Authors: Benjamin Franklin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American philosopher and inventor

January 17, 1706

Boston, Massachusetts

April 17, 1790

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Biography

Benjamin Franklin was the son of Abiah Folger and Josiah Franklin, a poor soap boiler and tallow chandler. His formal education between 1714 and 1716 consisted of tutoring and a year’s study at the Boston Grammar School. He eventually acquired prodigious learning from his own experience and study, which included vast readings in American, British, and West European books and newspapers.

Benjamin Franklin

(Library of Congress)

After working almost two years for his father, he was apprenticed to his half brother, James Franklin, editor of the New England Courant, from 1721 to 1723. James encouraged his brother’s first known literary efforts, the “Silence Dogood Essays,” satirical imitations of Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: An Essay upon the Good (1706). Theocratic officialdom was outraged by these and other articles, and they warned the editor to desist in them. Shortly before the New England Courant was suppressed, Franklin broke the terms of his indenture in 1723 to emigrate to Philadelphia with little besides the clothes on his back. He worked for a year in a printing house there. Encouraged by Pennsylvania’s eccentric Governor Keith to begin his own printing business, Franklin sailed to England, but he soon discovered that Keith’s letters of credit were worthless. After saving enough from London printing jobs to return to Philadelphia in 1726, he clerked for a merchant before establishing himself as a printer.

In 1727 Franklin founded the Junto discussion group, the first American adult education class. In 1730 he became the owner of the Pennsylvania Gazette. In 1731 he started the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first American circulating library. He promoted Philadelphia’s advanced street paving, cleaning, and lighting. In 1749 he helped found the Academy of Philadelphia, which opened in 1751 and is now the University of Pennsylvania. He soon gravitated into colonial politics and patronage, serving as postmaster of Philadelphia (1737), state printer, clerk (1736-1750) and member (1751-1754) of the Pennsylvania Assembly, member of several Indian commissions, delegate to the intercolonial Albany Congress (1754), deputy and joint postmaster-general (1753-1774) for British North America, and Pennsylvania’s agent in London (1757-1762, 1764-1775).

During these years, the most sustained of Franklin’s literary productions was Poor Richard’s Almanack, whose proverbs illustrate his understanding that Puritan virtues had immense utilitarian value. A Deist and natural rights philosopher believing in the perfectibility of man, Franklin felt obligated to show others how they, too, could rise from rags to riches by consciously leading a frugal, industrious life. He considered experiential tests superior to a system’s logical consistency in evaluating the worth of concepts, but he carefully distinguished between the end and means. Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack sold about ten thousand copies per issue and enabled him to retire in 1748 from active conduct of his printing and newspaper business, from which he thereafter derived an income of one thousand pounds yearly.

To devote himself to moral and natural philosophy and to further their study by others, Franklin helped establish the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia in 1743. The popular conception of him as merely the inventor of practical devices, like his stove and lightning rod, does great injustice to Franklin the abstract scientist. He discovered the first law of electricity (conservation of charge), gave to electrical charges their positive and negative designations, and deduced that electrical properties of bodies depend on their shape, a fact which controls condenser design. His compendious Papers, Experiments, and Observations on Electricity won for him at home and abroad memberships in the major cultural and scientific societies and many honorary degrees. In a different field, Franklin’s discovery that Atlantic “nor’easter” storms move against the wind was a fundamental advance in the science of weather. In Observations on the Increase of Mankind, People of Countries, &c. he anticipated theories later elaborated by Thomas Malthus.

At the Albany Congress of 1754, Franklin advanced his prophetic plan of union, which embodied the federal principle. (He asserted, throughout his life, that adoption of his plan, rejected by the colonies and by Parliament, would have averted the American Revolution.) In 1766, while representing Pennsylvania in London in disputes with the Penn proprietors, he helped persuade Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act as an impractical measure. His humility and reasonableness won new friends for America and increased his prestige so that other colonies designated him their agent. Although he feared that the disputes between Parliament and the Colonies had become irreconcilable, he labored for conciliation until the Coercive Acts of 1775.

