Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems


Benjamin Franklin and His Ambitions

Benjamin Franklin flew a kite and owned a print shop in Philadelphia. In the book, Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, first published in 1829, the Rev. Charles A. Goodrich tells of Franklin's difficult childhood and of a different ambition.

"Benjamin Franklin was born at Boston, on the 17th of January, 1706. His ancestors were from England... During the persecutions in the reign of Charles II., against the puritans, the father of Benjamin, who was of that persuasion, emigrated to America, and settling in Boston, had recourse for a livelihood to the business of a chandler [candle maker] and soap boiler. His mother's name was Folger. She was a native of Boston, and belonged to a respectable family."

At an early age, Ben's parents recognized his genius for reading and his love of books and decided that he should devote his life to the clergy. To further that goal his father enrolled him in a grammar school where Ben quickly gained a reputation for his industrious habits. However, formal schooling was expensive for the times and Franklin's father was soon forced to remove him from school and employ him in the business but Ben had no enthusiasm for cutting wicks, filling molds, and running errands. He resolved at an early age to become a seafaring man but his parents, having already lost one son to the sea, strongly objected. Realizing that Ben was not providing full value in candle and soap making his father decided to better exploit Ben's talents. In 1717 he was assigned as an apprentice to his older brother who was a printer of a newspaper in Boston.

His brother was a harsh taskmaster, often beating the boy for the slightest offense. Ben, relishing work so closely related to reading and writing, grudgingly took the punishment. He resented providing his labor while the pay went to someone else and after a couple of years he concocted a plan to correct the situation. He offered himself under an indentured servant's contract to his brother. In exchange, his brother would pay directly to Ben half the amount their father was demanding. His brother greedily accepted the offer. The amount paid was a paltry sum but Ben carefully budgeted each penny, even rationalizing the benefits of eliminating meat from his diet, a practice he observed for the remainder of his life. Maintaining such a frugal lifestyle, he was able to save money from each payday and by the age of seventeen he left on a freighter for New York City. Unable to find work there, he stored his trunk of meager belongings and walked to Philadelphia.

"The day following his arrival he wandered through the streets of Philadelphia with an appearance little short of a beggar. His pockets were distended by his clothes, which were crowded into them; and provided with a roll of bread under each arm, he proceeded through the principal streets of the city. His uncouth appearance attracted the notice of several of the citizens, and among others of a Miss Reed, who afterwards became his wife, and by whom, as he passed along, he was thought to present a very awkward and ridiculous appearance.

"There were at this time but two printing offices in Philadelphia. Fortunately, in one of these he found employment as compositor. His conduct was very becoming; he was attentive to business, and economical in his expenses. His fidelity not only commended him to his master, but was noticed by several respectable citizens, who promised him their patronage and support."

One of those taking such notice was Governor Sir William Keith who encouraged Franklin to set up his own print shop. Ben traveled to Boston to ask his father's support but was turned down. Keith then proposed that Franklin, with a letter of introduction from Keith, could obtain backing in England. In 1725 Franklin sailed for England with Keith's letter only to find upon arrival that he had been completely deceived. Broke and stranded he was forced to work in a London print shop for a year and a half before he was able to return to America.

Back in Philadelphia he worked for a different print shop until that owner died and then he returned to his original Philadelphia employer. At length he became superintendent of the shop and found that he could manage it efficiently and at a profit. Finally, entering into a partnership with a fellow workman he was able to obtain loans to set up his own shop.

"In 1730, he married the lady to whom he was engaged before his departure for England. During his absence he forgot his promises to her, and on his return to America, he found her the wife of another man. Although a woman of many virtues, she suffered from the unkindness of her husband, who, fortunately for her, lived but a short time. Not long after his death, Franklin again visited her, soon after which they were married, and for many years lived in the full enjoyment of connubial peace and harmony.

"In 1732, he began to publish 'Poor Richard's Almanack,' a work which was continued for twenty-five years, and which, besides answering the purposes of a calendar, contained many excellent prudential maxims, which were of great utility to that class of the community, who by their poverty or laborious occupations, were deprived of the advantages of education. Ten thousand copies of this almanac are said to have been published in America every year. The maxims contained in it, were from time to time republished both in Great Britain, and on the continent."

Also in 1732 he was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania general assembly and six years later was elected to that body. During the year of his election he founded the American Philosophical Society and a college which became the University of Pennsylvania. In 1733 he was appointed postmaster for Philadelphia. In 1735 he formed the nations first fire company and later formed an insurance office against losses by fire. In 1742 he published his treatise on the improvement of chimneys, and in that same year built the first Franklin stove.

During the French war of 1744 he developed a plan for mutual defense of the country and quickly recruited 10,000 volunteers. He was chosen colonel of the Philadelphia regiment but refused the assignment with the explanation that another man was more qualified for military leadership. This same year he was elected to the provincial assembly and was re-elected annually for the next 10 years.

