Benjamin Franklin, the Pragmatic Innovator
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, but his adopted home was Philadelphia, the largest city in eighteenth-century America. His many accomplishments as printer, scientist, and statesman are particularly remarkable when considered in the context of colonial North America. A spirit of pragmatic innovation imbued all of Franklin’s intellectual, social, and scientific pursuits. He dedicated himself to the improvement of everyday life for the widest number of people and, in so doing, made an indelible mark on the emerging nation.
As the fifteenth of seventeen children, Franklin had little formal education, but he was an avid reader and writer. At age twelve he was apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer who published a weekly newspaper called The New England Courant. There Franklin gained his first taste for published writing, as the pseudonymous letter writer “Silence Dogood.” At age seventeen Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, where on the day of his arrival he met his future wife, Deborah Read. With his printing and writing skills Franklin quickly found employment and was able to set up his own printing shop by 1728. Soon Franklin was publishing almanacs and newspapers of his own, as well as taking in “job printing” for others. In 1737 he became the postmaster of Philadelphia, a role that aided him in gathering the news.
Franklin’s publications reflected his civic spirit and were popular in format and content. Poor Richard’s Almanack, first published in 1732, included stories based on a fictional “Richard Saunders” whose comical tribulations allowed Franklin to advise readers on politics, philosophy, and how to get ahead in the world. It also featured the proverbs for which Franklin is so well known today.
Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, begun in 1728 and acquired by him the following year, was Philadelphia’s second newspaper but quickly became its most prominent. The May 9, 1754, issue included “Join, or Die,” which is widely considered America’s first political cartoon. Devised by Franklin, it reflected concern about increasing French pressure along the western frontier of the colonies. The cartoon equates the segments of a snake with the then separate colonies, suggesting that if they did not unite against their common enemy, they, like a disjointed snake, would not survive.
Franklin’s community involvements extended beyond his employment. His first attempt at social improvement was to organize the Junto (or Leather Apron Club) in 1727, a small group of men who met weekly to debate morality, politics, and philosophy. Franklin is credited with initiating America’s first subscription library (1731), volunteer fire department (1736), property insurance companyExternal (1751), public hospitalExternal (1751), and scholarly association: the American Philosophical SocietyExternal (1745), which promoted scientific and intellectual inquiry and has maintained its premiere status to this day. He also founded Pennsylvania’s first college, now the University of PennsylvaniaExternal.
By the 1740s Franklin had become fascinated by science. His mechanical innovations included the Pennsylvania Fireplace (Franklin Stove), which moved a room’s heat source out from the wall to more effectively warm the air all around it, bifocal glasses, and even the exotic glass Armonica. Mid-eighteenth century scientists and inventors considered electricity Franklin’s most remarkable area of investigation. In his famous 1752 experiment using a kite and key during a thunderstorm, Franklin proved his hypothesis that lightning bolts are actually powerful electrical currents. This discovery led to his invention of the lightning rod, which prevented structures from igniting when struck by lightning, since the current was drawn to the rod and from there carried harmlessly to ground.
As of 1748 Franklin had “retired” from printing to concentrate on his scientific pursuits, while maintaining a financial interest in the business with his new partner, David Hall. Instead, Franklin found himself increasingly involved in civic affairs. In 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly and in 1753 he became deputy British postmaster of North America. As colonial relations with Great Britain grew strained, Franklin represented first the province of Pennsylvania, and eventually all of the colonies, as a diplomat in London after 1757. By the time he returned to Philadelphia, the American Revolution had all but begun.
Franklin refined his skills as a diplomat through his work in protest of the Stamp Act. He first attempted to negotiate a compromise but eventually testified before Parliament against the law on both constitutional and practical grounds. To highlight the dangers of taxation without representation, Franklin designed a cartoon showing the figure of Britannia with the colonies as severed limbs. Back in Philadelphia, the November 7, 1765, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette was printed without date, masthead, or imprint, or the required government stamp, as a protest that also protected its publishers from prosecution. When the Stamp Act was repealed the following March, the colonies had successfully exerted their sense of growing autonomy.
Along with his contemporaries including George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, Franklin rejected the European model of aristocratic rule. As part of an emerging political structure, these men crafted a system based instead on representative government. Franklin served as a member of the Second Continental Congress, where he helped to draft and later signed the Declaration of Independence, and debated the Articles of Confederation before departing for Paris late in 1776. He played a vital diplomatic role in securing a formal alliance with France and later in negotiating the peace treaty with Britain. After serving as U.S. ambassador, he returned to Philadelphia in 1785 and was elected president of Pennsylvania. Franklin also attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention, where he became that document’s oldest signer.
A former slaveholder, Franklin came to fully understand the evils of slavery later in life. Abolition became the last great civic cause to which he devoted substantial effort and energy. At age eighty-one Franklin was elected president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and in 1790, shortly before his death, he petitioned Congress on behalf of the group to bring an end to slavery. The proposal was debated but not acted on.
Franklin died quietly at home on April 17, 1790, having vastly improved his world. His Autobiography, first published in an English-language edition in 1793, continues to be one of the most widely read books of all times. A comic epitaph Franklin wrote years before reminds us that he always considered himself a printer:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.
- A selection of items from the Benjamin Franklin Papers housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division has been digitized and made available online. Read the post by Julie Miller, a historian in the Manuscript Division, in the Library of Congress Blog for a comprehensive overview of the collection. A Finding Aid for the collection is also available online.
- Learn more about Franklin’s work and life. See the online exhibition Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words, which includes a selected chronology and bibliography. For even more links to resources see Finding Franklin: A Resource Guide.
- Find out more about the July 4, 1776, signing of the Declaration of Independence. See the online exhibition, Declaring Independence, Drafting the Documents.
- See the collection, Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789, which includes a Timeline, beginning in 1764, of events leading up to the Revolution.
- Search Today in History on Revolution to find more material on the war. Also, search on newspaper to learn more about printed news across the United States.
- Search on Benjamin Franklin in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827 or in the George Washington Papers to find correspondence between the men.
- Search on Benjamin Franklin or the names of other Revolutionary War leaders in the Library’s pictorial collections to find portraits and related images.
- See American Revolution: A Resource Guide and Primary Documents in American History for even more links to resources surrounding the creation and development of the United States.