Returning home, Franklin represented Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress. On the committee to draw up a declaration of independence, he made a few changes in Thomas Jefferson’s draft. Chairman of the foreign affairs committee, he drafted the Treaty Plan of 1776. Although he was not on the constitutional committee, his was the strongest single influence on the Articles of Confederation because he submitted a revised plan of union and because his 1776 constitution for Pennsylvania afforded practical examples of the operation of the unicameral legislature, an executive of weak powers, and a denial of compulsive force by central authority—all soon to be salient features of the new federal government under the Articles of Confederation.

Appointed by Congress in 1776 as one of three treaty commissioners, Franklin went to France, where his Œuvres had been published in translation in 1773 and where his prestige was so great that he completely overshadowed his co-commissioners. The canny Franklin’s intimacy with Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, helped win, in 1778, recognition of the United States’ independence and a treaty of alliance with France. A few months later, in 1779, he became sole plenipotentiary to France. Though the treaty with France forbade either country to arrange a separate peace, Franklin had already begun in 1781 separate negotiations with Great Britain. In 1782 he, John Adams, and John Jay formed a Peace Commission which effected a separate armistice, to the ostensible surprise and indignation of Vergennes. This preliminary, however, made possible the signature of a general peace treaty at Paris in 1783. Upon Franklin’s long-standing request, he was recalled to the United States in 1785.

Pennsylvania honored the now ailing Franklin with the presidency of its Executive Council (1785-1787). As one of its delegates to the Federal Convention in 1787, Franklin made few specific proposals, but his affable spirit, shunning the doctrinaire, promoted compromises based on practical experience. His federal principle was greatly strengthened, but his other notions of governmental machinery found little or no place in the new constitution.

Franklin married Deborah Read in 1730; she died in 1774. She was illiterate, but she was devoted to him. They had two daughters, one of whom survived infancy and married Richard Bache. Tolerant of her husband’s infidelities, Deborah even raised his illegitimate son William Franklin, later royal governor of New Jersey and a Loyalist.

It was to guide William that Franklin began his Autobiography in 1771 at Twyford, England. By far his most widely read work, it has continued to influence readers for more than two hundred years, both as a guide to personal success and as an archetypal American story of the self-made individual. Franklin completed his memoirs up to the year 1757. He died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790, and European countries joined the United States in mourning the passing of the man whom David Hume had hailed as the first philosopher and great man of letters in the New World.

