My introduction to Benjamin Franklin was very organic, and took place amidst the backdrop of a farming and ranching community in West Texas. I can remember very clearly reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin when I was about ten or eleven. My late grandmother, Evelyn “Mimmy” Martin, had a vast library and I made good use of it. On Sundays after church, we would go over to Mimmy’s to eat lunch. After she’d fed us all like kings, most of the adults talked at the table and the kids were on their own for a couple of hours. Generally, playing of some sort was in order, but I had been bitten by the reading bug. One afternoon I spied an aging copy of Franklin’s testimony. Those yellowing pages seemed to call out to me—not only had Franklin been a prominent figure in my Social Studies classes, but my father and Mimmy had spoken of him in the context of our founding, and of course, in our little town there was a chain of the small department store Ben Franklin’s, complete with its key symbol (an homage to Franklin’s famous electric experiment). So, over the course of several Sundays, I would find a quiet spot and read Franklin’s story. Needless to say, I was hooked, impressed, and inspired. I still have that old copy, and read from it periodically.
Now, again, my aim in these essays is not to be wholly biographical, but rather to convey some observations that I have gained over the years against the backdrop of the lives of Founding Fathers. In this case, the Elder Sage of the founders, teaches us almost at every turn of his life, and hence I must be selective. From his childhood to the end of his life, Franklin has something to say on a myriad of subjects.
Benjamin Franklin was born to Josiah and Abiah Franklin on January 17, 1706 in Boston. He had a New England Puritan upbringing. His father indeed, had hoped he might apply his talents to the ministry. He gave him a collection of sermons from Cotton Mather, renowned minister whom young Ben would eventually meet. Ben was apprenticed to his brother as a printer, learning the trade of typesetting and publication, but ever a victim of his brother’s overbearing discipline. During this time young Ben polished off his education by reading everything he could. Perhaps his most cunning achievement while in Boston was that of the Silence Dogood Letters, in which young Franklin wrote a series of editorials as an older woman arguing for the expanded rights and freedoms of women. When his brother discovered the source, he once again beat Ben, which convinced him he had to leave, and leave he did to Philadelphia.
Young Ben quickly put his talents to work in the printing trade, working first for an established operation, and eventually for himself. He also established the junto, and organization of entrepreneuring tradesmen. To say he was a prominent printer is a gross understatement. His publications such as the newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette and especially Poor Richards Almanac made him both famous and wealthy. Franklin was a self-made man, exemplifying the value of industry for generations of American entrepreneurs.
Franklin’s curiosity about the natural world was a reflection of the Enlightenment movement of which he was a part. His trade may have been printing, but science was his passion. His experiments in electricity are well-known, from the famous kite experiment to his development of the lightning rod. His work on the Atlantic currents revolutionized Trans-Atlantic travel. Population demography, meteorology, music, hydrodynamics, and much more all fell within the spectrum of his work and interest.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, Franklin like many other people in the colonies thought of the American colonies as British, but simultaneously unique. With the advent of the French and Indian War, a testing ground of this ideology presented itself. Franklin himself had proposed the Albany Plan of Union as a sort of mutual defensive league, but also to create a confederation. The British government rejected it, but its proposal marked the articulation of a growing idea that the colonies were something other than what Britain considered them to be: an American nation.
From the mid-1750s to the mid-1770s, Ben Franklin spent much of his time in London, England, and also visiting various places in Europe. He was a colonial agent of a kind, acting as a voice for the colonies, and conversely, a conduit for British policy conveyance to the colonies. While in Britain, he continued his scientific work and travelled Europe with his son William. Both the University of St. Andrews and Oxford University granted Franklin honorary doctorates in light of his scientific achievements. He was quite the celebrity in Britain, and became known as “Dr. Franklin.” However, the warm embrace of Britain would grow colder with Franklin’s gradual disenchantment with laws such as the Sugar Act and Stamp Act, ill-conceived measures for covering the costs of the French and Indian War. While trying to convey the concerns of the colonies, Franklin was dressed down by an indignant parliament for his appeal to repeal the latter act. At this point, Franklin was not only aggravated with the British system, but had come to the conclusion that Britain was growing increasingly more difficult to count on for rational governance of the colonies. As such, he returned to the colonies from Britain in 1775, altogether giving up his office as colonial agent.
After the fiasco in Britain, and upon hearing more on the Patriot cause, Franklin had little moral or logical recourse than to throw his lot in with the fledgling movement. His voice as a delegate from Pennsylvania to the meetings of the Continental Congress carried immeasurable weight. He took his place amongst the philosophers of the American Revolution alongside Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The work of those three in fact produced The Declaration of Independence in 1776, an amalgamation of Enlightenment ideas and grievances with the British government, and the product of correspondence between the three. He was also the first postmaster general, and for the duration of Revolutionary War, plied American interests as ambassador to France, from 1776 to 1785. Returning to America, he participated in the Constitutional Convention and the partisan debate that ensued, ultimately culminating in the creation of the Constitution.
Franklin, like Jefferson, seems to have been a man of his own religious persuasion, with Christianity being the basis. He undeniably was a Deist, praying to a creator, and even extolling the moral system of Jesus as the best, but speculating on the nature of Jesus in relation to the creator. Nonetheless, despite his tendency toward libertinism, he was a proponent of religion, and its various practices. He was also a Freemason and a Grandmaster, and at least in the years leading up to the Revolution, seems to have been moderately active.