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Benjamin Franklin

Dr. Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706April 17, 1790) was an American printer, journalist, publisher, author, philanthropist, abolitionist, public servant, scientist, librarian, diplomat, and inventor. One of the leaders of the American Revolution, he was well known also for his many quotations and his experiments with electricity. Franklin was a member of the Freemasons, corresponded with members of the Lunar Society and was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1775, Franklin became the first U.S. Postmaster General.

Franklin's inventions include the Franklin stove, bifocals, the medical catheter, lightning rod, swimfins, and the odometer.




Franklin's father, Josiah Franklin, was born in Ecton , Northamptonshire, England on December 23, 1657. Josiah's parents were Thomas Franklin, a blacksmith and farmer, and his wife Jane White. Nearly ten years later, on August 15, 1667, Abiah Folger, Benjamin Franklin's mother, was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, to Peter Folger, a miller and schoolteacher and his wife Mary Morrill Folger.

Around 1677, Josiah married Anne Child in Ecton. Over the next few years, the couple had three children, all half-siblings of Benjamin Franklin. This included Elizabeth (March 2 1678), Samuel (May 16, 1681), and Hannah (May 25, 1683). Sometime the second half of 1683, the Franklins left England for Boston, Massachusetts.

While in Boston, the couple had several more children, including Josiah Jr., Ann, Joseph, and Joseph (the first Joseph died soon after birth, and the next son was named for him). After Josiah's wife Anne died in Boston on July 9, Josiah remarried on November 25.

Early life

Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street in Boston. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler who married twice. Of the two marriages his father had, he produced 17 children, Benjamin was the youngest son. His schooling ended at ten, and at 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James, a printer who published the New England Courant.

At age 17, he ran away to Philadelphia, seeking a new start in a new city. He was not satisfied, however, and after a few months was induced by Governor Sir William Keith to go to London, where, finding Keith's promises empty, he again worked as a compositor in a printer's shop based in part of what was, and is now the Church of St Batholomew the Great, Smithfield until he returned to Philadelphia with the help of a merchant named Thomas Denham, who gave him a position in his business. On Denham's death Franklin returned to his former trade, and soon set up a printing house of his own from which he published The Pennsylvania Gazette, to which he contributed many essays and which he made a medium for agitating for a variety of local reforms. His intelligence combined with a great deal of savvy about cultivating a positive image of an industrious and intellectual young man earned him a great deal of social respect.

In 1732 he began to issue the famous Poor Richard's Almanac (with content both original and borrowed), on which a lot of his popular reputation is based. Adages from this almanac such as "A penny saved is a penny earned", are now commonly quoted every day by people all over the world.

Franklin and several other members of a philosophical association joined their resources in 1731 and began the first public library in Philadelphia. The newly founded Library Company ordered its first books in 1732, mostly theological and educational tomes, but by 1741 the library also included works on history, geography, poetry, exploration and science. The success of this library encouraged the opening of libraries in other American cities, and Franklin felt that this enlightenment partly contributed to the American colonies' struggle to maintain their privileges.

In 1736 he created the Union Fire Company , the first volunteer firefighting company in America.

Middle years

Franklin began to concern himself more with public affairs. In 1743, he set forth a scheme for an Academy, which opened eight years later and eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. He founded an American Philosophical Society to help scientific men discuss their discoveries. He began the electrical research that, along with other scientific inquiries, would occupy him for the rest of his life (in between bouts of politics and money-making).

In 1748, he retired from printing and went into other businesses. He created a partnership with his foreman, David Hill, which provided Franklin with half of the shop's profits for 18 years. This lucrative business arrangement provided leisure time for study, and in a few years he had made discoveries that gave him a reputation with the learned throughout Europe.

These include his investigations of electricity. Franklin identified positive and negative electrical charges and also demonstrated that lightning was electrical. On June 15, 1752, Franklin promoted this theory through a famous, though extremely dangerous, experiment of flying a kite during a lightning storm. This experiment was not written up until Joseph Priestley's 1767 History and Present Status of Electricity; the evidence shows that Franklin was insulated (not in a conducting path, as he would have been electrocuted). (Others, such as Prof. Georg Wilhelm Richmann of St. Petersburg, Russia, were spectacularly electrocuted during the months following Franklin's famous experiment.) Franklin, in his writings, displays that he was aware of the dangers and offered alternative ways to demonstrate that lightning was electrical, as shown by his invention of the lightning rod, an application of the use of electrical ground. If Franklin did perform this experiment, he did not do it in the way that is often described (as it would have been dramatic but fatal). Instead he used the kite to collect some electric charge from a storm cloud, which implied that lightning was electrical. See, for example, the 1805 painting by Benjamin West of Benjamin Franklin drawing electricity from the sky.

