Preparation for Scientific Research
First Researches in Electricity
The Analysis of the Leyden Jar
Full Statement of the Mature Theory
Dissemination of Experiments and Theories
Some Later Contributions to Electricity
A Major Defect Remedied by Aepinus
Gulf Stream, Convection Currents, and Storms
(b. Boston, Massachusetts, 17 January 1706; d. Philadephia, Pennsylvania, 17 April 1790)
electricity, general physics, oceanography, meteorology, promotion and support of science and international scientific cooperation.
Benjamin Franklin was the first American to win an international reputation in pure science and the first man of science to gain fame for work done wholly in electricity. His principle achievement was the formulation of a widely used theory of general electrical “action” (explaining or predicting the outcome of manipulations in electrostatics: charge production charge transfer, charging by electrostatic induction). He advanced the concept of a single “fluid” of electricity, was responsible for the principle of conservation of charge, and analyzed the distribution of charges in the Leyden jar, a capacitor. He introduced into the language of scientific discourse relating to electricity such technical words as “plus” and “minus,” “positive” and “negative,” “charges” and battery. By experiment he showed that the lightning discharge is an electrical phenomenon, and upon this demonstration (together with his experimental findings concerning the action of grounded and of pointed conductors) he based his invention of the lightning rod,
Franklin made contributions to knowledge of the Gulf Stream, of atmospheric convection currents, and of the direction of motion of storms. His observations on population were of service to Malthus. He was the principal founder of the American Philosophical Society, the New World’s first permanent scientific organization.
Early Life and Career
Benjamin Franklin’s father, Josiah, who was descended from a family of British artisans, immigrated to America, settling in Boston in October 1683. His mother, Josiah’s second wife, was Abiah (“Jane”) Folger, daughter of Peter Folger of Nantucket, a weaver, schoolmaster, miller, and writter of verses. On both sides of the family Franklin had forebears skilled in the use of their hands and with literary or intellectual gifts.
Franklin relates in his autobiography that he “was put to the Grammar School at eight years of Age,” but remained “not quite one Year.” His father then sent him “to a School for Writing and Arithmetic.” Although Franklin by his own admission failed arithmetic, he later repaired this deficiency. In midlife, he took up “making magic Squares, or Circles,” some of which were very complex and obviously required skill in computation. Published in England and in France from 1767 to 1773, they have attracted much attention and comment ever since.
At ten years of age, Franklin was taken home from school to assist his father, a tallow chandler and soap boiler. Since he was fond of reading and had in fact spent on books “all the little Money that came into . . . [his] Hands,” it was decided that Benjamin should become a printer. He was, accordingly, at age twelve indentured to “Brother James.” Within a few years he was able to break the indenture and secure his freedom. He left Boston to seek his fortune, first in New York (briefly and unsuccessfully) and then in Philadelphia
Franklin had immediate success in Philadelphia Before long he came to the attention of Governor Keith, who offered to subsidize him—although he was only eighteen—in the printing business. Franklin was sent to London to select types and presses and to make useful business contacts. Once at sea, Franklin discovered that the governor had sent him off without any letter of introduction and without funds for purchasing the printing equipment—indeed, that the governor had merely been “playing. . . . pitiful Tricks . . . on a poor ignorant Boy!” On arrival, Franklin found work in Samuel Palmer’s printing house, where he set type for William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated.
After two years away from Philadelphia (from November 1724 to October 1726) Franklin returned to his adopted city, skilled in the various aspects of the printing craft. He soon had his own shop and before long became a major figure in the town and, eventually, in the colony. With a partner, he published the pennsylvania Gazette; when the partnership was dissolved in 1730, Franklin kept the newspaper and shortly began publication of poor Richard; An Almanack (1733). He was Clerk of the Assembly, postmaster of Philadelphia (1737–1753), and publisher (1741) of the General Magazine. He was an organizer of the Library Company (1731), and the Union Fire Company (1736), and was a promoter of the Academy of Philadelphia (later the College and Academy of Philadelphia and now the University of pennsylvania), of which he became president of the trustees (1749).
As he became more deeply concerned with civic affairs and public life, Franklin retired from active business (1748), setting up what would become an eighteen-year partnership with David Hall, his printing house foreman. He was elected a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly (1751) and alderman of Philadelphia and was appointed a deputy postmastergeneral for the British colonies in North America (1753–1774). He was sent to England in 1757 and remained until 1762 as the Assembly’s agent.
Preparation for Scientific Research
When, in 1757, Franklin sailed for England for the second time, he had already won a high place in world science. He had published articles in the world’s leading scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and was a fellow of that society (elected 29 May 1756). For his research in electricity the Society had conferred upon him (on 30 November 1753) one of their highest awards-the Copley Medal. He had received honorary degrees from Harvard (1753), Yale (later in 1753), and William and Mary (1756). His book on electricity had already appeared in three editions in England and two in France, and one of his experiments—“proving the sameness of Lighting and Electricity”—was world-famous. Franklin was largely self-taught in science-as he was in other subjects-but this does not mean that he was uneducated. He had rigorously studied the science of his day in the writings of the best masters available.
In 1744 Franklin sponsored Adam Spencer’s lectures on experimental science in Philadelphia and purchased his apparatus; he had previously attended Spencer’s lectures in Boston. Also in 1744 Franklin published a pamphlet on the stove he had invented; in it he refers to, and quotes from, certain great masters of experimental science whose works he knew, including Boerhaave, Desaguliers, ’sGravesande, and Hales. He was also familiar with the writings of Robert Boyle and knew well the major treatise on experimental physics of the age, Newtork’s Opticks. He had also encountered expositions of the Newtonian natural philosophy in the published Boyle lectures, a series which included books by Samuel Clarke and William Derham . Having known Pemberton in London, he no doubt would have read Pemberton’s View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, of which peter Collinson had sent a copy to the Library Company in 1732. Thus, even though Franklin may have had no formal training, he was well educated in Newtonian experimental science.
Gadgets and Inventions
Benjamin Franklin’s reputation in science was made by his experiments and the theories he conceived or modified to explain his results. The experimental scientist of Franklin’s day had not only to be able to design but also to construct the devices he needed. Franklin the artisan had no aversion to manual labor and operations. A gifted gadgeteer and inventor, he was not only able to make the devices he conceived but he could also think in terms of the potential of gadgets and instruments in relation to the development of his ideas: a significant ability, since usually the conception of an experimental problem cannot be separated from the means of exploring or solving it.
Throughout his life Franklin found it (as he writes in his autobiography) a source of “Pleasure . . . to see good Workmen handle their Tools.” He was aware of the great advantage to his research in being able “to construct little Machines for my Experiments while the Intention of making the Experiment was fresh and warm in my Mind. “This aspect of Franklin’s research was especially noted by William Watson in his review of Franklin’s book on electricity (Philosoprhical Transactions, 1752); Franklin, the reviewer said, has both “a head to conceive” and “a hand to carry into execution” whatever he considers “may conduce to enlighten the subject-matter.”
Among Franklin’s notable inventions and gadgets are the rocking chair, bifocal glasses, and the pennsylvania fireplace, or Franklin stove. He also conceived the idea of “summer time,” or daylight saving time. His most important invention, teh lightning conductor or lightning rod, is, however, in a different category altogether, an application to human needs (in the Baconian sense) of recent discoveries in pure science.
First Researches in Electricity
In the early 1740’s Franklin encountered the new electrical experiments in at least two ways. He saw some experiments performed by Adam Spencer in Boston in 1743 and again in Philadephia in 1744 Then, in 17459 (or possibly 1746) the Library Company of Philadelphia received “from Mr.Peter Collinson F.R.S; of Londn, a present of a Glass Tube, with some Account of the Use of it in making such electrical Experiments.” Franklin records that he “eagerly seized the Opportunity of repeating what I had seen in Boston, and by much practice acquir’d great Readiness in performing those also which we had an account of from England, adding a Number of new Ones.”
The first researches in electricity at Philadephia were made by a group of four experimenters; Frankline Philip syng, Thomas Hopkinson, and Ebenezer Kinnersley, who was Franklin’s principal coexperimenter. One of Franklin’s first recorded discoveries was the action of pointed bodies. A grounded pointed conductor, he found, could cause a charged, insulated conducting body to lose its charge when the point was six to eight inches away; but a blunt conductor would not produce such a discharge until it was an inch or so away, and then there would be an accompanying spark. A companion discovery was made by Hopkinson: a needle placed on top of a suspended iron rod would prevent it from becoming, charged, the electrical fire “continually runing out silently at the point” as fast as it was accumulated; this discovery had been anticipated by William Watson.
Other discoveries led Franklin and his coexperimenters to the concept that “the electrical fire is a real element, or species of matter, not created by the frication. but collected only.” Thus all kinds of electrification, or changes in electrification, in electrification, were to be explained by the transfer of “electrical fire,” which was “really an element diffused among, and attracted by other matter, particularly by water and metals.” Each body has a “natural” quantity of “electrical fire” if it loses some, Franklin would call it electrically negative, or minus; if it gains some and therefore has a “superabundance” of “electrical fire,” it would be positive, or plus. “To electrise plus or minus;” Franklin wrote in a letter to Collinson of 25 May 1747, “no more needs to be known than this, that the parts of the tube or sphere that are rubbed, do, in the instant of the friction, attract the electrical fire, and therefore take it from the thing rubbing.” In short since one or more bodies must gain the “electrical fire” that a given body loses, plus and minus charges or states of electrification must occur in exactly equal amounts. This quantitative principle is known today as the law of conservation of charge. It is still fundamental to all science, from microphysics to the electrification of gross bodies.
The Analysis of the Leyden Jar
One of the earliest and most significant results of the new Franklinian theory was the successful analysis of the Leyden jar, a topic introduced in a letter to Collinson, sent sometime prior to 28 July 1747. The Leyden jar, a from or condenser, or capacitor, was discovered or invented in the 1740’s and was named after one of the several claimants to the discovery, Musschenbrock of Leyden; Franklin knew the device as Musschenbroek’s “wonderful bottle.” Essentially the device was a nonconductor (glass) with a conductor on each side; before long it was used with the inside filled with water or metal shot, and the outside coated with metal. Electrical contact was made with the water or metal shot by means of a wire running through an insulating cork stuck into the neck of the bottle. When the outer coating was grounded, as by being held in the hands of an experimenter, and the wire was brought to charged body, the jar seemed capable of “accumulating” and “holding” a vast amount of “electricity.”
The first observation made by Franklin was that if the wire and water inside the bottle are “electrised positively or plus,” then the outer coating is simultaneously “electrised negatively or minus in exact proportion,” The equilibrium could not be restored through the glass of the bottle unless a conducting material simultaneously made contact with the outer coating and with the wire connected to the water or inner conducting material. He was astonished at the “wonderful” way in which “these two states of Electricity, the plus and minus are combined and balanced in this miraculous bottle.”
In a letter of 29 April 1748, containing “Farther Experiments and Observations in Electricity,” Franklin described some new experiments showing that a charged Leyden jar always has charges of opposite signs on the two conductors and that the charges are of the same magnitude. Clearly, he concluded, the “terms of charging and discharging” a Leyden jar are misleading, since “there is really no more electrical fire in the phial after what is called its charging than before nor less after its discharging......”
Franklin then annouced the most astonishing discovery of all, that in the Leyden jar “the whole force of the bottle, and power of giving a shock, is in the GLASS ITSELF.” He reached this conclusion by a series of ingenious experiments, which are known today as the Franklin experiments on the dissectible condernser. A Leyden jar with a loosely fitting cork a glass insulator. The cork was carefully removed, together with the wire that hung down into the water; it was then found that the jar could be discharged as before by an experimenter’s putting one hand around the outside of the jar while bringing a finger of the other hand to the jar’s mouth so as to reach the water. Thus, the “force” was not “in the wire”. Next, a test was made to determine whether the force “resided in the water” and was “condensed in it.” A jar was charged as before, set on glass, and the cork and wire removed. The water was then carefully decanted into an empty, uncharged jar resting on glass; this second jar showed no evidence whatever of being charged. Either the “force” must have been lost during the decanting, or it must have remained behind in the glass. The latter was shown to be the case by refilling the first bottle with “unelectrified water,” whereupon it gave the shock as usual.
In the next stage Franklin looked into the question of whether this property of glass came from the nature of its substance, or whether it was related to shape—a relevant question, since Franklin had pioneered in studying the effect of shape in the action of pointed and blunt conductors. In this inquiry he constructed a parallel-plate condensers (or capacitor) consisting of two parallel lead plates separated by a flat pane of sash glass. This condenser produced the same electrical effects as a Leyden jar, thus demonstrating that the “force” is a property of the glass as glass and is not related to shape. Franklin ingeniously joined together a number of such parallel-plate condensers to make “what we called an electrical-battery” consisting of eleven panes of glass, each “armed” with lead plates pasted on both sides, hooked together in series by wire and chain; the battery could be discharged by a special contrivance.
Full Statement of the Mature Theory
On 29 July 1750, Franklin sent Collinson his “Opinions and conjectures concerning the Properties and Effects of the electrical matter, arising from Experiments and Observations, made at Philadelphia, 1749.” This paper began with the proposition that the electrical matter consists of “extremely subtile” particles since it can easily permeate all common matter, even metals, without “any perceptible resistance.” Here Franklin used the term “electrical natter” for the first time. Although he indicated a cause for belief in its “subtility,” he took its atomicity or particulate composition for granted. The differce between electrical matter and “common matter” lies in the mutual attraction of the particles of the latter and the mutual repulsion of the particles of the former (which cause “the appearing divrgency in a stream of electrified effiuvia”) In eighteenth-century terms, such electrical matter constitutes a particulate, subtle, elastic fluid. The particles of electrical matter, although mutually repellent, are attracted strongly by “all other matter.” Therefore, if a quantity of electrical matter be applied to a mass of common matter it will be immediately and equally diffused through the whole. In other words, common matter’s is “a kind of spunge” to the electric fluid. Generally, in common matter there is as much electrical matter as it can contain; if more be added, it cannot enter the body but collects on its surface to form an “electrical atmosphere” in which case the body “is said to be electrified.” All bodies however do not “attract and retain” electriacal matter with equal strength and force” those called electrics per se (or non-conductors) “attract and retain it strongests, and contain the greatest quantity.” That common matter always contains electrical fluid is demonstrated by the fact of experience that a rubbed globe or tube enables us to pump some out.
The “electrical atmospheres” said to surround charged bodies are a means for explaining the observed repulsion between them, but this explanation takes cognizance only of the repulsion between positively charged bodies (that is, those which have gained an excess of fluid over their normal quantity). It offers no aid whatever in understanding the repulsion between negatively charged bodies—a phenomenon that had been observed by Franklin and his colleagues and reported by him in an earlier paper.
The concept of “electrical atmospheres” was not wholly novel with Franklin. Franklin’s original contribution lay in the particular use he gave to this concept in his theory of electrical action. For example, Franklin stated that it takes the “form . . . of the body it surrounds.” A sphere will thus have a spherical atmosphere and a cylinder a cylindrical one. Others had supposed that both would have a sphere of effluvia.
Franklin’s concept of “electrical atmospheres” was based on the idea that an uncharged body must have its “normal” quantity of electrical matter or fluid and that, therefore, any further electrical matter or fluid added to it will collect around the outside, like a cloud. If two such charged bodies came near one anothr these two clouds would produce repulsion, sincne the particles of which they are made tend to repel one another. Similarly, a body that has lost some of its normal quantity of electrical matter or fluid will attract the particles in the electric atmosphere of a positively charged body, until the two draw concept of “electrical atmospheres” to explain the unequal distribution of charge in bodies that were not completely symmetrical, such as those which might be pointed or pear-shaped. These explanations were qualitatively successful, but they do not always appear convincing and certainly constitute one of the weakest and least satisfactory parts of the theory. Even more important, the doctrine of “electric atmospheres” could not contribute to the solution of one outstanding unsolved problem in the Franklinian explanation of electrical phenomena: the “apparent” repulsion between negatively charged bodies. We shall see below that this major defect in the theory was remedied by the addition of a new and very radical postulate by Aepinus.
One of the major advantages of the Franklinian theory was that it enabled “electricians” to distinguish clearly between the concept of a “repelling force” which could act even through a sheet of glass, although the electric fluid itself does not penetrate through glass. This basic concept was used in the explanation of the action of the condenser, wherein Franklin explained clearly—for what was, so far as I know, the first time—the mechanism of induced charges, the phenomenon of a negative charge being induced on a grounded conductor when a positively charged conductor is brought near it, or when a nearby conductor acquires a positive charge.
In the Leyden jar, according to Franklin’s doctrine, the application of a positive charge to the conductor on one side of the glass will not cause the jar to be charged until or unless the conductor on the other side can lose some of its normal electric fluid, that is, until or unless it is grounded. Then and only then will electric fluid move away from that grounded conductor, leaving it negatively charged. Franklin thus naturally predicted, and proved by experiment, that the jar could be charged through its outer coating when the wire leading into the water is grounded, just as easily as in the normal manner—when a positive charge is applied to the inner conductor (water and wire) and the outside is grounded.
Later, in a famous series of experiments and explanations based upon some earlier ones made by John Canton, Franklin developed more fully this explanation of what we call today induced charges, or the phenomenon of charging by (electrostatic) induction. There is no doubt that it was Franklin’s clear understanding of this process that caused his theory to be so highly valued in the eighteenth century. The theory is still used, with slight modifications, in all laboratory circumstances when charged objects are moved in the neighborhood of conductors which may be grounded or insulated or which can undergo a change in their condition of grounding or insulation. Only Franklin, and those who accepted his doctrine, could easily explain such phenomena as this: A positively charged body is brought near a conducting metal object placed on an insulating base and temporarily grounded; then the grounding is interrupted before the charged body is removed; the effect will be to induce in that object a negative charge. Now let the second object be an insulated cylinder; it will plainly display an unequal charge distribution, the end near the first body becoming negative and the far end positive; when the first body is withdrawn, the cylinder returns to its normal state and no longer shows any indication of charge. In the eighteenth century many scientists adduced this feature of the Franklinian theory (its ability to predict exactly the outcome of such experiments) as its major asset. In our own time J. J. Thomson has explained that the service of the onefluid theory “to the science of electricity, by suggesting and co-ordinating researches, can hardly be overestimated.” We still use this theory in the laboratory, Thomson said: “If we move a piece of brass and want to know whether that will increase or decrease the effect we are observing, we do not fly to the higher mathematics, but use the simple conception of the electric fluid which would tell us as much as we wanted to know in a few seconds” (in Recollections and Reflections [London, 1936], p. 252).
Dissemination of Experiments and Theories
Franklin’s experiments on pointed conductors, grounding, the Leyden jar, and the conservation of charge, together with the statement of his theory of electrical action, based on the principle of conservation of charge, were all assembled by Collinson into a ninety-page book issued by E. Cave of London in 1751, with an unsigned preface written by Dr. John Fothergill. Buffon, who had recently stated that in electrical phenomena there seemed to be on one law governing the outcome of experiments, and that indeed the subject was characterized more by “bizzareries” than by regularities, came upon the book and had it translated into French in the following year; the French version was done by the natuiralist Dalibard.
Thus, within two years Franklin’s concepts and experiments were available to “electriciants” on both sides of the Channel—and but for a number of minor revisions and extensions to new phenomena—all the main elements of Franklin’s contributions to electrical theory had appeared in print.
One of the most challenging parts of Franklin’s book was his discussion of thunder, lightning, and the formation of clouds. In a letter addressed to John Mitchel in London, dated 29 April 1749, Franklin wrote out some “Observations and Suppositions” that had led him to the hypothesis that clouds tend to become electrified through the vaporization effect on water of “common fire” (or ordinary heat) and “electrical fire.” Rain, dew, and flashes of lightning between land clouds and sea clouds formed part of Franklin’s suppositions, but six years later he freely admitted that he was “still at a loss” about the actual process by which clouds “become charged with electricity; no hypothesis I have yet formed perfectly satisfying me.” Nevertheless, before April 1749 Franklin had assumed that clouds are electrified and that the lightning discharge is a rapid release of electric fluid from clouds.
On 7 November 1749, Franklin drew up a list of twelve observable similarities between the lightning discharge and the ordinary spark discharges produced in the laboratory. Notably, he concluded that since the “electric fluid is attracted by points,” we might find out “whether this property is in lightning. . . . Let the experiment be made.” But even before this experiment could be performed, Franklin assumed a favorable outcome. Convinced that lightning must be an electrical phenomenon, he warned his readers that high hills, trees, towers, spires, masts, and chimneys will act “as so many prominencies and points” and so will “draw the electrical fire” as a “whole cloud discharges there.” He therefore advised his readers never “to take shelter under a tree, during a thunder gust.”
In the paper entitled “Opinions and Conjectures,” sent to Collinson in July of 1750 (containing the full statement of his theory of electrical action), Franklin also discussed the possible electrification of clouds and the nature of the lightning discharge. Immediately following the presentation of the property of pointed bodies to “draw on” and f“throw off” the electric fluid at great distances, Franklin indicated that this knowledge of the “power of points may possibly be of some use to mankind, though we should never be able to explain it.” Just as a grounded needle with its point upright could discharge a charged body and prevent a “stroke” to another nearby body, so Franklin argued that sharpened upright rods of iron, gilded to prevent rusting, fixed “on the highest parts of . . . edifices” and run down the outside of a building into the ground, or down “one of the shrouds of a ship” into the water, would “probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief.” Later, when the experiments were made, Franklin found that another function of the lightning rod, apart from “disarming” a passing cloud, would be to conduct a lightning stroke safely into the ground.
The experiment that Franklin devised required a sentry box large enough to contain a man and “an electrical [insulating] stand.” The sentry box was to be placed on a high building; a long, pointed rod was to rise out through the door, extending twenty or thirty feet in the air, terminating in a point. This rod was to be affixed to the middle of the insulated stand, which was to be kept clean and dry so as to remain an insulator. Then when clouds, possibly electrified, would pass low, the rod “might be electrified and afford sparks, the rod drawing fire to” the experimenter, “from a cloud.” To avoid danger, Franklin advised the man to be well insulated and to hold in his hand a wax handle affixed to a “loop of a wire” attached to the ground; he could bring the loop to the rod so that “the sparks, if the rod is electrified, will strike from the rod to the wire, and not affect him.” Some years later, when Richmann performed this experiment in St. Petersburg, he did not fully observe all of Franklin’s warnings and was electrocuted.
