Founding Fathers Friday: Benjamin Franklin

by Derrick G. Jeter

Some men’s lives are larger than life. Such was the life of Benjamin Franklin. Printer, author, publisher, inventor, scientist, philosopher, diplomat, politician, and philanthropist, Franklin seemed like a character out of a Mark Twain novel—big, brash, and devil-may-care. In fact, Twain had quite a few things to say about ol’ Ben. For example, in July 1870, Twain published an “obituary” for “The Late Benjamin Franklin,” in The Galaxy:
If a body, during his old age, happened on him unexpectedly when he was catching flies, or making mud pies, or sliding on a cellar-door, he would immediately look wise, and rip out a maxim, and walk off with his nose in the air and his cap turned wrong side before, trying to appear absent-minded and eccentric. He was a hard lot.
He invented a stove that would smoke your head off in four hours by the clock. One can see the almost devilish satisfaction he took in it, by his giving it his name.
He was always proud of telling how he entered Philadelphia, for the first time, with nothing in the world but two shillings in his pocket and four rolls of bread under his arm. But really, when you come to examine it critically, it was nothing. Anybody could have done it.
’Tis true that anybody could have walked into Philadelphia with a few pennies in his pocket and a loaf of bread under his arm, but few could have multiplied those pennies and bread into a fortune. Ben Franklin did.
Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706, the seventeenth and last child of a candle-making father. As a boy, Franklin was apprenticed—more shackled—to his older half-brother James, who was a printer. James was a tough taskmaster, often beating Franklin. But young Ben didn’t let his indentureship get the better of him. He saved his money, lived frugally, and educated himself by buying books.
As a teen, Franklin discovered he had a knack for imagination and turning a phrase or two. He wrote a series of letters—fourteen in all—under the pseudonym “Mrs. Silence Dogood” and submitted them to his brother’s newspaper. James was taken by this middle-aged widow’s comical observations on colonial life, including fashion, politics, merchants, and higher education. James wasted no time publishing the letters. They were a hit with the paper’s readers. But when the silence was broken as to the true identity of Silence Dogood, James wasn’t amused, and young Ben ran away to Philadelphia.
Once in City of Brotherly Love, Franklin prospered. He worked at the press of another printer, had the opportunity to travel to England, and then, on his return, began publishing his own paper: The Pennsylvania Gazette. Then he landed upon an idea: he would write and publish an annual almanac, including typical almanac fare—a calendar, weather predictions, and crop advice—but most importantly, pithy and humorous maxims for daily living. “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “Fish and guest stink after three days.” Poor Richard’s Alamanck made Franklin famous and rich. And by the age of forty-two, he could give up the back-breaking and ink stained profession of printing. He turned his business over to a partner and turned his attention to philanthropic, scientific, and political concerns.
Franklin was one of the first Americans to embody the modern notion of thinking globally but acting locally. In his own hometown, he spearheaded the construction and outfitting of the first American hospital, a library, a volunteer fire department, and an academy (which later became the University of Pennsylvania). He traveled throughout the colonies in an effort to improve the delivery of mail, an effort that won him the parliamentary appointment of postmaster general of the colonies.
A fascination with electricity, but motivated more by the practical problem of preventing house fires resulting from lightning strikes, led Franklin to his famous experiment with the kite and key. The result of this experiment was the lightning rod—a life saving and property preserving device still in use today. Poor Richard’s made Franklin famous and rich in America; the lightning rod made Franklin an international sensation! This would be a lifetime of accomplishments for many, but Franklin wasn’t through contributing to the betterment of his fellows. He also invented two other devices still in use today: the potbelly stove and bifocals.
When Franklin wasn’t cooking up life-altering inventions, he set his many talents to ensure that his American brethren would always remain free. Of his eighty-four years, Franklin spent nearly thirty of those years in Europe representing American interests. As a young man he had traveled to England, but between the years 1757 and 1775, as an older man, Franklin lived in London full time. After war broke out between Great Britain and her American colonies, he spent an additional nine years—between 1776 and 1785—in Paris. In England, while representing Pennsylvania’s interests, he was awarded honorary degrees for his scientific experiments with electricity—thereafter, he was known as Dr. Franklin.
