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States: General History and Description >> Revolution to Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Individual Biography, A-Z
A true jack-of-all-trades and master of many, no other American, with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson, ever did so many things so well. During his long and very useful life, Benjamin Franklin concerned himself with such different matters as statesmanship and soapmaking, book-printing and cabbage-growing, and the rise of tides and the fall of empires. He also invented an efficient heating stove and proved that lightning is electricity. As a statesman, Franklin was the only man to sign all four of the most important documents in the earliest days of the United States -- the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, and the Constitution of the United States.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706, the fifteenth of seventeen children, the youngest son of a candle-maker and his wife. He only had two years of formal schooling, but his father made sure that Benjamin had access to books and the youngster was able to teach himself the basic principles of mathematics, navigation, grammar, logic, and the natural and physical sciences.
When Benjamin was 12, his father persuaded him to become an apprentice to his older brother James, a printer, and he quickly proved himself a good student and excellent printer. Benjamin also wrote several newspaper articles, signing them "Mrs. Silence Dogwood," which his brother published until he discovered that Benjamin had written them. The brothers quarreled frequently, and at the age of 17 Benjamin decided to run away to Philadelphia, then the largest city in the American colonies.
From 1723 to 1730, Franklin worked for various printers in Philadelphia; he also spent time in London, England, where he was sent to buy printing presses. In 1730, at the age of 24, he became the owner of his own print shop.
Franklin's first publishing venture was The Pennsylvania Gazette, which he published from 1730 to 1766. Writing much of the material himself, Franklin believed that a successful man had to work just a little harder than any of his competitors. This philosophy obviously worked, for The Gazette quickly became one of the most successful newspapers in the colonies. He is credited with being the first editor in America to publish a newspaper cartoon, and to illustrate a news story with a map. He also laid many of his ideas for civic reform before the public in this paper.
As successful as The Gazette was, Franklin had even greater success with Poor Richard's Almanac, which he wrote and published every year from 1733 to 1758. The Almanac was always filled with wise and witty sayings coined by Franklin, including such well-known ones as: "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise;" "God helps them that help themselves;" and, "Little strokes fell great oaks."
Franklin never actively sought public office, but he was always interested in public affairs. In 1736 he became clerk of the Pennsylvania Academy.
Distressed with the poor service provided by the colonial postal service, Franklin agreed to become Philadelphia's postmaster in 1737. His efficiency in this position so impressed the British government that in 1753 he was named deputy postmaster general for all the British colonies in America. In this capacity he set up the first city delivery system and the first Dead-Mail Office, sped foreign mail deliveries by using the fastest packet ships available, sped domestic deliveries by hiring more post riders and requiring his couriers to ride both night and day, and established messenger service between Montreal and New York. Franklin also helped Canada establish its first regular postal service, and opened post offices at Quebec, Montreal, and Trois Rivières.
Franklin worked constantly to improve his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. He established the world's first subscription library -- in which members contribute money to buy books and are then allowed to use them free of charge -- at Philadelphia in 1731; the original collection of this library still exists. Alarmed by the extent of fire losses in Philadelphia, he organized the city's first fully-trained fire department. Seeing that criminals frequently got away with their crimes, he helped reform the city police department. Disturbed by the poor condition of the city streets, he started a program to pave, clean, and light them. Ashamed by the poor medical care provided for the city's poor, he raised money to help build a city hospital, the Pennsylvania Hospital. The city had no school for higher education, so Franklin helped to found the academy that grew into the University of Pennsylvania.
Scientist and Inventor
Franklin was one of the first persons in the world to experiment with electricity. His most famous experiment was conducted in 1752, when he flew a homemade kite during a thunderstorm to prove that lightning is electricity. He then "tamed" lightning by inventing the lightning rod, the usefulness of which was made very apparent when his own house was struck by lightning but left unharmed because of a lightning rod he had erected on its roof.
Franklin's scientific interests were not limited to electricity, however. He was the first scientist to study the movement of the Gulf Stream. He spent considerable time and energy charting its course and recording its temperature, speed, and depth. He was the first to show scientists and naval officers that sailors could calm a rough sea by pouring oil on it. He discovered that disease flourishes in poorly ventilated rooms, and showed Americans how to improve acid soil by using lime. He also favored daylight-saving time in summer, saying that it was silly and wasteful for people to "live much by candle-light and sleep by sunshine."
right: Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream
In addition to the lightning rod, Franklin invented a number of items that proved quite useful to the people of his day (and, in some cases, to people of today), including a wood-burning stove that used fuel much more efficiently than any other stove of the day and bifocal eyeglasses that allowed both reading and distant lenses to be set in a single frame. Believing that knowledge and discovery should be available to everyone, Franklin refused to patent any of his inventions, or to use them for profit.
American scientists of Franklin's day were not organized, so he helped establish the American Philosophical Society to bring them together.
Franklin's scientific work won him many high honors, including membership in the Royal Society of London.
