Colonial America, 1607-1783

 

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Major Works

Family

  • Father: English emigrant Josiah Franklin, a tallow chandler and soap boiler from Puritan background 
  • Mother: Abiah Folger Franklin from Puritan background
  • Brothers include James Franklin, editor of New England Courant
  • Wife: Deborah Read Franklin 
  • Son: William
  • Son: Francis
  • Daughter: Sarah

Homes

  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • London, England
  • Paris, France

Occupations

  • contributor, New England Courant 
  • editor, The Pennsylvania Gazette
  • printer
  • social reformer
  • statesman 
  • scientist 
  • inventor
  • author

Chronology

1706: born in Boston
1716-1717: works in father's shop
1718-1720: apprenticed to brother James
1721-1723: helps James publish the New England Courant and contributes "Silence Dogood" essays
1723: moves to Philadelphia and works for printer Samuel Keimer
1724: sails for England; works at Samuel Palmer's printing office in London
1725: "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain"; works for printer John Watts
1726: returns to America; works for merchant Thomas Denham
1727: forms Junto
1728: works as a self-employed printer in Philadelphia
1729: "Busy-Body" essays; buys Pennsylvania Gazette
1730: becomes official printer of Pennsylvania; enters a common-law union with Deborah Read
1731: begins sponsoring printers; Junto creates circulating library
1732-1757: Poor Richard's Almanack
1733: seeks moral perfection
1735: proposes fire department, night watch
1736: clerk of Pennsylvania Assembly
1737: postmaster of Pennsylvania
1741: invents Franklin stove; publishes General Magazine and Historical Chronicle
1743: founds American Philosophical Society
1746: conducts electrical experiments
1748: retires from printing; lives on printing partnerships, postmastership, and real estate investments; elected to Common Council of Philadelphia
1749: "Proposals Relating to Education of Youth in Pennsilvania," which leads to founding of University of Pennsylvania
1751: "Experiments and Observations with Electricity"
1751-1764: serves in Pennsylvania Assembly
1752: kite experiment
1753: becomes joint deputy postmaster of North America
1754: proposes American union against French; claims right to American self-government
1755: "A Parable Against Persecution," "A Parable on Brotherly Love"
1757: "The Way to Wealth"
1761:  invents a musical instrument called the armonica
1764: speaker of Pennsylvania Assembly; petitions to King for new government; agent for colonies in England
1771: writes first part of Autobiography
1773: "Edict by the King of Prussia"
1775: returns to America; delegate to Second Continental Congress; drafts Articles of Confederation. After years of trying to achieve compromise and reconciliation of the British and the colonists, Franklin becomes impatient with the British and begins to favor separation (Wright 249-250).
1776-1785: serves as diplomat in France
1778: achieves alliance with France
1784: writes second part of Autobiography
1785: returns to America
1787: delegate to Constitutional Convention; proposes proportional representation in House and equal representation in the Senate
1788: writes third part of Autobiography
1789: writes first remonstrance against slavery addressed to Congress
1790: writes fourth part of Autobiography
1790: dies at home in Philadelphia

Resources

The Albany Plan of Union is available online.

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, a book by acclaimed historian Gordon Wood, shows how Franklin became a Patriot.

American Philosophical Society: Franklin Images and Artifacts features several paintings and sketches of Franklin.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is available online.

Ben Franklin: America’s Original Entrepreneur, a book by Blaine McCormick, features a “translation” of Franklin’s autobiography.

Benjamin Franklin, a companion Web site for a PBS documentary, features pictures, descriptions, lesson plans, a list of resources, and more.

“Benjamin Franklin,” a chapter in D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, is available online. 

Benjamin Franklin: A Documentary History is a remarkably comprehensive resource on Franklin's life by a leading Franklin authority, J. A. Leo Lemay.  It features a year-by-year summary of Franklin's activities.

Benjamin Franklin and the Armonica describes Franklin's invention of a musical instrument called the armonica.