When America became enflamed over the Stamp Act of 1765, Franklin was summoned before the House of Commons to explain American sentiment. Franklin was the perfect spokesman for American liberty. Having spent a number of years as an indentured servant to his half-brother James, Franklin was particularly sensitive to any chains on liberty. The act was later repealed and Franklin was hailed a hero back home. As the years passed, however, and Parliament continued to legislate intolerable acts, he tried to explain the American point of view in British newspapers. But all for not, leading to a hardening conclusion in his mind that America would have to break away from the mother country. The tipping point for Franklin and his independent sensibilities came in 1774, in what became known as the “Hutchinson Letter Affair.” Franklin represented a number of the colonies in England, including Massachusetts. In December 1772, Franklin, quite by accident, received thirteen private letters written by the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson and lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. The letters encouraged Parliament to put the screws to Boston. Franklin sent the letters to a friend in America, and though he expressed his desire that the letters not be published they were, causing a firestorm in the colonies and driving Governor Hutchinson out of Massachusetts and back to England. Ordered to appear before Parliament, the sixty-eight year old Franklin stood stoic for an hour as the solicitor-general berated him. Stripped of his position as postmaster general of the colonies, Franklin sailed for home, never to return to England, in March 1775.
When Franklin set foot on American soil, he walked into a war zone. American blood had been spilt at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775); Bunker Hill was a mere month in the future by the time he reached Philadelphia and took his seat in Congress in May.
As the oldest man in Congress, Franklin had his own set and peculiar ways. He often napped during meetings. And because of his gout, more times than not, he was chauffeured to Independence Hall in a sedan chair—a box, with a chair inside, attached to two poles and carried by four local petty criminals. Franklin was one of two known geniuses in Congress, Thomas Jefferson being the other. And like Jefferson, Franklin rarely if ever spoke—he had no gift for oratory. Instead—and this was also like Jefferson—he let his pen speak for him. In July 1775, for example, Franklin wrote a scorching letter to a friend in England, saying, “You are a Member of Parliament, and one of that Majority which had doomed my country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns, and murder our people. Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends: You are now my enemy, and I am Yours. B. Franklin.” Though he never mailed the letter, he did publish it in the American papers.
Outside of Poor Richard’s and his autobiography, however, Franklin’s biggest literary splash came as a member of the Committee of Five, which was charged with drafting a declaration of independence. Franklin’s fellow committee members included Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams, and, of course, Thomas Jefferson. The drafting committee put Jefferson in charge of putting pen to parchment. When Jefferson finished his draft and the committee submitted it to Congress, some eighty changes were made to the language, but none more memorable than the one Franklin made to the famous second sentence. Jefferson originally wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin changed it to: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
When it came to voting on these self-evident truths the Pennsylvania delegation was leaning nay. Charles Humphreys and Thomas Willing would not be persuaded to vote for independence. And Robert Morris and John Dickinson were leaning that way. Poor John Morton was riding the fence, but probably would have fallen off on the nay side if it hadn’t been for the tugging of Franklin. But independence was voted on as colonies, not as individual members, leaving Pennsylvania in the nay column with a vote of 4–3. As the deadline for the vote approached, Franklin had some fancy arm-twisting to do, and was able to convince Morris and Dickinson to abstain. When voting day came, July 2, 1776, Franklin, James Wilson, and Morton voted in favor of the resolution, while Humphreys and Willing voted against it. Pennsylvania backed the measure for independence 3–2. And along with most of the rest, Franklin signed the document he helped draft on August 2.
In the fall of 1776, Congress sent Franklin on a secret mission to France to beseech Louis XVI to support American independence by sending money, troops, and ships in the war effort. Franklin took two grandsons to accompany him—seventeen year old Temple (the son of Franklin’s illegitimate son William, the loyalist governor of New Jersey) and seven year old Benny. Upon his arrival in France, Franklin was greeted as an international superstar. He wore a beaver fur cap, in an effort to live up to the French notion that all Americans were frontiersmen. A bachelor since 1774, when his common-law wife, Deborah Reed died, Franklin flirted with Parisian ladies, and may have carried on a tryst with Madame Helvétius. He was fawned over by philosophers and scientists. His image was all about town. After seeing himself depicted with the French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau in a gift shop he wrote to his daughter Sally: “My picture is everywhere, on the lids of snuff boxes, on rings, busts. The numbers sold are incredible. My portrait is a best seller, you have prints, and copies of prints and copies of copies spread everywhere. Your father’s face is now as well known as the man in the moon.”
Franklin’s mission to France was obviously successful. They dispatched 44,000 troops and helped secure the British defeat at the battle of Yorktown by bottling Cornwallis up with their navy. After negotiating the Treaty of Paris, with John Adams and John Jay, effectively ending the war for American independence, Franklin returned home where he helped negotiate the U.S. Constitution. His last major contribution to his country.
That’s not a bad track record for one lifetime.
Franklin died in 1790, at the age of eighty-four. He is buried in Philadelphia, not far from Independence Hall where he signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And in tribute to a man whose life was larger than life, visitors to Franklin’s grave toss pennies on the old man’s stone. I’m sure he’d rather them heed poor Richard’s advice and put those pennies in their pockets or buy a loaf bread.