The sentry-box experiment was first performed at Marly, France, in May 1752. After Franklin’s book had appeared in a French translation in 1752, the experiments he described were performed for the king and court; Buffon, Dalibard, and De Lor were then inspired to test Franklin’s conjectures “upon the analogy of thunder and electricity.” On 13 May 1752 Dalibard reported to the Paris Academy of Sciences: “In following the path that Mr. Franklin has traced for us, I have obtained complete satisfaction.”
The account of this experiment was printed in the second French edition of Franklin’s book on electricity and was later included in the English editions. A letter addressed from France to Stephen Hales, describing both the presentation of the Philadelphia experiments to the king of France and the success of the sentry-box experiment, was published in the Philosophical Transactions and was also reprinted in Franklin’s book. Soon the lightning experiments were repeated by others in France, Germany, and England; and Franklin had the satisfaction of achieving an immediate and widespread international renown.
Later, Franklin devised a second experiment to test the electrification of clouds, one which has become more popularly known: the lightning kite. Franklin reported this experiment to Collinson in a letter of 1 October 1752, written after Franklin had read “in the publick papers from Europe, of the success of the Philadelphia-Experiment for drawing the electrick fire from clouds by means of pointed rods of iron erected on high buildings. . . .” Actually, Franklin appears to have flown his electrical kite prior to having learned of Dalibard’s successful execution of the sentry-box experiment. The kite letter, published in the philosophical Transactions, referred to the erection of lightning rods on public buildings in Philadelphia.
The lightning experiments caused Franklin’s name to become known throughout Europe to the public at large and not merely to men of science. Joseph Priestley, in his History . . . of Electricity, characterized the experimental discovery that the lightning discharge is an electrical phenomenon as “the greatest, perhaps, since the time of Sir Isaac Newton.” Of course, one reason for satisfaction in this discovery was that it subjected one of the most mysterious and frightening natural phenomena to rational explanation. It also proved that Bacon had been right in asserting that a knowledge of how nature really works might lead to a better control of nature itself: that valuable practical innovations might be the fruit of pure disinterested scientific research.
No doubt the most important effect of the lightning experiments was to show that the laboratory phenomena in which rods or globes of glass were rubbed, to the accompaniment of sparks, and induced charges and electrical shocks, belong to a class of phenomena occurring naturally. Franklin’s experiments thus proved that electrical effects do not result exclusively from man’s artifice, from his intervention in phenomena, but are in fact part of the routine operations of nature. And every “electrician” learned that experiments performed with little toys in the laboratory could reveal new aspects of one of the most dramatic of nature’s catastrophic forces. “The discoveries made in the summer of the year 1752 will make it memorable in the history of electricity,” William Watson wrote in 1753. “These have opened a new field to philosophers, and have given them room to hope, that what they have learned before in their museums, they may apply, with more propriety than they hitherto could have done, in illustrating the nature and effects of thunder; a phaenomenon hitherto almost inaccessible to their inquiries.”
Franklin’s achievement of a highly successful career wholly in the field of electricity marked the coming of age of electrical science and the full acceptance of the new field of specialization. On 30 November 1753, awarding Franklin the Royal Society’s Sir Godfrey Copley gold medal for his discoveries in electricity, the earl of Macclesfield emphasized this very point: “Electricity is a neglected subject,” he said, “which not many years since was thought to be of little importance, and was at that time only applied to illustrate the nature of attraction and repulsion; nor was anything worth much notice expected to ensue from it.” But now, thanks to the labors of Franklin, it “appears to have a most surprising share of power in nature.”
Some Later Contributions to Electricity
Spurred on by the success of the sentry-box and kite experiments, Franklin continued to make investigations of the lightning discharge and the electrifi cation of clouds. He erected a test rod on his house, so as to make experiments and observations on clouds passing overhead. One of the results was most interesting, because he discovered: “That the clouds of a thunder-gust are most commonly in a negative state of electricity, but sometimes in a positive state.” This statement led him to the following astonishing conclusion: “So that, for the most part, in thunderstrokes, it is the earth that strikes into the clouds, and not the clouds that strike into the earth.” Of course, this discovery did not alter the theory or practice of lightning rods, which Franklin found perform two separate functions. One is to disarm a cloud and to prevent a stroke, while the other is to conduct a stroke safely to the ground. His theory of the direction of the stroke (from clouds to earth or from earth to clouds) depends upon the identification of vitreous electrification (glass rubbed with silk) with the positive state and of resinous electrification (amber rubbed with wool or fur) with the negative. Franklin was aware that he had no definitive evidence for this identification, and hoped that others might provide a crucial experimental test.
To this day one still talks of a “Franklinian” fictitious “positive” current in circuit theory, and also thinks physically of a flow of electrons in the opposite direction.
One question of great interest to Franklin was whether the gross dimensions or the mass of a body may be the determining factor in the amount of “electric fluid” it can acquire. He discovered that an “increase of surface” makes a given mass or quantity of matter “capable of receiving a greater amount of charge.” The surface is what counts, not the mass. As usual, Franklin had a pretty experiment to support his conclusion. In this case he used a small silver can on an insulating wine glass; in the can there were three yards of brass chain, one end of which was attached to a long silk thread that went over a pulley in the ceiling so that the chain could be drawn partly or completely out, thereby increasing the “surface” and making the body (can and chain) capable of receiving an additional charge.
In a closely related experiment Franklin studied the distribution of charge on a metal can placed on an insulated base. He showed that the charge “resides” wholly on the outside of the can; that there is no charge inside. He did not know the reason at first, but he later concluded that the symmetry of the situation produced mutual repulsion that drove any charge from the inside surface of the can to the outer one. Joseph Priestley, arguing from the analogy of a cylinder to a sphere, showed that by the reasoning of Isaac Newton’s Principia, it would be possible for one to conclude that the law of electrical force must, like gravitation, be a law of the inverse square of the distance.
A Major Defect Remedied by Aepinus
Franklin’s theory failed to give a satisfactory explanation of the observed phenomenon of the mutual repulsion of two negatively charged bodies. This defect was remedied by Franz Aepinus. Perplexed by the difficulties in explaining repulsion, Kinnersley thought that perhaps one could get rid of the doctrine of repulsion altogether. Franklin disagreed, putting forth the argument that repulsion occurs “in other parts of nature.”
Aepinus, who altered Franklin’s system, was an ardent Franklinian and a teacher of and collaborator with J. C. Wilcke, who translated Franklin’s book on electricity into German. Wilcke made the first major table of what we would call today a triboelectric series, thus accounting for the production of joint negative and positive charges in different combinations of two materials.
Aepinus aimed to establish a theory of magnetic phenomena based upon “principles extremely similar to those on which the Franklinian electric theory is built,” that is, using the concept of a magnetic fluid, with laws of action much like those of Franklin’s electric theory. To complete his analogy, however, Aepinus introduced the revolutionary idea that in solids, liquids, and gases the particles that Franklin called “common matter” would—in the pure sate—repel one another just as the particles of the electric fluid did. Aepinus’ revision introduced a complete duality, the particles of common matter and the particles of electric matter each having the property of repelling particles of their own kind while having the additional property of attracting particles of the other kind. Normally one does not encounter particles of pure matter repelling one another, because their natural repulsion is reduced to zero by the presence of the magnetic or the electric fluid in the normal state of bodies. Hence, the Newtonian universal gravitation remains unaffected by the new postulate. Repulsion exists only when we deprive bodies of a part of their normal complement of either electric fluid or magnetic fluid.
Furthermore, certain experiments devised by Aepinus and Wilcke, using condensers separated by air instead of glass, showed that the Franklin doctrine of “atmospheres” could not exist in a physical sense. This was a position that Franklin himself had eventually more or less adopted, coming to conceive that the concept of “electrical atmospheres” was no more than a way of describing collections or distributions of electric charge whose parts have repulsive forces acting at a distance.
In one set of experiments to test the effect of “electrical atmospheres,” Aepinus blew a stream of dry air on a charged body and found, just as Franklin had, that the charge of the body was not diminished. Franklin had then assumed that such experiments indicated only that the “atmosphere” of a charged body is an integral part of it, and he even thought to make the atmosphere “visible” by dropping rosin on a hot piece of iron near a charged body. Aepinus carried the matter through to its logical conclusion, saying that by “electrical atmosphere” one intended only to denote the “sphere of action” of the electrical charge on a body. Franklin, in commenting on Aepinus’ book, expressed admiration for the magnetic theory which Aepinus had constructed along lines analogous to his own electrical theory, and he himself began to write of a magnetic fluid in the terms introduced by Aepinus. We do not know whether Franklin read the book very thoroughly, since he never referred to the great revision of his theory which Aepinus introduced. Indeed, by the time Aepinus’ book (1759) reached him, Franklin was no longer actively pursuing his researches into electricity.
Gulf Stream, Convection Currents, and Storms
From his boyhood days Franklin had a passion for the sea. In his eight crossings of the Atlantic, he was always fascinated by problems of seamanship, ship design, and the science of the seas; and he made careful observations of all sorts of marine phenomena. He made experiments to see if oil spread on the waters would still the waves, and he put on a spectacular exhibition of this phenomenon for a group of fellows of the Royal Society in Portsmouth harbor.
Franklin’s name is associated with the Gulf Stream, of which he printed the first chart. His interest in this subject began about 1770, when the Board of Customs at Boston complained that it seemed to require two weeks more for mail packets to make the voyage to New England from England than the time of voyage for merchant ships. Franklin, then still postmaster general, discussed the matter with a Nantucket sea captain, who explained that the Nantucketers were “well acquainted with the Stream, because in our pursuit of whales, which keep to the sides of it but are not met within it, we run along the side and frequently cross it to change our side, and in crossing it have sometimes met and spoke with those packets who are in the middle of it and stemming it.” Franklin asked the caption, Timothy Folger, to plot the course of the Gulf Stream; this was the basis of the chart he had engraved and printed by the General Post Office. As early as 1775 Franklin had conceived of using a thermometer as an instrument of navigation in relation to the Gulf Stream, and he made several series of surface temperature measurements during the Atlantic crossings. In 1785, on his last return voyage from France, Franklin devised a special instrument to attempt to measure temperatures below the surface to a depth of 100 feet.
Franklin’s studies of cloud formation and the electrification of clouds constitute a major contribution to the science of meteorology. He appears to have been the earliest observer to report that northeast storms move toward the southwest. He is also the first to have observed the phenomenon of convection in air.
Heat and Light
Franklin rejected the currently accepted corpuscular theory of light because of a mechanical argument. If “particles of matter called light” be ever so small, he wrote, their momentum would nevertheless be enormous, “exceeding that of a twenty-four pounder, discharged from a cannon.” And yet, despite such “amazing” momentum, these supposed particles “will not drive before them, or remove, the least and lightest dust they meet with.” The sun does not give evidence of a copious discharge of mass, since its gravitational force on the planets is not constantly decreasing.
Franklin’s arguments were long considered the primary statement of the mechanical inadequacy of the “emission” theory and were still cited in 1835 in Humphrey Lloyd’s report on optical theories to the British Association. Bishop Horsley, editor of Newton’s Opera, made the official Newtonian reply in the Philosophical Transactions in 1770, noting that: “Dr. Franklin’s questions are of some importance, and deserve a strict discussion.” And when Thomas Young revived the wave theory toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, he cited Franklin as one of those predecessors who had believed in the wave theory: “The opinion of Franklin adds perhaps little weight to a mathematical question, but it may tend to assist in lessening the repugnance which every true philosopher must feel, to the necessity of embracing a physical theory different from that of Newton.”
Franklin was perhaps more successful in his doctrine of fire. Here he tried to apply the principle of conservation to heat, assuming that there is a constant amount of heat, which is simply distributed, redistributed, conducted, or nonconducted, according to the kind of material in question. Interested in problems of heat conductivity, he designed a famous experiment, still performed in most introductory courses, in which a number of rods of different metals are joined together at one end and fanned out at the other, with little wax rings placed on them at regular intervals. The ends that are joined together are placed in the flame, and the “conductivity” is indicated by the relative speeds with which the wax rings melt and fall off. Franklin (in France) never had the occasion to perform the experiment, although he did obtain the necessary materials for doing so, and he suggested that Ingenhousz and he might do the experiment together. Ingenhousz, however, did it on his own. Franklin’s experiments on heat were not fully understood until Joseph Black introduced the concepts of specific heat and latent heat.
Franklin’s only major contribution to the theory of heat is in the specific area of differential thermal conduction. The success of his fluid theory of electricity, and his writings on heat as a fluid, did, however influence the later development of the concept of “caloric.” Lavoisier wrote in 1777 that if he were to be asked what he understood by “matter of fire,” he would reply, “with Franklin, Boerhaave, and some of the olden philosophers, that the matter of fire or of light is a very subtle and very elastic fluid . . . .”
Medicine and Hospitals
Throughout his life Franklin had a passion for exercise (notably swimming), for which he was an active propagandist. He was always an advocate of fresh air and had many arguments in France with those who held the night air to be bad for health and who believed—then as how—in the evil effects of drafts. I have referred to his invention of bifocal glasses; he also designed a flexible catheter. He wrote on a variety of medical subjects: lead poisoning, gout, the heat of the blood, the physiology of sleep, deafness, nyctalopia, infection from dead bodies, infant mortality, and medical education.
Although Franklin at one time had opposed the practice of inoculation, he later regretted his action and lamented the death of his own son from smallpox—which he publicly admitted might have been prevented by inoculation. He gathered a set of impressive statistics in favor of the practice, which were published in a pamphlet (London, 1759) on the benefits of inoculation against smallpox, accompanying William Heberden’s instructions on inoculation.
Like others of his day, Franklin gave electric shocks in the treatment of paralysis. He concluded from his experiences that “I never knew any advantage from electricity in palsies that was permanent.” He would not “pretend to say’ whether—or to what degree— there might have been an “apparent temporary advantage” due to “the exercise in the patients’ journey, and coming daily to my house” or even—we may note with special interest today—the “spirits given by the hope of success, enabling them to exert more strength in moving their limbs.”
Franklin’s opinion that the beneficial effects of electrotherapy might derive more from the patient’s belief in the efficacy of the cure than from any true curative powers of electricity is very much like one of the conclusions of the royal commission appointed in 1784 to investigate mesmerism, of which he was a member. This Commission was composed of four prominent members of the faculty of medicine and five members of the Royal Academy of Sciences (Paris), including Franklin, Bailly, and Lavoisier. Its report gave the death blow to mesmerism, and Mesmer had to leave Paris. The commission, apparently, did not see the psychological significance of their finding that “The imagination does everything, the magnetism nothing.”
Later Life and Career
In spite of his extraordinary scientific accomplishments, the public at large knows of Franklin primarily as a statesman and public figure, and as an inventor rather than as a scientist—possibly because he devoted only a small portion of his creative life to scientific research. One of the three authors (along with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) of the Declaration of Independence, he was a member of the Second Continental Congress and drew up a plan of union for the colonies. Sent to Paris in 1776 as one of three commissioners to negotiate a treaty, his fame preceded him, both for his personification of many ideas cherished in the Age of Enlightenment and for his great reputation in electricity; in 1773 he had been elected one of the eight foreign associates of the Royal Academy of Sciences. To many Frenchmen, his simplicity of dress, his native wisdom, and his gentle manners without affectation seemed to indicate the virtues of a “natural man”. In September 1778 he was appointed sole plenipotentiary, and in 1781 he was one of three commissioners to negotiate the final peace with Great Britain.
In France, Franklin enjoyed contact with Great Britain. scientific and made the acquaintance of Volta, a strong supporter of Franklin’s one-fluid theory; Volta began the next stage of electrical science with his invention of the battery, which made possible the production of a continuous electric current. Franklin appears to have been the first international statesman of note whose international reputation was gained in scientific activity.
Franklin returned to America in 1785, served the state of Pennsylvania, and was a member of the Constitutional Convention. He died on 17 April 1790 and was buried in Christ Church burial ground, Philadelphia.
I. Original Works. Franklin’s scientific communications consist of pamphlets, reports, articles, and letters, published separately or in journals, especially Gentleman’s Magazine and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. His major scientific publication, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America, was assembled by his chief correspondent, Peter Collinson, and published with an unsigned preface by John Fothergill (London, 1751); supps. are Supplemental Experiments and Observations . . . (London, 1753) and New Experiments and Observations . . .(London, 1754), the latter with a paper by John Canton and a “Defence of Mr Franklin against the Abbe Nollet” by D. Colden. Subsequent eds. are described in Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments: A New Edition of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, ed., with a critical and historical intro., by I. Bernard Cohen (Cambridge, Mass., 1941). In addition to five eds. in English (1753–1774), translations appeared in French (1752, 1756, 1773), German (1758), and Italian (1774). See, further, Paul Leicester Ford, Franklin Bibliography: A List of Books Written by, or Relating to Benjamin Franklin (Brooklyn, N. Y., 1889), a work that is useful as a guide, although incomplete.
Franklin’s complete writings and correspondence are in publication as The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Leonard W. Labaree, inaugural ed. (New Haven, Conn., 1959- ). Three earlier eds. of Franklin’s works may be noted: Jared Sparks, The Works of Benjamin Franklin . . ., 10 vols. (Boston, 1836–1840); John Bigelow, The Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin, 10 vols. (New York-London, 1887–1888; a “Federal Edition” in 12 vols., 1904); and Albert Henry Smyth, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 10vols. (New York, 1905–1907).
Information on Franklin MSS is available in Henry Stevens, Benjamin Franklin’s Life and Writings: A Bibliographical Essay on the Stevens’ Collection of Books and Manuscripts Relating to Doctor Franklin (London, 1881); Worthington C. Ford, List of the Benjamin Franklin Papers in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C., 1905); and I. Minis Hays, Calendar of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin in the Library of the American Philosophical Society [and University of Pennsylvania], 5 vols. (Philadelphia, 1908). See also Francis S. Philbrick, “Notes on Early Editions and Editors of Franklin,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 97 (1953), 525–564.
Selections from Franklin’s writings include Nathan G. Goodman, The Ingenious Dr. Franklin, Selected Scientific Letters of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1931); Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings (New York, 1945); and I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin: His Contribution to the American Tradition (Indiapolis-New York, 1953). See also The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks Published by Benjamin Franklin, Reproduced in Facsimile, intro. by Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., 2 vols. (Barre, Mass., 1970).
A parallel text ed. of Franklin’s autobiographical writings, containing the text of the original MS, is Max Farrand, Benjamin Franklin’s Memories (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1949); the most recent and scholarly ed. based on MS sources is Leonard W. Labaree. Ralph L. Ketcham, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman, eds., The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven-London, 1964).
I. Bernard Cohen has published, with an intro., a facs. ed. of Franklin’s Some Account of the Pennsylvania Hospital (Baltimore, 1954).
II. Secondary Literature. The standard biography is Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1938), possibly the best biography of a scientist in English. An admirable shorter biography is Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (Boston, 1954). Paul Leicester Ford, The Many-sited Franklin (New York, 1899) is still useful, esp. ch. 9, “The Scientist” Bernard Faÿ, Franklin the Apostle of Modern Times (Boston, 1929), lacks the valuable “Bibliographic et etude sur les sources historiques relatives a sa vie” included in vol. III of the French ed. (Paris, 1929–1931).
On Franklin in Europe, see Alfred Owen Aldridge, Franklin and his French Contemporaries (New York, 1957); Edward E. Hale and Edward E. Hale, Jr., Franklin in France, 2 vols. (Boston, 1888); and Antonio Pace, Benjamin Franklin and Italy (Philadelphia, 1958).
On Franklin and medicine, see Theodore Diller, Franklin’s Contribution to Medicine (Brooklyn, N. Y., 1912); and William Pepper, The Medical Side of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1911).
On lightning rods, see I. B. Cohen, “Prejudice Against the Introduction of Lightning Rods,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute, 253 (1952), 393–440; “Did Divis Erect the First European Protective Lightning Rod, and Was His Invention Independent?.” in Isis, 43 (1952), 358–364, written with Robert E. Scholfield; and “The Two Hundredth Anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s Two Lightning Experiments and the Introduction of the Lightning Rod,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 96 (1952), 331–366.
Some other specialized studies of value are Cleveland Abbe, “Benjamin Franklin as Meteorologist,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 45 (1906), 117–128; Lloyd A. Brown. “The River in the Ocean,” in Essays Honoring Lawrence C. Wroth (Portland, Me., 1951), pp. 69–84; N. H. de V. Heathcote, “Franklin’s Introduction to Electricity,” in Isis, 46 (1955), 29–35; Edwin J. Houston. “Franklin as a Man of Science and an Inventor,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute161 (1906), 241–316, 321–383; Henry Stommel, The Gulf Stream (Berkeley-Los-Angeles, 1958), ch, 1, “Historical Introduction”: Francis Newton Thorpe Benjamin Franklin and the University of Pennsylvania (Washington, D. C., 1893); and Conway Zirkle, “Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Malthus and the United States Census,” in Isis, 48 (1957), 58–62.
A bibliography up to 1956 may be found in I. Bernard Cohen, Franklin and Newton, an Inquiry Into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin’s Work in Electricity as an Example Thereof (Philadelphia, 1956; Cambridge, Mass., 1966; rev. repr. 1972).
I. Bernard Cohen
Excerpt from Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787
Reported by James Madison
Published by Ohio University Press, edited by Adrienne Koch, 1984
On July 5, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, agreed to terms on the Great Compromise. Under the compromise, the number of representatives in the lower house of Congress would be determined by each state's population—one elected representative for every forty thousand inhabitants (this number was changed to thirty thousand just before the Constitution was signed). Each state would have an equal number of representatives in the upper house. The next order of business was deciding how to count the number of persons in each state. This number was needed to determine the number of representatives each state would be allowed in the lower house.
The debate centered on the highly charged issue of how to count slaves. In the South, slaves made up between 33 and 44 percent of the state populations. Southerners wanted slaves counted in the general population because this would increase the number of representatives the South could send to Congress. The Northern states held few slaves, so Northerners did not want slaves to be counted. On July 12, the Three-Fifths Compromise was proposed: Slaves would not be counted the same as free people; instead, every five slaves would be counted as three free inhabitants. A census would be taken every ten years. The delegates approved the proposal, again agreeing to a compromise.