In recognition of his work with electricity, Franklin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and received its Copley Medal in 1753. The cgs unit of electric charge has been named after him: one franklin (Fr) is equal to one statcoulomb.

Franklin established two major fields of physical science, electricity and meteorology. In his classic work (A History of The Theories of Electricity & Aether), Sir Edmund Whittaker (p. 46) refers to Franklin's inference that electric charge is not created by rubbing substances, but only transferred, so that "the total quantity in any insulated system is invariable". This assertion is known as the "principle of conservation of charge".

As a printer and a publisher of a newspaper, Franklin frequented the farmers' markets in Philadelphia to gather news. One day Franklin inferred that reports of a storm elsewhere in Pennsylvania must be the storm that visited the Philadelphia area in recent days. This initiated the notion that some storms travel, eventually leading to the synoptic charts of dynamic meteorology, replacing sole dependence upon the charts of climatology.

Franklin established the first American academy, The Academy and College of Philadelphia, in 1749. Classes began in 1751. Seven men graduated on May 17, 1757, at the first commencement; six with a Bachelor of Arts and one as Master of Arts.

In 1751 Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond obtained a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature to establish a hospital. Pennsylvania Hospital was the first hospital in what was to become the United States of America.

This political cartoon by Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the ().
This political cartoon by Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War).

In politics he proved very able both as an administrator and as a controversialist; but his record as an office-holder is stained by the use he made of his position to advance his relatives. His most notable service in domestic politics was his reform of the postal system, but his fame as a statesman rests chiefly on his diplomatic services in connection with the relations of the colonies with Great Britain, and later with France. He was also involved in the creation of the first volunteer fire department, free public library, and many other civic enterprises.

In 1754 he headed the Pennsylvania delegation to the Albany Congress. This meeting of several colonies had been requested by the Board of Trade in England to improve relations with the Indians and defense against the French. Franklin proposed a broad Plan of Union for the colonies. While the plan was not adopted, elements of it found their way into the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

In 1758, the year in which he ceased writing for the Almanac, he printed "Father Abraham's Sermon," one of the most famous pieces of literature produced in Colonial America.

In 1757 he was sent to England to protest against the influence of the Penn family in the government of Pennsylvania, and for five years he remained there, striving to enlighten the people and the ministry of the United Kingdom as to colonial conditions. At Oxford University Franklin was awarded an honorary doctorate for his scientific accomplishments and from then on went by "Doctor Franklin." He also managed to secure a post for his illegitimate son, William Franklin, as Colonial Governor of New Jersey.

Later years

On his return to America, he played an honorable part in the Paxton affair, through which he lost his seat in the Assembly, but in 1764 he was again dispatched to England as agent for the colony, this time to petition the King to resume the government from the hands of the proprietors. In London he actively opposed the proposed Stamp Act, but lost the credit for this and much of his popularity because he secured for a friend the office of stamp agent in America. This perceived conflict of interest, and the resulting outcry, is widely regarded as a deciding factor in Franklin's never achieving higher elected office. Even his effective work in helping to obtain the repeal of the act did not regain his popularity, but he continued his efforts to present the case for the Colonies as the troubles thickened toward the crisis of the Revolution. This also led to an irreconcilable conflict with his son, who remained ardently loyal to the British Government.

In 1767 he crossed to France, where he was received with honor; but before his return home in 1775 he lost his position as postmaster through his share in divulging to Massachusetts the famous letter of Hutchinson and Oliver. On his arrival in Philadelphia he was chosen as a member of the Continental Congress and assisted in editing the Declaration of Independence.

In December of 1776 he was dispatched to France as commissioner for the United States. He lived in a home in the Parisian suburb of Passy donated by Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont who would become a friend and the most important foreigner to help the United States win the war of independence. Ben Franklin remained in France until 1785, a favorite of French society. Franklin was so popular that it became fashionable for wealthy French families to decorate their parlors with a painting of him. He conducted the affairs of his country towards that nation with such success, which included securing a critical military alliance and negotiating the Treaty of Paris (1783), that when he finally returned, he received a place only second to that of George Washington as the champion of American independence.