Benjamin Franklin and His Inventions features descriptions and links to images.

Benjamin Franklin: Writings, a Library of America edition, includes his autobiography, as well as numerous newspaper articles, essays, and letters.

The Complete Poor Richard's Almanacks contains facsimiles of Franklin's almanacs.

Declaration of Independence, an Internet resource sponsored by the National Archives, features images and historical information.

Franklin and His Friends, an online exhibition sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery, features images of Franklin, his contemporaries, and scientific instruments.

Franklin of Philadelphia is a biography by Esmund Wright.

Pages from the Past features a facsimile of a page from Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette.

The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, a collection of Franklin’s writings, is available online.

Extracts from various editions of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack are available online.

Poor Richard’s Legacy: American Business Values from Benjamin Franklin to Michael Milken, a book by Peter Baida, features a chapter on Franklin.

Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective contains numerous critical essays on Franklin's journalism, as well as other aspects of his work.

The Speech of Miss Polly Baker, one of Franklin’s most famous literary works, is available online.

Stealing God’s Thunder, a book by Philip Dray, explores Franklin’s scientific work, especially his monumental work on electricity and the lightning rod.

Updated September 13, 2010
© Mark Canada, 2010
mark.canada@uncp.edu

Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790

By Mark Canada
Professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Benjamin Franklin, in the words of biographer Carl Van Doren, was a "harmonious human multitude." As Van Doren's assessment suggests, Franklin's life and work are at once difficult and simple to summarize.  On the one hand, his multitude of contributions in the worlds of printing, science, politics, journalism and literature defy brief summary.  On the other hand, these many accomplishments were in harmony with one another in that they share some a common theme of human progress through human initiative. 

Life

Born the 15th child of a tallow chandler and soap boiler, Franklin perhaps had little reason to think that he would become famous and wealthy.  He was, however, a man of means.  Throughout his early experiences in journalism, printing, and businesses, he was a diligent student of human nature and developed the means for success.  Long before Dale Carnegie, Franklin was a master of winning friends and influencing people.  In his autobiography, he describes many of his strategies for success.  When, for example, he refused to pay a shop fee he found unfair--and consequently found his work sabotaged--he changed his mind and paid the fee, "convinc'd of the Folly of being on ill Terms with those one is to live with continually" (Writings 1349).  He learned to state his opinions diffidently, to work hard, and to make sure people knew he was working hard.  In short, Franklin was a model of practicality, a theme nicely summed up in his evaluation of deism: ". . . I began to suspect that this Doctrine tho' it might be true, was not very useful" (Writings 1359).

Together with his brilliant mind and creative energy, Franklin's mastery of means led him to succeed in a variety of fields.  After beginning his printing career as merely an apprentice to his brother James, he eventually became one of the most successful printers in the colonies after setting up his own shop in Philadelphia.  As Esmond Wright notes in Franklin of Philadelphia, he sold 10,000 copies of his Poor Richard's Almanack a year, a best-seller second only to the Bible at this time (55). He also edited a successful newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, in which he published both serious essays and satires on a wide range of topics, including health care, defense, business, drinking, religion, marriage, legal prose, and virtue.

Thanks to his financial successes in printing, Franklin had the leisure to pursue other interests.  One of these interests, his fascination with science, transformed him into an international celebrity.  At a time when electricity had both captured the human imagination and escaped human comprehension, Franklin shed new light on this mysterious force.  He published his "Experiments and Observations with Electricity" in 1751 and, the following year, conducted his famous kite experiment, in which he demonstrated that thunder and lightning were electrical phenomena.  Fellow scientist Joseph Priestly referred to this finding as “the greatest discovery that has been made in the whole compass of philosophy since the time of Sir Isaac Newton” (qtd. in Dray 82).  In 1752, Franklin put up his first lightning rods, which protected buildings from lightning.  In Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, Joseph Dray explains the significance of this invention: “The lightning rod was one of the Enlightenment’s greatest inventions not only for the lives and property it saved, but for its potent symbolism.  By subduing nature’s most arrogant power, it raised a defining question of the late eighteenth century: If reason can vanquish thunderbolts, can it also influence morality, social organization, and human behavior?” (184).  Over the course of his long life in science, Franklin also made important observations about the Gulf Stream, came up with the idea of Daylight Savings Time, and contributed a number of inventions, including bifocals, the Franklin stove, and a musical instrument called the armonica