Spokesman for Colonial Union
Following outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754, Franklin felt that the colonies had to unite for self-defense against the French and Indians, and printed the famous "Join or Die" cartoon -- showing a snake cut up into pieces that represented the colonies -- in The Pennsylvania Gazette to illustrate his argument. That same year, he prsented his Plan of Union at a conference of seven colonies at Albany, New York. This plan called for the thirteen colonies to join together into "one general government" for the purpose of defense and contained some ideas that were later included in the Constitution of the United States. The delegates at the Albany Congress approved the plan, but the colonies failed to ratify it. Early in 1755, Franklin helped provide horses, wagons and equipment for General Edward Braddock's ill-fated expedition against Fort Duquesne. He also raised volunteer colonial armies to defend frontier towns, and supervised construction of a fort at Weissport in Carbon County, Pennsylvania.
In 1757, the Pennsylvania Legislature sent Franklin to London to speak for the colony in a dispute with the colony's proprietors, who would not allow the colony to pass any tax bill for defense unless their own estates were left tax-free. In 1760, Franklin succeeded in getting a bill through Parliament that taxed both the colonists and the proprietors. He spent most of the next eighteen years in Britain, acting as an unofficial ambassador and spokesman for the American point of view.
Franklin's wisdom and insight may have influenced the peace treaty which ended the French and Indian Wars. The French, who had lost the war, agreed to give the British either the French province of Canada or the French island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies, but the British were divided over which territory to accept. At the height of the debate, Franklin published a pamphlet that compared the boundless future of Canada with the relative unimportance of Guadeloupe. The pamphlet was read by Europeans and Americans alike, and many historians believe that it influenced the British to choose Canada.
Franklin did not immediately oppose the British Parliament's implementation of the Stamp Act in 1765, but he came to recognize that the measure was a threat to the American colonies. On February 13, 1766, he appeared before the House of Commons to answer a series of 174 questions dealing with "taxation without representation." Members of the House threw questions at him for nearly two hours, and Franklin answered each and every one of them as briefly and clearly as he could. The Stamp Act was repealed a short time later, and Franklin received much of the credit.
Franklin wanted America to remain in the British Empire, but only if the rights of the colonists could be recognized and protected. He even pledged his entire net worth to pay for the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party if the British government agreed to repeal its tax on tea. The British ignored his proposal, and Franklin soon realized that his usefulness in Britain had ended. He sailed for home on March 21, 1775, and arrived back in Philadelphia on May 5, barely two weeks after the Revolutionary War began.
The day after his return, Franklin was chosen by the people of Philadelphia to represent them in the Second Continental Congress. Although he seldom spoke at the Congress, he became one of its most active and influential members. He submitted a proposed Plan of Union that laid the groundwork for the Articles of Confederation; served on a commission that went to Canada in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the French Canadians to join the Revolutionary War; and worked on committees dealing with such varied matters as printing paper money, reorganizing the Continental Army, and finding supplies of powder and lead. He was also a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, and was one of the signers of the final document.
In 1775, the Continental Congress chose Franklin as Postmaster General and directed him to organize a postal system quickly. He soon had mail service operating from Portland, Maine, to Savannah, Georgia.
Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Congress appointed Franklin as Minister to France. Greeted warmly by the French people, Franklin nevertheless found it difficult to negotiate a treaty of alliance with the French government because such a treaty would likely mean war with Great Britain, something the French could ill afford. However, Franklin's tact, patience and courtesy eventually won out, and on February 6, 1778 he was one of the signers of the Treaty of Alliance with France. He then arranged transportation to America for French officers, soldiers, and guns. Most historians believe that without France's aid the Americans would not have won their independence.
In 1783, Franklin helped draft the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Revolutionary War, and was a signer of the final document.
Co-Founder of A New Nation
Returning to Philadelphia in 1785, Franklin spent the next two years serving as president of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania -- an office similar to that of Governor.
In 1787, Pennsylvania sent the 81-year-old Franklin as one of its delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Age and illness kept him from taking an active part, but his wisdom and common sense helped keep the convention from breaking up in failure. He was one of the principal authors of the so-called Great Compromise, which sought to satisfy both large and small states by setting up a two-house Congress. He subsequently became the oldest man to sign the Constitution.
Although his attendance at the Constitutional Convention was Franklin's last major public service, his contribution to American society was not yet over. In 1788, he was elected president of the first anti-slavery society in America. His last public act was to sign an appeal to Congress calling for the speedy abolition of slavery.
In 1730, Benjamin Franklin married Deborah Read, the daughter of his first Philadelphia landlady. The Franklins were a devoted couple, despite Deborah's lack of education and Benjamin's frequent absences from home. The couple had three children, two boys and a girl. One of the sons, William, became Governor of New Jersey. Deborah died in 1774.
Benjamin Franklin died on the night of April 17, 1790, at the age of 84. About 20,000 persons honored him at his funeral. He was buried in the cemetery of Christ Church in Philadelphia beside his wife.
In his will, Franklin left $5,000 each to Boston and Philadelphia, part to be used for public works after 100 years, and the rest after 200 years. Part of that money was used to establish the Franklin Technical Institute, a trade school in Boston, and the Franklin Institute, a scientific museum in Philadelphia -- both of those institutions are still going strong to this day.
This page was last updated on January 17, 2017.