Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: From Printer's Assistant to Founding Father

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1706.  He was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to his Puritan parents, Josias and Abiah Franklin.  In his early years, young Ben attended school and showed a distinct talent for writing, and a little less for arithmetic.  However, by the age of 10, Ben had to leave school and work in his father’s soap-boiling and candle-making business.  Ben found this work so tedious he considered joining the crew on a merchant marine ship.

Ben’s father wanted to keep him from going out to sea, so he arranged to have his elder son James retain Ben as his apprentice so he could learn a trade.  James had served as a printer’s apprentice in England and returned to Boston with his own printing press.  After opening a print shop, he became the Editor of a newspaper he called The New England Courant.  James was a stern taskmaster, and upon agreeing to bring Ben on as an apprentice, insisted he sign a nine-year indenture agreement.

Along with being the paper’s typesetter, Ben delivered his brother’s newspaper door-to-door to the residents of Boston.  This activity not only freed Ben from the confines of the print shop, it gave him opportunities to experience town life.  By the 1720s, Boston was a busy seaport community exporting fish, lumber, and farm products to England.  In return, Boston shopkeepers purchased imported finished goods from England to sell to their customers.  Of particular interest to Ben was the availability of books and magazines being shipped from London.  His pastime was consumed with reading.  Using the pseudonym Silent Dogood Ben began quietly inserting his own essays into his brother’s newspaper.  The Dogood essays became popular among the local citizenry, especially as they cleverly mocked Boston society members and the British government.

The Boston magistrates did not take kindly to being satirized, so they arrested James! This turn of events left Ben in charge of running the print shop, as well as taking on the role of Editor of his brother’s newspaper.  The young apprentice managed quite well in his brother’s absence.  However, once James was released from custody, he and Ben had several heated arguments regarding Ben’s Dogood essays.  When Ben tried to find employment with other Boston printers, he discovered that James had spoken so poorly about him that no one would hire him.

At age 17, Franklin struck out on his own, arriving in Philadelphia with one dollar in his pocket.  His skills and hard work were recognized by local printers and, in time, Franklin was able to own his own printing business.  He was a voracious reader and even became a vegetarian in order to keep his food costs down so he could buy more books.  As his income became more reliable, Franklin began amassing a substantial library of his own.  Eventually, his collection became the nucleus of the Philadelphia Public Library.

The majority of the colonists were farmers living in rural areas without easy access to bookstores or libraries.  Therefore, the annual publication of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac became a reliable source of information for both urban and rural communities.   Writing in his 20s and 30s, Franklin’s almanacs exhibited a seemingly endless supply of advice on the importance of industry, frugality, health, humor, weather predictions, proverbs, and essays on any number of topics. Throughout the next two decades, Poor Richard’s Almanac enjoyed wide circulation in the colonies and in Great Britain.  They were also translated and sold in France, The Netherlands, Germany, and Italy, as well.

At age 30, Franklin was appointed Clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, and by the next year, he was appointed Postmaster of the City of Philadelphia.   Later, as a member of the Continental Congress, Franklin was also appointed to be the first Postmaster General of the United States.  Ever striving to improve himself and his community, he created the American Philosophical Society through which he developed projects such as paving and lighting Philadelphia streets, establishing reliable police and fire departments, and creating a welfare system for widows.  He established the Philadelphia militia, first serving as a soldier, then as colonel of his regiment.  Believing that, “An investment in knowledge pays the best dividends,” he helped establish the University of Pennsylvania, while also raising funds to build the nation’s first hospital.  The Pennsylvania Hospital played a major role during the Revolutionary War, setting a humanitarian precedent by treating wounded soldiers from both the American and British armies.    

When he was in his mid-30’s he invented the Franklin Stove.  Throughout history, open fireplaces in interior rooms had been the only means for cooking and providing heat for their inhabitants.  The heat was uneven and required constant attention.  The open fires often caused serious burns and even deaths, especially for women whose long skirts could catch fire as they cooked over the hot flames.  Franklin invented a stove, later called the Franklin Stove, in an effort to counter these problems.  His stove was essentially a metal box with a door that would house the fires and hot embers and could be fitted into the space of the hearth.  Metal plates inside the box called baffles, retained the fire’s heat, creating steadier temperatures while allowing smoke to rise up through the chimney.  Turning down the offer of a patent for his transformative invention, Franklin preferred to make his stove a gift to his fellow countrymen, and then to the world.  

