Portrait of Benjamin Franklin.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis (Source: Wikimedia).

Benjamin Franklin

January 17, 1706–April 17, 1790

Benjamin Franklin was a Founding Father, member of the Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and signer of the United States Constitution. Arguably, the most accomplished individual in American history, he was also a successful printer, publisher, scientist, inventor, diplomat, civic leader, statesman, philosopher, and helped negotiate French support during the American Revolutionary War.

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Benjamin Franklin was an American printer, scientist, inventor, politician, diplomat, statesman, author, and one of the most colorful characters of the American Revolution.

Early Life

Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1706 to Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger. He was the 15th and youngest son of Josiah’s seventeen children.

Franklin learned the printing trade while working for the weekly Boston newspaper, New England Courant. The paper was owned by his brother James. When the brothers quarreled over letters young Benjamin published under a pseudonym, he left Boston before his apprenticeship expired. Franklin ran off to Philadelphia.

To London and Back

In Philadelphia, Franklin worked as a printer at several different shops. Encouraged by the Governor of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith, he traveled to London to purchase equipment to start his own newspaper. Unfortunately, this did not work out and Franklin found employment as a typesetter in the Smithfield area of London. A Quaker merchant, Thomas Denham, loaned him the money for passage on a ship back to Philadelphia.  In debt to Denham, Franklin worked in his shop until he passed away.

Franklin in Philadelphia

Franklin formally attended school for less than three years, but he read a considerable amount and in 1727 he created the Junto. The Junto was a group of “like minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community.” The members of the Junto created a library, which eventually led to the creation of the Library Company. In 1731, Franklin chartered the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Marriage to Deborah Read

In 1730, Franklin married Deborah Read by common-law and adopted his illegitimate son, William. The identity of William’s mother remains unknown. Franklin had two other children with Deborah, Francis, born in 1732, and Sarah, born in 1743.

Business Success and Political Connections

Franklin began saving money and became a successful businessman selling books and publishing the weekly Pennsylvania Gazette. He also clerked for the House of Representatives and promoted civic enterprises, such as the library, that still thrive today. He was on good terms with Lord Thomas Penn and was rewarded with local offices. He aligned himself with Penn’s secret agent, William Smith, in opposition to a large influx of German immigrants from the Rhineland, which seemed to threaten English sovereignty. The Germans had been aided by the Quakers in their move to the colony, and in return, the Germans supported Quaker politicians. Franklin was ambivalent toward the Quakers, who were pacifists. Although he respected their toleration, he hated their pacifism. During King George’s War (1744–1748), he organized an extralegal military association that helped him gain popular support, to the dismay of Penn, who feared popular leaders.

Franklin Gains Fame with the Kite Experiment

Franklin’s most famous scientific experiment is likely that of flying a kite in a thunderstorm with a key attached to a piece of twine. The purpose of the experiment was to prove that lightning is a form of electricity. He published the proposal for the experiment in 1750, although there is some debate as to whether or not he actually conducted the experiment himself, due to the danger of electrocution. His experiments and research into electricity, a new science at the time, led the London Royal Society to award him the Copley Gold Medal. As a result, his name became well known both in America and abroad.

Deputy Postmaster and Pennsylvania Assembly

Franklin was appointed as deputy postmaster of the colonies in 1753 and served in that capacity until 1774. During his tenure, he made the post offices profitable and essentially franchised several printers by supplying them with equipment on a profit-sharing basis. In 1751 he was elected to the Assembly, where he had to cooperate with the dominant Quakers. In 1755 he persuaded German farmers to rent their heavy wagons to Major General Edward Braddock for his doomed campaign against the French and Fort Duquesne.

Albany Congress and Plan of Union

In 1754, the French and Indian War, pitting Great Britain against France and its allies from the Native Tribes, loomed on the horizon.  Sensing the benefit of creating an alliance with the powerful Iroquois Confederation, British officials called for a conference between the American colonies and Iroquois leaders in Albany, New York. Franklin was selected as a delegate from Pennsylvania for the Albany Congress.

