Founding Fathers - Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Born: January 17, 1706 (Boston, Massachusetts) 

Died: April 17, 1790 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 

In honor of today's major sporting event (and because there are obviously no Founding Fathers from Kansas City) I decided to put this week's spotlight on Philadelphia's favorite son.  Benjamin Franklin's life actually began in Boston, Massachusetts, as the 10th and final son of a candle and soap maker named Josiah and his second wife, Abiah.  With parents of humble means and a total of 16 siblings, the young man was unable to have sufficient schooling to achieve his father's dream of him going into ministry.  With an older brother already established as a printer, however, Benjamin was apprenticed at the age of 12 to follow in his footsteps.  Three years later that older brother, James, founded a newspaper named The New England Courant, the first of its kind in Massachusetts and one of the first throughout the American colonies.  Young Benjamin was precocious and attempted to write for and help run the paper, including submitting letters under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood" which were quite popular with readers, but his brother was jealous and frequently resorted to beatings to keep his lowly apprentice brother in his place.  Dissatisfied with the direction of his life, Benjamin ran away from Boston in 1723 at the age of 17 and eventually made his way through New York and New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.

Once in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was able to find work in a print shop to provide for himself while living with a local family by the name of Read.  Pennsylvania's Governor William Keith convinced him to travel to London with promises of support so that Franklin could set himself up with his own printing business and afford to marry the daughter of his host family, Deborah Read.  The promises turned out to be empty, however, and Franklin was forced to support himself in England by once again working as a printer while Deborah married another man back in Philadelphia.  By 1726 he returned home to Pennsylvania to work as a merchant with a friend named Thomas Denham, but after his partner's unexpected death soon thereafter Franklin once again returned to the printing business.  In 1728 he had a child with a woman who is unknown to history, and in 1730 he was finally able to marry Deborah Read as her husband had abandoned her and run away.  Although his personal life had been quite complicated to that point, he finally had some stability and was at last able to settle down while also establishing relationships with other men in a philosophical discussion group he formed called Junto.

Despite failing in many ways, Benjamin Franklin considered himself to be able to instruct others in morality, which he believed was displayed in actions rather than in beliefs.  He had been raised under the influence of Massachusetts Puritans and Pennsylvania Quakers, exposed to the British Enlightenment, spent time among the Moravians of Bethlehem, PA, and was a rising member of his local Masonic Lodge.  All of these influences played a role in the causes Franklin chose to champion, including the formation of a professional police force and volunteer fire brigade.  Financial success came hand-in-hand with social contributions, as he was able to start writing and printing his famous Poor Richard's Almanac in 1732 shortly after launching America's first public library.  Business became so good that Franklin was soon able to forge printing partnerships in other cities and he began contributing more time to public service, including time as postmaster and clerk as well as spearheading an effort to raise a militia to help protect residents from French and Spanish raiders.

The year 1748 was a turning point in Benjamin Franklin's life, as he retired from work as a printer at the age of 42 and began presenting himself as a gentleman, while still maintaining an interest in the printing firm that oversaw his numerous partnerships.  He began spending time in scientific pursuits, including research into the field of electricity and inventions including bifocals and the Franklin Stove.  As his fame began to spread Franklin also became active in politics, holding offices of increasing importance such as city councilman, justice of the peace, and Pennsylvania assemblyman.  By 1753 his aspirations had reached beyond his colony, and he was named the deputy postmaster general - a royal office which oversaw mail of all the northern colonies and gave him an opportunity to see the benefit of a united body working for those various areas.  In 1757 he traveled to London on behalf of Pennsylvania to protest the authority held by descendants of the Penn family, and he remained in England as a colonial agent for the better part of the following two decades.  He had fallen in love with the sophisticated life of Europe's largest city, and considered remaining there for life until the Stamp Act of 1765 changed everything.

Benjamin Franklin opposed the Stamp Act, believing it should be up to colonies to enact taxes, but as he believed the enforcement of the law was inevitable he arranged for a friend to be named as a stamp agent and ordered stamps for his printing firm.  Pennsylvanians were initially outraged at the perceived betrayal and threatened to burn Franklin's home, but were pacified when he successfully lobbied Parliament to repeal the measure.  He attempted to use his printing business to convince both sides of the Atlantic to see things through the eyes of each other, but was eventually vilified by the British when he exposed the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts as lying about his support of colonists and leaked letter he had written that supported the curbing of American colonial liberties.  Condemned and humiliated by his English peers, Franklin returned home to Philadelphia in 1775 just in time to participate in the Second Continental Congress that was taking place there.  Named to a five-man committee responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence, he was the oldest delegate to sign the document.  He spent the duration of the American Revolution in Paris, brilliantly representing the American cause and securing French support with the Treaty of Alliance in 1778.  He was beloved by the French people and remained active in the scientific community while he was there, and by the time the war was over he was present to help negotiate and sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  Franklin finally returned home in 1785 and immediately began championing the cause of abolition before beginning the work of helping fashion the US Constitution.  In 1787 the Constitutional Convention concluded, and when it was ratified the following year he became the oldest signer of yet another critical founding document for the United States.  Just one year after George Washington was sworn in as the nation's first president, Benjamin Franklin died in 1790 at the age of 84 and his long life of service and ingenuity was celebrated at a funeral attended by more than 20,000.

The signature of Benjamin Franklin can be found as the third name on the second column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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