Along with inventing bifocal lenses, he also advanced the understanding of the nature of electricity.  At that time, scientists believed that there were liquid sources of positive and negative charges coursing through solid matter and, when their paths crossed, electricity was created.  Franklin thought that lightning and electricity were linked, and tested his theory with his famous kite and metal key experiments.  This led to his invention of rooftop lightning rods, which both attracted and diverted lightning strikes, thereby saving many homes and buildings from fires.  A century later, Franklin’s Theory on Electricity paved the way for Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla to harness electricity for everyday use. 

By his early 40s, Franklin had opened printing shops throughout the colonies.  Because of his success, he was able to hire a business manager.  Now, with more free time and a steady income from his print shops as well as sales of Poor Richard’s Almanac, he could spend more time on his other numerous interests.  He was a writer, inventor, philosopher, scientist, and abolitionist.  Due to his prominence in public affairs, Franklin was increasingly called to serve as a colonial statesman.

Having completed just two years of elementary school education, Franklin’s accomplishments in business, his remarkable scientific advances, his civic leadership, and his service to his country as a principal Founding Father might be summed up in one of his many sage quotes:   “Well done is better than well said.”  His brilliant life-long contributions to the betterment of society were recognized on both sides of the Atlantic.  He was awarded honorary degrees from the colonial colleges of Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary, as well as receiving honorary doctorate degrees from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, and England’s Oxford University.

In his teens, and for most of his adult life, Franklin trained himself to budget his time, money, and production.  He also made sure he had time for reading, music, community projects, and exercise.  Along with the physical rigors of operating printing presses, Franklin chose additional forms of exercise.  Few people in the 1700s knew how to swim.  Franklin always enjoyed open-air activities, even from his youth.  At age 11, he taught himself how to swim in the chilly rivers of Massachusetts, and invented flippers, not for his feet, but for his hands, which increased his ability to propel himself against the strong river currents.      

We are accustomed to seeing portraits of a portly Ben Franklin, and in his senior years that may have been more accurate.  But, in his youth, and most of his adulthood, Franklin was a muscular, broad-chested man standing almost 6 feet tall.  He continued swimming in the rivers of Philadelphia, maintaining that this was an excellent form of exercise to keep himself physically fit.  Two centuries later, he was posthumously honored by being placed in the International Swimming Hall of Fame

A strong constitution was necessary for transatlantic crossings.  Voyages could take from six weeks up to two or three months, depending on weather conditions.  He was 18 years old when he took his first voyage to England where he served two years as a printer’s apprentice before returning to Philadelphia.  In 1757, the 51-year-old Franklin was appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly to travel to London at his own expense in order to strengthen the bonds between the American colonies and the British Government.   During his lifetime, Franklin crossed the Atlantic eight times.  

The London society venerated Franklin for his many accomplishments in business, and philanthropy, and especially, for his accomplishments in the field of science.  Franklin was invited to be a Fellow at the Royal Society of London and was awarded their prestigious Copley Medal for his groundbreaking experiments with electricity. 

Living in London suited Franklin.  He was held in high regard among intellectuals and social elites, and his notoriety gave him access to government officials with whom he took every opportunity to promote the welfare of the colonies.  However, as political tensions between the colonies and the British monarchy reached a boiling point, in January of 1774 the British Solicitor-General verbally attacked Franklin before the Lord’s Privy Council, calling him the “true incendiary,” and the “prime conductor” of agitation against the British government.

A member of Parliament had anonymously sent Franklin letters written by the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson.  In his letters, Hutchinson advised Parliament to subdue the colonists, and to disregard their resentment over ill-treatment [over taxes], and being denied representation in their own governance.  Franklin shared the letters with the Massachusetts Assembly in order to inform them of Hutchinson’s sentiments. However, upon their arrival in March of 1773, the letters were leaked to the public, printed in the Boston Gazette, and soon in newspapers in the rest of the colonies. There were immediate demands for Hutchinson’s removal, as well as a renewed atmosphere of protest against their British overlords.  Parliament voted to proclaim the Americans as rebels. 

Seeing that his diplomatic efforts of the last eighteen years in England had not succeeded in furthering American colonists’ equal rights as British citizens, Franklin sailed back to America in March of 1775.  After completing his notes on Parliament’s implacable position on fair treatment for the colonists, Franklin used the rest of his two-month voyage to conduct daily measurements of the ocean’s varying temperatures.  It was well known that voyages between England and America could be short or long, depending on weather and ocean currents.  Since the 1500s, sea captains, like Ponce de Leon, were aware of the current changes near the southern coast of North America, but no formal research had been conducted as to the causes.  However, Franklin, always interested in nature and weather conditions, used his time on his many Atlantic voyages, to make notes on the changes in the ocean’s color and even the types of seaweed floating on its surface.  

