Franklin, Benjamin (1706–1790)
Benjamin Franklin, the U.S. statesman, scientist, and author, was born in Boston, where he attended school for less than a year. He learned the printer's trade, and at seventeen he ran away to Philadelphia. After two years in England (1724–1726) he returned to Pennsylvania, where, prospering in his trade, he began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729 and Poor Richard's Almanack in 1732. He had already formed a tradesman's self-improvement club, the Junto, and soon began civic and educational promotions, including the founding of the American Philosophical Society.
Franklin retired from business in 1748, turned to science, and in 1751 published Experiments and Observations on Electricity. The same year he entered the Pennsylvania Assembly, where he was a leader in opposing the influence of Proprietor Thomas Penn and in advocating colonial union. In 1757, as agent for the assembly, he went to England, where, except for eighteen months, he lived until 1775, enjoying English society and the friendship of David Hume, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Richard Price, and other British philosophers. At first he worked loyally for the expansion of the British Empire and sought to exchange proprietary for royal government in Pennsylvania, but after 1765 he became the leading colonial spokesman in resisting British measures in North America. Although he opposed every act of oppression, he sought until the very end to reconcile differences; but in 1775 he returned home, signed the Declaration of Independence, and worked for a united war effort. In 1776 he went to France, where he signed the French Alliance (1778), secured loans and supplies for the Revolutionary War, and helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris (1783).
He was lionized by Voltaire, Madame Helvétius, Marquis de Condorcet, La Rochefoucauld d'Enville, and other philosophes, and returned home in 1785. He served for three years as president of the Pennsylvania Executive Council, attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787, sought the abolition of slavery, and worked on his Autobiography in the five years preceding his death.
Franklin's greatest popular fame is as a moralist. The aphorisms of Poor Richard and the example of his Autobiography have served as a philosophy of life for millions. In these two works Franklin sought deliberately to set down the rules of conduct that would enable anyone, however humbly born, to prosper and live more meaningfully. The emphasis was unashamedly on the mundane virtues: thrift, hard work, diligence, prudence, moderation, honesty, and shrewdness. For this, Franklin has been denounced by D. H. Lawrence and others as a "snuff-colored man" who impoverished life by "fencing it in" with a stifling, despiritualizing morality. In fact, Franklin knew the precepts of Poor Richard were but a partial philosophy; in his own career and in his other writings he showed abundantly how full and imaginative human life can be.
Like many deists of his day, Franklin believed "in one God, Creator of the Universe, that he governs it by his Providence … [and] that the soul of Man is immortal" (letter to Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790).
As a scientist, Franklin formulated important and influential laws concerning the nature of electricity. By proving that lightning is an electrical discharge, he placed electricity beside heat, light, and gravity as one of the primordial forces in the universe and hypothesized a new dimension or quality possessed in some measure by all matter. Characteristically, Franklin turned readily from electrical theory to a useful invention, the lightning rod. His scientific attitude is summarized in the statement "Let the experiment be made," and in the observation that electrical experiments would "help to make a vain man humble."
As a public philosopher, Franklin assumed that the traditional personal values have political relevance. He shared the Aristotelian belief that government exists for the sake of the good life and that its powers can be used to that end. A good citizen, guided by the virtues Franklin encouraged in Poor Richard's Almanack and in his Autobiography, would undertake civic improvement and participate disinterestedly in government. In an expanding country filled with opportunity, Franklin saw individual initiative as the essential engine of progress, but he did not hesitate to seek whatever seemed required for the public good through government. His confidence in the virtue of the citizens of the United States caused him to favor government by consent, but he was not a simple democrat who believed majority will should be omnipotent. He accepted democracy because he thought it would yield good government; if it did not, he readily rejected it.
Franklin thought freedom's dynamism would cause its spread around the world, and therefore that the United States, as a leading free nation, would be influential without being predatory. At the same time he understood the anarchic character of international relations and counseled the nation to maintain its strength, protect its national interest, and act to maintain a balance between France and Great Britain. His essential faith was that, from tradesmen's juntos to the court of Versailles, good men working together could improve the condition of humankind.
For Franklin's writings, see L. W. Labaree and others, eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 37 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959–) and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964); and A. H. Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 10 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1905–1907).
For his life and thought, see Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York: Viking Press, 1938); Carl Becker, Benjamin Franklin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1946); and R. L. Ketcham, Benjamin Franklin (New York: Washington Square Press, 1965).
On his scientific thought, see I. B. Cohen, Franklin and Newton, an Inquiry into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin's Work in Electricity as an Example Thereof (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1956). For his political thought, see R. L. Ketcham, ed., The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965). For his place as an Enlightenment philosopher, see Frank L. Mott and Chester E. Jorgenson, eds., introduction in Representative Selections (New York: American, 1936).
C. L. Sanford, ed., Benjamin Franklin and the American Character (Boston: Heath, 1955), reprints a good collection of critical essays on Franklin.
other recommended works
Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Benjamin Franklin and Nature's God. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1967.
Lemay, J. A. Leo. The Oldest Revolutionary: Essays on Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976.
Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.
Ralph Ketcham (1967)
Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)