When Franklin was recalled to America in 1785, Le Ray honored him with a commissioned portrait painted by Joseph Siffred Duplessis that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

In addition, after his return from France in 1785, he became a slavery abolitionist who eventually became president of The Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.

While in retirement by 1787, he agreed to attend as a delegate at the meetings that would produce the United States Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. He is the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all three of the major documents of the founding of the United States: The Declaration of Independence, The Treaty of Paris and the United States Constitution.

Also in 1787, a group of prominent ministers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania proposed the foundation of a new college to be named in Franklin's honor. Franklin donated £200 towards the development of Franklin College, which would later merge with Marshall College in 1853. It is now called Franklin and Marshall College.

Later, he finished his autobiography between 1771 and 1788, at first addressed to his son, then later completed for the benefit of mankind at the request of a friend.

It is little known that despite the fact that Benjamin Franklin was a prominent figure in the forming of the United States, that he was strongly opposed to the American Revolution and acted more as a diplomat than a patriot in the turmoil which eventually led to the Revolution. It was not until all peaceful means to maintain the continuation of the British rule over the colonies were exhausted, that he became a proponent of the independence movement. Even as late as 1780, Franklin was willing to allow British sovereignty in return for large degrees of home rule.

Death and afterwards

Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790 and was interred in the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

At his death Franklin bequeathed £1000 (about $4400 at the time) to each of the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, in trust for 200 years. During the lifetime of the trust, Philadelphia used it for a variety of loan programs to local residents; from 1940 to 1990, the money was used mostly for mortgage loans. When the trust came due, Philadelphia decided to spend it on scholarships for local high school students. Boston used the gift to establish a trade school that, over time, became the Franklin Institute of Boston.

In recent years a number of anti-Semitic groups have been promoting a fabricated quotation which has been debunked by historians: Neo-Nazi Theory (American founding fathers).

Franklin's likeness adorns the American $100 bill. As a result, $100 bills are sometimes referred to in slang as "Benjamins" or "Franklins". From 1948 to 1964, Franklin's portrait was also on the half dollar. He has also appeared on a $50 bill in the past, as well as several varieties of the $100 bill from 1914 and 1918, and every $100 bill from 1928 to present. Franklin also appears on the $1,000 Series EE Savings Bond .

By 1920, one of Franklin's treatises on meteorology was used to explain the Year Without a Summer.

In 1976, as part of a bicentennial celebration, Congress dedicated the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial in Franklin's hometown of Philadelphia, including a 20-foot high marble statue. Many of Franklin's personal possessions are also on display there. The memorial is located in Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. It is one of the few National Memorials located on private property.

In 1998, workmen restoring Franklin's London home dug up the remains of six children and four adults hidden below the home. The London Times reported on February 11, 1998:

"Initial estimates are that the bones are about 200 years old and were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house, which was his home from 1757 to 1762, and from 1764 to 1775. Most of the bones show signs of having been dissected, sawn or cut. One skull has been drilled with several holes. Paul Knapman, the Westminster Coroner, said yesterday: "I cannot totally discount the possibility of a crime. There is still a possibility that I may have to hold an inquest."

It has not been ruled out that the bodies were cadavers when Franklin got them, Franklin had an avid interest in anatomy and the damages done to the bodies support that.


See also

Writings of Ben Franklin

  • Franklin, Benjamin, "The Way to Wealth". Applewood Books; November 1986. ISBN 0918222885
  • Franklin, Benjamin, "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin". Dover Pubns; June 7, 1996. ISBN 0486290735
  • Franklin, Benjamin, "Poor Richards Almanack". Peter Pauper Press; November 1983. ISBN 0880889187
  • Franklin, Benjamin, "The Poetry of Minor Connecticut Wits". Scholars Facsimilies & Reprint; September 2000. ISBN 0820110663
  • Franklin, Benjamin, "Writings". ISBN 0940450291
  • Franklin, Benjamin, "On Marriage".
  • Franklin, Benjamin, "Satires and Bagatelles".

Further reading

  • Benjamin Franklin, Edmund S. Morgan, Yale University Press, 2002, hardcover 368 pages, ISBN 0300095325
  • Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, August, 2003, hardcover, 590 pages, ISBN 0684807610
  • The 100, Michael H. Hart, Carol Publishing Group, July 1992, paperback, 576 pages, ISBN 0806513500
  • The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, H.W. Brands, Doubleday; 1st ed edition (September 19, 2000), hardcover 768 pages, ISBN 0385493282

External links, resources and references

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