In 1747 he began his experiments in electricity which led to his kite experiment with lightning. In 1749 he conceived the idea of explaining thunder gust, the aurora borealis (Northern Lights), and he invented the lightning rod although it was 1752 before he satisfactorily proved that the rod would work. By this time he was world renown for his almanac, his scientific work, and his philosophical reasoning.

In 1753 he was appointed as deputy postmaster general for America and soon this money losing enterprise was turned into a profit maker for the British crown. In this capacity Franklin provided valuable information to General Braddock during the march against Fort Duquesne. Braddock's defeat left the entire colony exposed to attacks from the French and Indians so Franklin raised a company of militia and led the march to defend the frontier. During the ensuing months and years disputes arose between the British government, the Lords Proprietors, and the people of Pennsylvania. At issue was the Proprietor's refusal to fund mutual defense unless their private estates were exempted from taxation.

In 1757 the militia was disbanded by order of the British government. At the same time Franklin was appointed agent to England to mediate the dispute. In London he presented the argument for the people to the privy council and, after consideration and negotiation, it was agreed that the Proprietors should pay an equitable amount for defense and Franklin was appointed to administer the agreement and assure that the assessment should be fairly proportioned. Franklin remained at the British court as agent for his province. His reputation for fairness was so widely known that soon Massachusetts, Maryland, and Georgia appointed him to represent them to the British court also.

In Canada the British were taking a licking from the French. Franklin wrote a long pamphlet describing the advantages of British sovereignty and strongly suggesting that the French would be well off to submit. This voluntary act greatly enhanced his reputation in Europe and soon after he was admitted as a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and the degree of doctor of laws was conferred upon him at St. Andrews, Edinburgh, and at Oxford.

"In 1762 Dr. Franklin returned to America. On his arrival the provincial assembly of Pennsylvania expressed their sense of his meritorious services by a vote of thanks; and as a remuneration for his successful labors in their behalf, they granted him the sum of five thousand dollars. During his absence, he had annually been elected a member of the assembly, in which body he now took his seat. The following year he made a journey of sixteen hundred miles, through the northern colonies, for the purpose of inspecting and regulating the post offices."

Back to Europe

In 1764 Franklin was again appointed agent for Pennsylvania to England and arrived there in December. At the time the colonists were outraged over a new law being considered by parliament which went into effect in November, 1765, and became known as the Stamp Act. This law required the purchase of stamps of various denominations which were to be affixed to each page of all official documents prepared in America. Stamps were required on all court filings, contracts, land transactions, etc. Before departing, Franklin had encouraged the Pennsylvania assembly to pass a resolution in opposition to the act and upon arrival he presented a petition against it but the law went into effect anyway.

Soon, the outcry in America prodded parliament to reconsider and as part of that process the House of Commons called Franklin as a witness. To the question, whether the Americans would submit to pay the stamp duty if the act were modified, and the duty reduced to a small amount? He answered, "no, they never will submit to it." The British were anxious that the colonial assemblies should acknowledge the right of parliament to tax them. To a question, whether the American assemblies would do this, Franklin answered, "they never will do it, unless compelled by force of arms." The whole examination was published and read with deep interest, both in England and America. Franklin's statements were, no doubt, greatly responsible for the repeal of the act.

In 1766-1767 Franklin traveled to Holland, Germany, and France. In France he was introduced to Louis XV and other members of the royal family and was welcomed with great pomp and ceremony. About this time, he was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences, and received diplomas from several other literary societies in England, and on the continent.

Rev. Goodrich describes what happened next.

"...in 1772, ...certain letters of Governor Hutchinson [of Massachusetts], addressed by that gentleman to his friends in England, and which reflected in the severest manner upon the people of America. These letters had fallen into the hands of Dr. Franklin, and by him had been transmitted to America, where they were at length inserted in the public journals. For a time, no one in England knew through what channel the letters had been conveyed to America. In 1773, Franklin publicly avowed himself to be the person who obtained the letters and transmitted them to America.

"This occasioned a violent clamor against him, and upon his attending before the privy council, in the following January, to present a petition from the colony of Massachusetts, for the dismission of Mr. Hutchinson, a most violent invective was pronounced against him, by Mr. Weddeburne, afterwards Lord Loughborough. Among other abusive epithets, the honorable member called Franklin a coward, a murderer, and a thief. During the whole of this torrent of abuse, Franklin sat with a composed and unaverted aspect, or, to use his own expression, in relation to himself on another occasion, 'as if his countenance had been made of wood.' During this personal and public insult, the whole assembly appeared greatly amused, at the expense of Dr. Franklin. The president even laughed aloud. There was a single person present, however, Lord North, who, to his honor be it recorded, expressed great disapprobation of the indecent conduct of the assembly. The intended insult, however, was entirely lost. The dignity and composure of Franklin caused a sad disappointment among his enemies, who were reluctantly compelled to acknowledge the superiority of his character. Their animosity, however, was not to be appeased, but by doing Franklin the greatest injury within their power. They removed him from the office of deputy post master general, interrupted the payment of his salary as agent for the colonies, and finally instituted against him a suit in chancery concerning the letters of Hutchinson.