The most significant part of the conference was the development of the Albany Plan of Union, which Franklin proposed. The plan outlines a permanent federation of the colonies, as a means to reform colonial-imperial relations and to more effectively address shared colonial interests. The plan was introduced on June 19, and the commissioners adopted a final version on July 10.

Despite the support of those who attended the Albany Congress, the Albany Plan of Union was rejected by King George II and by all of the individual colonial governments that considered its adoption. The Congress and the plan were significant milestones, however, as they marked the first official attempts to develop inter-colonial cooperation among the American colonies.

Franklin Organizes and Leads Pennsylvania Militia

During the French and Indian War (1754–1763), Franklin served in the Pennsylvania Assembly. He helped to organize a legal militia and was chosen as its commanding colonel. He used Tun Tavern in Philadelphia as a recruiting station. The Pennsylvania Militia was organized as Pennsylvania’s 103rd Artillery and 11th Infantry Regiment at the Continental Army. He set up a ring of garrisoned forts for defense against Indian raids and eventually learned that the Indians were upset over being cheated out of their lands by Lord Thomas Penn. This led to Franklin eventually turning against the Quakers.

Franklin Opposes the Stamp Act

In 1764, Franklin found himself embroiled in disputes between members of the Pennsylvania Assembly and the heirs of William Penn. He was dispatched to London where in 1765 he was on hand to voice American opposition to the Stamp Act. His testimony to the House of Commons helped lead to its repeal and he emerged as a leading voice for American interests in England.

Franklin Leaks Massachusetts Letters

For several years, Franklin traveled throughout Europe, where his popularity continued to grow due to his eccentric personality. Yet while in England he grew weary of corruption and was able to obtain the private letters of Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson and lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver. These letters made it clear that they were encouraging the British to come down hard on the rights of the citizens of Boston. He left London in March 1775.

Second Continental Congress and Declaration of Independence

Upon arriving in American, he became a leading figure in the Second Continental Congress, which led to the Declaration of Independence. He served on the Committee of Five, which was tasked with drafting a document that would proclaim to the world the reasons for removing the colonies from the British Empire. The other members were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Jefferson produced a draft that was reviewed by Adams and Franklin, who recommended minor changes. The document was presented to Congress on Friday, June 28, 1776. At the signing, he supposedly said “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Peace Negotiations

In December of 1776, Franklin was sent to France to serve as an ambassador of the United States, in an effort to gain aid from the French in the Revolutionary War. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which brought peace with Great Britain.  He returned to the United States in 1785.

Governor of Pennsylvania

On October 18, 1785, he was elected the sixth President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, a role that is equivalent to Governor. He replaced fellow Founding Father John Dickinson. He was re-elected to a full term on October 29, 1785, then again in the Fall of 1786 and 1787.

Constitutional Convention of 1787

In 1787 he served as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention which resulted in the United States Constitution. Franklin signed the Constitution, becoming the only Founding Father to have signed the four major documents that helped to found and establish the nation. The other documents were the Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Paris, and Treaty of Alliance with France.

Supporter of Abolition

In his later years, Franklin wrote several essays concerning the abolition of slavery. Those essays were, An Address to the Public, published in 1789, A Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks, also in 1789, and  Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade in 1790.

Death

On April 17, 1790, Franklin passed away. His body was laid to rest at Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia.

Significance

Benjamin Franklin is important because he helped write the Declaration of Independence, was involved in negotiating the Treaty of Alliance with France, helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris with Britain that ended the American Revolutionary War, participated in the Constitutional Convention, and signed the United States Constitution. Very few Americans participated in so many key moments in American history and the founding of the nation.

Founding Father

Benjamin Franklin is considered a Founding Father for all of his dedication to the cause of American liberty and freedom. He represented American interests in Europe during the Stamp Act Crisis and after the War for Independence. During the war, he played a vital role in helping shape the direction of the Second Continental Congress, which culminated in the Declaration of Independence. It is quite possible that no other American played as important a role in the political formation of the United States of America as Benjamin Franklin.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Benjamin Franklin
  • Coverage January 17, 1706–April 17, 1790
  • Author
  • Keywords Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father, Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Alliance, Treaty of Paris 1863, United States Constitution
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date January 20, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 17, 2022
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