Benjamin Franklin (1706 1790) was a leader of America’s Revolutionary generation. His character and thought were shaped by a blending of Puritan heritage, Enlightenment philosophy, and the New World environment.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston into a Puritan household. His forebears had come to New England in 1683 to avoid the zealous Anglican of England’s Restoration era. Franklin’s father was a candle-maker and skillful mechanic, but, his son said, his “great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgement.” Benjamin praised his mother as “a discreet and Virtuous Woman” who raised a family of 13 children. In honoring his parents and in his affection for New England ways, Franklin demonstrated the permanence of his Puritan heritage’.
Rejecting the Calvinist theology of his father, Franklin opened himself to the more secular world view of Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. He read the deist philosophers, virtually memorized the English paper Spectator, and otherwise gave allegiance to the Enlightenment. Like his favorite author, Joseph Addison, Franklin sought to add the good sense and tolerance of the new philosophy to his Puritan earnestness. Thus, by the time he left home at the age of 17, his character and attitude toward life had already achieved a basic orientation.
The circumstances of his flight from home also reveal essential qualities. Denied a formal education by his family’s poverty, Franklin became an apprentice to his brother James, printer of a Boston newspaper. While learning the technical part of the business, Franklin read every word that came into the shop and was soon writing clever pieces signed “Silence Dogood,” satirizing the Boston establishment. When the authorities imprisoned James for his criticisms, Benjamin continued the paper himself. Having thus learned to resist oppression, he refused to suffer his brother’s petty tyrannies and in 1723 ran away to Philadelphia.
Penniless and without friends in the new city, Franklin soon demonstrated his enterprise and skill as a printer and gained employment. In 1724 he went to England, where he quickly became a master printer, sowed wild oats, and lived among the aspiring writers of London. He returned to Philadelphia and soon had his own press, publishing a newspaper (Pennsylvania Gazette), Poor Richard’s Almanack, and a good share of the public printing of the province. He became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia, at the same time operating a bookshop and entering partnerships with printers from Nova Scotia to the West Indies. He was so successful that at the age of 42 he retired. He received a comfortable income from his business for 20 more years.
Franklin philosophized about his success and applied his understanding to civic enterprises. The philosophy appears in the adages of “Poor Richard” and in the scheme for moral virtue Franklin explained later in his famous Autobiography. He extolled hard work, thriftiness, and honesty as the poor man’s means for escaping the prison of want and explained how any man could develop in exemplary character with practice and perseverance. Though sayings like “Sloth maketh all things difficult, but Industry all easy” do not amount to a profound philosophy of life (as Franklin knew perfectly well), they do suggest useful first steps for self improvement. The huge circulation of both the sayings of “Poor Richard” (under the title “The Way to Wealth”) and the Autobiography, plus their distorted use by miserly and small minded apostles of thrift, led later to scathing assaults on Franklin by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and D. H. Lawrence but they in fact criticize a caricature, not the whole Franklin.
Franklin became involved in civic improvement in 1727 by organizing the Junto, a club of aspiring tradesmen like himself, that met each week. In the unformed society of Philadelphia it seemed obvious to these men that their success in business and improvement of the city’s life required the same thing: plans and institutions to deal with needs cooperatively. Thus, Franklin led the Junto in sponsoring civic improvements: a library, a fire company, a learned society, a college, an insurance companv, and a hospital. He also made effective proposals for a militia; for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets; and for a night watch. His simple but influential social belief that men of goodwill, organizing and acting together, could deal effectively with civic concerns remained with him throughout his life.
Work in Science
Franklin next turned to science. He had already invented the Pennsylvania fireplace (soon called the Franklin stove). His attention fastened primarily on electricity. He read the new treatises on the subject and acquired ingenious equipment. In his famous kite experiment, proving that lightning is a form of electricity, he linked laboratory experiments with static electricity to the great universal force and made a previously mysterious and terrifying natural phenomenon understandable. Franklin’s letters concern-ing his discoveries and theories about electricity to the Royal Society in London brought him fame. The invention of the lightning rod, which soon appeared on buildings all over the world, added to his stature. His scientific ingenuity, earning him election to the Royal Society in 1756, also found outlet in the theory of heat, charting the Gulf Stream, ship design, meteorology, and the invention of bifocal lenses and a harmonica. He insisted that the scientific approach, by making clear what was unknown as well as what was known, would “help to make a vain man humble” and, by directing the experiments and insights of others to areas of ignorance and mystery, would greatly expand human knowledge. Franklin the scientist, then, seemed to epitomize the 18th century faith in the capacity of men to understand themselves and the world in which they lived.
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