While their fellow delegates took a break from July 26 to August 6, the appointed Committee of Details organized and wrote down the decisions that had been made during the debates so far. Some of the most important decisions involved congressional powers. All the powers Congress had under the Articles, such as organizing the army and navy and tending to foreign affairs, were retained in the new constitution. Congress also gained two vitally important powers: the power to tax citizens to raise funds and the right to regulate interstate and foreign commerce (trade).
The committee also put names to the newly created but vaguely worded government units. The executive would be called the president; the lower house of Congress would be called the House of Representatives and the upper house the Senate; and the national court would be known as the Supreme Court.
Returning from their break in early August, the delegates debated a few more issues. Again, the most difficult issue involved slavery. The Northern states wanted to halt the import of slaves, and the Southern states did not. They eventually reached a compromise guaranteeing that Congress would not outlaw the importation of slaves until 1808. Both sides felt they had taken a step toward victory on the issue of slavery. Those opposed to slavery saw a time in the future when Congress could halt the importation of slaves. Those in favor of slavery assumed they would prevail in any future debates. The terms "slave" and "slavery" do not appear in the Constitution. Instead, slaves are referred to as "such Persons" and "other Persons" (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 and Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3).
At last, on September 17, 1787, the Constitution was ready to be signed. That morning, the document was read aloud. Then Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), a delegate from Pennsylvania, obtained permission to speak. At eighty-one years of age, Franklin was the oldest delegate at the convention, and he was considered a man of great wisdom. However, Franklin was weak and ill that day, so fellow Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson (1742–1798) read Franklin's speech for him.
In the first part of his speech, Franklin explained a very important lesson he had learned from life experience: that he needed to listen to the views and opinions of others. He had learned that after further study and discussion of a matter, he sometimes changed his opinion, "even on important subjects."
Franklin next stated that a central government was necessary for the United States and that he doubted it would be possible to write a better constitution than the one they had just drafted. He said that despite its potential faults, he strongly supported the Constitution. Perhaps the most famous line of the speech is, "Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best."
Franklin asked all delegates to keep the discussion and disagreements of the convention's debates to themselves so that they could present unified support of the Constitution. He said he realized foreign countries were assuming that the convention had failed; he pointed out that it had not. Franklin lastly urged all members to consider that they might not be correct and asked that those opposed to the final draft of the Constitution put aside their own objections to the document. He then asked the delegates to join him in signing the Constitution.
Profile of the Constitutional Convention Delegates
Fifty-five delegates from twelve of the original thirteen states attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Only Rhode Island did not send delegates. Rhode Island's leaders feared that the convention would result in a national government that was stronger than they wanted it to be. Of the fifty-five delegates who attended, thirty-nine signed the completed Constitution. Not all fifty-five attended every day. Twenty-nine were present for practically every session, ten missed only a few weeks, twelve missed long periods, and four rarely attended. There were various reasons for these absences: personal or family health problems; commitments to business or to the Continental Congress, which continued to meet in New York City; and opposition to greatly strengthening the national government.
All the delegates had supported the American Revolution (1775–83), the colonies' fight for independence from Britain. Approximately half served in either the Continental Army or their state militia during the war. Eight delegates—George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, Elbridge Gerry, Robert Morris, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and George Wythe—had signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Declaration proclaimed to Britain that the United States intended to break away and form its own government. The same eight also signed the Constitution. All the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were experienced in political affairs. Forty-five of the fifty-five had at one time or another served in the Continental Congress. Almost all had served in state legislatures or worked in public office as state governors, judges, or mayors. Many were lawyers or highly knowledgeable about the law and had helped write their state constitutions and state laws.
Besides lawyers and legislators, the delegates included businessmen and planters, who owned and operated large farms called plantations. Three of the delegates were physicians, and another three were retired. Only two were small farmers, and none were working-class men such as laborers, shopkeepers, shoemakers, or sailors. Some owned slaves.
Most delegates were wealthy and well educated. All of them came from respected families, and at least one-third belonged to prominent families. About half of the delegates had been educated at home; the rest had attended college. Their colleges included Harvard, Kings College (later Columbia University), College of New Jersey (later Princeton), College of Philadelphia (later University of Pennsylvania), William and Mary, and Yale.
All were admirable, talented men, but they were also human. Some personalities demanded the utmost respect at all times; others were a bit self-centered and conceited. Many were spirited speakers, called orators, while some rarely said a word during the entire convention. Some spoke for long periods of time, while the tone of others often resulted in delegates falling asleep in the hot, stuffy room where they met.
The average age of the delegates was forty-three. Franklin was the oldest at age eighty-one. Twenty-six-year-old Jonathan Dayton (1760–1824) was the youngest. Some delegates who emerged as leaders were young men: Charles Pinckney (1757–1824) was twenty-nine, Alexander Hamilton thirty-two, Gouverneur Morris thirty-five, and James Madison thirty-six.
Forty-one of the fifty-five delegates who had attended the convention at one time or another were present. Before the signing began, Nathaniel Gorham (1738–1796), a delegate from Massachusetts, proposed that representation in the House be one representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants instead of one for every forty thousand as written. Rufus King (1755–1827) of Massachusetts and Daniel Carroll (1730–1796) seconded Gorham's proposal. George Washington (1732–1799), serving as president of the convention, spoke in support of the motion, for he believed one for every forty thousand was too little representation. The vote was unanimous in favor of Gorham's proposal.
A final bit of debate occurred before the signing began. Edmund J. Randolph (1753–1813) of Virginia, the delegate who had first presented the Virginia Plan at the convention on May 29, decided not to sign. The Virginia Plan was written by James Madison and proposed a new national government having a powerful two-house legislature, a president, a national court system, and a system of checks and balances, measures to keep the three branches equal in power. Despite some controversial parts of the plan, it played a dominant role in discussions the next few months. Randolph feared that the Constitution was so controversial that it would cause much conflict among the states and be too disruptive to the nation if not enough states voted for ratification. He wished to hear debates in his state before he lent his support to the Constitution.
Like Randolph, other delegates had misgivings about the Constitution. Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), a delegate from Massachusetts, also feared that a ratification debate among the states could lead to civil war. He opted not to sign. A second Virginia delegate, George Mason (1725–1792), announced he would not sign the Constitution as written because it did not contain a bill of rights, a statement of individual liberties that the government could not take away from the people. Most state constitutions had a bill of rights; Mason had written Virginia's Declaration of Rights and was greatly disturbed that the Constitution lacked a similar guarantee of individual liberties. Various other delegates stood to give some final words. William Blount (1749–1800) of North Carolina said he also opposed much of the document but would sign it for the sake of showing the states that the Constitution had unified support. Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) of Pennsylvania, Hugh Williamson (1735–1819) of North Carolina, and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) of New York all urged delegates to sign the Constitution because it was the best plan that could be created. They all expressed worry that anarchy, or lawless chaos, would result if delegates did not unite in support of the Constitution.
Thirty-eight of the forty-one present stepped to the table to sign. Only Randolph, Mason, and Gerry declined to sign. Washington signed first, and then the other delegates signed in their standard state congressional voting order (see box).
George Read (1733–1798) of Delaware signed for his fellow Delaware delegate John Dickinson (1732–1808), who had left the Convention early because of illness. Dickinson's name brought the total number of signatures on the Constitution to thirty-nine.
As the final signatures were taking place, Franklin spoke to a few men sitting nearby. He said that the sun painted on the back of the chair where George Washington had sat for the entire convention appeared to him to be rising rather than setting. Franklin's comment, its positive inference clear, is described by Madison near the end of the excerpt. By late afternoon, the signing was complete. All the delegates retired to Philadelphia's fine City Tavern for drinks and dinner. The next day they left for home, returning to their families, businesses, and farms. They then began the task of convincing the states to ratify the Constitution.
Signers of the U.S. Constitution
New Hampshire: John Langdon (1741–1819); Nicholas Gilman (1755–1814)
Massachusetts: Nathaniel Gorham (1738–1796); Rufus King (1755–1827)
Connecticut: William Samuel Johnson (1727–1819); Roger Sherman (1721–1793)
New York: Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804)
New Jersey: William Livingston (1723–1790); David Brearley (1745–1790); William Paterson (1745–1806); Jonathan Dayton (1760–1824)
Pennsylvania: Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790); Thomas Mifflin (1744–1800); Robert Morris (1734–1806); George Clymer (1739–1813); Thomas Fitz-Simmons (1741–1811); Jared Ingersoll (1749–1822); James Wilson (1742–1798); Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816)
Delaware: George Read (1733–1798); Gunning Bedford Jr. (1747–1812); John Dickinson (1732–1808); Richard Bassett (1745–1815); Jacob Broom (1752–1810)
Maryland: James McHenry (1753–1816); Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer (1723–1790); Daniel Carroll (1730–1796)
Virginia: George Washington (1732–1799); John Blair (1732–1800); James Madison Jr. (1751–1836)
North Carolina: William Blount (1749–1800); Richard Dobbs Spaight (1758–1802); Hugh Williamson (1735–1819)
South Carolina: John Rutledge (1739–1800); Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825); Charles Pinckney (1757–1824); Pierce Butler (1744–1822)
Georgia: William Few (1748–1828); Abraham Baldwin (1754–1807)
Things to remember while reading excerpts from Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787:
- Franklin's speech attempted to convince delegates to put aside their own objections to the Constitution and unite in signing the document for the good of the country.
- Franklin stated that while no one was totally satisfied with the document, it was the best they could do; he emphasized that the nation badly needed a strong central government.
Excerpt from Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787
Theengrossed Constitution being read,Docr. FRANKLIN rose with a speech in his hand, which he had reduced to writing for his ownconveniency, and which Mr. [James] Wilson read in the words following.
Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of beingobliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as mostsects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error.Steele aProtestant in a Dedication tells thePope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of theirdoctrines is, theChurch of Rome isinfallible and theChurch of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said "I don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's always in the right . ... " [Franklin spent many years in France as a diplomat and refers to a hypothetical French woman to make a point.]
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Governmentnecessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years. ... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, youinevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find thissystem approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils areconfounded like those of theBuilders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats. Thus Iconsent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, Isacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of themabroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to ourConstituents were to report the objections he has had to it, andendeavor to gainpartisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all thesalutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparentunanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government inprocuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom andintegrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake ofposterity, we shall act heartily andunanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress and confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered.
On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and tomake manifest our unanimity,put his name to thisinstrument.
He thenmoved that the Constitution besigned by the members and offered the following. ..."Done in Convention by the unanimous consent of the States present the 17th. ofSepr. —In Witness whereof we have hereuntosubscribed our names. ..."
Mr. GORHAM said if it was not too late he could wish, for the purpose of lessening objections to the Constitution, that the clause declaring "the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every forty thousand" which had produced so much discussion, might be yet reconsidered, in order to strike out 40,000 & insert "thirty thousand." This would not he remarked establish that as an absolute rule, but only give Congressa greater latitude which could not be thought unreasonable.
Mr. KING and Mr. CARROL seconded and supported the idea of Mr. Gorham.
When thePRESIDENT rose, for the purpose ofputting the question, he said that although hissituation hadhitherto restrained him from offering his sentiments on questionsdepending in the House, and it might be thought, ought now to impose silence on him, yet he could notforbear expressing his wish that the alteration proposed might take place. It was much to be desired that the objections to the plan recommended might be made as few as possible.The smallness of the proportion of Representatives had been considered by many members of the Conventionan insufficient security for the rights & interests of the people. He acknowledged that it had always appeared to himself among theexceptionable parts of the plan, and late as the present moment was foradmitting amendments, he thought this of so muchconsequence that it would give much satisfaction to see it adopted.
No opposition was made to theproposition of Mr. Gorham and it was agreed to unanimously. ...
The members then proceeded to sign the instrument.
Whilst the last members were signing it Doctr. FRANKLIN looking towards the President's Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and thevicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to itsissue, looked at that [sun] behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.
The Constitution being signed by all the members except Mr. Randolph, Mr. Mason, and Mr. Gerry who declined giving it thesanction of their names, the Conventiondissolved itself by an Adjournment sine die.
What happened next...
Article 7 of the Constitution required nine of the thirteen states to ratify (approve) the document before it could go into effect. The country would continue to operate under the Articles of Confederation until ratification took place. The Continental Congress, meeting in New York City, received the document on September 26, 1787, and debated for two days whether to send it on to the states for ratification. Despite their concerns and without actual endorsement, the Continental Congress voted to send the document to the states. Newspapers immediately published the full text of the Constitution for all Americans to read.
The people of each state elected delegates to their state ratification convention. During ratification debates, people split into two opposing groups, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Federalists supported ratification of the Constitution. They wanted a stronger federal (national) government, and they believed the nation needed the new constitution to survive. The Anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution and had long opposed a strong federal government. They believed real power should remain only with the state governments. They thought the national government could not be trusted and would heavily tax the people. Farmers especially feared the national government's taxing authority.
The Federalists were much more organized than the Anti-Federalists and got their word out quickly. People knew that George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the two most admired Americans, were on the Federalist side, and this influenced them to support the Constitution. Federalists did not share the Anti-Federalist distrust of a national government.
Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina had ratified the Constitution by May 23. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts had experienced considerable resistance from the Anti-Federalists, many of whom were farmers. New Hampshire narrowly voted for ratification on June 21, 1788, making the Constitution the law of the land. However, everyone knew the Constitution needed the support of the two biggest states, Virginia and New York. With James Madison's calm guidance at the Virginia convention, the delegates voted 84 to 79 for ratification on June 26. Fearing their state would be the only one left out of the union, delegates at the New York convention voted 30 to 27 in favor of the Constitution on July 26.
The new Congress convened in New York City on April 6, 1789. Delegates elected George Washington as the nation's first president; the second leading vote-getter, Massachusetts delegate John Adams (1735–1826), was elected vice president. On April 30, Washington and Adams were sworn in.
One of the most debated issues during the ratification process was the Constitution's lack of a bill of rights, which would address a person's fundamental rights as a human being. Throughout the entire convention process, the states had made many requests for additions, or amendments, to the Constitution. James Madison combined the many proposals into a list of twelve amendments. Once three-fourths of the states ratified the amendments, they would become part of the Constitution. By December 15, 1791, states had ratified ten of the twelve amendments. These ten became the Bill of Rights and included freedom of religious choice, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly (gathering), freedom of the press, guarantees of due process of law (following legal rules fairly for everyone), and the right to trial by jury. The passage of the Bill of Rights relieved much of the Anti-Federalist opposition to the Constitution. Many Anti-Federalist leaders assumed positions in the new government.
Did you know...
- To ensure open and frank debate, discussions at the Constitutional Convention were held in complete secrecy. Nothing that was said during these discussions was to be spoken or written about out-side the walls of the State House, the building where the delegates met for the convention. However, at the end of a long day of debate, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed going to the Philadelphia taverns to eat dinner, talk, and have a few drinks. He enjoyed conversation so much that two escorts were assigned to go everywhere with him and prevent him from revealing what had been discussed at the convention.
- Alexander Hamilton was the only representative from New York present on signing day, September 17. The other two New York delegates had left in midsummer. Hamilton by himself did not represent a quorum (a large enough part of the New York delegation), so technically he was not supposed to vote on or sign the Constitution. The determined Hamilton signed anyway, making it appear that twelve instead of eleven states had approved.
- Rhode Island was the only state that did not send delegates to the Constitutional Convention and therefore had no signatures on the Constitution. Rhode Island's leaders did not support strengthening the national government to the extent that they assumed the Convention would support it. They chose not to attend.
- The famous "rising sun" chair that Franklin referred to is on display at the Independence National Park in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
- The 1787 convention was not referred to as the Constitutional Convention at the time that it was taking place. The delegates had not been authorized by the Continental Congress to write a new constitution. Nevertheless, they took the initiative to do so, and over time, this decision came to be seen as part of a historic event, now commonly known as the Constitutional Convention.
Consider the following...
- Choose one or two of the thirty-nine delegates who signed the Constitution and write their biographies. Working with others, make a chart of the delegates' professions and other details that will illustrate the makeup, or composition, of the men who shaped the nation at the Constitutional Convention.
- Debate the pros and cons of signing the Constitution without fully supporting it.
- Why was the spirit of compromise essential to the 1787 convention?
Sects in Religion: Religious groups that have separated from a larger religious group.
Protestant: A member of a Christian religious denomination that separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s.
Pope: Leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Doctrines: Set of beliefs.
Church of Rome: Roman Catholic Church.
Infallible: Never wrong.
Church of England: A Protestant church.
System: Set of principles.
Confounded: Unsure how to proceed and not in agreement.
Builders of Babel: People in a biblical story who try to build a tower to heaven but fail because they speak different languages and cannot communicate.
Sacrifice to: Overlook for.
Abroad: Outside the convention's meeting room.
Constituents: Citizens of each delegate's home state.
Unanimity: Unity of opinion.
Integrity: Strong moral character.
Posterity: The future.
Unanimously: In complete agreement.
Make manifest: Show.
Put his name to: Sign.
Moved: Formally proposed.
Mr. Gorham: Massachusetts delegate Nathaniel Gorham.
A greater latitude: Broader powers.
Mr. King and Mr. Carrol: Massachusetts delegate Rufus King and Maryland delegate Daniel Carroll.
President: George Washington, president of the Constitutional Convention.
Putting the question: Bringing up the topic in order to reach a decision.
Situation: Status (as president of the Convention).
Hitherto: Up to this time.
Restrained him from offering his sentiments: Required him to only guide discussion, rather than give his own opinions.
Depending: Being discussed.
Forbear: Keep from.
The smallness of the proportion of Representatives: One representative for every 40,000 inhabitants.
An insufficient security: Too few representatives.
Admitting amendments: Allowing changes.
Dissolved itself by an Adjournment sine die: Closed indefinitely.
For More Information
Armento, Beverly J., Gary B. Nash, Christopher L. Salter, and Karen K. Wixson. A More Perfect Union. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
Commager, Henry Steele. The Great Constitution: A Book for Young Americans. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961.
The Constitution of the United States of America; with the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. 4th ed. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004.
Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Koch, Adrienne, ed. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.
Excerpt from Benjamin Franklin: A Biography
in His Own Words
Reprinted in In Their Own Words: The Colonizers
Published in 1998
Edited by T. J. Stiles
". . . I found myself in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17, without the least recommendation to or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket. . . ."
In the eighteenth century the Enlightenment (a movement that stressed rational analysis and observation) was sweeping Europe, and influential thinkers were looking at the world in a different way. The Enlightenment had an impact on science, religion, philosophy, politics, and the arts, as traditional views were being questioned and replaced with radically new theories. One of the most important changes was the idea that God was not an all-powerful force that controlled every aspect of human life. This insight was introduced by scientists and then adopted by theologians (religious philosophers), who began to teach that God had given humans the ability to understand their environment through reason.
Upper-class, educated American colonists were especially intrigued by the latest innovations coming from Europe. Full of enthusiasm, they welcomed these theories, which ideally suited their own social experiment in the New World (the European term for North America and South America).
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was emerging as the center of scientific thought and experimentation in the colonies. This was a logical development because Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers, who believed that God had granted humans the gift of intellect so they could understand the world around them. (Quakerism, or the Society of Friends, was a branch of Puritanism that stressed direct communication between the individual and God through an "inner light.") The American Philosophical Society, the first scientific institution in the colonies, was established in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, in 1743. Among the mostly Quaker founders of the society was a famous non-Quaker, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Franklin moved to Philadelphia in 1723, and by the 1740s he had gained international recognition for his experiments and writings on electricity.
Franklin pursued a wide range of interests during his long life. A printer, writer, civic leader, inventor, politician, and ambassador, he was also the best-known scientist of the eighteenth century, in both Europe as well as America. Before he conducted his experiments, electricity was considered a bizarre force that was of interest mainly for entertainment. As a result of his discoveries, the study of electricity was established as a valid scientific pursuit.
A native Bostonian, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia at the age of seventeen. He started his own printing business and retired a rich man in 1748. His annual Poor Richard's Almanack provided a wealth of information about stars and planets, advice about medicine, weather predictions, and rhymes and witty sayings for the teaching of morals. In 1771, after he had embarked on a career as a statesman—which would lead to his becoming one of the"founding fathers" of the United States—he began writing his life story. Franklin's autobiography is considered one of the greatest personal narratives ever written in the English language.
Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words:
- The excerpt below covers the first seventeen years of Franklin's life. Because his family was poor—there were seventeen children altogether—the young Franklin did not receive a proper education. For instance, he attended the Boston Grammar School for only one year because his parents could not afford the tuition (instruction fees). Later he spent a year at George Brownell's English School, where he failed arithmetic. Luckily, because Franklin's parents encouraged reading, thinking, and discussion, he grew up in an educational environment. At the age of ten, he began working as an apprentice (one who learns by practical experience) in his father's chandlery shop (a place where candles are made).
- Since Franklin enjoyed reading, his parents eventually decided he should enter the printing trade. Therefore, at the age of twelve, he became an apprentice for his brother James, who ran a Boston newspaper, The New England Courant. James's printing shop was a center of social activity, which provided the young Franklin with a constant flow of new ideas. Customers would often linger to discuss politics or religion, and they also brought books for him to borrow. During this time the ambitious young man improved his writing and editing talents. At the age of seventeen Franklin left Boston to seek his fortune in Philadelphia.
Excerpt from Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words
Josiah, my father, married young, and carried his wife with three children unto New England, about 1682. . . . By the same wife he had four children more born there, and by a second wife ten more, in all 17, of which I remember 13 sitting at one time at his table, who all grew up to be men and women, and married. I was the youngest son [born in 1706], and the younger child but two, and was born in Boston, N. England. My mother, the second wife, was Abiah Folger, a daughter of Peter Folger, one of the first settlers of new England. . . .
Apprentices: One who is learning by practical experience under skilled workers of a trade
My elder brothers were all putapprentices to different trades. I was put to the grammar school at eight years of age, my fatherintending to devote me as thetithe of his sons to the service of the Church [of England]. My early readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read) and the opinion of all his friends that I should certainly make a good scholar, encouraged him in this purpose of his. My uncle Benjamin too approved of it, and proposed to give me all hisshorthand volumes ofsermons, I suppose as a stock to set up with, if I would learn his character [shorthand].