Franklin detected that there was a current, or river, of warm water running through the colder waters of the Atlantic as far north as Massachusetts.  He created a chart on which he registered varying temperatures from different ocean depths, from which he drew the first accurate map of the Gulf Stream.  Ships heading for England from America had the advantage of following the Gulf Stream.  Conversely, ships heading west to America needed to avoid the northeast currents of the Gulf Stream.  Franklin also studied ship propulsion, hull design, sea anchors, the use of propellers, avoidance of disasters, as well as the diets of seafarers.       Two days after his arrival in Philadelphia, Franklin joined the Continental Congress.  At 70 years old, he was clearly the senior statesman among the other delegates, whose ages ranged from their early 30s to mid-60s.  As Congress met and discussed Parliament’s refusal to grant them legal representation, rather than participating, Franklin remained silent.   Some of the younger members wondered if he was at times napping, or worse yet, after his years spent in London, could he be secretly spying on their proceedings?  To their great relief, he finally informed his fellow delegates of his disdain for the English government’s sanctioning of high taxes, their burning of colonial towns, and even murdering colonists.  Franklin wrote that it was obvious that, “England was intent upon the destruction of the American colonies.”  John Adams could finally write to his wife, Abigail: “He does not hesitate at our boldest measures, but rather seems to think us too irresolute…”  

They need not have been concerned about Franklin’s loyalties.  He had been publishing his prescriptions for creating a free society since he was in his 20s.  Specifically, in 1737 Franklin wrote in The Pennsylvania Gazette, “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”  As early as 1752, Franklin first proposed uniting the American colonies.  He suggested that Parliament form a Grand Council comprised of representatives from each of the thirteen colonies.  The representatives would seek information and opinions from their various community members in order to help form the governance policies for the colonies.  But, as relations between the colonies and Great Britain worsened, in 1755 he wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”        

Franklin, along with the other Founding Fathers, was also a lifelong student of history and recognized that heads of state usually ruled as authoritarians, and even tyrants.  When the Second Continental Congress assembled in the spring of 1776, the Founders were in agreement that their king had indeed become a tyrant.  The colonies needed to gain political and economic freedom from England.  And, to succeed economically, their new nation would be free to have trade relations with other nations, not just England.  During his lengthy stay in London, Franklin also traveled throughout the Continent, establishing friendships and diplomatic ties with other European governments, especially in France.  His good relations with the French Court will figure prominently in the near future.

Congress chose Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Sherman, and Robert Livingston to prepare a document that would introduce the United States of America as a sovereign country on the world stage.  This document would not only break political and economic ties with King George III, it also meant impending war with England, the most powerful military force in the world.  The Founders understood that Parliament would seek harsh retribution for the planners of what they would call an insurrection.  Franklin put it succinctly when he said, “We must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.”

It was assumed that Franklin would write the document, however, he was suffering from bouts of gout, and John Adams felt that his exacting nature was not always well received, so they suggested that the eloquent Thomas Jefferson write the first draft.  More on this momentous subject in coming essays, but for now, The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, by John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, and delivered to King George III the following August.                

When Congress asked Franklin to strengthen ties with France, the self-funded diplomat immediately left for Paris.  Franklin was instrumental in negotiating loans, munitions, and eventually, the addition of French Naval support for the American army.  It was the combined strength of the French and American forces that defeated the British Army at the battle of Yorktown, in 1781.   Long before the American revolution, the French and English governments had been fierce adversaries.  It took two years, and Franklin’s diplomatic skills to convince the French Court of Versailles and the British Parliament to sign The Treaty of Alliance with America, which officially severed the political ties between Britain and America.   

After formalizing the Paris Treaty, Franklin returned to Philadelphia a final time, after having lived, cumulatively, in England and France for 20 years.  In his late 70s, he was taking his last trans-Atlantic voyage but was keenly aware of the important work still needing to be done to lay a lasting foundation for the future of America.       

Benjamin Franklin was unique, even among the notable Patriots of his day, to be the only Founding Father to have signed the four documents that defined and created the United States of America: The Declaration of Independence (1776); The Treaty of Alliance, Amity and Commerce with France (1778), The Treaty of Peace between England, France, and the United States, also known as The Treaty of Paris (1783), and The Constitution of the United States (1787).  As for Franklin’s time spent in Paris, when Thomas Jefferson took his place as the American minister to France in 1785, Jefferson recorded in his personal papers that he was often asked, “It is you, Sir, who replace Doctor Franklin?”  His response was, “No one can replace him, Sir: I am only his successor.”            

Benjamin Franklin figured prominently in the writing of the United States Constitution, which was signed into law on September 17, 1787.  He was also consulted in the writing of the Bill of Rights, however, he passed away on April 17, 1790, at the age of 84, just eight months before the Bill’s ratification into law on December 15, 1791.