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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: From Printer's Assistant to Statesman

By Judy Leithe

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706.  He was one 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.  However, by the age of 10, Ben had to leave school to assist his father in his soap-boiling and candle-making business; work so tedious Ben considered joining the crew on a merchant ship.
James Franklin, Ben's older brother, had opened a print shop in Boston after completing a printing apprenticeship in England.  Josias Franklin wanted to keep his 12-yar-old son from going out to sea so he arranged to have Ben work in James' print shop.  James turned out to be a stern taskmaster who even insisted Ben sign a nine-year indentured servant agreement. 

One of young Ben's jobs was to make door-to-door deliveries of his brother's newspaper, The New England Courant.  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, while in turn, the local merchants filled their shops with imported English goods.  Of particular interest to Ben was the availability of books and magazines being shipped from London.  When he wasn't working Ben spent his time consumed with reading, which stimulated his early writing instincts.  Using the pseudonym, Silent Dogood, Ben began quietly printing his own essays in his brother's newspaper without James' knowledge.  The Dogood essays became widely read among the local citizenry who relished the clever mocking of Boston society and the British government. 

The Boston magistrates did not take kindly to being satirized and they arrested the unwitting James.  With James in jail, Ben was left to run the print shop and newspaper, which he managed quite successfully.  However, once James was released from custody, and with the knowledge that the troublesome Dogood essays were written by his brother, he and Ben had several heated disagreements.  When working together seemed untenable, Ben tried to find employment at another Boston print shop.   He soon found that James had spread such ill will about him that no other printer would hire him. 

At age 17, Franklin struck out on his own, arriving in Philadelphia with just one dollar in his pocket.  His skills and hard work were recognized by local printers; the wages were relatively low, but he was happy to find employment.  Living costs were high in Philadelphia so Franklin became a vegetarian in order to keep his food costs down so he could buy more books.  As his income became more reliable, Franklin was able to open his own printing shop, which in turn, allowed him to continue amassing what would later become a substantial library.  Eventually, his collection became the nucleus of the Philadelphia Public Library. 

However, the majority of colonists were farmers living in rural areas where they didn't have access to book stores or libraries.  therefore, Franklin began publishing his annual, Poor Richard's Almanac, which became a highly prized source of information among the colonists.  Written 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 other topics.  Throughout the next two decades, Poor Richard's Almanac enjoyed wide circulation in the colonies as well as throughout Great Britain.  They were also translated into French, Dutch, German and Italian. 

When he was 30, Franklin was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and, by the next year, he was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia.  In 1775, as a member of the Continental Congress, Franklin was appointed as 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 many of Pennsylvania's dirt roads, providing gas lighting for Philadelphia's streets, and creating a welfare system for widows.  He helped establish the University of Pennsylvania, and raised funds to build the nation's first hospital, called the Pennsylvania Hospital. 

When he was in his mid-30s, he invented the Franklin Stove.  Throughout history, open fireplaces had been the only means of heating the interior rooms of homes, cabins, or public buildings.  The heat was uneven and required constant tending.  In the case of women cooking over open flames, there was constant risk of their petty coats catching fire.  Franklin's stove was a metal-lined box with a baffle-system which circulated a steady flow of heat into the room while allowing smoke to rise up through the chimney.  Turning down the offer of a patent, Franklin preferred to make his transformative stove invention a gift to the world. 

Along with inventing bifocal lenses, he was also thought  to have advanced the understanding of the nature of electricity by his kite-and-key experiment, which also resulted in his invention of the lightening rod.  Scientists at that time thought there were liquid sources of positive and negative charges coursing through solid matter and when their paths crossed, electricity was the result.  Franklin thought that lightening and electricity were linked and, through his experiments, proved his Theory on Electricity to be correct.  It took another century before Thomas Edison and Nicholai Tesla could 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 and, with steady income from his businesses, and international sales of Poor Richard's Almanac, he could focus on his other numerous interests.  He was a writer, inventor, philosopher, scientist, abolitionist and, increasingly, was called into service as a statesman at home and abroad. 

Franklin only completed two years of elementary education, however, his life can be measured by his many sage quotes, such as, "An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest."  His brilliant lift-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 1776, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams worked closely with Thomas Jefferson as they finalized the colony's Declaration of Independence from the English monarchy. At this time, the British government had commanded General William Howe and his 34,000 troops to bring the disloyal colonies back under control.  However, now that the colonies had declared themselves a nation in its own right, it was apparent that they were willing to fight for their freedom, even against England, the most powerful military in the world.Thus, the Continental Army was formalized with the venerable George Washington as its Commanding General. 

Congress immediately appointed Benjamin Franklin, age 70, as the first United States' Ambassador to France.  Already known and respected in Paris and the French Court at Versailles, Franklin managed to secure critical loans as well as military support for the American Revolutionary War against England.  Even though Washington had defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781, it was another two years before Ambassador Franklin completed the negotiations which officially severed the political ties between the United States and Britain.  With France serving as the mediator, the British Government added their signature to the Treaty of Paris on December 25, 1783, thereby recognizing the United States as a free and sovereign nation.

 As a Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin also figured prominently in the writing of The United States Constitution, which he and thirty-seven other delegates of the Constitutional Convention signed into law on September 17, 1787.   At the age of 84, he passed away on April 17, 1790.  Franklin spent his last years helping to create the final founding documents, including The Bill of Rights, which was ratified by all thirteen states on December 25, 1791, a year and a half after Franklin's passing.