Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the tenth son of Josiah, a candle purveyor, and Abiah Folger. Educated at Boston Grammar School, Benjamin apprenticed with his father, and then his half-brother, Peter, a controversial printer in Boston. Young Franklin struck out on his own in 1723 eventually finding employment as a journeyman printer in Philadelphia. By 1730, he controlled his own printing shop and published The Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper, had fathered a son, William, and married Deborah Read Rogers.

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“Join, or Die”

Benjamin Franklin published this woodcut in the Pennsylvania Gazette, which represents America as a snake severed into various provinces. Prior to the outbreak of the French and Indian War, Franklin hoped to persuade the American colonies to unite their governments to protect themselves from the French and their Native American allies under a plan later known as “The Albany Plan,” which was ultimately rejected. The image, the first to address unification of the colonies, would later be used as a symbol of the American Revolution with the motto: “Don't Tread On Me.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). “Join, or Die.” Page 2. Woodcut from the Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, May 9, 1754. Serial & Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (2)

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Magna Britannia

This vivid allegorical cartoon, which illustrates the fatal effects on the empire that would result from taxing the colonies, was designed by Franklin in 1766. Franklin printed the image on cards that he distributed to Parliament during the debate over the repeal of the Stamp Act. This broadside carries a text that reads: “The Moral is, that the Colonies may be ruined, but that Britain would thereby be maimed.” Both the card and the broadside version, with the explanation and moral, are extremely rare.

MAGNA Britannia, her Colonies REDUC'd. [Philadelphia, ca. 1766]. Photostat copy. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (4)

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Subverting the Stamp Act

On October 31, 1765, the publishers announced the suspension of the Pennsylvania Gazette in protest of the provisions of the Stamp Act, which required that newspapers be printed on imported, stamped paper that required payment of a duty. Between November 7 and December 26, Franklin's partner David Hall issued news sheets on unstamped paper without a masthead, thus avoiding legal repercussions while satisfying the subscribers.

No Stamped Paper To Be Had. [Philadelphia: Printed by Hall & Franklin, November 7, 1765]. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (5A)

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Franklin Supports the 1765 Stamp Act

Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania agent and deputy postmaster general in North America, initially supported the Stamp Act of 1765, by which Parliament levied a new tax on British colonies. Although the tax would not raise much money, the British chancellor of the Exchequer Sir George Grenville wanted a declaration of Parliament's sovereign right to tax the colonists. Franklin became an opponent when he learned of the fervent colonial opposition.

An Act for granting and applying certain Stamp Duties… London: Mark Baskett, Printer to the King, 1765. Printed pamphlet. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (6)

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Stamp Act Repeal in 1766

In this letter sent from London, Franklin thanks his old friend and Philadelphia neighbor for endorsing his conduct in regard to the repeal of the Stamp Act. Although Franklin, as Pennsylvania's agent in London, had briefly supported the new tax on America, he quickly switched to opposition after hearing of the angry response in Pennsylvania. Franklin attributed America's success in obtaining the repeal “to what the Profane would call Luck & the Pious Providence.”

Benjamin Franklin to Charles Thomson, September 27, 1766. Page 2. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (7)

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Franklin and the King and Queen of France

Benjamin Franklin was visiting France in 1767 when he wrote this letter to Mary (Polly) Stevenson, the intellectually curious daughter of his British landlady, Margaret Stevenson (ca. 1706–1783), describing in words and a drawing his experience at a public supper with the French King Louis XV and Queen Marie, who spoke to Franklin "Very graciously and cheerfully."

Benjamin Franklin to Mary Stevenson (1739–1795), September 14, 1767. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (9)

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