I continued however at the grammar school not quite one year, tho' in that time I had risen gradually from the middle of the class of that year to be the head of it, and farther was removed into the next class above it, in order to go with that into the third at the end of the year. But my father in the meantime, from a view of the expense of a college education which, having so large a family, he could not well afford, and the mean living many so educated men were afterwards able to obtain, reasons that he gave to his friends in my hearing, altered his first intention, took me from the grammar school, and sent me to a school for writing and arithmetic kept by a then famous man, Mr. Geo. Brownell. . . . Under him I acquired fair writing pretty soon, but I failed in the arithmetic, and made no progress in it.
At ten years old, I was taken home to assist my father in his business which was that of atallow chandler and soap boiler. A business he was not bred to, but had assumed on his arrival in New England and on finding his dying trade would not maintain his family, being in little request. Accordingly I was employed in cutting wick for the candles, filling the dipping mold, and the molds for the cast candles, attending the shop, going of errands, etc.
I disliked the trade and had a stronginclination for the sea; but my father declared against it. However, living near the water, I was much in and about it, learned early to swim well, and to manage boats, and when in a boat or canoe with other boys I was commonly allowed to govern, especially in any case of difficulty; and upon other occasions I was generally a leader among the boys, and sometimes led them intoscrapes . . . .
Tithe: A voluntary contribution for the support of the church
Shorthand: A system of handwriting using symbols for words, phrases, and letters
Sermons: A religious speech delivered as part of a church service
Tallow chandler: A maker of the white solid produced from the fat of cattle and sheep used chiefly in soap, candles, and lubricants
Scrapes: A scuffle; fight
Apprehensions: Suspicions or fears
To return. I continued thus employed in my father's business for two years, that is till I was 12 years old; and my brother John, who was bred to that business, having left my father, married and set up for himself at Rhode Island. There was all appearance that I was destined to supply his place and be a tallow chandler. But my dislike to the trade continuing, my father was underapprehensions that if he did not find one for me more agreeable, I should break away and getto sea, as his son Josiah had done to his greatvexation. He therefore sometimes took me to walk with him, and seejoiners, bricklayers,turners, braziers, etc., at their work, that he might observe my inclination, andendeavor to fix it on some trade or other on land. . . .
From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books. Pleased with the Pilgrim's Progress, my first collection was of John Bunyan's works, in separate little volumes. I afterwards sold them to enable me to buy R. Burton's Historical Collections; they were small Chapmen's Books, and cheap, 40 or 50 in all. . . . This bookish inclination at length determined my father to make me a printer, tho' he had already one son (James) of that profession.
In 1717 my brother James returned from England with a press and letters to set up his business in Boston. I liked it much better than that of my father, but still had a hankering for the sea. To prevent theapprehended effect of such an inclination, my father was impatient to have me bound to my brother. I stood out some time, but at last was persuaded and signed theindentures, when I was yet but 12 years old. I was to serve as an apprentice till I was 21 years of age, only I was to be allowedjourneyman 's wages during the last year.
In a little time I made greatproficiency in the business, and became a useful hand to my brother. I now had access to better books. An acquaintance with the apprentices of booksellers enabled me sometimes to borrow a small one, which I was careful to return soon and clean. Often I sat up on my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted. . . .
My brother had in 1720 or 21 begun to print a newspaper. It was the second that appeared in America, and was called The New England Courant. The only one before it was The Boston News Letter. I remember his beingdissuaded by some of his friends from theundertaking, as not likely to succeed, one newspaper being in their judgment enough for America. . . . He went on, however, with the undertaking, and after having worked in composing the types and printing off the sheets I was employed to carry the papers thro' the streets to meet customers.
Vexation: Trouble or distress
Joiner: A person whose occupation is to construct articles by joining pieces of wood
Turner: A person who forms articles with a machine which work is rotated about a horizontal axis and shaped by a fixed tool
Braziers: One that works in brass
Endeavor: Attempt; strive
Apprehended: Mental grasp
Indentures: A contract binding one person to work for another for a given period of time
Journeyman: A workman who had completed his apprenticeship
Proficiency: Advancement in knowledge or skill
Dissuade: To advise (a person) against something
Ingenious: Marked by originality, resourcefulness, and cleverness in conception
He had someingenious men among his friends who amused themselves by writing little pieces for this paper, which gained it credit, and made it more in demand; and these gentlemen often visited us. Hearing their conversations, and their accounts of theapprobation their papers were received with, I was excited to try my handamong them. But being still a boy, and suspecting that my brotherwould object to printing anything of mine in his paper if he knew it tobe mine, Icontrived to disguise my hand [handwriting], and writingan anonymous paper I put it in at night under the door of the printing house.
It was found in the morning and communicated to his writingfriends when they called in as usual. They read it, commented on it in my hearing, and I had the exquisite pleasure of finding it met with their approbation, and that in their different guesses at the author, none were named but men of some character among us for learning andingenuity. I suppose now that I was rather lucky in my judges, and that perhaps they were not really so very good ones as I them esteemed them.
Encouraged however by this, I wrote and conveyed in the same way to the press several more papers, which were equally approved, and I kept my secret till my small fund of sense for such performances was pretty well exhausted, and then I discovered [revealed] it; when I began to be considered a little more by my brother's acquaintances, and in a manner that did not quite please him, as he thought, probably with reason, that it tended to make me toovain.
And perhaps this might be one occasion of the differences that we frequently had about this time. Tho' a brother, he considered himself as my master, and me as his apprentice; and accordingly expected the same services from me as he would from another; while I thought he demeaned me too much in some he required of me, who from a brother expected moreindulgence. Our disputes were often brought before our father, and Ifancy I was either generally in the right, or else a better pleader, because the judgment was generally in my favor. But my brother was passionate and had often beaten me, which I took extremely amiss; and thinking my apprenticeship verytedious, I was constantly wishing for some opportunity of shortening it, which at length offered in a manner unexpected.
One of the pieces in our newspaper, on some political point which I have now forgotten, gave offense to the Assembly. He [Franklin's brother] was taken up,censured, and imprisoned for a month by the Speaker's Warrant, I suppose because he would not discover his author. I too was taken up and examined before the Council; but tho' I did not give them any satisfaction, they contented themselves withadmonishing me, and dismissed me; considering me perhaps as an apprentice, who was bound to keep his master's secrets.
Vain: Having or showing undue or excessive pride in one's appearance or achievement
Indulgence: Tolerance; lenient treatment
Fancy: To form a conception of
Censured: To find fault and criticize as blameworthy
Admonishing: To express warning or disapproval in a gentle manner
Libelling: To make published statements without just cause and tending to expose another to public contempt
Satire: A literary work holding up human faults to ridicule or scorn
During my brother's confinement, which I resented a good deal, notwithstanding our private differences, I had the management of the paper, and I made bold to give our rulers some rubs with it, which by brother took very kindly, while others began to consider me in an unfavorable light, as a young genius that had a turn forlibelling andsatire. My brother's discharge was accompanied with an order of the House (a very odd one) that James Franklin should no longer print thepaper called the New England Courant.
There was a consideration held in our printing house among his friends what he should do in this case. Some proposed toevade the order by changing the name of the paper, but my brother, seeing the inconveniences in that, it was finally concluded on as a better way, to let it be printed for the future under the name of Benjamin Franklin. And to avoid the censure of the Assembly that might fall on him, as still printing it by his apprentice, thecontrivance was that my old indenture should be returned to me with a full discharge on the back of it, to be shown on occasion; but to secure to him the benefit of my service I was to sign new indentures for the remainder of the term, which were to be kept private.
A very flimsy scheme it was, but however, it was immediately executed, and the paper went on accordingly under my name for several months. At length a fresh difference arising between my brother and me, I took upon me to assert my freedom, presuming that he would not venture to produce the new indentures. It was not fair in me to take this advantage, and this I therefore reckon one of the firsterrata of my life. But the unfairness of it weighed little with me. . . .
When he found I would leave him, he took care to prevent my getting employment in any other printing house of the town, by going round and speaking to every master, who accordingly refused to give me work. I then thought of going to New York as the nearest place where there was a printer; and I was rather inclined to leave Boston, when I reflected that I had already made myself a littleobnoxious to the governing party; and from thearbitrary proceedings of the Assembly in my brother's case it was likely I might if I stayed soon bring myself into scrapes; and farther that myindiscreet disputations about religion begun to make me pointed at with horror by good people, as aninfidel oratheist.
Evade: To avoid facing up to
Contrivance: An artificial arrangement or development
Obnoxious: Highly offensive
Arbitary: Not limited by law
Indiscreet disputations: Unwise arguments
Infidel: One who is not Christian or who opposes Christianity
Atheist: One who denies the existence of God
Sloop: A rigged boat with one mast and a single sail
I determined on the point; but my father now siding with my brother, I was sensible that if I attempted to go openly, men would be used to prevent me. My friend Collins therefore undertook to manage a little for me. He agreed with the captain of a New Yorksloop for my passage, under the notion of my being a young acquaintance of his that had got a naughty girl with child. . . . So I sold some of my books to raise a little money, was taken on board privately, and as we had a fair wind in three days I found myself in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17, without the least recommendation to or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket. . . .
I offered by service to the printer of the place, old Mr. William Bradford (who had been the first printer in Pennsylvania, but removed from thence upon the quarrel of [Governor] George Keith). He could give me no employment, having little to do, and help enough already. But, says he, my son at Philadelphia has lately lost his principal hand, Aquila Rose, by death. If you go thither I believe he may employ you. . . .
[I] arrived there [in Philadelphia] about 8 or 9 o'clock, in the Sunday morning, and landed at the Market Streetwharf . . . . I was in my working dress, my best clothes being to come round by sea. I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings; I knew no soul, nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with travelling, rowing, and want of rest. I was very hungry, and my whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar and about ashilling in copper. The latter I gave the people of the boat for my passage, who at first refused it on account of my rowing; but I insisted in their taking it, a man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro' fear of being thought to have but little.
Wharf: a structure built along navigable waters so ships could receive and discharge cargo and passengers
Shilling: A former monetary unit
Then I walked up the street, gazing about, till near the Market House I met a boy with bread. I had made many a meal on bread, and inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the baker's he directed me to in Second Street; and asked for biscuit, intending such as we had in Boston, but they it seems were not made in Philadelphia. Then I asked for a three-penny loaf, and was told they had none such; so not considering or knowing the difference of money and the greater cheapness nor the names of his bread, I bad him give me three penny worth of any sort. He gave me accordingly three great puffy rolls. I was surprised at the quantity, but took it, and having no room in my pockets, walked off, with a roll under each arm, and eating the other. . . .
Thus refreshed I walked again up the street, which by this time had many clean dressed people in it who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great Meeting House of theQuakers near the Market. I sat down among them, and after looking round a while and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro' labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell asleep, and continued to till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was therefore the first house I was in or slept in, in Philadelphia. . . .
I began now to have some acquaintance among the young people of the town, that were lovers of reading, with whom I spent my evenings very pleasantly. And gaining money by my industry andfrugality, I lived very agreeably, forgetting Boston as much as I could. . . .
Quaker: A member of the Society of Friends, a Protestant Christian group that believes in direct communication with God through an "inner light"
What happened next . . .
Franklin finally settled in Philadelphia in 1726. Three years later he purchased a failing newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, which eventually reached a high circulation. In 1733 he also began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack, a collection of witty sayings and pieces of advice that he wrote under the pseudonym (pen name) of Richard Saunders.
During the 1730s Franklin branched out into other projects. In 1736 he founded the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. The industrious young man also started a police force and promoted the paving and lighting of city streets. Reflective of his lifelong love of reading, Franklin founded what was probably the first circulating library in America. Established in 1731, it was originally a subscription library to which members contributed an annual fee in return for the full use of books and pamphlets. In 1736 Franklin was appointed clerk (official in charge of records) of the Pennsylvania Assembly (legislative body), where he gained valuable political experience over the next fifteen years.
During the 1740s scientists around the world were investigating static (accumulated) electricity. Franklin first witnessed this new force in a demonstration of the Leyden jar (a device used for producing electrical energy) in 1743. Franklin was so inspired by the Leyden jar that he conducted his own experiments, thus beginning his career as an amateur scientist.
Through further experiments, Franklin discovered that electricity is an independent force, which he called "electrical fire." The idea that the overall electrical energy in a system does not increase or decrease is now a fundamental law in science. Franklin introduced many other terms that still pertain to electricity, including battery, conductor, charge, and discharge. He also invented the lightning rod (a metallic rod with one end embedded in the ground, which diverts electricity to the earth and protects buildings against fire caused by lightning). By 1782, there were four hundred lightning rods in Philadelphia.
While waiting for the lightning rod to be installed on Christ Church, Franklin came up with an idea for a faster way to get a conductor into the sky. He made a kite by tying a large silk handkerchief to two crossed wooden sticks. Next, to the kite he attached a long silk thread that had a metal key tied at the end. Then he waited for a thunderstorm. During the storm the rain soaked the thread, making it an excellent conductor (an item that permits flow of electric current) that transmitted a static charge from the sky down to the key. When Franklin touched his knuckle to the key, a spark jumped from the key to his hand, thus proving the existence of electricity in the sky.
Although Franklin was best known for his work with electricity, he investigated other areas as well. His interest in the weather led him to notice that weather patterns usually travel from west to east. Another of Franklin's interests was the sea. During his diplomatic career he journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean eight times, and on these trips he took notes of his observations of ocean waters. With the help of a sea captain, he created the first chart of the Gulf Stream (a warm current in the Atlantic Ocean). Franklin also devised a method of using a thermometer to gauge water temperature to determine if a ship was on course in the Gulf Stream.
Franklin introduced several innovations in the field of medicine. He was a strong supporter of regular exercise, particularly swimming. He believed in the importance of fresh air for good health, even though at the time many people thought night air and drafts caused disease. Expanding on his electrical studies, he used electric shocks to treat people with paralysis (loss of body movement). He determined, however, that the treatment did not have any permanent benefits. When the smallpox inoculation was first introduced, Franklin warned against the practice. (Smallpox is a highly contagious, often fatal disease. Inoculation is the introduction of the disease-causing agent into the body in order to create immunity.) After his own son died of the disease, however, he reversed his opinion and published a pamphlet on the importance of inoculation.
In 1748 Franklin retired from business and science to devote the rest of his life to politics and diplomacy. Three years later he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. In 1757 Franklin began his diplomatic career when he was sent to England as a lobbyist (one who represents a particular group in attempting to influences public officials). Franklin's experiments with electricity brought him great fame in America and Europe. Not only was he respected by the scientific community, he was popular with the general public. He spread his ideas through a number of writings, including articles in the leading scientific journal of the time, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In 1751 Franklin's papers on electricity were gathered and published in a ninety-page book in London. The Royal Society, a British scientific organization, awarded him the Copley Medal in 1753 for his accomplishments and made him a member of the society in 1756. (In 1744 Franklin had modeled the American Philosophical Society on the prestigious Royal Society.)
Franklin was a member of the Second Continental Congress (the governing body of the Thirteen Colonies). He helped to draft the Declaration of Independence (a document that stated the American colonists' reasons for demanding freedom from Great Britain), which was completed in 1776. Two years later he signed treaties with France that may have helped America win the Revolutionary War (1775–83; a conflict in which the American colonies won independence from Great Britain).
During his lifetime, Franklin began a long union with Deborah Reed, whom he never officially married because she was never divorced from her husband. Franklin already had one son, William, born to an unknown mother, who joined the family. Franklin and Reed also had two children of their own, a son Francis (who died of smallpox) and a daughter Sarah. During the last few years of his life, Franklin lived with Sarah and numerous grandchildren in a large house on Market Street in Philadelphia. He spent his time completing his autobiography (first published in 1868), which became a classic work in American literature. Franklin died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790, at the age of eighty-five. His funeral was attended by approximately twenty thousand people, who came to mourn the passing of a great man.
Did you know . . .
- One of Franklin's first major inventions was the Pennsylvania fireplace, now known as the Franklin stove, which he developed around 1740. Improving on an existing design, he equipped the stove with a flue (heat channel) that heats the air around it. The stove was highly efficient, and Franklin claimed it made a room twice as warm as other stoves even though it used only twenty-five percent of the usual amount of wood. Another popular Franklin invention was bifocal eyeglasses, in which the lower part of the lens is designed for near vision and the upper for distant vision. Franklin is also credited with creating the rocking chair.
For more information
Benjamin Franklin Citizen of the World. A&E Home Video, 1994. Videocassette recording.
Benjamin Franklin Scientist and Inventor. Living History Productions, 1993. Videocassette recording.
Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words. Thomas Fleming, ed. New York: Newsweek, 1972.
McFarland, Philip James. The Brave Bostonians: Hutchinson, Quincy, and TheComing of the American Revolution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998.
Rudy, Lisa Jo, ed. The Benjamin Franklin Book of Easy and Incredible Experiments. New York: Wiley, 1995.
Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1998, pp. 314–418.
Born January 17, 1706 (Boston, Massachusetts)
Died April 17, 1790 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Statesman, diplomat, writer, publisher, scientist
Benjamin Franklin, though much older than other leading revolutionaries, profoundly influenced younger Founding Fathers in the 1780s. Franklin was earlier the chief spokesman for the American colonies through the 1750s and 1760s, helped in writing the 1776 Declaration of Independence, gained foreign support during the war against Britain through a treaty with France, negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris with Britain to end the war, and then signed the 1787 U.S. Constitution and presented a stirring speech encouraging other delegates at the Constitutional Convention to sign as well. Franklin was the only American to sign all three of the major documents that brought about the birth of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. Constitution. By the 1780s, he was looked upon as a living sage. Though a great thinker, writer, inventor, and statesman, he was always able to relate to the common person and had little need for wealth.
"I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered."
Aside from politics, Franklin was a scientist, inventor, publisher, and promoter. Though coming from a Puritan upbringing, he was open to the new ideas of the Enlightenment, a new philosophy in the eighteenth century that recognized humans' ability to understand the world and influence it for their benefit. He enjoyed scientific thought and exchanging ideas on a wide range of topics. His numerous inventions added great comfort to daily life, such as bifocal eyeglasses, iron stoves, and the lightning rod. He also established numerous civic institutions including the American Philosophical Society, the first American library to loan books, a volunteer firefighting company, a fire insurance company, an educational academy that later became the University of Pennsylvania, and the first hospital in America.
Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1706, the tenth son of seventeen children. His father, Josiah Franklin, a soap- and candlemaker, had emigrated from England in 1683 so he could practice his Puritan faith without fear of religious persecution. Benjamin's mother was Abiah Folger. Because of his family's poverty, Franklin had little formal education, but he learned to read very early. In 1718, at the age of twelve, he became an apprentice to his older brother James in a printing shop. Young Benjamin was drawn to the written word; he read endlessly and practiced writing. He was particularly drawn to poetry at first. In 1721, James started a weekly newspaper, the New England Courant. Besides setting type, Benjamin wrote a series of fourteen essays under a different name for the newspaper. However, later that year James got into trouble with authorities for some critical articles he published. Benjamin took over the paper for a short while but decided to get a fresh start and left home at age seventeen to find work elsewhere.
Finding no work in Boston, Franklin traveled to Philadelphia, where he found a job as a printer. He found a room to rent next to the print shop. There he met his future wife, Deborah Read, whose family owned the house. He soon became a master printer and desired to start his own printing company. Believing he had found financial support, Franklin sailed to England in November 1724 to purchase equipment and establish connections with London stationers and booksellers. Upon arrival in London, Franklin found his support did not exist, so he found employment at a print shop and enjoyed his first stay overseas.
Two years later, in 1726, Franklin returned to Philadelphia. By 1729, he finally had his own printing business. Meanwhile, Deborah had married someone else, and Franklin had a son, William, around 1729 with another woman whom he did not marry. Deborah's husband soon abandoned her, and in September 1730, Franklin and Deborah became united. They could not formally get married since her husband might still be alive. But they had a marriage that was considered common-law, recognized in some jurisdictions because the two of them considered themselves married. They had a son who died at four years of age and a daughter, Sarah. They also raised William, who became a close companion to Franklin until the two became estranged around the time of the American Revolution.
Franklin's new business prospered. In January 1730, he became Pennsylvania's official printer; his work included printing paper currency for the colony. Soon, he was also printing for New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. He also began printing his own material. He bought a failing newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, in 1729 and made it into one of the top colonial newspapers of the time. In 1732, Franklin started the annual publication Poor Richard's Almanac, which he continued until 1757 under the fictional name Richard Saunders. The almanac was highly popular, selling almost ten thousand copies a year. In it, Franklin offered advice on how to get ahead in the world, astronomical information, medicinal remedies, and moral advice. Through his printing business, Franklin became wealthy. He invested in real estate and formed partnerships with other printers in New York, the Carolinas, and the West Indies.
In 1748, Franklin retired from actively working in a print office. He became a silent partner (a partner not directly involved in the business) in the printing firm Franklin and Hall, which brought in good profits for another eighteen years. At the time of his retirement, Franklin was the best-known publisher in the colonies, but he was ready to devote his time to science and civic matters. Franklin was not interested in accumulating wealth for himself.
Just after returning from London in 1726, Franklin became interested in promoting organizations for the benefit of society. He firmly believed everyone should work for the common good of society. In the fall of 1727, Franklin formed Junto, a society of upcoming tradesmen who would share business information as well as debate philosophies on a wide range of topics including morals and politics.
Through Junto, Franklin started a number of organizations for civic improvement. He created the first library in 1731 to loan out books, called the Library Company of Philadelphia. Franklin was president and took an active role in the library's daily operations, including contributing books. He proposed the first paid police force in 1735 and organized Philadelphia's first volunteer fire company in 1736. In 1743, he formed the American Philosophical Society to aid in sharing scientific information. In 1751, Franklin started the Academy of Philadelphia, which later grew into the University of Pennsylvania; he organized several fire companies into an insurance company; and he began raising funds for a hospital from public donations and the colonial legislature. The resulting Pennsylvania Hospital, the first hospital in America, opened in February 1752. During this period, the winter of 1740–41, he designed a more efficient fireplace called the Franklin stove.
