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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 7

BEN FRANKLIN: FROM PRINTER’S ASSISTANT TO STATESMAN
By Judy Leithe

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 ten, the cost of Ben’s schooling became a burden for his father, who put him work in his soap-boiling and candle-making business, a trade which Ben found tedious.

One of Ben’s older brothers, James, had gone to England to learn the printing business. He returned to Boston with his own printing press with which he operated a relatively successful print shop. Josias wanted to keep his twelve-year-old son, Ben, from becoming a merchant sailor, so he asked James to take Ben on as an apprentice. James was quite stern, probably mirroring his trade masters in England, and had his younger brother sign an indenture for nine years.

James started a newspaper called, The New England Courant, which Ben delivered door-to-door in the city. Ben loved having access to books and magazines, and from the latter he learned the art of essay-writing. Under the pseudonym, Silent Dogood, Ben began secretly submitting his own essays for publication in his brother’s newspaper. The Dogood essays became quite popular as they cleverly mocked the Boston society and government.

There was no such thing as a free press in Massachusetts, or in any of the other colonies under British rule. The Boston magistrates did not take kindly to being satirized, and they arrested James. This left Ben to run the shop and the paper, a job the young apprentice managed quite well. When James was released from custody, he and Ben had several disagreements, but when Ben tried to find employment at another print shops, he found James had spoken poorly about him to all of the other printers.

By 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 early in his life, he even became a vegetarian in order to keep his food costs down in order to buy more books. Now that his income was steady, Franklin began amassing a substantial library of his own. Eventually, his collection became the nucleus for the Philadelphia Public Library.

During his 20s and 30s, Franklin published his essays in his annual which he called, Poor Richard’s Almanac. For over twenty years his almanac enjoyed wide circulation in the colonies and England, as well as being translated into major European languages. An example of one of his quotes stemmed from his interest in promoting human potential: “I am for doing good to the poor, but I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty…the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course, became poorer.

At age 30, Franklin was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, and the next year he was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia, later to become the first Postmaster General of the U.S. Ever striving to improve himself and his community, he created the American Philosophical Society, through which he developed projects such as: paving Pennsylvania roads; providing gas lighting for Philadelphia 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.

Among his numerous projects, Franklin invented bifocal lenses, and in his mid-thirties, he invented his Franklin Stove. Throughout history, fireplaces were the only means of heating interior rooms. The heat was uneven, required constant tending, and the fires caused serious burns and even deaths, especially when women’s petty coats caught fire as they cooked over the open flames. Franklin’s stove was a metal-lined box with a baffle-system which circulated a steadier 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 a gift of his transformative invention to his fellow man.

He was also thought to have advanced the understanding of the nature of electricity by his kite and key experiment, which 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 expanded his printing business throughout the colonies. At this time, he took on a partner to run the businesses while he remained a silent partner. Income from print shops, as well as from continuing sales of Poor Richard’s Almanac, meant that he could retire and focus on his numerous interests. He was a writer, inventor, philosopher, scientist, abolitionist, and was increasingly called into service as a statesman. As a Founding Father, he signed the first four documents that set the United States on its path to sovereignty: the Declaration of Independence; the Treaty of Alliance with France; the Treaty of Peace among the governments of U.S., France, and England, and the U.S. Constitution.