Benjamin Franklin has always seemed to be the most “approachable” of the Founding Fathers. While most of the Founding Fathers can appear unapproachable and distant in their biographies and portraits (students of mine always seemed to think that the Founding generation were all 50 plus years old at birth), Franklin’s slight smile and grandfatherly appearance reaches out to us 231 years after his death and invites us into a conversation with him. He was the Founder who felt that our nation’s new Republic in 1787 would thrive and succeed as long as we, the people, took care of it and kept it going. Dr. Franklin was also a valuable part of the process and completion of the Declaration of Independence. As the only delegate to be known worldwide in 1776, he helped to guide discussions and bring about compromises to unite the 55 delegates to the Second Continental Congress. He understood that the delegates must hang together or most assuredly, they would all “hang separately.”
Although he is now a synonymous figure with Philadelphia, Franklin was actually born in Boston in 1706. He was one of seventeen children born to Josiah and Abiah Franklin. The original plan was to have young Benjamin study to be a minister, which did not exactly fit with Franklin’s unique skill set so he needed to try other career paths. He became an apprentice for his brother James, who was a printer. This was a perfect trade for young Benjamin as he was an excellent writer and loved books and reading. At age 16, he began writing a series of essays under the pseudonym of “Mrs. Silence Dogood.” His character was a middle-aged widow who had humorous opinions to share with “her” readers. Franklin wrote 14 of these letters and his brother (who did not know who the author of them was) published them in his Boston newspaper. In 1723, Benjamin Franklin left his brother’s printing business and ran away to Philadelphia.
After not immediately finding a printing job that he liked, Franklin traveled to London where he worked in printing houses for a short time and then returned to Philadelphia which he then felt was his home. He became the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette which became the most popular newspaper in the colonies. Franklin married Deborah Reed in 1730 and the couple eventually had 2 children, Francis and Sarah. Deborah also raised Franklin’s illegitimate son, William. Franklin and his wife were apart for large portions of their marriage. She died in 1774 when Dr. Franklin was in England.
In 1732, Franklin began the publication of Poor Richard’s Almanac. It was published annually until 1758 and it became a must-have of colonial society. It contained news, weather forecasts, farming and domestic advice, poetry and other sections. It appealed to the normal, everyday person and many of Franklin’s most iconic sayings come from within its pages.
Benjamin Franklin also lived approximately 30 years in Europe where he was awarded honorary doctorates from British universities in 1759 and 1762.The title of Dr. Franklin comes from these awards. He also was in England during the passing of the Stamp Act in 1765 when the word of colonial uproar towards the legislation reached England. Franklin was, at first, unaware of the colonists’ hatred of the Stamp Act and went back and forth on the matter which caused him problems in the colonies. Later, he was of the opinion that the best way to get the act repealed was to boycott or not purchase the good affected. He also began to argue in England for colonial representation in Parliament if taxes were to be levied against the colonies. His idea fell on deaf ears.
As Dr. Franklin gradually became a supportive voice of the American colonies in England, his residency there was becoming less comfortable. This culminated in 1774 when he was brought in front of the Privy Council in London and was absolutely humiliated in front of the audience there. The speaker, Alexander Wedderburn, attacked his character and integrity over the emergence of a series of letters that were in Franklin’s possession. The letters somehow got released, angering the colonists further, due to their content that said some colonial rights may be further curtailed. Franklin chose not to speak on his own behalf. The next day, he was removed as Postmaster to the colonies. Franklin was furious and it is from this point that he tirelessly devotes himself to the idea of colonial independence. He returned home to the colonies in 1775, possibly to retire. He was sixty-nine years old.
Franklin’s arrival back in the colonies was celebrated in New York and Philadelphia. He was the world’s most famous American citizen and he was elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 as a representative of Pennsylvania. He advocated for the appointment of George Washington as the Commander of the Continental Army and was instrumental in helping to provide support and money for the Continental Army throughout the war.
Franklin was later appointed to the “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of independence for the colonies. He served on the committee with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. Jefferson was the primary author, but Franklin did suggest some important edits. His most famous edit was changing the phrase, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Franklin believed that the term “sacred” sounded too religious and that “self-evident” sounded more scientific. Even though he was not the primary author, many of the ideas within the Declaration of Independence had been spoken by Dr. Franklin in the previous months and years. He wholeheartedly supported the document and voted in favor of Independence on July 2, 1776.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, Dr. Franklin was constantly working in some way toward American independence: from helping gain funds to finance it to traveling to France in efforts to help convince them to be our ally against Britain. He was extremely popular in France and was a large factor in the United States’ alliance with them which helped the colonies to win the war. He was a rock star in France, to use today’s expression. His face was on merchandise there and he claimed he was quite prominent there.
Franklin was called upon again in 1787 to be a part of the Constitutional Convention which resulted in our Republic that we are now entrusted to keep. Upon the Convention’s end, he is noted for his response to a woman asking what type of government the delegates had formed, whether a republic or a monarchy, to which Franklin replied, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
Benjamin Franklin seemed to do everything in his lifetime. In his 84 years he was a printer, publisher, writer, scientist (maybe most famous for his experiments with electricity), inventor, philanthropist, politician, diplomat, musician (he also created his own instrument, the glass armonica), postmaster and even a volunteer fireman. His lasting impact on Philadelphia is felt even today. He helped to create the first hospital there in 1751. He also strongly believed that books, ideas and information should be readily available to everyone and not just a select few. As a result, he created the first lending library in Philadelphia in 1731. He was part of the group that created Philadelphia’s first volunteer fire department. He also helped to create what is now the University of Pennsylvania, as well as founding the American Philosophical Society. He seemed to be the proudest of his earliest job which was that of a printer. As a result, he signed many letters as, “Ben Franklin, Printer.”
When Franklin died in 1790, an estimated 20,000 people attended his funeral in a city whose population in 1790 was around 28,000. His legacy in Philadelphia and the United States was secure then and should still be celebrated today.
Val Crofts serves as Chief Education and Programs Officer at the American Village in Montevallo, Alabama. Val previously taught high school U.S. History, U.S. Military History and AP U.S. Government for 19 years in Wisconsin, and was recipient of the DAR Outstanding U.S. History Teacher of the Year for the state of Wisconsin in 2019-20. Val also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School as a social studies teacher for 9 years. He is also a proud member of the United States Semiquincentennial Commission (America 250), which is currently planning events to celebrate the 250th birthday of the Declaration of Independence.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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