In addition to his printing business and many civic activities, Franklin also entered public service. He was first appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature in October 1736 and served in that role until 1751. He was note taker, record keeper, and historian. That position established many contacts, which contributed to his growing printing business. In October 1737, Franklin was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia, further expanding his role in the community.
In late 1747, French and Spanish privateers were harassing the colonists along the Delaware River, which passed by Philadelphia. Privateers are private vessels licensed by the government to harass and attack enemy ships. The Pennsylvania colony was largely governed by Quakers, a religious sect that preached against violence, including the government's maintenance of defensive forces. Alarmed by the lack of defense in the colony and in Philadelphia, Franklin organized a militia. A militia is an organized military force, made up of citizens, that serves in times of emergency. Franklin printed Plain Truth in November 1747, urging the citizens to action. It was one of his most popular colonial publications. Franklin became a local hero. By 1749, the foreign threat had declined, and the militia slowly disbanded.
The year after retiring from his active role in the printing business, in June 1749, Franklin was named justice of peace for Philadelphia. Two years later, Franklin was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature. Because he had worked as a clerk for the legislature for many years and had extensive familiarity with legislative matters, Franklin was given important assignments such as writing responses to the colonial governor. That same year he wrote an essay in reaction to some British policies. The essay caught the attention of prominent colonists, who were interested in his ideas about achieving greater independence from British rule.
In 1745, Franklin's Library Company received a publication from England regarding recent experiments in electricity in Germany. In late 1746, Franklin began experimenting with electricity, too. Many people came to his home to witness the experiments. In May 1747, Franklin began sending letters to England describing the experiments and his theories about electricity. Proving that only one kind of electricity existed but with two types of charges, he introduced the terms positive and negative charges as well as battery and conductor. The series of letters were combined in a small book by the Royal Society of London and distributed in 1751 throughout Europe.
In April 1749, Franklin proposed that static electricity and lightning were the same. Lightning at the time was a mysterious and terrifying phenomenon. In March 1750, Franklin introduced lightning rods (pointed iron rods) on the roofs of buildings to protect them from lightning strikes and resulting fires. In May 1752, a Frenchman carried out an experiment proposed by Franklin and showed that lightning was indeed electricity. The following month, Franklin added further proof by flying a kite in an electrical storm and noting the transfer of the storm's electrical charge through the kite and into a specially designed jar.
The findings of Franklin's experiments were truly revolutionary. They showed that a much feared natural occurrence, lightning, could be simply explained as electricity, and that electricity was a basic element of nature. Franklin became a major international celebrity in both science and literature. Awards for Franklin accumulated: He received a master of arts degree from Harvard in June 1753, Yale in September 1753, and the College of William and Mary in Virginia in April 1756. The prestigious Royal Society of London presented him with a scientific achievement award in November 1753 and unanimously elected Franklin as a member in April 1756.
A national role
In 1753, Franklin's public service roles expanded. In August, Franklin was appointed postmaster general for all the Northern colonies. Through this position, he began thinking in terms of a more unified political organization of the colonies. He used his position to spread around his ideas.
In 1754, the French threat grew again on the western frontier in the Ohio River valley, renewing Franklin's concerns over defense of the colony. In May, he wrote an editorial urging the colonies to unify. He drew a cartoon of a snake cut into pieces with the caption "JOIN OR DIE." It became one of the first symbols of unifying the colonies. Serving as a Pennsylvania delegate to a meeting among colonies in Albany, New York, Franklin proposed a plan for a union of the colonies. The delegates at the conference accepted his plan, but the colonies later rejected it, fearful of losing some of their independence.
The French and Indian War (1754–63) erupted in 1754 and was the last major struggle between Britain and France over control of North American land claims. When France won a major victory over a British force under the command of General Edward Braddock (1695–1755) in early 1755, Franklin hastily pulled together a new militia to defend Pennsylvania. In January 1756, the Pennsylvania governor appointed Franklin commander. Franklin personally led the force westward and built a fort before he was summoned back to a special legislative session.
Franklin endlessly fought for the right of colonies to tax themselves through their elected representatives rather than being taxed by the British parliament across the Atlantic. He claimed it was the natural right of any Englishman to be taxed only by their own consent. This was a new and bold viewpoint among the colonists.
Franklin also vigorously campaigned to limit the power of the colony's proprietors, the Penn family. Pennsylvania was originally chartered to William Penn (1644–1718) in 1681, and proprietorship of the colony passed through the Penn family until the colony became a state in the 1770s. Franklin proposed that the proprietor's land be taxed like everyone else's. The Penn family objected, and the Pennsylvania legislature sent Franklin to England in 1757 to resolve the issue. Franklin remained in England until August 1762. During that time, he reached a compromise with the Penn family over the taxation issue.
While in Britain, Franklin recognized that many British citizens did not really know the American colonists. Franklin published an article in May 1759 titled A Defense of the Americans. It was the most complete description yet written of Americans prior to the American Revolution (1775–83). Franklin published many other articles about America for the British public. While in Britain, Franklin regularly attended science and political society meetings. He also visited with such scholars as Scottish philosophers David Hume (1711–1776) and Adam Smith (1723–1790). He also received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in February 1759 and from Oxford in April 1762. He became regularly referred to as "Dr. Franklin."
While Franklin was on his way back to America in late 1762, his son William was appointed the colonial governor of New Jersey. During the next two years, Franklin toured the colonies as postmaster, greatly improving the postal service and making it profitable. However, Franklin was sent back to Britain in October 1764. Conflict with the Penn family had continued, and the colonists wanted a new, more direct charter from the British Crown.
The Stamp Act
Following the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British parliament was looking for new tax measures that might pay the expenses of defending the colonies. Franklin arrived in Britain in December 1764 just as Parliament was considering passage of the Stamp Act. The act required colonists to pay a tax on newspapers, legal documents, diplomas, playing cards—in short, on almost all types of written documents except private letters. Franklin argued strongly against the act, offering other proposals. However, Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765, and it took effect in November. Franklin assumed the colonists would begrudgingly accept the new tax. He quickly discovered he was wrong. The colonies strongly protested the tax and passed a series of resolves against it. Franklin was even charged with giving in too easily to the British officials.
Franklin immediately sprang into action to recover his prestige. He made a dramatic speech before the British House of Commons. He bluntly described the colonies' desire for self-government, arguing that only the colonial governments had the right to tax colonists. He wrote dozens of articles in opposition to the tax. In February 1766, Parliament repealed the act. Franklin had become the leading spokesman for the colonies. As an example of the increasing respect he was receiving, the following year he met with the king of France. He also began writing his Autobiography in 1767, which expressed his political ideas and discussed many other subjects.
Leading American spokesman
So popular was Franklin now that other states joined in keeping him in London as their foreign agent. Besides Pennsylvania, there was Georgia in 1768, New Jersey in 1769, and Massachusetts in 1770. Between 1765 and 1775, Franklin published 126 newspaper articles expressing the American viewpoints to British and other European readers. While Franklin was in Britain serving the American colonies, his wife suffered a stroke and died in December 1774.
More honors came Franklin's way for his scientific achievements. He was elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1766. He was also elected president of the American Philosophical Society in January 1769, a position he held for the next twenty-one years until his death.
In December 1773, colonists boarded British merchant ships in Boston Harbor and dumped 342 chests of tea into the water in protest of the new tea tax. News of the rebellion, known as the Boston Tea Party, reached Britain in January 1774. Franklin, the Massachusetts agent, was called before the enraged British officials and berated for an hour. Franklin stood silent. British officials also removed Franklin from his deputy postmaster role in America two days later. Britain soon passed the Intolerable Acts, punishing the colonies for their actions, and closed Boston Harbor. Franklin responded again with a series of articles criticizing the measures but still trying to resolve the differences.
Second Continental Congress delegate
Aware that war might break out, Franklin set sail for America in March 1775, still thinking that the colonies would remain part of the British empire but as self-governing nations. While Franklin was at sea, fighting between the colonists and British troops erupted in April at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. When he arrived, he realized there was no turning back now from armed revolt. Much to his dismay, his son William, governor of New Jersey, remained loyal to Britain. They would never communicate again.
Immediately upon his return to America, Franklin was elected as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He was one of the oldest but more radical delegates drafting articles of confederation for uniting the colonies and creating a strong central government. The document creating an independent government was considered too extreme at the time. The following year, in 1776, Franklin was assigned to a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and organize a new postal system. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1) of Virginia wrote the first draft of the Declaration, and Franklin and Massachusetts delegate John Adams (1735–1826; see entry in volume 1) made minor changes before sending it to the full Congress for approval. After two days of much debate and further revision, the Declaration was signed by Franklin and other delegates on July 4, 1776. Serving as an elder statesman at seventy years of age, Franklin was by far the oldest of the signers. Later that year, Franklin was elected president of Pennsylvania's constitutional convention, where he guided the creation of a new state constitution. He asserted that concentration of wealth in the hands of a few was not in the public's interest.
Diplomat to France
In October 1776, the Congress sent Franklin, Adams, and Revolutionary War officer Henry Lee (1756–1818), as commissioners to France to seek desperately needed economic and military aid. The French welcomed the much-celebrated Franklin as a hero and main representative of America. His portrait showed up on all kinds of items. Franklin soaked up the adulation, while Adams grew bitter about all the attention Franklin was receiving.
Progress was slow in France, with only secret promises of funding support at first, no public commitments. Then in October 1777, a large British force of five thousand troops surrendered to the colonial forces at Saratoga, New York. When this news reached Paris in December 1777, France was finally convinced that the colonists had a real chance of victory. In February 1778, Franklin concluded a Treaty of Alliance for mutual defense and trade. The treaty also stated that the United States could not negotiate a treaty with Britain without consulting with France. It was a major shock to the British, who now realized they had to fight not only the colonies but another European power as well. Franklin relished the treaty-signing ceremony. He was wearing the same brown velvet suit he had worn when the British berated him over the Boston Tea Party.
Over the next three years, France supplied America some twelve thousand soldiers and thirty-two thousand sailors. Franklin was responsible for obtaining all the foreign aid the United States was to receive during the war.
Franklin continued as the U.S. representative in France throughout the remainder of the war. The surrender of General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) to General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2) at Yorktown in October 1781 indicated that Britain was not going to be able to win the American Revolution. Franklin soon began trying to negotiate an end to the war. Finally, by the summer of 1782, serious negotiations were under way. After the arrival of Adams and New York delegate John Jay (1745–1829; see entry in volume 1), the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 (see box).
Franklin was eager to return to his home in Philadelphia; however, Congress kept him in Paris for two more years to negotiate new trade treaties. During this time, Franklin invented bifocal eyeglasses to help himself read more easily.
The strains caused by the lack of respect paid by Britain greatly influenced American policies in the 1780s and 1790s and eventually led to the "second revolution" between the United States and Britain known as the War of 1812 (1812–15).
In September 1785, at age seventy-nine, Franklin arrived back in Philadelphia. He was elected governor of Pennsylvania the following month and would serve in that position for the next three years. He suffered from a large kidney stone and was in much discomfort. Nonetheless, Franklin was sent as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in 1787. He unsuccessfully argued that the country should be led by an executive committee rather than a single president.
Treaty of Paris
Benjamin Franklin was the senior statesman for the new nation during the 1770s and 1780s. Much of his contributions to the new nation came as a foreign diplomat stationed in Paris, France. In 1783, fellow U.S. diplomats John Jay and John Adams joined Franklin in Paris to negotiate an end to the American Revolution. The British parliament was represented by David Hartley (1731–1813). Signed on September 3, 1783, the treaty not only ended the war, it created issues that would shape U.S. foreign and domestic policy for the next thirty years.
Besides recognizing the independence of the American colonies and fishing rights for U.S. fishermen along the east coast of Canada, the treaty also set the western boundary of the United States at the Mississippi River, called for the withdrawal of British troops from American soil, and directed that debts between citizens and companies of the two nations be repaid. It also required the United States to return land and property seized from colonists who had remained loyal to Britain, protect property of those who supported Britain during the war in future years, exchange prisoners of war, and return all property the British army left behind in America. Another major issue involved slaves that had joined the British army and left for Britain at the end of the war. The Southern colonies wanted compensation for their loss of slaves.
Many of the terms of the treaty were never fulfilled. For example, Britain kept soldiers at forts in the region west of the Appalachian Mountains, land that was transferred to the United States in the treaty. The British realized the new nation had little military capability to enforce the treaty's terms. Britain also believed their former colonies would come back under British control within a few years after financial collapse.
Franklin's greatest contributions to the convention were the great confidence he gave it and on numerous occasions calming heated tempers. On September 17, the final day of the convention, Franklin delivered a stirring endorsement of the Constitution, asking all delegates to sign it. Too ill to deliver the speech himself, fellow Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson (1742–1798) read his message to the convention. As published in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, part of Franklin's message read, "I doubt . . . whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system [Convention] approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies." Thirty-nine of the forty-two delegates signed the historic document.
In October 1788, Franklin resigned as governor, completing forty years of public service. By 1789, Franklin was largely bedridden and taking pain-killing medicine. On March 23, 1790, Franklin wrote a major essay against slavery. He died the following month at eighty-four years of age. The city of Philadelphia gave him an elaborate funeral. His death was equally acknowledged in France, where Franklin remained a symbol of liberty. The French government observed three days of mourning. Along with George Washington, Franklin was the best-known American in the late eighteenth century. Europeans held Franklin in high regard due to his electrical experiments and theories. Franklin's Autobiography, first published in 1868, was the most popular autobiography in U.S. history.
For More Information
Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1868. Multiple reprints.
Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Koch, Adrienne, ed. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.
Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
Schiff, Stacy. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. New York: Holt, 2005.
Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.
"Benjamin Franklin: An Extraordinary Life, an Electric Mind." Public Broadcasting Service.http://www.pbs.org/benfranklin/ (accessed on August 12, 2005).
Born January 17, 1706
Died April 17, 1790
Political leader, diplomat, printer, publisher, writer, scientist, inventor
Benjamin Franklin was a man who combined genius and imagination with humor and common sense; it seemed he could do almost anything. By the time the American Revolution broke out in 1775, Franklin was world-famous as a writer, inventor, and scientist. He then became the world's most famous rebel, although his contributions to the establishment of an independent United States are often overlooked.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1706. His father, Josiah, was an Englishman who had seven children by his first wife before she died. He moved to New England in 1683 in search of religious freedom, and married Abiah Folger, daughter of an old New England family. She bore him ten more children. Benjamin Franklin was her seventh child and the youngest son.
Not much is known about Benjamin Franklin's mother. In his old age, Franklin told a friend that his mother had taught him common sense and tolerance. In his autobiography (see box), Franklin described his father as healthy and very strong. Josiah Franklin liked to play religious tunes on his violin and sing along at the end of a hard day's work. He was regarded by Boston's leading citizens as a man of some wisdom, and they often asked for his advice in resolving conflicts.
In the Franklin household their Puritan religion was taken very seriously. Puritanism stressed a strict moral code and the value of hard work. Franklin always respected his parents' beliefs, but he later rejected some of the more rigid aspects of Puritanism. As a young adult he gave up going to church altogether and devised a way of worshiping God at home. He put together his own book of prayers; it contained passages from science books and passages from books that discussed right and wrong behavior.
Schooling ends at age ten; goes to work for father
Franklin's older brothers had been sent out at young ages to work for local tradesmen for a certain length of time in exchange for being taught a trade. Franklin was a bright, happy boy who could read the Bible by age five. His father thought he might have a future in the church, so the child was sent to school at age eight. He did well in all his subjects except arithmetic, but looking ahead, his father decided that he would never be able to afford to send the boy to college. So Josiah Franklin took his intelligent youngest son out of school at the age of ten and put him to work in the family business, a candle-and soapmaking shop.
Franklin hated the work. He really wanted to run off to sea. His father forbade it, and for a time the boy satisfied his seagoing urges by learning to swim well and by boating and canoeing whenever he had the chance.
Franklin grew no fonder of his father's trade. Hoping to find something his son liked better, Josiah Franklin often took the boy on walks to watch other tradesmen at work. Franklin found nothing that suited him, but his curiosity was aroused. He began "to construct little Machines for my Experiments." His interest in science would continue throughout his life.
Franklin read everything he could lay his hands on. In his day, that mostly meant books with religious themes. In his old age, he regretted "that at a time when I had such a Thirst for Knowledge, more proper Books had not fallen in my Way."
Becomes printer's apprentice; at last finds satisfying work
Seeing how fond his son was of books, and how much he disliked making soap and candles, Josiah Franklin finally relented when the boy was twelve and permitted him to go as an apprentice to his brother, James, a printer. To young Franklin, the best thing about the printing trade was that "I now had Access to better Books." He especially liked to read about the character and behavior of ancient Greek and Roman leaders. He also read essays that made him want to do good deeds.
In 1721 James Franklin established his own newspaper. Unknown even to James, Benjamin Franklin contributed amusing and popular unsigned articles to the paper. When James learned who had actually written the articles, he was not very happy. The two young men did not get along. Franklin claimed his brother often lost his temper and beat him.
In 1723 the seventeen-year-old Franklin left home forever and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the largest city in the colonies. By then he was an expert at printing, a trade that was just opening up in the colonies. He had the whole world in front of him.
At this point in his life, Franklin was a strong, healthy young man, nearly six feet tall. He had abundant dark brown hair, hazel eyes, a large mouth, and a large head in proportion to his body. He soon caught the eye of a young Philadelphia woman named Deborah Read, daughter of a prosperous carpenter (see Deborah Read Franklin entry). The couple did not marry until 1730; meanwhile Franklin had several adventures and career advances.
In 1724 Franklin went to England to buy type for a printing press so he could start his own business. His two-year trip to England was the beginning of a lifetime of globetrotting. He got work right away at one of London's most important publishers and made a name for himself by writing on religious matters.
But Franklin grew tired of the frantic pace of London. He thought of touring the continent of Europe and paying for the trip by giving swimming lessons. Instead, feeling guilty over his desertion of Deborah, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726. He worked hard, and by 1730 he was sole owner of ThePennsylvania Gazette. Just before his marriage to Deborah that same year Franklin fathered a child, William. It remains a mystery whether Deborah was William's mother. It is known that William lived in her home but she always treated him poorly.
The Franklins had two other children. Their first, Francis Folger, died in 1736 at age four of smallpox, a contagious disease that causes fever, vomiting, and skin eruptions. Franklin was heartbroken at little Franky's death. His daughter, Sarah, was born in 1743.
Historians still debate the extent of Franklin's feelings for his wife Deborah. She did not share his intellectual and political interests, but she did help Franklin tremendously in the family business. Because of her assistance, Franklin had the luxury of retiring from business early (1748) and devoting himself to a career in public life.
Enters public life, flies kites
During his newspaper days, Franklin did not neglect his social life. He founded a debating club in 1727 that later became the American Philosophical Society. Its members were young men like himself, intellectuals who were interested in doing good works. Members met to discuss religion and how to help their fellow man; they also helped each other rise in the community. By 1740 Franklin's participation in this kind of activity had made him a leader in Philadelphia society.
Franklin's further accomplishments in the years leading up to the American Revolution (1775–83) were many and varied. He fulfilled his childhood desire to do good works by having hospitals built, establishing public libraries at a time when most books were in the hands of private owners, and arranging for the formation of a volunteer fire department. He gained worldwide fame in 1742 for his invention of the Franklin stove, a practical and heat-efficient way of warming houses. His scientific curiosity led to kite experiments in the 1740s and 1750s that helped explain lightning and electricity. These impressive scientific discoveries brought Franklin a great deal of fame throughout Europe.
Franklin next turned his attention to what he thought was lacking in the colony: a school for higher learning where Pennsylvanians could study "the finer arts and sciences." In 1751 he established the Academy, now the University of Pennsylvania. That same year he began his nearly forty-year career as a public official when he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly (the colony's lawmaking body).
Writes Albany Plan of Union
In 1753 Franklin was appointed by the governor of Pennsylvania to negotiate treaties of friendship with Native Americans on the Pennsylvania frontier. A war was brewing between France and England, a war that was certain to involve the English colonies and the French and Indians who lived, trapped, and traded on the frontier. If such a war did break out (it did; it was known as the French and Indian War of 1754–63), the Indians were expected to side with the French against the English. English colonists who lived near the Indians would suffer.
Franklin's dealings with the Indians marked the beginning of his diplomatic career. In the time he spent with them, he became fascinated by their way of life, and he had high praise for the union of six native tribes called the Iroquois Confederacy. Their form of government was the inspiration for Franklin's 1754 Albany Plan of Union. Franklin believed that Pennsylvania could not fight the French and Indians by itself and that all the colonies should join together "as one whole and not as different States with separate Interests" to fight this threat. When representatives of all the colonies met in Albany, New York, in 1754, to discuss the war with France, Franklin presented his Plan of Union.
But in 1754 the colonial governments were not yet willing to give up their individual powers and form one united body, and Franklin's plan was rejected.
Begins London phase of his career
In 1757 Franklin went to London as an agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly. Agents were men who were appointed by the colonies to live in London, circulate among important people, and report back on what was happening in Parliament (Great Britain's lawmaking body). The agents made sure Parliament knew what the colonies' needs and wishes were as Parliament prepared to make laws that affected the colonies.
Between 1757 and 1774 Franklin also served at various times as an agent for the colonies of Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. During those years, he lived almost all of the time in London, and he made friends in high places in government. Franklin believed in the British Empire, and he worked hard to help Great Britain win the French and Indian War. For example, he convinced the Pennsylvania Assembly to help finance the war and provide men to fight for the British.
This time, Franklin enjoyed his time abroad. Now a man of some wealth and fame, he delighted in the comforts and sophistication of the Old World. He toured the European continent, socialized with intellectuals and high-ranking members of society, attended concerts, and accepted honorary university degrees for his scientific work. He was interested in everything and everyone he encountered, and almost everyone he met liked and respected him.
Franklin remained loyal to the British Empire, but along with other Americans, his loyalty was tested after the French and Indian War, and it finally withered and died on the eve of the American Revolution.