In the realm of politics, Franklin earned his reputation as one of the Founding Fathers by making numerous contributions to the formation of the United States of America.  He was one of the first persons to suggest a colonial union; in 1754, in something called the Albany Plan of Union, he called for the formation of a council to organize defense of the colonies and to create policies regarding the Native Americans.  In 1776, he served on the five-person committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and made a number of revisions in Thomas Jefferson's draft.  Between 1750 and his death in 1790, he wrote several political essays, including Causes of American Discontents before 1768, as well as a speech calling for adoption of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1789. Perhaps his greatest contribution, Esmund Wright suggests in Franklin of Philadelphia, is his work to solicit assistance from France during the American Revolution: "All the financial aid from 1776 to 1781 came by and through France; 90 percent of the power used by Americans in the first two and a half years of war came from France. And most of the credit for this French assistance must go to Franklin" (336).

Despite their number and diversity, Franklin's accomplishments were harmonious.  At their core was an unshakable pragmatism, a concern with the means by which humans can improve themselves and their environments. In this respect, he was a major American voice of the Enlightenment. In his invention of the Franklin stove, the maxims of Poor Richard, his establishment of the Junto and a circulating library, and the "bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection" he describes in his autobiography, we can see a commitment to human progress through human initiative. For instance, Franklin had infinite hope for the potential of science to improve human life. In a letter he wrote to Joseph Priestly in February 1780, he celebrated the growing "Power of Man over Matter," seeing in it great potential for improving transportation, agriculture, and human health (Writings 1017).  Franklin even recognized the value of knowledge with no immediately obvious practical applications. Asked of what use the hot-air balloon could be, Franklin responded: "What good is a new-born baby?" (Wright 324). 

Indeed, so practical was Franklin that some observers, particularly other writers, have accused him of being shallow. The most vocal of these detractors, D.H. Lawrence, complained that Franklin oversimplified human psychology. "Why, the soul of man is a vast forest," Lawrence famously declares in his chapter on Franklin in Studies in Classic American Literature, "and all Benjamin intended was a neat back garden" (52). A half-century earlier, Herman Melville included Franklin among those "keen observers of the main chance; prudent courtiers; practical magicians in linsey-woolsey" (Wright 2). What seems to vex these and other writers is Franklin's fascination with the practical and neglect of the spiritual, as well as his belief in humans' control over their lives and environment. Reacting to such confidence, Lawrence argues: "We are only the actors, we are never wholly the authors of our own deeds or works" (59).

It may be, however, that Franklin's celebration of free will was a matter of focus, rather than ignorance. In their worthy pursuits of life's mysteries, many writers--Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, and Eugene O'Neill, to name a few--have run the risk of losing sight of humans' capacity to control at least a portion of their lives. It was this portion--which he believed to be large--that interested Franklin. Wright characterizes Franklin as practical problem-solver rather than a theorist: "He had little time for metaphysics or the life of the imagination. His interest was not that of the radical (or of the true philosopher) in doctrine, or even in constitutions, but that of the businessman, the man of affairs, and the politician, in getting things done and in getting problems--specific and immediate problems--solved. For him, problems were for solving by reason and compromise, not raw material for crusades" (351). Instead of merely being ignorant of Lawrence's "vast forest," Franklin perhaps chose to focus his energies elsewhere. Wright puts it this way: "He worked in the light" (4).