"At length, finding all his efforts to restore harmony between Great Britain and the colonies useless; and perceiving that the controversy had reached a crisis, when his presence in England was no longer necessary, and his continuance personally hazardous, he embarked for America, where he arrived in 1775, just after the commencement of hostilities [April 1775, battles of Lexington and Concord]. He was received with every mark of esteem and affection. He was immediately elected a delegate to the general congress, in which body he did as much, perhaps, as any other man, to accomplish the independence of his country.

"In 1776, he was deputed by congress to proceed to Canada, to negotiate with the people of that country, and to persuade them, if possible, to throw off the British yoke; but the inhabitants of Canada had been so much disgusted with the zeal of the people of New-England, who had burnt some of their chapels, that they refused to listen to the proposals made to them by Dr. Franklin and his associates. On the arrival of Lord Howe in America in 1776, he entered upon a correspondence with him on the subject of reconciliation. He was afterwards appointed, with two others, to wait upon the English commissioners, and learn the extent of their powers; but as these only went to the granting of pardon upon submission, he joined his colleagues in considering them as insufficient. Dr. Franklin was decidedly in favor of a declaration of independence; and was appointed president of the convention assembled for the purpose of establishing a new government for the state of Pennsylvania. When it was determined by congress to open a public negotiation with France, he was commissioned to visit that country, with which he negotiated the treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, which produced an immediate war between England and France. Dr. Franklin was one of the commissioners who, on the part of the United States, signed the provincial articles of peace in 1782, and the definitive treaty in the following year [Treaty of Paris - 1783]. Before he left Europe, he concluded a treaty with Sweden and Prussia. By the latter, he obtained several most liberal and humane stipulations in favor of the freedom of commerce, and the security of private property during war, in conformity to those principles which he had ever maintained on these subjects. Having seen the accomplishment of his wishes in the independence of his country, he requested to be recalled, and after repeated solicitations, Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson was appointed in his stead. On the arrival of his successor, he repaired to Havre de Grace, and crossing the English channel, landed at Newport in the Isle of Wight, whence, after a favorable passage, he arrived safe at Philadelphia, in September, 1785."

Franklin's arrival in Philadelphia stimulated a great celebration. The public turned out in huge numbers to welcome him home and, according to Goodrich,

"In a few days he was visited by the members of congress, and the principal inhabitants of Philadelphia. From numerous societies and assemblies he received the most affectionate addresses. All testified their joy at his return, and their veneration of his exalted character."

This was a period in his life of which he often spoke with great pleasure. "I am now," said he, "in the bosom of my family, and find four new little prattlers, who cling about the knees of their grandpapa, and afford me great pleasure. I am surrounded by my friends, and have an affectionate good daughter and son-in-law to take care of me. I have got into my niche, a very good house, which I built twenty-four years ago,..."

But his solitude was brief. He was soon appointed president of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and in May of 1787 he was elected to the double duty as delegate to the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia.

In 1788, due to ill health, he withdrew from public life and on the 17th of April, 1790, at the age of 84 he died at home. Goodrich describes the occasion,

"He was interred on the 21st of April. Congress directed a general mourning for him, throughout the United States, for the space of a month. The national assembly of France testified their sense of the loss which the world sustained, by decreeing that each member should wear mourning for three days. This was an honor perhaps never before paid by the national assembly of one country, to a citizen of another. Dr. Franklin lies buried in the northwest corner of Christ Church yard, in Philadelphia. In his will he directed that no monumental ornaments should be placed upon his tomb. A small marble slab only, therefore, and that, too, on a level with the surface of the earth, bearing the name of himself and wife, and the year of his death, marks the spot in the yard where he lies.

"Dr. Franklin had two children, a son and a daughter. The son, under the British government, was appointed governor of New-Jersey. On the occurrence of the revolution, he left America, and took up his residence in England, where he spent the remainder of his life. The daughter was respectably married in Philadelphia, to Mr. William Bache, whose descendants still reside in that city [1829]."

Franklin even wrote his own epitaph and it is inscribed, as he wished, on his tombstone:

"The body of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, Printer, Like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out, and stript of its lettering and gilding, lies here food for worms; Yet the work itself shall not be lost, For it will appear once more in a new and more beautiful edition Corrected and amended by the Author."

But Franklin's most poignant message was a sign displayed for many years in the window of his print shop:

"If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."

[Well said Ben. You did both.]

Philosophos Historia


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