Opposes British taxation measures
From 1762 to 1764, Franklin was back in America, serving as deputy postmaster for North America. Over the next twenty years, Franklin would greatly improve America's postal service, and the money he earned was a welcome supplement to his income. He helped support poorer members of his family, especially his sister, Jane Mecom, to whom he was always close.
The British began to impose taxes on the American colonists in 1764 to help pay off war debts from the French and Indian War. At first, Franklin thought this was reasonable. But Americans objected to the Stamp Act of 1765, which taxed certain documents and other items ranging from newspapers to dice. Franklin listened to the complaints of his countrymen, then made a dramatic appearance before Parliament. He explained that America insisted on governing and taxing itself but still wished to remain part of the British Empire. He managed to get the Stamp Act repealed in 1766.
Parliament continued trying to raise money in the colonies by passing several measures that Americans called oppressive. In London, Franklin was in the middle of all the political activity surrounding the issue. He tried to convince his friends in Parliament that Parliament's actions toward the colonies were wrongheaded. Over time he began to see that Parliament and King George III see entry were determined to have their way, regardless of the colonies' needs and desires. Meanwhile, by arguing against taxation, he had made enemies in Parliament. Soon Parliament passed the extremely oppressive measures that Americans called the Intolerable Acts, and sent troops to America to enforce the acts. Franklin saw that his efforts to find some way to avoid a break between Great Britain and the colonies were doomed.
In February 1775 Franklin received word that Deborah, his wife of forty-four years, had died. Grief-stricken, he left London for Philadelphia. By then he was thoroughly disgusted with British politicians.
Attends Second Continental Congress
The sixty-nine-year-old Franklin still had many contributions to make to his country. He arrived in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, to hear the news that shots had been fired a few weeks earlier at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. On May 6 Franklin was chosen to represent Pennsylvania at the Second Continental Congress, which met to decide what steps to take against the British.
Franklin felt out of place at the Continental Congress. He was by far the oldest man there, and he knew few of the other delegates. He was in favor of declaring independence, but many others had not yet been convinced. He was embarrassed because everyone knew he could not convince his son, William, the British-appointed governor of New Jersey, to join the cause of independence. Over the course of the next several years, as America went to war with Great Britain, the rift between Franklin and his son grew wider; the two men were never fully reconciled.
Franklin was on the committee of five men, including Thomas Jefferson see entry, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Congress in July 1776.
Contributions to war effort
Throughout the Revolutionary War Franklin served on congressional committees and attended every meeting of Congress, although he was often seen sleeping through them. He wrote newspaper articles designed to sway public opinion in favor of American independence. But his most important contribution was a secret one: to correspond with American sympathizers in other countries on the subject of aid for the American cause.
Franklin took direct steps to secure foreign aid when he and Thomas Jefferson sailed for France in September 1776. France was America's best hope for desperately needed protection against the mighty British navy. Franklin's family begged him not to go, reminding him that he was old, that he had already done more than enough for his country, and that he could be hanged for treason if his ship were overtaken by the British. He went anyway.
The Atlantic crossing was terribly uncomfortable; Franklin could barely stand by the time he arrived in France. His spirits picked up when the citizens of Paris greeted their distinguished visitor with open arms. Over the course of the next year, Franklin became a favorite of the beautiful upper-class ladies of Paris. In a time when Frenchmen wore lavish clothing and powdered wigs, the French saw the plainly dressed, bareheaded Franklin as an example of greatness combined with humble simplicity. By this time, Franklin had grown quite fat; his sparse hair was entirely grey. He suffered from bouts of dizziness and attacks of gout (a painful disease of the joints).
Becomes American diplomat in France
Franklin finally convinced the French to sign a treaty of friendship and trade in February 1778. He spent seven years in France, securing the naval assistance that helped win the American Revolution, and signing treaties of trade and friendship between the United States and any other foreign country that was interested. Franklin believed that the new nation would need the cooperation of the rest of the world in getting started.
When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, Franklin helped negotiate the peace treaty that won very favorable terms for America (land and independence). On May 2, 1785, Franklin received the news that Congress had granted his request to come home. Overjoyed, he cried: "I shall now be free of Politicks for the rest of my Life." He spoke too soon.
The French were very sorry to see Franklin go. Now in poor health and nearly eighty years old, Franklin looked forward to the gratitude of his countrymen and spending the rest of his days quietly with his family. He occupied himself on the voyage home by writing three scientific papers.
At home in Philadelphia
In Philadelphia, Franklin was greeted warmly by a huge crowd, and his family wept for joy at his safe return. He soon learned that political squabbles had erupted in Pennsylvania while he was away. Hoping to ease the situation, he agreed to run for state office. On October 26, 1785, state legislators elected him President of the state of Pennsylvania; he would serve three one-year terms in that post.
Franklin hoped he could do something good for the people of Pennsylvania by serving in the legislature, but he did complain that his fellow citizens "engross the prime of my life. They have eaten my flesh, and seem resolved now to pick my bones."
In his spare time, Franklin devoted himself to inventing comforts for his old age. He lived with Sarah and her family in the home he had built nearly a quarter-century before. He invented a "long arm," a device for taking books down from high shelves. When his eyesight began to fail, he invented bifocal glasses. He invented an armchair with a fan attached to it, in which he sometimes took nude "air baths" in his garden.
In 1787 Franklin was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention, called to write a new constitution for the United States. As the arguments went on around him at the convention, Franklin assumed the role of easing the tension. Although very ill, he told amusing stories but rarely joined the debate. He urged the members to ratify the Constitution; it was not perfect, he told them, but it established the best form of government then known.
In January 1788 Franklin fell and sprained his wrist and arm. He never fully recovered from the accident. By June 1789 he was in almost constant pain, reduced to nothing "but a Skeleton covered with a Skin," as he described himself.
Franklin died peacefully at home on April 17, 1790. He left behind his son, William; his daughter, Sarah; and eight grandchildren. He took pride in the fact that he had imparted to his family the necessity of standing on their own two feet and depending on no one else for their livelihood.
John Adams's assessment of Franklin
Like all politicians, Franklin had firm friends and bitter enemies. One who disliked him very much was founding father John Adams see entry. Many who knew the two men suggested that Adams was jealous of Franklin. In spite of his dislike, Adams appreciated Franklin's "merits," which he described in a newspaper article written for the Boston Patriot in 1811, years after Franklin's death:
Franklin had a great genius, original, [wise], and inventive, capable of discoveries in science no less than of improvements in the fine arts and the mechanic arts. He had a vast imagination … wit … [and] humor that, when he pleased, was delicate and delightful…. Had he been blessed with the same advantages of scholastic education in his early youth, and pursued a course of studies as unembarrassed with occupations of public and private life, as [scientist] Sir Isaac Newton, he might have emulated the first philosopher…. He has added much to the mass of natural knowledge, and contributed largely to the progress of the human mind.
For More Information
Adler, David A. Benjamin Franklin—Printer, Inventor, Statesman. New York: Holiday House, 1992.
Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Benjamin Franklin: Philosopher and Man. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1965.
Clark, Ronald W. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1983.
Davidson, Margaret. The Story of Benjamin Franklin: Amazing American. Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1997.
Foster, Leila Merrell. Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father and Inventor. Enslow, 1997.
Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism, edited by J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986, pp. 244, 275, 278.
Writings of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, largely a self-educated man, was in his early twenties in 1729 when he began publishing The Pennsylvania Gazette. Colonial readers thirsted for news from Europe; they had already heard all of the local news. Franklin gave them what they wanted, but he often contributed humorous pieces he wrote himself. He also expressed his political views on issues of the day.
But Franklin knew that the real money was in almanacs, books published yearly and made up of bits and pieces of information in many unrelated fields. A majority of colonists owned only two books: the Bible and an almanac. As soon as he had his newspaper up and running, Franklin turned his attention to the almanac market.
Franklion began publishing the Pennsylvania Almanack in 1730. From 1732 to 1757 the book appeared under the name of Poor Richard's Almanack, the most famous work to come out of Franklin's long and productive writing career. What set his book apart from all other almanacs were his proverbs. According to biographer Alfred Owen Aldridge, those proverbs, or sayings, "represented Franklin's idea of the world's most witty and succinct comments on sex, religion, psychology and professions." Franklin put those comments in his own plain words. Among his many and lasting proverbs are these: "Eat to live, and not live to eat"; "He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas"; "Little strokes fell big oaks"; and "Early to bed and early to rise / Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
Franklin's other famous work was his Autobiography, which contains most of what is known about his early life. Franklin began the book in 1771 and worked on it over the next eighteen years. He never completed it; the book ends with his 1757 trip to England. The book was published in England in 1793, and in America in 1818. Critics either loved the book or hated it. A 1905 Harper's magazine article noted: "Franklin's is one of the greatest autobiographies in literature, and towers over other autobiographies as Franklin towered over other men."
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a leader of America's Revolutionary generation. His character and thought were shaped by a blending of Puritan heritage, Enlightenment philosophy, and the New World environment.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston into a pious Puritan household. His forebears had come to New England in 1683 to avoid the zealous Anglicanism of England's Restoration era. Franklin's father was a candle-maker and skillful mechanic, but, his son said, his "great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgment." Benjamin praised his mother as "a discreet and virtuous Woman" who raised a family of 13 children. In honoring his parents and in his affection for New England ways, Franklin demonstrated the permanence of his Puritan heritage.
Rejecting the Calvinist theology of his father, Franklin opened himself to the more secular world view of Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. He read the deist philosophers, virtually memorized the English paper Spectator, and otherwise gave allegiance to the Enlightenment. Like his favorite author, Joseph Addison, Franklin sought to add the good sense and tolerance of the new philosophy to his Puritan earnestness. Thus, by the time he left home at the age of 17, his character and attitude toward life had already achieved a basic orientation.
The circumstances of his flight from home also reveal essential qualities. Denied a formal education by his family's poverty, Franklin became an apprentice to his brother James, printer of a Boston newspaper. While learning the technical part of the business, Franklin read every word that came into the shop and was soon writing clever pieces signed "Silence Dogood," satirizing the Boston establishment. When the authorities imprisoned James for his criticisms, Benjamin continued the paper himself. Having thus learned to resist oppression, he refused to suffer his brother's petty tyrannies and in 1723 ran away to Philadelphia.
Penniless and without friends in the new city, Franklin soon demonstrated his enterprise and skill as a printer and gained employment. In 1724 he went to England, where he quickly became a master printer, sowed wild oats, and lived among the aspiring writers of London. He returned to Philadelphia and soon had his own press, publishing a newspaper (Pennsylvania Gazette), Poor Richard's Almanack, and a good share of the public printing of the province. He became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia, at the same time operating a bookshop and entering partnerships with printers from Nova Scotia to the West Indies. He was so successful that at the age of 42 he retired. He received a comfortable income from his business for 20 more years.
Franklin philosophized about his success and applied his understanding to civic enterprises. The philosophy appears in the adages of "Poor Richard" and in the scheme for moral virtue Franklin explained later in his famous Autobiography. He extolled hard work, thriftiness, and honesty as the poor man's means for escaping the prison of want and explained how any man could develop an exemplary character with practice and perseverance. Though sayings like "Sloth maketh all things difficult, but Industry all easy" do not amount to a profound philosophy of life (as Franklin knew perfectly well), they do suggest useful first steps for self-improvement. The huge circulation of both the sayings of "Poor Richard" (under the title "The Way to Wealth") and the Autobiography, plus their distorted use by miserly and small-minded apostles of thrift, led later to scathing assaults on Franklin by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and D. H. Lawrence—but they in fact criticize a caricature, not the whole Franklin.
Franklin became involved in civic improvement in 1727 by organizing the Junto, a club of aspiring tradesmen like himself, that met each week. In the unformed society of Philadelphia it seemed obvious to these men that their success in business and improvement of the city's life required the same thing: plans and institutions to deal with needs cooperatively. Thus, Franklin led the Junto in sponsoring civic improvements: a library, a fire company, a learned society, a college, an insurance company, and a hospital. He also made effective proposals for a militia; for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets; and for a night watch. His simple but influential social belief that men of goodwill, organizing and acting together, could deal effectively with civic concerns remained with him throughout his life.
Work in Science
Franklin next turned to science. He had already invented the Pennsylvania fireplace (soon called the Franklin stove). His attention fastened primarily on electricity. He read the new treatises on the subject and acquired ingenious equipment. In his famous kite experiment, proving that lightning is a form of electricity, he linked laboratory experiments with static electricity to the great universal force and made a previously mysterious and terrifying natural phenomenon understandable. Franklin's letters concerning his discoveries and theories about electricity to the Royal Society in London brought him fame. The invention of the lightning rod, which soon appeared on buildings all over the world, added to his stature. His scientific ingenuity, earning him election to the Royal Society in 1756, also found outlet in the theory of heat, charting the Gulf Stream, ship design, meteorology, and the invention of bifocal lenses and a harmonica. He insisted that the scientific approach, by making clear what was unknown as well as what was known, would "help to make a vain man humble" and, by directing the experiments and insights of others to areas of ignorance and mystery, would greatly expand human knowledge. Franklin the scientist, then, seemed to epitomize the 18th-century faith in the capacity of men to understand themselves and the world in which they lived.
Competing with science for Franklin's attention was his growing involvement in politics. His election in 1751 to the Pennsylvania Assembly began nearly 40 years as a public official. He used his influence at first mainly to further the cause of his various civic enterprises. But he also became a leader in the long-dominant Quaker party, opposing the Proprietary party, which sought to preserve the power of the Penn family in affairs of Pennsylvania. Franklin devised legislative strategy and wrote powerful resolves on behalf of the Assembly, denying Proprietary exemption from taxation and otherwise defending the right of the elected representatives of the people to regulate their own affairs.
Colonial Rights within the Empire
At first Franklin had not the slightest thought about America's separation from Great Britain. He had grown up with allegiance to Britain and had a deep appreciation of the culture of the country of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope. In 1751 he celebrated the rapid increase of colonial population as a great "accession of power to the British Empire," a big and happy family wherein the prosperity of the parent and the growth of the children were mutually beneficial.
Franklin expressed his patriotism by proposing a Plan of Union within the empire at Albany in 1754, and a year later in giving extensive service to Gen. Edward Braddock's expedition to recapture Ft. Duquesne from the French. To defend the empire during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Franklin persuaded the Quaker Assembly to pass the first militia law in Pennsylvania, appropriate money for defense, and appoint commissioners (including himself) to carry on full-scale war. As the war progressed, he worked with British commanders to win a North American empire for Britain. For 3 decades or more Franklin allied himself in thought and deed with such men as William Pitt, who conceived of Britain as a vital, freedom-extending realm as dear (and useful) to its subjects in Boston and Philadelphia as to those in London or Bristol.
Even in this patriotism of empire, however, the seeds of disaffection appeared. The Albany plan, Franklin noted, dividing power between the king and the colonial assemblies, was disapproved by the Crown "as having placed too much weight in the democratic part of the constitution, and [by] every assembly as having allowed too much to [Royal] Prerogative." Franklin also thought it incredibly selfish for the proprietor of Pennsylvania to try to avoid taxation of his vast lands. He sided, he declared in 1756, with "the people of this province … generally of the middling sort." Thus, when he went to England in 1757 as agent of the Assembly, he was alarmed to hear the president of the Privy Council declare: "You Americans have wrong ideas of the nature of your constitution; you contend the King's instructions to his governors are not laws…. But those instructions … are … the Law of the Land; for the King is the Legislator of the Colonies." Though Franklin worked within the empire to resist this presumption, it was clear from the start that if it continued to dominate, Franklin's empire loyalty would wither and die.
Franklin lived in England from 1757 to 1762, seeking aid in restraining Proprietary power in Pennsylvania, meanwhile enjoying English social and intellectual life. He attended meetings of the Royal Society, heard great orchestras play the works of George Frederick Handel, made grand tours of the Continent, and was awarded honorary doctor's degrees by St. Andrews (1759) and Oxford (1762).
Back in America for nearly 2 years (1762-1764), Franklin traveled through the Colonies as deputy postmaster general for North America. In 20 years Franklin vastly improved postal service and at the same time made his position lucrative. He also continued his aid to poorer members of his family, especially his sister, and to the family of his wife, the former Deborah Read, whom he had married in 1730. They had two children, Frankie, who died at 4, and Sally, who married Richard Bache. Deborah Franklin also reared her husband's illegitimate son, William, often his father's close companion, who was appointed governor of New Jersey and was later to be notable as a loyalist during the Revolution. Franklin considered Deborah, who died in 1774, a good wife, mother, and helpmate, though she did not share his intellectual interests or even much of his social life.
Politics occupied most of Franklin's busy months at home. He opposed the bloody revenges frontiersmen visited on innocent Native Americans in the wake of Chief Pontiac's Conspiracy, and he campaigned to further restrict the proprietor's power. On this and other issues Franklin lost his seat in the Assembly (after 13 consecutive victories) in an especially scurrilous campaign. His Quaker party retained enough power, however, to return him to England as agent, commissioned especially to petition that Pennsylvania be taken over as a royal colony—a petition Franklin set aside when the perils of royal government loomed ever larger.
More Radical Position
Franklin played a central role in the great crises that led to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He first advised obedience to the Stamp Act. But learning of the violent protest against it in America, he stiffened his own opposition, notably in a dramatic appearance before Parliament in 1766, when he outlined, plainly and bluntly, American insistence on substantial self-government. Encouraged by repeal of the act, Franklin again expressed his faith in the grand prospects for America within the empire and worked with Pitt, Lord Camden, and other Englishmen who wanted to liberalize both government at home and relations with the Colonies.
Yet Franklin mounted a strong propaganda assault on the Townshend Duties of 1767. In fact, Franklin's position was increasingly untenable. He was in countless official, personal, and sentimental ways committed to the British Empire, but he was more committed to the life-style he knew in America and which he now began to record in his Autobiography. The ideal solution, of course, was to find fulfillment for the life-style under the British flag. He only slowly realized that, at least under the policies of George III and Lord North, the two were incompatible.
Franklin's personal fame, as well as his appointment as agent for Georgia (1768) and for Massachusetts (1770), made him the foremost American spokesman in Britain for 10 crucial years, from 1765 to 1775. Protesting the Tea Act in 1773, he wrote two of his most skillful and famous political satires, An Edict by the King of Prussia and Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One. These were merely the best of hundreds displaying Franklin's clever pen in aid of his chosen causes.
In 1774-1775 Franklin's agency in England came to an unhappy end. His friends in Massachusetts, against his instructions, published letters of Governor Thomas Hutchinson that Franklin had obtained in confidence. Exposed as an apparently dishonest schemer, Franklin was chastised before the Privy Council in 1774 and simultaneously deprived of his postmaster general's office. Then, in danger of being imprisoned as a traitor, Franklin continued to work with Pitt and others for conciliation, but the Boston Tea Party, the Coercive Acts, and the buildup of British troops in America doomed such efforts. When Franklin left England in March 1775, he was sure that "the extream corruption … in this old rotten State" would ensure "more Mischief than Benefit from a closer Union" between England and the Colonies.
In the next 18 months in America, Franklin reveled in the "glorious public virtue" of his compatriots. He served on the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and in the Continental Congress, submitted articles of confederation for the united colonies, and helped draft a new constitution for Pennsylvania. He even went to Montreal to entice Canada to join the new union. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and was among those who readily subscribed his name to it—at the age of 70 he had become a fervent revolutionist.
Franklin's skill was most in demand, though, as a diplomat to secure desperately needed aid for the new nation. In October 1776, appointed commissioner to France, he embarked with his two grandchildren. In France he began the most amazing personal success story in the history of diplomacy. His journey to Paris was a triumphal procession, and in the capital the literary and scientific community greeted him as a living embodiment of all the virtues the philosophes extolled.
Franklin played the role of the simple Quaker, exalted by his plainness amid the gaudy pomp of the court of Louis XVI. In a dramatic encounter at the French Academy, Franklin and the aged Voltaire embraced amid cheers. French intellectuals lionized Franklin, who, still a minister of an unrecognized country, established residence in the suburb of Auteuil, where he created friendships that became part of the legend of Franklin among the ladies of Paris. As usual, Franklin wrote witty letters, printed bagatelles, told stories, and otherwise displayed his brilliant personality.
Diplomatic Tasks in France
Franklin's diplomatic tasks proved more difficult. Though France was anxious that England be humbled, it could not afford openly to aid the American rebels unless success seemed probable. For a year (1777) Franklin worked behind the scenes to hasten war supplies across the Atlantic, block British diplomacy, and ingratiate himself with the French foreign minister and others who might help the United States. He also worked with the other American commissioners, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, as those two strange compatriots quarreled with increasing bitterness. In December 1777 news of the American victory at Saratoga persuaded Louis XVI and his ministers to enter into an alliance with the United States, finally signed by Franklin and the other commissioners. Lee and Deane soon returned, quarreling, to America, leaving Franklin behind as the first American minister to the court of Versailles.
For 7 years Franklin was the premier American representative in Europe, conducting normal diplomacy and acting as purchasing agent, recruiting officer, loan negotiator, admiralty court, and intelligence chief. Nearly 80, Franklin carried his immense and varied burden effectively and in a way that retained French goodwill. He helped get French armies and navies on their way to North America, continued his efforts to supply American armies, outfitted John Paul Jones and numerous American privateers, and secured virtually all the outside aid that came to the American rebels.
When, after Yorktown (1781), peace with independence became possible, Franklin made the first contact with British emissaries. During the summer of 1782 as the other peace commissioners, John Adams and John Jay, made their way to Paris, Franklin set terms close to those finally agreed to: independence, guaranteed fishing rights, evacuation of all British forces, and a western boundary on the Mississippi. Though Franklin insisted on working closely with French negotiators, he never subordinated American to French interests as his critics have claimed. In fact, the subtle Franklin, the intrepid Adams, and the resourceful Jay made an ideal team, winning for the United States a peace treaty of genuine national independence in 1783.
Viewing America's place in the world as his mission to France drew to a close, Franklin combined realism with idealism. "Our firm connection with France," he noted, "gives us weight with England, and respect throughout Europe." Thus balancing between the great nations, Franklin thought "a few years of peace will improve, will restore and increase our strength; but our future safety will depend on our union and our virtue." He stated many times there was "no such thing as a good war or a bad peace." Not the least isolationist or aggressive, he thought the peaceful needs of the United States required it to trade and cooperate honorably with nations all over the world.