Literature and Journalism

On top of all of these accomplishments, Franklin is among America's greatest writers.  In the realm of literature, his autobiography is one of the finest and widely read in the genre, and essays such as “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker” and "The Sale of the Hessians" are frequently anthologized.  The maxims he included in his Poor Richard's Almanack, furthermore, have made him one of the most frequently quoted Americans in history.  Truly a belles lettrist in the tradition of the eighteenth century, Franklin also wrote, edited, and published the leading newspaper of his time, The Pennsylvania Gazette.  As such, he was one of America's first and most prominent literary journalists. 

Some of his first known compositions were essays he contributed to the New England Courant, edited by his brother James.  Published in 1722 under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood," these essays and others Franklin wrote for the Courant resemble much other journalistic writing of the time, particularly that of The Spectator, an English publication edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.  Rather than report on current events, Franklin generally shared his views on various general subjects in the vein of a modern newspaper column.  In the fourth of these essays, for example, he satirizes Harvard College; in the eighth, he parodies maudlin poetry; in the tenth, he proposes insurance for widows.

Years later, after a split with James and additional work in printing, Franklin took over The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729.  While he edited and published the newspaper over the ensuing decades, he continued to publish essays, including "Lying Shopkeepers" and "On Simplicity."  He also acted as a reporter, however, and composed a number of straight news stories on crimes, law, acts of nature, and odd incidents.  It is in the work that he produced for The Pennsylvania Gazette that Franklin demonstrated his outstanding talent for journalism, even anticipating later trends in news gathering and reporting.  In an age when more than half of newspaper starts failed within two years, Franklin's Gazette not only survived, but succeeded brilliantly.  Calling it "the best newspaper in the American colonies" (44) journalism historians Edwin and Michael Emery note that the Pennsylvania Gazette "had the largest circulation, most pages, highest advertising revenue, most literate columns, and liveliest comment of any paper in the area" (44). 

As a journalist, he had what journalism historian Frank Luther Mott has called "a lively news sense for the unusual and interesting" (28).  He had a particular knack for finding and reporting what modern journalists sometimes call "brights"--quirky stories intended to amuse readers.  In an article that appeared on February 1, 1729, he wrote of a husband who tried to decapitate a stonecutter he found "Napping" with his wife, ending the article with the observation that "some People admire, that when the Person offended had so fair and suitable an Opportunity, it did not enter into his Head to turn St-n-c-tt-r himself" (177).  On October 16 of the same year, the Gazette reported: "And sometime last Week, we are informed, that one Piles a Fidler, with his Wife, were overset in a Canoo near Newtown Creek.  The good Man, 'tis said, prudently secur'd his Fiddle, and let his Wife go to the Bottom" (Writings 137).  With its brevity and snappy punch line, this latter item has the ring of an anecdote shared in a tavern--or a printing office.  In "'Scandal, like other Virtues, is in part is own Reward': Franklin Working the Crime Beat," Ronald A. Bosco in fact writes that Franklin may have mined town talk for his local coverage (82). 

There is another word for some of the "unusual and interesting" material that appeared in Franklin's paper: sensationalism.  In its coverage of sex and violence, the Pennsylvania Gazette may have appealed to readers on other levels.  Arguing that "Franklin's purpose in printing these stories was more than simple entertainment or comic relief" (83), Bosco points to a number of ways in which Franklin satisfied various readers' desires and demands, including "petty prejudices" and "desires for printed lust, gore, or intrigue" (84).  He goes on: "For readers who delight in blood and gore and know that 'fact is stranger than fiction,' there is the story of the hapless butcher who in a dream mistakes his daughter for a calf and slaughters her" (84).  Even Franklin's style subtly engages readers, as Bosco explains, "Through bland reportage he delegates to his readers responsibility for judging the accuracy and plausibility of his reportage and gives them the opportunity to hide from their own villainy by observing that of others" (84).

