While there is a long list of impressive founding fathers from the era of the United States Revolution, very few even come close to the brilliance of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). The lifestyle and mindset displayed by Franklin served as an early model for American character and continues to be an inspiration for the ‘American Dream.’ His diligence and unending drive for knowledge and industry continue to enamor those who read his Autobiography and learn about his life. His rags-to-riches story has given hope to generations of people who want to build a better life for themselves through sheer wit and willpower. Over the course of his life, Benjamin Franklin underwent a tremendous transformation, from a poorly educated boy who ran away from his family, to a world-acclaimed statesman, inventor, scientist and diplomat who was received as a guest by at least five kings.
Benjamin was born in 1706 to Josiah and Abiah Franklin; he was one of seventeen children. His father was a struggling soap and candlemaker. Because of Josiah’s money troubles, Benjamin’s education was cut off after only two years of formal schooling. The boy, however, had learned to read—which would become a lifelong passion—and he consumed as much knowledge as he could through any books he managed to scrounge up.
By 1718, Benjamin Franklin (a boy of 12) was sent to his brother, James, to become a printer’s apprentice. Under his brother’s tyrannical authority, Benjamin became adept at printing, and continued his studies from books he bought and borrowed. Benjamin’s brother, James, refused to let him write for the paper, so Franklin developed a scheme to contribute to his brother’s newspaper—he took up pseudonym, Silence Dogood, and snuck his witty contributions into the printing house at night. When Benjamin confessed to his ploy, the newspaper readers were impressed with the young man, but James felt insulted by Benjamin’s boldness. The strained relationship between the brothers reportedly resulted in Benjamin being beaten by James.
By 1723, when Benjamin was 17, he could no longer suffer his brother’s abuses. He decided to flee to Philadelphia, which would become his lifelong home, at least while he was in North America. From Philadelphia, he left and spent a few years in London, where he took up more printing work. In 1726, Franklin returned to Philadelphia, where he quickly, and diligently, constructed a juggernaut of a printing business. Benjamin Franklin’s life really began to take off during the 1730s. First, he married his wife Deborah in 1730 through a common law union. She was technically already married, but her former husband had run away. Franklin also brought the Pennsylvania Gazette(which he bought in 1729) to prominence, began his hugely popular Poor Richard’s Almanack (1733-1758), and helped set up a subscription library. He also became Philadelphia’s postmaster (1737-1753), and would later become the postmaster general for all of the colonies. Alongside the news and almanacks that he printed, he also created pamphlets, distributed propaganda, and sometimes minted currency. By 1748, Franklin was one of the richest men in the colonies. Loaded with enough cash to last the rest of his lifetime, Franklin retired from printing at the age of forty-two.
Though he was retired, Franklin did not let his mind rest. In his retirement, he only replaced the time he spent printing with a new set of jobs, including science, inventing, public works and diplomacy. For Franklin’s various jobs, inventions and writings, see the lists at the end of this biography—for now, just know the lists are impressively lengthy.
In the 1750s, and for the rest of his life, Franklin divided his time between carrying out scientific experiments and representing the colonies in London. He was also the United States’ primary diplomat in Paris during the American Revolution. His wife, Deborah, never traveled with him to Europe; she was apparently afraid of the ocean. She stayed in Philadelphia while Benjamin traveled to London and Paris. Deborah died in 1774 and Franklin quickly fell into his most apparent vice—he was a notorious flirt.
Franklin, despite his romantic scandals, remained an incredibly well liked figure. At least, by people other than his son, William. William and his father disagreed on the American Revolution, and they could never reconcile. Politically, Franklin was a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and later, the Second Continental Congress. He also aided in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, and helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783. After the war, he also participated in the Constitutional Convention. While Franklin was a zealous colonial patriot, his son William was an equally stalwart loyalist—William was the governor of New Jersey during the Revolution, and was ultimately stripped of power. When Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, William was all but removed entirely from his father’s will.
Around 20,000 people attended Benjamin Franklin’s funeral, showing their respect to one of the greatest visionaries of the revolutionary period. A crisp and witty line about Franklin’s work ethic and ingenuity would probably be the proper way to end this biography, but lists of his various jobs, inventions and writings should make Benjamin Franklin’s legacy more palpable.
- Printer (Poor Richard’s Almanack, minting, propaganda, news etc…)
- Justice of the Peace
- Postmaster General
- Plenipotentiary of France (and general diplomacy)
- Town watch/ militia/police organization
- Fire-fighting company
- Academy of Pennsylvania (now University of Pennsylvania)
- Funding for a city hospital
- Lightning rods
- Book retrieval device
- Letter copier
- Franklin Stove
- Subscription library
- Swimming fin
- Rocking-chair modifications
- American Philosophical Society
- Yellow Fever
- Water (rain, springs, gulfs, ice)
- Hot-air balloons
- Heat absorption
- War strategy
- Silk farming/silkworms
- Possibility of boats made of ice
- The Autobiography and Other Writings by Benjamin Franklin, edited by Kenneth Silverman. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.