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Benjamin Franklin was not only one of the best-known founding fathers of the United States, he was a leading politician, diplomat, writer, publisher, librarian, and philosopher. He was also a scientist renowned for his experiments with electricity and lightning, as well as an inventor credited with inventing the lightning rod, the heat-efficient Franklin stove, bifocals, swim fins, and numerous useful gadgets. His famous scientific experiment with a kite in a thunderstorm proved the presence of electricity in lightning.
Born into the family of a Boston soap maker and having received almost no formal education, in 1723 Franklin ran away to Philadelphia where he made his fortune first as a printer and later as the publisher and editor of the widely read Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper. He wrote numerous editorials, opinion pieces (usually under aliases), essays, and pamphlets about politics, economics, science, ethics, and civic self-improvement. He attracted attention for his wit and commonsense philosophy, especially as reflected in his proverbs in Poor Richard’s Almanack, a popular yearbook on science and technology, which he published between 1733 and 1757 under the pseudonym Richard Saunders.
In 1731 Franklin helped launch the Library Company, the first subscription library in the United States. Twelve years later he helped found the American Philosophical Society, the nation’s first learned society (a society that exists to promote an academic discipline or group of disciplines). While serving as a Pennsylvania assemblyman, he helped establish a local academy in 1751 that became the present-day University of Pennsylvania. He was a member of the Continental Congress, which appointed him to serve as deputy postmaster-general in 1753. At the 1754 Congress of Commissioners from the several American colonies held in Albany, New York, Franklin, though a loyalist, proposed a plan for the union of all the colonies under one government for the purpose of common defense and other general purposes.
In 1757 Franklin became a diplomatic agent in London representing Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, but he returned home in 1775 because of the revolutionary unrest in America and the so-called “Hutchinson affair.” Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780) was the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts, who wrote to his friends in London to recommend curtailing the liberties of the American colonists. When Franklin obtained Governor Hutchinson’s letters, he leaked them to the press, causing public uproar in America. The British government angrily denounced Franklin in public and in 1774 removed him from the office of deputy postmaster-general and agent for the colonies, resulting in his final break with Britain (which he otherwise deeply admired). He served as a member of the Committee of Five, which had been instructed by the Second Continental Congress to draw up a document declaring independence from Britain. He helped Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two other members of the committee, to draft the Declaration of Independence, which Congress unanimously adopted in 1776.
During the War of Independence (1775–1783) Franklin was the most popular foreign diplomat in the court of Louis XVI (1754–1793) in Paris, signing the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, which secured a close militarypolitical alliance with France as well as substantial French military and financial help that made American victory possible. In 1783 he signed the Treaty of Paris, a peace treaty ending the war with Britain. Franklin came home in 1785 to serve as the appointed president of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was a delegate to the federal Constitutional Convention and signed the Constitution in 1787. His last great public service was authoring a major abolitionist pamphlet in 1789. His autobiography, first published in 1791, is acclaimed today as the greatest autobiographical work produced in colonial America.
Franklin was the most illustrious American of his time. As a philosopher of the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century philosophical movement that rejected traditional ideas held at the time, he cast off all religious dogma but saw order and harmony in the universe. Rationalism, materialism, and belief in progress and social evolution mark all his publications. Prior to the revolution he believed that progress could be achieved under an enlightened monarch—especially through the inspiration and guidance provided by his own teachings, maxims, and aphorisms. Later he abandoned his doubts about democratic politics, rejecting the British monarchy and aristocracy in favor of the egalitarian view that all men are equal. In order to achieve progress and social harmony, he advocated the cultivation of practical virtues such as temperance, frugality, resolve, industry, sincerity, moderation, chastity, humility, and cleanliness. After the revolution he argued against the rule of the wealthy, taxation without representation, and slavery. He championed universal male suffrage, which he believed would encourage loyalty and respect for the law, as well as a unicameral federal legislature (without a Senate), which could prevent the rich from dominating political life and provide for a united, more efficient government. Scholars have also suggested that Franklin’s philosophy embodies the moral and political pragmatism of the American business class.
- Amacher, Richard E. 1962. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Twayne.
- Conn, Peter, ed. 2005. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Isaacson, Walter. 2003. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Roop, Peter, and Connie Roop. 2000. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Scholastic.
- Zall, Paul M., ed. 2000. Franklin on Franklin. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
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