Franklin, furthermore, had an extraordinary ability to write clear, concise descriptions of news events instead of the digressive, even sprawling stories one might find in contemporary papers.  Take, for example, this lead from an article on counterfeiting: 

Last Monday se'nnight in the Evening, three Men went into the Indian Prince Tavern, and having call'd for some Liquor, one of them offer'd a new Twenty Shilling Bill to be chang'd for the Reckoning; Mr. R. Brockden, Master of the House, suspecting it to be a Counterfeit, went with it immediately to A. Hamilton, Esq; (under Pretence of going out to get Change) who caused them presently to be apprehended.  (Writings 203-204).

In other straight news stories, notably "The Trial and Reprieve of Prouse and Mitchel," Franklin demonstrated the same crisp style.

Like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary journalists who would follow him, Franklin was more than merely a belles lettrist who also happened to write for newspapers.  In his biography, Wright notes: "Journalism was, in Franklin's day, the career before all others that offered opportunity to enterprise and imagination" (18).  For Franklin, a man of means, printing and journalism were the means to achieve his Enlightenment philosophy of human progress through human initiative.  Indeed, Franklin's work as a journalist probably helped him to realize the possibilities of language as a vehicle for change.

In addition to printing the standard announcements of ship arrivals and legislative matters, he often stepped out of his role as mere news-gatherer to that of a teacher or parent giving advice designed to help readers improve their lives.  Indeed, Norman Grabo, author of "The Journalist as Man of Letters," argues that a central force behind Franklin's journalism was "a sense of improving individuals by improving society" (35).  In a November 19, 1730, item on truth in retail, for example, Franklin sets out a lesson for merchants, arguing that successful shopkeepers "raise considerable Estates," while dishonest ones go bankrupt.  "The former's Character," Franklin explains, "raises a Credit which supplies the Want of Fortune, and their fair Dealing, brings them Custom; whereas none will return to buy of him, by whom he has been once defrauded" (159).   Similarly, as Robert D. Arner points out in "Politics and Temperance in Boston and Philadelphia:  Benjamin Franklin's Journalistic Writings on Drinking and Drunkenness," Franklin passed moralistic lessons about the dangers of drink in articles such as "Death of a Drunk" and "On Drunkenness."  Writing on Franklin's temperance pieces as a whole, Arner writes: "Like Franklin's writings on other subjects, they demonstrate a deep and abiding belief in the power of the press to educate the public on important topical issues, often employing humor but sometimes also resorting to sensationalism in order to make their messages more explicit and dramatic" (52).

The second half of Arner's analysis may contain the key to Franklin's success in this touchy area of didactic journalism.  As Grabo notes, Franklin's efforts at improving his readers was really part of a larger journalistic ethic of his time.  Sam Kneeland, Franklin's own brother James, and others among Franklin's contemporaries, Grabo writes, believed that "the function of the journalist is to improve and educate readers by widening individual views, by expanding their vision, and inevitably by getting away from narrow self-interest" (35).  The efforts of some of these other journalists were not as successful as Franklin's, however, at least partly because they lacked Franklin's skills of delivery.  As Grabo notes, for instance, Samuel Nevil's New American Magazine "covered" the French and Indian War by first running something called "History of North America," a serial which ran for months and eventually exhausted the patience of some readers (35).  Franklin, on the other hand, managed to pass out his fatherly advice in a relatively painless way.  He formed his version of the "sugar-covered pill" partly by borrowing a device perfected by Puritan writers.  In "Death of a Drunk," he uses an incident to teach a lesson--a method Arner likens to that of Samuel Sewall: "This movement from particular fact to abstract and universal significance broadly parallels the moral structure of Puritan meditative practice and illustrates how deeply Franklin's habits of mind were rooted in the religion of his youth" (61).