Franklin left France in 1785 and landed in Philadelphia to the cheers of his countrymen. Honored as a living sage, he accepted election for 3 years as president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and resumed his activity in the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, and other civic projects. Though suffering from a physical disorder, he also maintained his large correspondence, wrote essays, and finished the last half of his Autobiography.
Framing of a New Government
Franklin's most notable service, however, was his attendance at the daily sessions of the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. Too infirm to speak much in debate and less creative in political philosophy than some of his younger colleagues, he bolstered the confidence of the convention and, through good humor and suggestions for compromise, helped prevent its disruption in animosity. He gave decisive support to the "Great Compromise" over representation and dozens of times calmed volatile tempers and frayed nerves. At the convention's close, he asked each member, who like himself might not entirely approve of the Constitution, to "doubt a little of his own infallibility" and sign the document to give it a chance as the best frame of government human ingenuity could at that time produce. His last public service was to urge ratification of the Constitution and to approve the inauguration of the new government under his longtime friend George Washington. Franklin died peacefully on April 17, 1790.
Franklin's writings are in Albert H. Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (10 vols., 1905-1907), and Leonard Labaree and others, eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (11 vols. to date, 1959-1968) and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1964). The best biography is Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (1938). For special studies see Carl and Jessica Bridenbaugh, Rebels and Gentlemen: Philadelphia in the Age of Franklin (1942); Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (1954), on Franklin's politics; Gerald Stourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (1954); I. Bernard Cohen, Franklin and Newton (1956), on Franklin's scientific work; Alfred O. Aldridge, Franklin andHis French Contemporaries (1957); Ralph L. Ketcham, Benjamin Franklin (1965), for Franklin's thought; and Claude A. Lopez, Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (1966). □
Benjamin Franklin is arguably the most beloved and the most disparaged of America's founding fathers. He is perhaps the least understood as well. A jack-of-all-trades and the master of many, he is a nearly impossible man to pigeonhole. He was a scientist and inventor, printer and publicist, brother and son, father and husband, diplomat and staunch—if somewhat belated—supporter of America's War for Independence. He was the most cosmopolitan founder, and yet people think of him as the most quintessentially American.
Franklin's career spanned nearly an entire century. Born in Boston on 17 January 1706 and dying in Philadelphia on 17 April 1790, Franklin never called one place home. He fled his native Boston when he was only seventeen. In Philadelphia, he suffered a series of failures. He tried unsuccessfully to begin his own printing business, relying on the false promises of Governor William Keith for capital that never materialized. He briefly worked as a clerk in a friend's general store, but returned to printing when his benefactor died. He even briefly considered becoming a swimming instructor. He seemed to flounder, drifting aimlessly from one project to another until he married Deborah Read in 1730. Soon thereafter he began his successful printing career, setting up a thriving shop on Market Street. He had three children. William, his illegitimate son, was born in 1731 to a woman whose identity remains unknown. He and Deborah had two children of their own. Francis Folger died of smallpox in 1736 at the age of four. Sarah, his only daughter, was born in 1743.
Franklin retired at the age of forty-two and entered the public arena with ill-disguised enthusiasm. With William, he conducted his famous kite experiment in 1752. His ability to prove that lightning was a form of electricity instantly garnered him international acclaim. He also embarked upon his political career, organizing Pennsylvania's militia during King George's War (1740–1748), winning a seat in
the colonial legislature in 1751, and presenting his Plan of Union to the Albany Conference in 1754. At the same time, he was a pivotal player in his colony's effort to become a royal colony.
Franklin's involvement in Pennsylvania's effort to escape proprietary rule led him to spend some of his most important years on the other side of the Atlantic. He sailed to England in 1757 and again in 1764, remaining in London until 1775. No radical, he spent the decade looking for an accommodation between England and America, only gradually and reluctantly coming to the conclusion that accommodation was impossible to achieve. Thus, at the age of seventy, at a time when he had much to lose and little to gain, this once-proud member of the British Empire returned to Philadelphia determined to represent Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress and to persuade his compatriots to sever their ties with England. Thereafter, he was unrelenting in his efforts to secure colonial independence. He was a member of the committee that drafted what became known as the Declaration of Independence. Although Thomas Jefferson was the scribe on that committee, Franklin used his skills as an editor to tweak—gently and diplomatically—the Virginian's prose. With independence declared, he was soon in Paris, working indefatigably—and successfully—to secure French military and financial aid for the American war effort. At war's end he played a major role in negotiating his country's peace treaty with England. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Franklin returned to Philadelphia. There, at the age of eighty-one, he was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. While his substantive contributions to the body were few, he constantly drew the delegates' attention to the republican principles of 1776. Although his colleagues usually rejected his suggestions, few could simply ignore the words of a man who had helped launch America's existence as an independent nation.
the indispensable man
The American story and Franklin's story seem to be one and the same. Beginning with his efforts to represent the colonies' interests during the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, Franklin was never far from the scene of action. His most important service to the new nation is the least celebrated. The stuff of diplomacy is not as dramatic or compelling a subject as the triumphs and sacrifices of soldiers on the field of battle. Yet America's military exploits, however valiant, would have been for naught had it not been for Franklin's endeavors. If it is true that America could not have defeated England without French military and financial aid, it is possible that such assistance would not have materialized without Franklin. He was not America's only representative in France. But no one else, not Silas Deane nor John Adams nor Arthur Lee, could do what Franklin did. Using his fame as the man who brought the lightning from the skies, taking advantage of the adulation in which the French intelligentsia already held him, he quickly became a court favorite. Judiciously balancing idealistic appeals with hard-headed arguments, cajoling, flattering, and even threatening, Franklin held his own and then some in a royal court riddled with international suspicion and intrigue. The French alliance he achieved made American independence possible, if not inevitable.
Benjamin Franklin was never the representative American that both his admirers and detractors have made him out to be. He was more at home in England and Europe than any other American—including Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the prewar years, he was more comfortable with his identity as a British American than any Patriot—and probably most Loyalists. And yet it is as a "representative American" that most people think of him. We know him best through his Autobiography, first published four years after his death, and the pithy aphorisms of Poor Richard's Almanack (1732–1757). These two works—published, republished, analyzed, criticized, and admired—have made Franklin the creator not simply of a nation, but of a national identity. His life became synonymous with the "rags to riches" story that Americans like to claim as peculiarly their own. In part because of his humble origins, he is viewed as more democratic than any of the other founders, and thus as a man who would have been happy to tear down the class, racial, and gender barriers that Americans had erected in his own lifetime. Finally, Americans see him as the ultimate pragmatist, a man who eschewed ideological arguments that troubled fuzzy-headed intellectuals and instead practiced the art of the possible with grace and good humor.
Franklin used his own life as an object lesson, implying that his life was an especially American life, that his identity was America's identity, writ small. In his hands, that life and that identity were something of which all his countrymen could be proud. His experience proved, above all else, that America was the land of opportunity. He had entered the world as the son of a humble Boston candle maker and had ended it by dining with kings. Taking advantage of opportunities that existed for anyone with the intelligence and character to recognize them for what they were, he triumphed over adversity with seeming ease. Only in America, he implied, could such a success story be told.
In part because he was a "self-made man," a persona that is at the core of American mythology, he has also been designated as his century's spokesman for the egalitarian ideals upon which the new nation's independence was based. He seemed to revel in his ability to communicate with ordinary people and enjoyed even more the opportunity to cut an aristocratic pretender down to size. He valued life's simple pleasures and was even uncomfortable with the few luxuries—a china cup, a silver spoon—that his wife insisted upon purchasing for him. In his very old age, he became a champion of the nascent antislavery cause.
Franklin's admirers also see him as pragmatic and nonideological, willing to accept half a loaf as better than none, determined to achieve the possible rather than tilt at windmills. He was unfailingly optimistic, suffused by that "can-do" spirit which Americans like to claim as an intrinsic component of their character. He put his scientific bent to practical ends, inventing a stove, a lightning rod, and bifocals, all designed to improve the everyday lives of ordinary men and women. Even at those rare moments when he failed to achieve his ends, he shrugged, made a joke—often at his own expense—and proclaimed that occasional "errata" were not such bad things. Errata could be corrected. People could learn from their mistakes.
the "snuff-colored man"
Ironically, the attributes that have turned Franklin into the beloved founder are the very qualities that invite the most disdain from some quarters. While his detractors agree with those who see Franklin as a representative American, they see little in that characterization to admire. Intellectuals, in particular, view Franklin as the very essence of bourgeois Babbitry. In the classic lines of D. H. Lawrence, this "middle-sized, sturdy, snuff-colored Doctor Franklin" was a "dry, moral, utilitarian little democrat." If he was the "first downright American," that was no compliment—either to him or to his country (Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 21).
Smug, materialistic, and hypocritical, Franklin was, say some critics, above all the progenitor of American capitalism. His sunny disposition, his eternal optimism simply proved that he did not have the capacity to sympathize with those who failed to rise to his own level. His own determination to climb the social ladder turned him into a money-grubbing parvenu whose eye was always on the bottom line. His famous plan for self-improvement was little more than a reflection of his ledger book mentality.
Franklin was, moreover, no democrat. His own career was built on the backs of others. He drove more than one Philadelphia printer out of business and delighted in doing so. He was disdainful of the "unworthy poor" who refused to work and did not take advantage of the opportunities that at least in America beckoned at every turn. His treatment of women, especially his wife and surviving daughter, was far from admirable. No charming rogue, he was an unreconstructed womanizer who used women for his own purposes and discarded them once those purposes had been served. Far from being the one founder who recognized the evils of slavery, he was, for most of his life, peculiarly untroubled by the institution of bondage. He owned, bought, and sold slaves. He came to the antislavery cause very late in his life, and only then did so when it was politically safe.
Moreover, say some naysayers, Franklin's much vaunted pragmatism is proof that he lacked depth. He was multifaceted. He was a chameleon. He was an actor, a shape-shifter, and a confidence man. He was all things to all people, but ultimately he had no principles, no true essence. He was all means and no end. If historians have failed to penetrate his inner core, if they find him maddeningly elusive, perhaps there is a reason for their failures. This was a man who valued appearances above reality, who skimmed the surface of things, who was reluctant—perhaps unable—to plumb the depths.
Nor was this supposedly bright and practical man an especially astute politician. Even those historians who find much to admire in Franklin are puzzled by the many missteps he made throughout his long and varied career. His personal vendetta against the Pennsylvania proprietors made him blind to the dangers that his colony would have faced had it become a royal province. He was completely blindsided by the depth of the colonists' anger at the beginning of the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765. When he first heard about the Boston Tea Party of 1774, he suggested that Massachusetts should pay for the tea that some Patriots had so unceremoniously dumped into Boston Harbor. While Franklin always seemed to land on his feet in the end, he was not an invariably prescient observer of his times.
The "real" Franklin is more complex and in some ways more admirable than the image he helped to create. He may have been the self-proclaimed exemplar of the rags to riches story, but he was not the avaricious materialist that modern observers would understand or recognize. He valued money as a means to an end, and he was bewildered by those who sought profit for its own sake. Like most Americans of his day, he craved the independence that money could bring rather than money itself. Without independence he could not serve his "public" effectively, nor could he enjoy the political career that became the central focus of his life after he retired.
Interestingly, Franklin's meteoric career did not even achieve its ultimate goal. A man of his times, he sought royal patronage with unabashed fervor and longed to be a part of the upper reaches of British society. He eventually acquired money and position, but he could never completely escape his humble past, even though he spent nearly a decade in London trying to do just that. He moved easily in aristocratic circles in France and England. He failed to understand the disgust with which John and Abigail Adams viewed the "decadent" aristocracy they encountered at the court of Louis XVI. But despite his efforts, he never managed to secure the royal favor he craved and thought he deserved.
Most important, Franklin was by no means invariably pragmatic or optimistic. He did not always walk the middle line, avoiding rigid intellectual systems and the extremists who devised those systems. He did not shrink from disputation, and many times he failed to see compromise as a worthy goal or even an acceptable option. Franklin was a passionate man who knew how to hate as well as how to smile and laugh. Not everyone in his own day found him amusing or likeable. He acquired any number of personal and political enemies throughout his life. He was a man who cared, and cared deeply, about the empire and about America's role in that empire. When he finally came to the conclusion that the colonies would be better off if they escaped English rule, he was single-minded and unrelenting in his efforts to secure independence. He could carry a grudge as well as anyone and never forgave his personal or political enemies. Franklin never even forgave his own son for remaining loyal to the king.
Partly because he lived so long, partly because he kept so much of himself to himself, historians have failed, despite their many valiant attempts, to capture Franklin's "true" identity. In an odd way, he was a tabula rasa who left it to future generations of Americans to project themselves—their darkest fears and their most cherished hopes about themselves and their nation—onto Franklin's persona. In the end, the mythical Benjamin Franklin tells us more about ourselves than he does about this quintessential eighteenth-century man.
See alsoAlbany Plan of Union; American Philosophical Society; Inventors and Inventions; Printers; Revolution: Diplomacy .
Conner, Paul W. Poor Richard's Politicks: Benjamin Franklin and His New American Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Leonard W. Labaree et al. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964.
Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking Press, 1961.
Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert. The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family. New York: Norton, 1975.
Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
Seavey, Ormond. Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and the Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.
Tise, Larry, E., ed. Benjamin Franklin and Women. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Waldstreicher, David. Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
Sheila L. Skemp
"An Edict by the King of Prussia"
First published September 5, 1773; excerpted from Benjamin Franklin's Writings, 1987 "
And whereas the Art and Mystery of making Hats hath arrived at great Perfection in Prussia, and the making of Hats by our remote Subjects ought to be as much as possible restrained."
Benjamin Franklin, from "An Edict by the King of Prussia"
The years leading up to the start of the Revolutionary War were full of tension and disagreement. But there were some humorous moments, too, thanks in large part to American politician Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Along with British citizens, Franklin contributed letters to London newspapers, expressing his views about the demands being made on the colonies. The following excerpt from Franklin's "An Edict by the King of Prussia" appeared in a London newspaper in 1773.
An edict is a formal announcement issued by an authority. In this case, the authority is the king of Prussia, Frederick II (1712–1786), also known as Frederick the Great. Prussia was a state in north central Germany (Prussia was dissolved in 1947 and divided among East and West Germany; Poland; and the former Soviet Union, now fifteen independent republics, the largest of which is Russia).
The "Edict by the King of Prussia" is a joke. Part of the humor comes from Franklin's comparison of the settlement of England in the fifth century by Germans with the settlement of America. In this "Edict," the King of Prussia makes the same
trade and tax demands on former German colonists in England that England was making on the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s. Notice the echoes of the Stamp Act and the Town-shend Revenue Act in the excerpt. The paragraph about the making of hats pokes fun at Parliament laws that placed tight restrictions on what trade items could go in and out of the colonies.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from "An Edict by the King of Prussia:"
- Between 1757 and 1774, Benjamin Franklin served at various times as an agent for the colonies of Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Agents were men who were appointed by the colonies to live in London, England, circulate among important people, and report back on what was happening in Parliament (Great Britain's lawmaking body). The agents made sure Parliament knew what the colonies' needs and wishes were as Parliament prepared to make laws that affected the colonies. During his years as an agent, Franklin lived almost all of the time in London. A charming and witty man, Franklin made friends in high places in government.
- Benjamin Franklin had a sense of humor he could not disguise even during serious moments. Beginning when he was a young man of fifteen, he contributed unsigned humorous articles to his brother's newspaper. (Franklin and his brother did not get along well and his brother would not have published the articles had he known Franklin wrote them.) Franklin's humorous writings were usually done in fun. But by the time he wrote the "Edict," Franklin's words were becoming more biting. He saw that tempers in the colonies were hot over British taxes, that violent protests against the British were a constant threat, and that Parliament seemed unaware of the dangers. Franklin was growing disenchanted with politicians in Parliament, whom he saw as corrupt. He was also disgusted with the rigid class system of England, in which wealth and privilege were concentrated in a few hands and most people lived in poverty. Franklin expressed his frustration with Parliament through satires like his "Edict." Satire makes fun of foolish or wicked people or ideas.
Excerpt from "An Edict by the King of Prussia"
The SUBJECT of the following Article of FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE being exceeding EXTRAORDINARY, is the Reason of its being separated from the usual Articles of Foreign News.
… FREDERICK, by the Grace of God, King of Prussia … to all present and to come, HEALTH. The Peace now enjoyed throughout our Dominions, having afforded us Leisure to apply ourselves to the Regulation of Commerce, the Improvement of our Finances, and at the same Time the easing our Domestic Subjects in their Taxes: For these Causes, and other good Considerations us thereunto moving, We hereby make known, that after having deliberated these Affairs in our Council, present our dear Brothers, and other great Officers of the state, Members of the same, WE, of our certain Knowledge, full Power and Authority Royal, have made and issued this present Edict,…
WHEREAS it is well known to all the World, that the first German Settlements made in the Island of Britain, were by Colonies of People, Subjects to our renowned Ducal Ancestors, and drawn from their Dominions …; and that the said Colonies have flourished under the Protection of our august House, for Ages past, have never been emancipated therefrom, and yet have hitherto yielded little Profit to the same. And whereas We Ourself have in the last War fought for and defended the said Colonies against the Power of France, and thereby enabled them to make Conquests from the said Power in America, for which we have not yet received adequate Compensation. And whereas it is just and expedient that a Revenue should be raised from the said Colonies in Britain towards our Indemnification; and that those who are Descendants of our antient Subjects, and thence still owe us due Obedience, should contribute to the replenishing of our Royal Coffers, as they must have done had their Ancestors remained in the territories now to us appertaining; WE do therefore hereby ordain and command, That from and after the Date of these Presents, there shall be levied and paid to our Officers of the Customs, on all Goods, Wares and merchandizes, and on all Grain and other Produce of the Earth exported from the said Island of Britain, and on all Goods of whatever Kind imported into the same, a Duty of Four and an Half per Centad Valorem, for the Use of us and our Successors.—And that the said Duty may more effectually be collected, Wedo hereby ordain, that all Ships or Vessels bound from Great Britain to any other Part of the Word, or from any other Part of the World to Great Britain, shall on their respective Voyages touch at our Port of KONINGSBERG, there to be unladen, searched, and charged with the said Duties.
… AND WHEREAS the Art and Mystery of making Hats hath arrived at great Perfection in Prussia, and the making of Hats by our remote Subjects ought to be as much as possible restrained. And foras-much as the Islanders before-mentioned, being in Possession of Wool, Beaver, and other Furs, have presumptuously conceived they had a Right to make some Advantage thereof, by manufacturing the same into Hats, to the Prejudice of our domestic Manufacture, WE do therefore hereby strictly command and ordain, that no Hats or Felts whatsoever, dyed or undyed, finished or unfinished, shall be loaden or put into or upon any Vessel, Cart, Carriage or Horse, to be transported or conveyed out of one Country in the said Island into another Country, or to any other Place whatsoever, by any Person or Persons whatsoever, on Pain of forfeiting the same, with a Penalty of Five Hundred Pounds Sterling per Month: We intending hereby that such Hat-makers, being so restrained both in the Production and Sale of their Commodity, may find no Advantage in continuing their Business.—But lest the said Islanders should suffer Inconveniency by the Want of Hats, We are farther graciously pleased to permit them to send their Beaver Furs to Prussia; and We also permit Hats made thereof to be exported from Prussia to Britain, the People thus favoured to pay all Costs and Charges of Manufacturing, Interest, Commission to Our Merchants, Insurance and Freight going and returning, as in the Case of Iron.
And lastly, Being willing farther to favour Our said Colonies in Britain, We do hereby also ordain and command, that all the Thieves, Highway and Street-Robbers, Housebreakers, Forgerers, Murderers, … and Villains of every Denomination, who have forfeited their Lives to the Law in Prussia, but whom We, in Our great Clemency, do not think fit here to hang, shall be emptied out of our Gaols into the said Island of Great Britain for the BETTER PEOPLING of that Country.
We flatter Ourselves that these Our Royal Regulations and Commands will be thought just and reasonable by Our much-favoured Colonists in England, the said Regulations being copies from their own Statutes … and from other equitable Laws made by their Parliaments, or from Instructions given by their Princes, or from Resolutions of both Houses entered into for the GOOD Government of their own Colonies in Ireland and America.
And all Persons in the said Island are hereby cautioned not to oppose in any wise the execution of this Our Edict, or any Part thereof, such Opposition being HIGH TREASON, of which all who are suspected shall be transported in Fetters from Britain to Prussia, there to be tried and executed according to the Prussian Law. (Franklin, Writ ings, pp. 698–702)
What happened next …
In a letter to his son, William Franklin, dated October 6, 1773, Franklin described how his joke fooled many intelli gent people. He told of how he happened to be visiting the home of a friend, Lord Le Despencer, who was prominent in British society. A man in the next room "came running into us, out of breath, with the paper in his hand," Franklin wrote. "'Here!' says he, 'here's news for ye! Here's the king of Prussia, claiming a right to this kingdom!' All stared, and I as much as any body; and he went on to read it. Another man present looked at me and said: 'I'll be hanged if this is not some of your American jokes upon us.' The reading went on, and ended with abundance of laughing, and a general verdict that it [the newspaper article] was a fair hit."
In the same letter to his son, Franklin reported that he sent his clerk to the printer's office the day after his article was published to pick up some copies for his friends and family. All but two copies were sold out, and the rumor was, wrote Franklin, that the article was "spoken of in the highest terms as the keenest and severest piece that has appeared here [in] a long time." It was feared that the article "would do mischief by giving [London] a bad impression of the measures of govern ment" against the colonies. While the public was amused by Franklin's satire, he made no new friends in Parliament with it. The "Hutchinson letters affair" (see chapter 3) followed soon after the publication of the "Edict," and Franklin would find himself embroiled in a scandal and treated with contempt by Parliament.
Did you know …
- Six days after Benjamin Franklin published the "Edict," he published another piece he liked even better, although the public preferred his "Edict." The other piece was called Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One. In it, Franklin addressed himself to all government men who were in charge of running nations within the British Empire. He listed all the steps the British government had taken to alienate the colonies. The satire came when he wrote as if the government had adopted a conscious policy of alienating America.
