Monday, February 20, 2017
The Life and TImes of Benjamin Franklin
(Editor's Note: I originally published this 7 years ago, in another place and time. Since America finds itself at a perilous crossroads, it would do one good to look back at the lives of the Founders, who themselves were found at a pivotal point in our country's history. Revised and expanded from the original edition.)
Benjamin Franklin, who would become one of the first great Americans and inventors, was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachussets. He was the 15th out of 17 children. His father, Josiah, was an immigrant from Northamptonshire, England, and a maker of soap and candles. He was married twice, first to Anne Child, with whom he had 7 children, and lastly to Abiah Folger, Ben's mother, with whom Josiah had 10 children.
Franklin went to school for a short time, but dropped out and became an apprentice printer to his brother James. James cuffed him each time he made a mistake, and whacked him if he thought Ben was impertinent. While working for his brother, he played jokes, writing columns in the newspaper under an assumed name criticizing Harvard boys and other things, all the time using the pen name "Silence Dogood". When his brother found out he had been tricked, he was very displeased. At a young age, Franklin quit his job and ran away. He had a great interest in reading even before he ran away. He would buy any book that he could afford to buy, and he would also borrow as many books as he could, staying up all night reading the books. Franklin learned how to write by reading books like Addison and Steele's "The Spectator". He would take notes on what he had read and try to rewrite the Books like the authors' version. If he had made any mistakes, he would go back and correct them.
Ben Franklin's careers started when he became a local printer. In this capacity, he set up the first printing press, moulding type from lead forms. He started his own shop where he printed newspapers, books, and magazines. He won a contract to print all official notices and records for the Pennsylvania Assembly. Franklin was also a community organizer and local businessman. He started the first circulating library in America, along with a volunteer fire company, the first hospital, and the first academy in America. His ability made him a marked man among people. He was appointed Secretary of the Pennsylvania Assembly and later Postmaster of Philadelphia. He was able to stop the money loss on unclaimed mail by printing in his newspaper the names of people who had mail waiting for them. When he was 24, he married Mrs. Deborah Read, with whom he had one child, William. After all that, he developed a simple and accurate way of keeping post office accounts.
Ben Franklin was still very interested in reading, but he was also an inventor and scientist. He wrote and published the book Poor Richards Almanac. He often scorned his own advice about going to bed early because of his perpetual business. He had long hated the discomfort of homes half-heated by the drafty fireplaces; he therefore invented an iron stove. The back of this stove stood in the fireplace, but its grate extended out into the room. The Governor of Pennsylvania urged Ben to get a patent for his inventions, but he didn't. He wanted the stoves to be made cheaply so that many people could buy them. Another one of his scientific interests, along with his friends, was the force of electricity. Not much was then known about it. When a European scientist found a way to store electricity in jars or tubes, Ben ordered some of the tubes and set up a lab in his house. As he experimented, he suddenly realized that lightning could be a discharge from the clouds. In 1752, he sent an account of his idea to scientists in London, England, and Paris, France.
To test his newfangled theory, Franklin and his son, William, went out into a meadow during a thunderstorm, flew a kite into the air, and brought an electrical charge down the kite's wet string. He then stored the charge into a jar of water and hooked a wire to the jar. Next, he hooked the wire to a bell, making it ring and proving true his idea of electricity from the sky. Because of all that, he was awarded honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, and the College of William and Mary. He next invented the lightning rod to protect buildings from lightning bolts. In 1753, he was made Deputy Postmaster for all 13 colonies. At once, he began to visit Post Offices and improve the mail service. He put his bookkeeping system into every Post Office, hired more postal workers, and made them feel that carrying mail was important. Instead of delivering letters from town to town only twice during the winter, he had mail delivered every week.
When the French and Indian War started, Ben Franklin had aroused Pennsylvanians to their danger. He started volunteer companies of soldiers drilling on the green and had guns placed on the Delaware River to deter French vessels. When the British troops landed in Virginia in 1753, Franklin gave them important aid by hiring wagons to carry supplies. All taxpayers in Pennsylvania were helping to pay for the expensive defense work, with the exception of owners of large tracts of land. To persuade the Penn family to pay their share, Franklin was sent to London. He was in London when he heard about the British victory in the French and Indian War. He returned home, only to find that a new quarrel had broken out between Pennsylvania and the Penn family. In 1765, after he landed in England again, Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, resulting in a fury of protests. When Americans refused to buy the stamps, Franklin was called over to the English House of Commons for questioning. He presented the case so clearly and reasonably that he was influential in convincing England to repeal the Stamp Act.
For ten years, Benjamin Franklin was America's most important representative in England. He teased the British about their ignorance of America by writing funny, exaggerated stories in newspapers. In Germany and France, he was welcomed not only as a scientist, but also as a champion of liberty. In 1775, one year after the death of his wife Deborah and just after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Franklin returned to Philadelphia. He became the Postmaster of the thirteen colonies, a member of the Second Continental Congress, and was appointed to a Committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, of which he was a signer. Before he left for France in 1776, he lent Congress 4,000 pounds of his own money to be used for various projects.
From the moment he entered the French capital of Paris, "The Doctor Franklin", as he was called there, was swarmed by admiring visitors, and his simple dignity appealed to everyone. He worked very hard, first securing formal recognition for his country, and then persuading the French of the advantages of an alliance. His wisdom and affectionate understanding of the French people made him a successful diplomat. The Treaty of Alliance was signed on February 6, 1778, and Franklin was the outstanding person at the celebration at the royal palace one month later, on March 20, 1778. King Louis XVI told everyone that France was America's friend and would help fight for America's freedom in the Revolutionary War. Five years later, the war was over, and Ben Franklin, among others, signed the Peace treaty. When he came home in 1785, he brought with him tender farewell messages from the French, as well as a gift from the King.
In Philadelphia, when Benjamin Franklin landed, a tremendous crowd swamped him. Old and frail as he was, he became President of the Pennsylvania State Assembly and a member of the Constitutional Convention. When members of the convention would disagree, a word from Mr. Franklin would calm them down. When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, Franklin was one of the signers. Over the years, people like George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and other prominent Americans visited Mr. Franklin. They enjoyed his books, the rockers he had made for his armchair, and a chair which would turn into a stepladder for reaching books. Even though he was often too ill to get around, he loved his friends, wrote newspaper articles, and penned his famous autobiography.
Benjamin Franklin's last public act, as President of the Penn State Society, was to carve his signature onto a memorial to the State Legislature for the 1780 abolition of negro slavery. When he died from pleurisy on April 17, 1790, at the age of 84, the world around knew it had lost one of the first and foremost sons of liberty.