Even the Franklin's sensational reporting may have had a didactic bent.  Boscot writes:

As readers of Poor Richard's wisdom, satiric epistles by the 'Busy-Body' (1728/9) and Alice Addertongue, and grand hoaxes such as 'The Speech of Miss Polly  Baker' (1747) know, Franklin routinely traced the failure of social institutions and human relationships to, among other causes, the pride, laziness, ignorance, cupidity, and sexual depravity of the principals involved.  In his evaluative writing on crime and deviance the plays on the prevalence of such typical human vice and folly to ridicule institutions and, by virtue of their prevalence, to underscore the role of human agency in perpetuation of criminal and deviant behavior. (86)

Bosco goes on to explain that Franklin sometimes "asserted the goodness of the human race" by referring to acts of kindness and generosity in these accounts (88).  Citing Franklin's account of a rape and murder, Bosco writes that "Franklin offers readers an unmistakable lesson: if they are willing to answer brutality and vice with good works and virtuous actions that have their origin in the better side of human nature, people have the capacity to offset the effects and check the continuance of criminal and deviant behavior" (88).

In a vast amount of this journalistic writing, then, Franklin shows a belief in the power of the printed word as a means to human perfectibility.  Franklin would continue this trend in much of what scholars consider his literary output.  His autobiography, for example, is nothing less than a self-help manual consciously constructed to help the audience make friends, earn and save money, and even achieve "moral Perfection."  Virtually all of Poor Richard's maxims offer guidance for self-improvement.  This literature grew out of Franklin's experience as a journalist, where he learned that words could make a difference.

Works Cited

  • Arner, Robert D.  "Politics and Temperance in Boston and Philadelphia:  Benjamin Franklin's Journalistic Writings on Drinking and Drunkenness." Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective.  Ed. J.A. Leo Lemay.  Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.  52-77.
  • Bosco, Ronald A.  "'Scandal, like other Virtues, is in part is own Reward': Franklin Working the Crime Beat."  Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective.  Ed. J.A. Leo Lemay.  Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.  78-97
  • Dray, Philip.  Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America.  New York: Random House, 2005.
  • Franklin, Benjamin.  Writings.  Ed. Leo Lemay.  New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987.
  • Grabo, Norman S.  "The Journalist as Man of Letters."  Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective.  Ed. J.A. Leo Lemay.  Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.  31-39.
  • Lawrence, D.H. "Benjamin Franklin." Classic American Literature. New York: Viking Press, 1961. Reprinted in Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin
  • Mott, Franklin Luther.  American Journalism: A History: 1690-1960.  New York: Macmillan, 1962.
  • Smith, Jeffery A.  "'Infamous Practices': Risk-Taking in Franklin's Early Journalism."  Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective.  Ed. J.A. Leo Lemay.  Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.  40-51.
  • Wright, Esmund. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

 
 Background

Purpose and Content of Colonial Newspapers

"Risk-Taking"

Issues and Themes

Morality

“All the intellectuals in the age of Enlightenment—Francis Hutcheson to Claude-Adrien Helvetius—were preoccupied with discovering the moral forces in the human world that were comparable to the physical forces in the natural world uncovered by Newton and other scientists. Franklin was no different.  In the 1750s he revealed the workings of electricity in the natural world, but he longed to make an equally important contribution to the moral or social sciences.  He had been thinking about writing a book on the ‘Art of Virtue’ for decades.  But now he realized that he might not have time to write it.  So instead he decided to describe in his Autobiography his ‘bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection’” (Wood 204).

“Franklin took his project to achieve moral perfection quite seriously, more seriously perhaps than many commentators have admitted.  The Enlightenment promise of being able to make oneself over culturally seemed to be exemplified in Franklin’s life” (Wood 205).

“Although Franklin admits that he had not attained moral perfection in his lifetime but had fallen far short of it, ‘yet I was by the Endeavour a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it.’  In other words, Franklin tells us the delightful story of the speckled ax only to deny its lesson at the end.  Any reader, however, is bound to be overwhelmed by the charm of the anecdote and the power of the rationalizations that excuse a less than perfect moral character.  Hence Franklin leaves us with a very morally ambiguous message.  Which is why so many different readers can draw so many different lessons from the Autobiography, and indeed, from all of his writings” (Wood 205).

Works Cited

 

See

In Reappraising Benjamin Franklin, Leo Lemay calls the following books "the five greatest twentieth-century monographs on Franklin" (28):

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