Last reviewed: June 2018
American philosopher and inventor
January 17, 1706
April 17, 1790
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
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.