Ben Franklin - born Jan.17 [Jan. 6, Old Style], 1706, Boston d. April 17, 1790, Philadelphia - pseudonym Richrd Saunders - American printer and publisher, author, inventor and scientist, and diplomat.
Franklin, next to George Washington possibly the most famous 18th-century American, by 1757 had made a small fortune, established the Poor Richard of his almanacs (written under his pseudonym) as an oracle on how to get ahead in the world, and become widely known in European scientific circles for his reports of electrical experiments and theories.
What is more, he was then just at the beginning of a long career as a politician, in the course of which he would be chief spokesman for the British colonies in their debates with the king's ministers about self-government and would have a hand in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the securing of financial and military aid from France during the American Revolution, the negotiation of the treaty by which Great Britain recognized its former 13 colonies as a sovereign nation, and the framing of the Constitution, which for more than two centuries has been the fundamental law of the United States of America.
And as impressive as Franklin's public service was, it was perhaps less remarkable than his contributions to the comfort and safety of daily life. He invented a stove, still being manufactured, to give more warmth than open fireplaces; the lightning rod and bifocal eyeglasses also were his ideas. Grasping the fact that by united effort a community may have amenities which only the wealthy few can get for themselves, he helped establish institutions people now take for granted: a fire company, a library, an insurance company, an academy, and a hospital. In some cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.
One might expect universal admiration for a man of such breadth and apparent altruism. Yet Franklin was disliked by some of his contemporaries and has ever since occasionally been attacked as a materialist or a hypocrite. D.H. Lawrence, the English novelist, regarded him as the embodiment of the worst traits of the American character. Max Weber, the German sociologist, made him the exemplar of the "Protestant ethic," a state of mind that contributed much, Weber thought, to the less admirable aspects of modern capitalism. Those who admire Franklin believe that his detractors have mistakenly identified him with Poor Richard, a persona of his own creation, or that they have relied too largely upon the incomplete self-portrait of his posthumously published Autobiography.
Early life (1706-23)
Franklin was born the 10th son of the 17 children of a man who was both soapmaker and candlemaker. He learned to read very early and had one year in grammar school and another under a private teacher, but his formal education ended when he was 10. At 12 he was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. His mastery of the printer's trade, of which he was proud to the end of his life, was achieved between 1718 and 1723. In the same period he read tirelessly and taught himself to write effectively.
His first enthusiasm was for poetry, and in the first years of his apprenticeship he wrote two occasional ballads, no copies of which have survived. His father told him that "Verse-makers were always Beggars," and thereafter his interest in poetry was sporadic. Prose was another matter.
The Spectator, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele's famous periodical of essays, had appeared in England in 1711-12 and was to be imitated for the greater part of a century but seldom with the persistence of Franklin, the printer's apprentice.
He would read an essay, make a short note of the idea of each sentence, lay aside his notes for a few days, and then try to rewrite the essay. Comparison of his version with the original showed him the need to enlarge his vocabulary. Turning some Spectator papers into verse, and some days later reconverting them into prose, helped.
In 1721 James Franklin founded a Spectator-like weekly newspaper, the New-England Courant, to which readers were invited to contribute. Benjamin, now 16, read and perhaps set in type these contributions and decided that he could do as well himself.
In 1722 he wrote a series of 14 essays signed "Silence Dogood." Satire of New England funeral elegies and of the lip service paid the learned languages at Harvard College foreshadowed later literary techniques to be used by Franklin.
Late in 1722 James Franklin got into trouble with the provincial authorities and was forbidden to print or publish the Courant.
To keep the paper going, he discharged his younger brother from his original apprenticeship and made him the paper's nominal publisher. New indentures were drawn up but not made public. Some months later, after a bitter quarrel, Benjamin walked out, sure that James would not go to law and reveal the subterfuge he had devised. "It was not fair in me to take this Advantage," he wrote later, "and this I therefore reckon one of the first Errata [mistakes, in printer's lingo] of my Life."
Youthful adventures (1723-26)
Failing to find work in Boston or New York City, Franklin proceeded to Philadelphia. One of the dramatic scenes of the Autobiography is the description of his arrival on a Sunday morning, tired and hungry.