Author Works Nonfiction: “Silence Dogood Essays,” 1722 “The Bagatelles,” 1722-1784 (miscellaneous tales and sketches) Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, 1725 “The Busy-Body Essays,” 1729 The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency, 1729 Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1732-1757 “On Protection of Towns from Fire,” 1735 “Self-Denial Not the Essence of Virtue,” 1735 An Account of the New Invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces, 1744 (science) “Old Mistresses Apology,” 1745 (also known as “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress”) Plain Truth, 1747 “The Speech of Polly Baker,” 1747 Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, 1749 Idea of the English School, 1751 Observations on the Increase of Mankind, People of Countries, &c., 1751 (science) “Physical and Meteorological Observations,” 1751 (science) Papers, Experiments, and Observations on Electricity, 1751-1754 (3 volumes; science) “The Kite Experiment,” 1752 (science) Post Office Instructions and Directions, 1753 (state papers) Some Account of the Pennsylvania Hospital, 1754 Treaty of Carlisle, 1754 (state papers) Albany Plan of Union, 1754 (state papers) Poor Richard Improved, 1757 (includes previous 2 titles; also known as The Way to Wealth) The Interest of Great Britain Considered, 1760 Narrative of the Late Massacres, 1764 Cool Thoughts on the Present Situation of Our Public Affairs, 1764 Memorandum on the American Postal Service, 1764 (state papers) Examination of Dr. Franklin by the House of Commons Concerning the Stamp Act, 1766 (state papers) An Edict of the King of Prussia, 1773 Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One, 1773 The Ephemera, 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce Between the United States and France, 1778 (state papers) Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces, 1779 The Whistle, 1779 Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout, 1780 The Handsome and the Deformed Leg, 1780 Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Great Britain, 1783 (state papers) Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America, 1784 “On Smoky Chimneys,” 1785 (science) The Art of Procuring Pleasant Dreams, 1786 “Observations Relative to the Academy in Philadelphia,” 1789 (science) On the Slave Trade, 1790 Memoirs de la vie privée ecrits par lui-même, 1791 (The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, 1793; Memoirs of the Life, 1818; best known as Autobiography) Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 1905-1907 (10 volumes; Albert H. Smyth, editor) Treaties and Other International Acts, 1931-1948 (state papers; 8 volumes; Hunter P. Miller, editor; also known as Miller’s Treaties) The Record of American Diplomacy, 1947 (state papers; Ruhl J. Bartlett, editor; also known as Bartlett’s Records) The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 1959-2002 (36 volumes; Leonard W. Labaree et al., editors) Bibliography Aldridge, A. Owen. Benjamin Franklin and Nature’s God. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967. This study of Franklin’s theology treats his religious beliefs in relation to both his practice and his literary works, including “Speech of Polly Baker,” “Extract from an Account of the Captivity of William Henry,” and “Letter from a Gentleman in Portugal.” Intended for the serious student, it is particularly relevant to Franklin’s views on metaphysics and personal conduct. Anderson, Douglas. The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. A study that focuses on the literary and intellectual career of Franklin in his early years; provides a close reading of a number of Franklin texts. Brands, H. W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Doubleday, 2000. A thorough biography that fleshes out the multifaceted Franklin. Campbell, James. Recovering Benjamin Franklin: An Exploration of a Life of Science and Service. Chicago: Open Court, 1999. A thoughtful look at Franklin’s life. Durham, Jennifer L. Benjamin Franklin: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997. A good, contemporary biography of Franklin. Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Edited by J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall. New York: W. W. Norton. 1986. This critical edition presents the authoritative text of Franklin’s Memoirs of the Life, superseding those in all multivolume editions of Franklin’s writings. Particularly useful are thirty pages of biographical notes concerning the contemporary and historical figures mentioned in the autobiography. Other valuable sections contain relevant extracts from Franklin’s letters and selected commentaries by outstanding critics from Franklin’s times to the mid-1980’s. Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Writings. Edited by J. A. Leo Lemay. New York: Library of America, 1987. This outstanding anthology—by far the best in print—contains not only the quintessence of Franklin’s literary production but also valuable annotations and a thorough index. Franklin, Benjamin. Franklin on Franklin. Edited by Paul M. Zall. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. A newly edited early draft of Franklin’s autobiography, with expunged passages restored and the last decades, unrecorded by Franklin, filled out with correspondence and diary entries. Granger, Bruce I. Benjamin Franklin: An American Man of Letters. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964. In order to prove that Franklin is an important man of letters, Granger subjects his periodical essays, almanacs, letters, bagatelles, and autobiography to close stylistic analysis, developing the “persona” of his sketches and the tropes of his essays and conversely dissecting “such rhetorical figures as analogy, repetition, proverb and pun.” This stylistic analysis is successful as far as it goes, but it fails to consider the intensely human message of Franklin’s best writing. Locker, Roy N., ed. Meet Dr. Franklin. Philadelphia: Franklin Institute, 1981. Sixteen prominent historians contribute to this compilation of essays analyzing various aspects of Franklin’s career, including the literary. Intended for the nonspecialist, the essays cover the essentials of Franklin’s life and thought. Morgan, Emund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. A comprehensive biography. Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. An examination of the personal and emotional life of Franklin, with a focus on his political adversaries, including the Penns, John Adams, and Arthur Lee. Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Viking, 1938. This biography, although old, is the most readily obtainable, most comprehensive, and most adapted to the general reader. Extensive quotations from Franklin’s works provide a “speaking voice” for both the historical figure and the human personality. The text is long but brings the whole of Franklin’s life into a single narrative. Wood, Gordon S. “Not So Poor Richard.” The New York Review of Books 43 (June 6, 1996): 47-51. Claims that Franklin is the hardest of all the Founding Fathers to understand; provides a biographical sketch, noting particularly the apparent contradiction between his image as a rustic, industrious, prototypical American and his image as an urbane and aristocratic European. Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986. Provides a thorough biography of Franklin.

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