Benjamin Franklin was an author, printer, scientist, inventor and one of the most astute politicians of his time. Franklin’s family members were devout puritans in Massachusetts counting such distinguished people as the Minister Cotton Mather among their friends. Although Franklin became a non denominational Christian when he was older his Calvinist upbringing can be seen in his beliefs in thrift, hard work, education, sense of community and opposition to tyranny of all times.
Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 in Boston. His family’s original plans for him included schooling to become a member of the clergy, however, his father was unable to pay for schooling past age ten. At twelve he became an apprentice to his brother James who was a Boston printer. When Benjamin was denied a chance to write a letter to his brother’s newspaper titled, The New England Courant, he assumed the name “Mrs. Dogood”, a name he admitted taking from Cotton Mather’s teachings about community service. Under this name several of his letters were printed and were very popular. Eventually Franklin left his brother’s apprenticeship without permission which made him the equivalent of a fugitive indentured servant.
Franklin made his way to Philadelphia where he took up printing, although without much success due to financial backers who did not make good on promises. In 1727 he created a political discussion group of like minded young Philadelphians. This group was named the “Junto”. Pooling their financial resources to purchase books, this group eventually created the library society of Philadelphia that today has over 500,000 rare books in its collections.
In 1729 Franklin began to publish the Pennsylvania Gazette. Although he would go on from this beginning to do many things he continued to sign many of his letters B. Franklin, Printer.
In 1730 Franklin established his common law marriage to Debra Read. He had asked for her hand in marriage before and her family refused because at the time Franklin was poor. She went on to marry another man who ran off to the Caribbean and because of marriage laws at the time she and Franklin were unable to marry.
Franklin had an illegitimate child named William who would become Franklin’s partner in land speculation schemes as well as colonial governor of New Jersey. He also had a son and a daughter by Debra Read. Their son Francis died of small pox at age four. Daughter Sarah married Richard Bache and had seven children.
William and his father had an irreconcilable falling out over the American Revolution. William remained loyal to the crown to the point of aiding the British War effort and eventually returned to England. William and his father never communicated again.
In 1733 Franklin began to publish Poor Richard’s Almanac. This document gave America some of its most memorable examples of Franklin’s folk wisdom, such as, “A penny saved is two pence dear,” often misquoted as “A penny save is a penny earned.”
Franklin is less well known today for his inventions which he never patented because he believed they were service he owed the community. His most famous inventions include the lightening rod, Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the first flexible urinary catheter.
In 1743 Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society. The purpose of this group was to help scientists evaluate discoveries and review ideas.
In 1748 Franklin retired from printing and created a partnership with David Hall that provided him with half of the printing shop’s profits for the next eighteen years. One of the things Franklin took part in was the creation of one of the first volunteer fire fighting companies in America known as the Union Fire Company. He also began to print paper currency for the colony of New Jersey in which he used new anti counterfeiting technologies he had designed.
This began his interest in currency ideas that led ultimately to his plans for developing a national currency backed by a land bank which he advocated to British Prime Minister George Grenville as an alternative to the proposed Stamp Act in 1765.
This period after Franklin retired from printing marked the beginning of his interest in politics. He was first elected to the Provincial Assembly in 1751. In 1756 he organized the Pennsylvania Militia for its participation in the French and Indian War. He was elected colonel of this militia but declined the honor.
His dissatisfaction with the Penn’s leadership and his desire to seek a Royal governor in their place is part of the reason he first became an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly to the British Parliament. In 1763 – 1764 Franklin made the only miscalculation of his long and storied career.
In December of 1763 the Paxton Boys brutally murdered twenty peaceful Conestoga Indians over the frontier people’s feelings of dissatisfaction over the Penns apparent preferential treatment of the Indians and their seeming neglect of the frontier settlers. Franklin wrote a scathing indictment of this event.
The climax of the Paxton Boys Rebellion was their march on Philadelphia that threatened to plunge the colony into civil war. Franklin persuaded the Paxtons to go home peacefully and make their grievances to the Pennsylvania Assembly in writing so that they could be heard. The Paxtons in February 1764 produced a document called the Declaration and Remonstrance in which they listed their grievances. Today we know that Franklin aided in the writing of this document possibly with the help of the Reverend William Smith. Franklin used the knowledge gained from assisting the Paxtons to write their grievances to campaign on the frontier of Pennsylvania for the replacement of the Penns with a Royal governor. This made the election to the Provincial Assembly a referendum on John Penn’s leadership.
What Franklin didn’t count on was the colony’s fear of a Royal governor’s infringement on their political and religious freedoms being greater than the people’s dissatisfaction with Penn’s leadership. Franklin lost his seat in the Provincial Assembly in October of 1764. The Provincial Assembly immediately voted to make him the Pennsylvania agent to the British Parliament the second time with the goal of getting a Royal governor appointed.
When Franklin presented the Pennsylvania petition Parliament immediately denied it. Franklin then became preoccupied with the idea of pushing his national currency for America based on a land bank. He proposed this as an alternative to the Stamp Act because the British could pay off their financial deficit with the interest payments on loans collected from the bank. The Black Boys Sideling Hill affair on March 6, 1765 and its effect on the land acquisition plans of George Croghan, Franklin and others helped end the whole land bank proposal.
The violent reaction in the colonies to Prime Minister Grenville’s Stamp Act had not been expected by either the British or Franklin. Franklin had asked for the appointment of a friend to be Philadelphia’s stamp collector which gave the appearance that he agreed with the Stamp Act. However, Ben Franklin changed his mind on the Stamp Act shortly after Philadelphia mobs threatened to destroy his property.
Undaunted by the end of his land bank plan Franklin went to William Strahan, printer of the London Chronicle, to engage him to print an article from one or several letters regarding Smith’s Black faced Boys Rebellion and the March 6, 1765 burning of the trade goods at Sideling Hill in an effort to spark a new consideration of the petition for a Royal governor for Pennsylvania, by portraying the entire colony as being out of the Penn’s control. As the Revolutionary War approached Franklin obtained the personal letters of Massachusetts’s Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lt. Governor Andrew Oliver which proved that both men had been pushing London to crack down on the residence of Boston because of their mob like behavior. Franklin sent these letters to America where they created increased demands for independence from England. For this, Franklin was forced to leave London in March 1775. By the time he returned to the colonies the Revolution had already begun. He was chosen immediately to be a delegate to the Continental Congress where he was one of five men who helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He was then sent to be America’s ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War.
He was the only founding father who was a signatory on all four major documents that created the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Alliance with France, and the United States Constitution. At the end of his life Franklin took up the cause that would animate the next eighty plus years of American History, the abolition of slavery. Franklin died in 1795.
Benjamin Franklin in Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Franklin
Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment. Kenny, Kevin. Oxford University Press. New York, NY 10016. 2009
American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier. Griffin, Patrick. Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY. 10003. 2007
Taming Democracy: “The People” the Founders and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution. Bouton, Terry. Oxford University Press, New York, NY 10016. 2007
The Paxton Boys and the Pamphlet Frenzy: Politics, Religion, and Social Structure in Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania. Alexandra Mancini http://www.publication.Villanova.edu/Concept/2007/07_papers_html/Mancini-Paxtonboy
Pennsylvania Archives. edited by Samuel Hazard. Volume IV. Joseph Cevern & Co. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.