- One of Franklin's first and most successful written hoaxes occurred in 1730. He was twenty-four years old and had just become sole owner of his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. Now he could publish anything he wanted. He once told an acquaintance that whenever he was short of news, he would make up and publish something that amused him. His 1730 story reported a witch trial that historians believe never took place. Nevertheless, Franklin reported: "Saturday last at Mount-Holly … near 300 People were gathered together to see an Experiment or two tried on some Persons accused of Witchcraft. It seems the Accused had been charged with making their Neighbours Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner, and with causing Hogs to speak … to the great Terror and Amazement of the King's good and peaceable Subjects in this Province…. "
- Perhaps Franklin's most famous book was Poor Richard's Almanack, first published in 1732. Almanacs are books containing lists, charts, and tables of useful information, but Franklin livened his up with humorous but useful advice. Poor Richard's is the source of such still-popular sayings as: "Eat to live, and not live to eat"; "He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas"; "Little strokes fell big oaks"; and "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
- One of Franklin's closest friends in England was William Strahan, a self-made man like Franklin himself. Strahan became a member of Parliament in 1775, and in that position he supported the efforts of some members of Parliament to put down the American rebellion. Franklin was angry at Strahan for this and composed a letter to him on July 5, 1775, just before Franklin returned to America: "Mr. Strahan, You are a Member of Parliament, and one of that Majority which has 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." However, Franklin decided the letter was too strong and might destroy an important friendship; it was never sent but was preserved among Franklin's papers.
Where to Learn More
Adler, David A. Benjamin Franklin—Printer, Inventor, Statesman. New York: Holiday House, 1992.
Clark, Ronald W. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1983.
Davidson, Margaret. The Story of Benjamin Franklin: Amazing American. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1997.
Foster, Leila Merrell. Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father and Inventor. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.
Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Edited by J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall. New York: Norton, 1986.
Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. New York: Library of America, 1987.
"Franklin, Benjamin" in World of Invention. Edited by Bridget Travers. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
Kent, Deborah. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Scholastic, 1993.
Benjamin Franklin, Man of Many Talents
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, one of seventeen children. His father, Josiah, was a devout Puritan candle maker and mechanic and his mother, Abiah, was a highly moral person, a "virtuous Woman," Franklin would later write. Because his family was poor, Franklin received very little formal education and went to work at a young age, first for his father, then for his brother James, a printer of a Boston newspaper. Franklin educated himself by reading every word that came into the print shop and before long he was writing pieces that made fun of upper-class Bostonians. In 1723, when his brother was arrested and imprisoned for these writings, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
By the age of forty-two, Franklin had become such a successful writer and printer that he was able to retire from business and turn his attention to his many other interests. He entertained himself by pushing for improvements in the city of Philadelphia (establishing a library, a fire company, a college, an insurance company, and a hospital, among other things). He became involved in politics and dabbled in science. His first major invention was the Pennsylvania stove, later renamed the Franklin stove. The Franklin stove improved on an already existing design by adding a flue around which room air could circulate. The flue acted like a radiator, increasing heating efficiency. Franklin said it made a room twice as warm but used only a quarter of the wood. It was for his work with electricity that Franklin became world-famous. In one experiment, Franklin flew a kite in a lightning storm and was able to draw an electric charge out of the sky and store the charge in a Leyden jar, a type of electrical condenser. He also invented the lightning rod to conduct an electric charge safely into the ground, thereby protecting buildings from lightning strikes and fire.
Franklin was nearly seventy years old when the American Revolution began. Loyal at first to Great Britain, whose culture he greatly admired, he soon became a fierce patriot. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and contributed to the war effort in many ways, despite his age. He served as an ambassador to France, trying to enlist that country's help in the war. After the war, he helped draft the U.S. Constitution, although he was by then so ill that he could barely speak. He died peacefully on April 17, 1790, shortly after witnessing the inauguration as America's first president of his longtime friend, George Washington (1732–1799).
January 17, 1706
April 17, 1790
Scientist, inventor, author, philosopher, and one of the founding fathers of the United States
"God helps them that help themselves."
From Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack.
Throughout his lifetime Benjamin Franklin held many positions, including printer, writer, civic leader, inventor, politician, and ambassador. During the colonial period, he gained international recognition for his experiments and writings on electricity. In fact, he was the most famous scientist of his time. Before Franklin, electricity was considered a bizarre and misunderstood force. His numerous investigations established the study of electricity as a valid scientific pursuit. A native Bostonian, Franklin moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the age of seventeen. He started his own printing business and retired a rich man in 1748. Pursuing a wide range of scientific interests, his annual Poor Richard's Almanack provided a wealth of information about stars and planets, advice about medicine, weather predictions, and rhymes and witty sayings. In 1744 Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society, the first scientific organization in America. Later in life, his diplomatic work helped the United States develop relationships with European countries, especially France.
Becomes an apprentice
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was Josiah Franklin and his mother was Abiah Folger. Because his family was poor, the young Franklin did not receive a proper education. For instance, he attended the Boston Grammar School for only one year because his parents could not afford the tuition. Later he spent a year at George Brownell's English School, where he failed arithmetic. Luckily, because Franklin's parents encouraged reading, thinking, and discussion, he grew up in an intellectual environment. He began working at the age of ten as an apprentice (one who learns by practical experience) in his father's chandlery shop (a place where candles are made).
Since Franklin enjoyed reading, his parents eventually decided he should enter the printing trade. Therefore, at the age of twelve, he became an apprentice for his brother James, who ran a Boston newspaper, The New England Courant. James's printing shop was a center of social activity, which provided Ben with a constant flow of new ideas. Customers would often linger to discuss politics or religion, and they also brought books for him to borrow. During this time the ambitious young man improved his writing and editing talents. At the age of seventeen Franklin left Boston to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Settles in Philadelphia
Franklin finally settled in Philadelphia in 1726. Three years later he purchased a failing newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and eventually made it one of the more popular papers in the colony. In 1733 he also began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack, a collection of witty sayings and pieces of advice that he wrote under the pseudonym (pen name) of Richard Saunders. During the 1730s Franklin branched out into other projects. In 1736 he founded the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. The industrious young man also started a police force and promoted the paving and lighting of city streets. Inspired by his lifelong love of reading, Franklin founded what was probably the first circulating library in America. Established in 1731, it was originally a subscription library to which members contributed an annual fee in return for the full use of books and pamphlets. In 1736 Franklin was appointed clerk (official in charge of records) of the Pennsylvania Assembly (legislative body), where he gained valuable political experience over the next fifteen years.
Poor Richard's Almanack
In 1733 Benjamin Franklin began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack, a collection of witty sayings and pieces of advice that he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders. The Almanack was an instant and enduring success, selling more than 10,000 copies annually. The book contained Franklin's own formula for success. Sayings such as "Haste makes Waste," "God helps them that help themselves," and "Eat to live, and not live to eat" provided a practical philosophy for English colonists who had to endure a difficult life. So popular were these sayings that they have a permanent place in American culture.
Begins electrical experiments
During the 1740s scientists around the world were investigating static (accumulated) electricity. Franklin first witnessed this new force in a demonstration of the Leyden jar (a device used for producing electrical energy) in 1743. The Leyden jar was simply a bottle filled with water that had a stopper in an opening on one end. Through the stopper was inserted a metal rod that extended into the water. A machine was used to create a static electric charge that was stored in the jar. Anyone who touched the end of the charged rod received an electrical jolt. Public demonstrations, in which many people joined hands and received a shock at the same time, were highly popular at the time.
Franklin was so inspired by the Leyden jar that he conducted his own experiments, thus beginning his career as an amateur scientist. Investigating the source of the electrical shock, he poured the charged water out of the jar into another bottle and discovered that the water no longer held a charge. Franklin suspected this result indicated that the glass itself had produced the shock. To verify his theory, Franklin took a window pane and placed a sheet of lead (a heavy, soft metal) on each side. He electrified the lead, removed each sheet, and then tested the lead for a charge. Neither sheet gave a single spark, but the window pane had been charged. Franklin had unknowingly invented the electrical condenser, which was named later by Italian physicist Alessandro Volta. The condenser is now used in radios, televisions, telephones, radar systems, and many other devices.
Through further experiments, Franklin discovered that electricity is an independent force, which he called "electrical fire." According to Franklin, a substance with a shortage of electrical fire has a negative, or minus, electrical charge. An element with extra electrical charge has a positive, or plus, electrical charge. He believed that electricity flows from plus to minus, but scientists now know that the opposite is true. Franklin also introduced the important concept known as conservation of charge. (Conservation of charge states that for every amount of charge gained by one body, an equal amount of charge must be lost by another body.) The idea that the overall electrical energy in a system does not increase or decrease is now a fundamental law in science. Franklin introduced many other terms that still pertain to electricity, including battery, conductor, charge, and discharge. He also discovered that electricity moves particularly well through metals and water.
Performs kite experiment
Drawing a parallel between the sparking and crackling of the charged Leyden jar and the lightning and thunder that occur during a storm, Franklin wondered if there was an electrical charge in the sky. To test his idea he devised the Philadelphia experiment, which he published in a book that was widely read in Europe. According to his plan for the experiment, he would erect a long metal rod atop Christ Church in Philadelphia. During a lightning storm the rod would conduct electricity to a sentry box (a guard station). A man standing on an insulated (protected) platform would then collect the electric charge. Since Franklin had already published his idea, however, he was not the first to conduct the experiment. On May 10, 1752, a French scientist named D'Alibard performed the test himself by charging a Leyden jar with lightning. Franklin recognized D'Alibard as being the pioneer, but Franklin did receive credit for inventing the lightning rod (a metallic rod with one end embedded in the ground, which diverts electricity to the Earth and protects buildings against fire caused by lightning). By 1782 there were four hundred lightning rods in Philadelphia.
While waiting for the lightning rod to be installed on Christ Church, Franklin came up with an idea for a faster way to get a conductor into the sky. He made a kite by tying a large silk handkerchief to two crossed wooden sticks. Next, he attached a long silk thread that had a metal key tied at the end of the kite. Then he waited for a thunderstorm. During the storm the rain soaked the thread, making it an excellent conductor (an item that permits flow of electric current) that transmitted a static charge from the sky down to the key. When Franklin touched his knuckle to the key, a spark jumped from the key to his hand, thus proving the existence of electricity in the sky. Franklin also stored the electric charge in a Leyden jar. Fortunately, Franklin had been wise enough to connect a ground wire to his key. (A ground wire diverts an electrical charge into the Earth.) Two other scientists attempted to duplicate the experiment but neglected to use the ground wire. They were struck by lightning and killed. Even with his precautions, however, Franklin was lucky not to have been hit by lightning himself.
Investigates other scientific areas
Although Franklin was best known for his work in electricity, he investigated other areas of science as well. His interest in the weather led him to notice that weather patterns usually travel from west to east. He suggested that this was due to the circulation of air masses (large accumulations), thus establishing the meteorological (having to do with weather) concepts of high and low pressure in the atmosphere. Another of Franklin's interests was the sea. During his diplomatic career he journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean eight times, and on these trips he took notes of his observations of ocean waters. With the help of a sea captain, he created the first chart of the Gulf Stream (a warm current in the Atlantic Ocean). Franklin also devised a method of using a thermometer to gauge water temperature to determine if a ship was on course in the Gulf Stream.
Franklin also introduced several innovations in the field of medicine. He was a strong supporter of regular exercise, particularly swimming. He believed in the importance of fresh air for good health, even though at the time many people thought night air and drafts caused disease. Expanding on his electrical studies, he used electric shocks to treat people with paralysis (loss of body movement). He determined, however, that the treatment did not have any permanent benefits. When smallpox inoculation was first introduced, Franklin warned against the practice. (Smallpox is a highly contagious, often fatal disease. Inoculation is the introduction of the disease-causing agent into the body in order to create an immunity.) After his own son died of the disease, however, he reversed his opinion and published a pamphlet on the importance of inoculation.
Makes international contributions
In 1748 Franklin retired from business and scientific study to devote the rest of his life to politics and diplomacy. Three years later he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. In 1757 Franklin began his diplomatic career when he was sent to England as a lobbyist (one who represents a particular group in attempting to influence public officials). Franklin's experiments with electricity brought him great fame in America and Europe. Not only was he respected by the scientific community, he was popular with the general public. His ideas appeared in a number of writings, including articles in the leading scientific journal of the time, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In 1751 Franklin's papers on electricity were gathered and published in a ninety-page book in London. The Royal Society, a British scientific organization, awarded Franklin the Copley Medal in 1753 for his accomplishments and made him a member of the society in 1756. (In 1744 Franklin had modeled the American Philosophical Society on the prestigious Royal Society.)
Invents practical devices
Benjamin Franklin was a great inventor who could turn ideas into practical, working items. One of his first major inventions was the Pennsylvania fireplace, now known as the Franklin stove, which he developed around 1740. Improving on an existing design, he equipped the stove with a flue (heat channel) that heats the air around it. The stove was highly efficient, and Franklin claimed it made a room twice as warm as other stoves even though it used only twenty-five percent of the usual amount of wood. Another popular Franklin invention was bifocal eyeglasses, in which the lower part of the lens is designed for near vision and the upper for distant vision. Franklin is also credited with creating the rocking chair.
Franklin received a number of honorary degrees from institutions such as Harvard University (1753), Yale University (1753), and Oxford University (1762). He was a member of the Second Continental Congress (the governing body of the Thirteen Colonies). In addition, he helped to draft the Declaration of Independence (a document that stated the American colonists' reasons for demanding freedom from Great Britain), which was completed in 1776. Two years later he signed treaties with France that may have helped America win the Revolutionary War (1775–83; a conflict in which the American colonies won independence from Great Britain).
Twenty thousand attend funeral
During his lifetime, Franklin had a long union with Deborah Reed, whom he never married because she never officially divorced her husband. Franklin already had one son, William, born to an unknown mother, who joined his family. Franklin and Reed also had two children of their own, a son Francis (who died of smallpox) and a daughter Sarah. During the last few years of his life, Franklin lived with Sarah and numerous grandchildren in a large house on Market Street in Philadelphia. He spent his time completing his Autobiography (first published in 1868), which is a classic work in American literature. Franklin died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790, at the age of eighty-five. His funeral was attended by approximately 20,000 people, who came to mourn the passing of a great man.
For further research
Benjamin Franklin: An Enlightened American,http://www.library.advanced.org/22254/home.htm Available July 13, 1999.
Benjamin Franklin Citizen of the World. A&E Home Video, 1994. Videocassette recording.
Benjamin Franklin Scientist and Inventor. Living History Productions, 1993. Videocassette recording.
Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words. Thomas Fleming, ed. New York: Newsweek, distributed by Harper & Row, 1972.
McFarland, Philip James. The Brave Bostonians: Hutchinson, Quincy, Franklin, and The Coming of the American Revolution. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998.
Rudy, Lisa Jo, ed. The Benjamin Franklin Book of Easy and Incredible Experiments. New York: Wiley, 1995.
Born: January 17, 1706
Died: April 17, 1790
American scholar, diplomat, author, scientist, and inventor
B enjamin Franklin was a leader of America's revolutionary generation. His character and thought were shaped by his religious upbringing, the philosophy of the historical era known as the Enlightenment, and the environment of colonial America.
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, into a devoted Puritan household. (The Puritans were a religious group that stood against the practices of the Church of England.) In 1683 his family had left England and moved to New England in search of religious freedom. Franklin's father was a candlemaker and a mechanic, but, his son said, his "great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgment." Franklin also praised his mother, who raised a family of thirteen children.
Young Franklin was not content at home. He received little formal schooling and by age eleven went to work making candles and soap at his father's shop. However, he hated this trade—especially the smell. Franklin eventually left his father's shop and went to work for his brother James, who was the printer of a Boston newspaper. While learning the business Franklin read every word that came into the shop and was soon writing clever pieces that criticized the Boston establishment. He loved to read and even became a vegetarian in order to save money to buy books. When authorities imprisoned James for his own critical articles, Benjamin continued the paper himself. In 1723 at age seventeen Franklin left home and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
By this time Franklin had begun to embrace the ideas of such Enlightenment thinkers as the physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and the philosopher John Locke (1632–1727). The Enlightenment, which began in the sixteenth century and lasted until the late seventeenth century, was a movement that promoted the use of reason to learn truth. During this time period, many important scientific advances and discoveries were made through the use of observation and experimentation.
Civil and scientific interests
In Philadelphia, Franklin began working as a printer. In 1724 he went to England, where he quickly became a master printer and lived among the writers of London. He returned to Philadelphia and started his own press, publishing a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette and a publication called Poor Richard's Almanack, which contained advice and sayings that are still popular in America today. He then became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia. At the same time he operated a bookshop and developed partnerships with other printers. Franklin also became involved in community improvement in 1727. He organized the Junto, a club of tradesmen whose activities included sponsoring a library, a fire company, a college, an insurance company, and a hospital.
Next, Franklin turned to science. Having already invented what became known as the Franklin stove (a metal stove used for heating a room), he now became fascinated with electricity. In a famous experiment he used a kite to prove that lightning is a form of electricity. The mysterious and terrifying natural occurrence now had an explanation. Franklin's letters concerning his discoveries and theories about electricity brought him fame. His invention of the lightning rod (a metal rod that is set on top of a building to protect it from being damaged if it is struck by lightning) added to his reputation.
Franklin's 1751 election to the Pennsylvania Assembly began his nearly forty years as a public official. He became a leader in the long-dominant Quaker political party, which opposed the Proprietary party (a political party made up of people who sought to preserve the power of the Penn family, the founding family of Pennsylvania). In the Assembly, Franklin created lawmaking strategies and wrote powerful statements defending the right of the people's elected representatives to regulate the government of Pennsylvania.
As a representative in the Assembly, Franklin was initially loyal to the British empire. He was on the side of the empire during the French and Indian War (1754–63; a war fought between France and Great Britain, which resulted in British control of land in North America east of the Mississippi River). In order to defend the British empire, he persuaded the Assembly to pass Pennsylvania's first militia law, set aside budget money for defense, and appoint government representatives to carry on a full-scale war. For three decades or more Franklin had considered Britain a vital, freedom-extending country as dear and useful to its people in America as to those in England. Nevertheless, he was occasionally alarmed by British indifference toward the desires of people living in the colonies.
Franklin lived in England from 1757 to 1762, seeking aid in restraining the power of the Penn family in Pennsylvania. Returning to America for nearly two years, he traveled through the American colonies as deputy postmaster general for North America. In this position, which he held for twenty years, Franklin greatly improved the postal service. He also continued his aid to poorer members of his family and to the family of his wife, Deborah. They had two children, Frankie, who died at four, and Sally. Deborah Franklin also raised her husband's illegitimate son, William.
In 1764 Franklin lost his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly. However, he returned to England as Pennsylvania's agent, with a special assignment to request that Pennsylvania be taken over as a royal colony. When the dangers of royal government began to increase, Franklin decided not to make the request.
More radical position
Franklin played a central role in the great crises that led to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1765 the Stamp Act placed a tax on all business and law papers and printed materials in the American colonies. Many colonists opposed the tax as taxation without representation. After learning of the violent protest against the Stamp Act, Franklin stiffened his own stand against the measure. In a dramatic appearance before Parliament in 1766, he outlined American insistence on self-government. Nevertheless, when the tax was removed Franklin again expressed his faith in America's prospects within the British empire.
Franklin was the foremost American spokesman in Britain for the next nine years. However, in 1775 his service in England came to an unhappy end. Against his instructions, his friends in Massachusetts published letters by Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780) that Franklin had obtained on a confidential basis. Exposed as a dishonest schemer, Franklin was reprimanded (scolded) by the British in 1774 and removed from his position as postmaster general. Although he was in danger of being jailed as a traitor, Franklin continued to work for better relations. Radical protests in America and the buildup of British troops there doomed such efforts.
Franklin left England in March 1775. The American Revolution (1775–83; a war in which American colonies fought for independence from Great Britain) had begun on April 19, 1775, with the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. During the next several months in America, Franklin enjoyed the surge for independence. In 1776 he helped draft the Declaration of Independence and was among those who readily signed his name to it. At the age of seventy he had become a passionate revolutionary.
Franklin's skill was most in demand as a diplomat (someone who is skilled at handling difficult affairs) to secure desperately needed aid in the American war for independence. In 1776 he was appointed as a representative to France. There he gained astonishing personal success, winning the admiration of French intellectuals and the Parisian society. However, Franklin's diplomatic tasks proved more difficult. Though France was anxious for England to be defeated, it could not afford openly to aid the American rebels unless success seemed likely.
In 1777 Franklin worked behind the scenes to speed war supplies across the Atlantic and win support from French political leaders who might help the United States. In December 1777 his efforts were rewarded when France's King Louis XVI (1754–1793) entered into an alliance with the United States. As the leading American representative in Europe, Franklin helped get French armies and navies on their way to North America, continued his efforts to supply American armies, and secured almost all of the outside aid that came to the American rebels.
After the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, Franklin made the first contact with representatives of the British government. During the summer of 1782 as the other peace commissioners, John Adams (1735–1826) and John Jay (1745–1829), made their way toward peace negotiations in Paris, Franklin set the main terms of the final agreement. These included independence, guaranteed fishing rights, removal of all British forces, and a western boundary on the Mississippi River. Franklin, Adams, and Jay made an ideal team, winning for the United States a peace treaty of genuine national independence in 1783.
Franklin returned to Philadelphia from France in 1785. He accepted election for three years as president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and was active in various projects and causes. Although ill, he also finished his autobiography.
Framing a new government
Franklin's most notable service at this time was his attendance at the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. At the convention's close he asked each member, who like himself might not entirely approve of the Constitution, to sign the document to give it a chance as the best frame of government that could be produced at the time. His last public service was to urge ratification (approval) of the Constitution and to approve the inauguration (swearing into office) of the new government under his old friend George Washington (1732–1799). Franklin died peacefully in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790.
For More Information
Adler, David A. Benjamin Franklin—Printer, Inventor, Statesman. New York: Holiday House, 1992.
Clark, Ronald W. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1983.
Fish, Bruce, and Becky Durost Fish. Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
Foster, Leila Merrell. Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father and Inventor. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.
Fradin, Dennis B. Who Was Ben Franklin? New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 2002.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964.