Finding a bakery, he asked for three pennies' worth of bread and got "three great Puffy Rolls." Carrying one under each arm and munching on the third, he walked up Market Street past the door of the Read family, where stood Deborah, his future wife. She saw him "& thought I made as I certainly did a most awkward ridiculous Appearance."
A few weeks later he was rooming at the Reads' and employed as a printer. By the spring of 1724 he was enjoying the companionship of other young men with a taste for reading and he was also being urged to set up in business for himself by the governor of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith. At Keith's suggestion, Franklin returned to Boston to try to raise the necessary capital.
His father thought him too young for such a venture, so Keith offered to foot the bill himself and arranged Franklin's passage to England so that he could choose his type and make connections with London stationers and booksellers. Franklin exchanged "some promises" with Deborah Read and, with a young friend, James Ralph, as companion, boarded the London Hope in November, expecting to find the letters of credit and introduction that Keith had promised. Not until the ship was well out at sea did he realize that the governor had not kept his promise.
A fellow passenger, a Quaker merchant by the name of Thomas Denham, told him that Keith was unreliable; eventually Franklin could write charitably: "He wish'd to please every body; and, having little to give, he gave Expectations."
In London Franklin quickly found employment in his trade and was able to lend money to Ralph, who was trying to establish himself as a writer. The two young men enjoyed the theatre and the other pleasures of the city; before long Ralph found a milliner for a mistress.
When Ralph was in the country, teaching school, the milliner occasionally borrowed money from Franklin. "I grew fond of her Company," he remembered, "and being at this time under no Religious Restraints, & presuming on my Importance to her, I attempted Familiarities (another Erratum) which she repulsed with a proper Resentment, and acquainted him with my Behaviour."
Still another "erratum" in retrospect was A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain (1725), a deistical pamphlet he was inspired to write after having set type for William Wollaston's moral tract The Religion of Nature Delineated. Franklin argued therein that since man has no real freedom of choice he is not morally responsible for his actions, perhaps consoling himself for his treatment of Deborah, to whom he had written only once.
By 1726 Franklin was tiring of London.
He considered becoming an itinerant teacher of swimming, but when Denham offered him a clerkship in his store in Philadelphia, with a prospect of fat commissions in the West Indian trade, he decided to return home.
Achievement of security and fame (1726-52)
Denham died, however, a few months after Franklin entered his store. The young man, now 20, returned to his trade and in 1728 was able to set up a partnership with a friend. Two years later he borrowed money to become sole proprietor.
His private life at this time was extremely complicated. Deborah Read had married, but her husband had deserted her and disappeared. One matchmaking venture failed because Franklin wanted a settlement to pay off his business debt.
A strong sexual drive, "that hard-to-be-govern'd Passion of Youth," was sending him to "low Women," and in the winter of 1730-31 he had a son, William, whose mother has never been identified. Franklin must have known that the child was expected when, his affection for Deborah having "revived," he "took her to Wife" on Sept. 1, 1730. Their common-law marriage lasted until Deborah's death in 1774. They had a son, who died at age four, and a daughter, Sarah, who survived them both. William was brought up in the household.
Franklin and his partner's first coup was securing the printing of Pennsylvania's paper currency. Franklin helped get this business by writing A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency (1729), and later he also became public printer of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
Other money-making ventures included the Pennsylvania Gazette, published by Franklin from 1729 and generally acknowledged as among the best of the colonial newspapers, and the Poor Richard's Almanacs, printed annually from 1732 to 1757.
Some failures, of course, occurred: a German-language newspaper that lasted less than a year and a monthly magazine that expired after six issues in 1741. Franklin was nevertheless generally prosperous; he made enough to invest capital in real estate and in partnerships or working arrangements with printers in the Carolinas, New York, and the British West Indies.
In 1748 he became a silent partner in the printing firm of Franklin and Hall, realizing in the next 18 years an average profit of almost £500 annually.
The first of his projects for social improvement by collective effort was the Junto, or Leather Apron club, organized in 1727 to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy and to exchange knowledge of business affairs.
The need of Junto members for easier access to books led in 1731 to the organization of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Through the Junto, Franklin proposed a paid city watch, or police force. A paper read to the same group resulted in the organization of a volunteer fire company.