languages, philosophy, and science. He repeated the experiments of other scientists and showed his usual practical bent by inventing such diverse things as the Franklin stove, bifocal eyeglasses, and a glass harmonica (see harmonica 2). The phenomenon of electricity interested him deeply, and in 1748 he turned his printing business over to his foreman, intending to devote his life to science. His spectacular experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm, which proved that lightning is an electrical discharge, and his invention of the lightning rod were among a series of investigations that won him recognition from the leading scientists in England and on the Continent.
Diplomat from Pennsylvania
Franklin held local public offices and served long (1753–74) as deputy postmaster general of the colonies. As such he reorganized the postal system, making it both efficient and profitable. His status as a public figure grew steadily. A Pennsylvania delegate to the Albany Congress (1754), he proposed there a plan of union for the colonies, which was accepted by the delegates but later rejected by both the provincial assemblies and the British government. He worked for the British cause in the French and Indian War, especially by providing transportation for the ill-fated expedition led by Edward Braddock against Fort Duquesne. Franklin was a leader of the popular party in Pennsylvania against the Penn family, who were the proprietors, and in 1757 he was sent to England to present the case against the Penns. He won (1760) for the colony the right to tax the Penn estates but advised moderation in applying the right.
He returned to America for two years (1762–64) but was in England when the Stamp Act caused a furor. Again he showed prudent moderation; he protested the act but asked the colonists to obey the law, thus losing some popularity in the colonies until he stoutly defended American rights at the time of the debates on repeal of the act. He was made agent for Georgia (1768), New Jersey (1769), and Massachusetts (1770) and seriously considered making his home in England, where his scientific attainments, his brilliant mind, and his social gifts of wit and urbanity had gained him a high place.
As trouble between the British government and the colonies grew with the approach of the American Revolution, Franklin's deep love for his native land and his devotion to individual freedom brought (1775) him back to America. There, while his illegitimate son, William Franklin, was becoming a leader of the Loyalists, Benjamin Franklin became one of the greatest statesmen of the American Revolution and of the newborn nation. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, was appointed postmaster general, and was sent to Canada with Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll of Carrollton to persuade the people of Canada to join the patriot cause. He was appointed (1776) to the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, which he signed.
Late in 1776 he sailed to France to join Arthur Lee and Silas Deane in their diplomatic efforts for the new republic. Franklin, with a high reputation in France well supported by his winning presence, did much to gain French recognition of the new republic in 1778. Franklin helped to direct U.S. naval operations and was a successful agent for the United States in Europe—the sole one after suspicions and quarrels caused Congress to annul the powers of the other American commissioners.
He was chosen (1781) as one of the American diplomats to negotiate peace with Great Britain and laid the groundwork for the treaty before John Jay and John Adams arrived. British naval victory in the West Indies made the final treaty less advantageous to the United States than Franklin's original draft. The Treaty of Paris was, in contradiction of the orders of Congress, concluded in 1783 without the concurrence of France, because Jay and Adams distrusted the French.
Constitutional Convention Delegate
Franklin returned in 1785 to the United States and was made president of the Pennsylvania executive council. The last great service rendered to his country by this “wisest American,” as he is sometimes called, was his part in the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although his proposal of a single-chamber congress was rejected, he helped to direct the compromise that brought the Constitution of the United States into being. Though not completely satisfied with the finished product, he worked earnestly for its ratification.
See the definitive edition of Franklin's works, Vol. I–14 ed. by Leonard W. Labaree, Vol. 15–18 ed. by William B. Willcox (1959–1973), covering the period from Jan. 6, 1706, to Dec. 31, 1771.