We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1778 Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1778
Franklin, Benjamin (1706–1790), natural philosopher, writer, and revolutionary politician in America, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, New England, on 6 January 1706 and baptized later that day. His parents were Josiah Franklin (1657–1745), a tallow chandler and soap maker who had emigrated from England in 1683 to practise his puritan faith, and his second wife, Abiah (1667–1752), the daughter of of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Josiah had seventeen children, seven by his first wife and ten by his second. Benjamin was the ninth child born to Josiah and Abiah.

Early years: Boston, Philadelphia, and London, 1706–1726

Franklin had only two years of formal education. He studied at a traditional grammar school (probably in 1714–15), and at an English school during the following year. He then worked for his father, but disliked the trade. In 1718 his brother James set up a printing shop in Boston. Since Franklin loved to read and write poetry his father apprenticed him to James, and in that year the twelve-year-old Franklin signed a nine-year indenture. After reading everything in his father's small library he borrowed books from his friends. Having purchased an odd volume of The Spectator, Franklin taught himself composition by making notes on the essays, then jumbling the notes, and later constructing them in his own words. He compared these with the originals and corrected his.

In 1721 James Franklin started his own newspaper, the New England Courant, which became America's first witty, daring, literary, and anti-establishment journal. To Benjamin his brother's printing shop served as a miniature republic of letters where groups of James's friends met daily to discuss the materials they were writing for the Courant. Benjamin set the contents in type, printed and delivered the journal to the customers, and heard their comments. At sixteen he emulated his brother's friends and wrote for the paper, in what became the first essay series in American literature, under the pseudonym Silence Dogood:
But being still a Boy, and suspecting that my Brother would object to printing any Thing of mine in his Paper if he knew it to be mine, I contriv'd to disguise my Hand and writing an anonymous Paper I put it in at Night under the Door of the Printing-House. (Autobiography, 17–18)
Between 12 June and 7 July 1722 Benjamin took charge of the Courant while his brother served a prison term for suggesting that local officials had deliberately delayed sailing out to resist pirates. After James had further offended the authorities, in January 1723, the Massachusetts general assembly narrowly agreed to prohibit him from publishing the newspaper without prior review. James defied the order, printed the Courant, and hid from the authorities between 24 January and 12 February, leaving Benjamin once more in charge. In this capacity the adolescent gave ‘our Rulers some Rubs in it’ (ibid., 19).

Notwithstanding their professional co-operation the siblings often quarrelled, and James, who ‘was otherwise not an ill-natur'd Man’, sometimes beat his apprentice. Benjamin ran away and on 25 September 1723 sailed for New York, which had the nearest printing establishment. Failing to find work there he went on to Philadelphia, the only other town in English speaking North America with a printing press, arriving on the morning of 6 October with 1 Dutch dollar and about 20 pence in copper. Franklin then went to work for Samuel Keimer in his recently opened printing shop. Seven months later, befriended by Pennsylvania's governor, William Keith, who promised to give him a contract for the public printing, Benjamin returned to Boston to ask his father for a loan to start a printing shop but was refused. Back in Philadelphia, Keith pledged to lend Franklin the money to buy the press and types but suggested he go first to London to make the purchases and to arrange for supplies from the stationers, booksellers, and printers. At this time Franklin was courting Deborah Read (1705?–1774), his landlady's daughter, and they planned to marry, but her mother insisted they wait until Franklin's return. He sailed for London on 5 November 1724, by chance with Thomas Denham, a Quaker merchant. In London, Franklin learned that Governor Keith had deceived him and had ‘no Credit to give’ (Autobiography, 41). Without money or prospects Franklin found work at Samuel Palmer's London printing shop, 54 Bartholomew Close. There, in February 1725, he set in type the third edition of William Wollaston's Religion of Nature Delineated, and wrote an ironic rejoinder, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. With no publisher, no author, and no bookseller indicated, the pamphlet was archetypal clandestine literature. It won him notoriety among London libertines, and the friendship of William Lyons, who had spent six months in gaol for expressing freethinking views in his own book; via Lyons he also met Bernard Mandeville, author of the infamous Fable of the Bees, and it is Franklin who provides us with the only description of the author's personality. Later that year Franklin left Palmer's printing house for John Watts' larger printing establishment and in spring 1726 Thomas Denham encouraged Franklin to return with him to Philadelphia and work as his clerk and shopkeeper while learning the mercantile business. Franklin agreed and left England on 23 July 1726.

Printer in Philadelphia, 1726–1748

Franklin attended to Denham's business ‘diligently, studied Accounts, and grew in a little Time expert at selling’ (Autobiography, 52). However, following a severe bout of pleurisy he left Denham (who died in July 1728 after a lingering illness) and returned to work as the manager of Samuel Keimer's printing shop in March 1727. In the following spring he and an associate, Hugh Meredith, borrowed money from Meredith's father to set up their own printing shop and a year later Franklin published his first political pamphlet, A Modest Inquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency (1729). Partly because of its influence the Pennsylvania assembly passed a paper currency bill. In autumn 1729 the partners bought the failing Pennsylvania Gazette ‘for a Trifle’ from Samuel Keimer. Franklin immediately revived its fortunes by writing an editorial analysis of the current controversy between Governor William Burnet and the Massachusetts assembly. The paper's circulation was boosted further after October 1735, when he was appointed Philadelphia's postmaster. ‘Tho' the Salary was small’, the position ‘facilitated the Correspondence that improv'd my Newspaper, increas'd the Number demanded, as well as the Advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a very considerable Income’ (ibid., 101).

In August 1725 Franklin's former betrothed, Deborah Read, had married John Rogers. He proved a poor husband who was rumoured to have another wife, and Deborah soon left him to return to live with her mother. Rogers absconded in December 1727. On 1 September 1730 Franklin and Deborah Read Rogers joined together in a common-law marriage, and set up a home with Benjamin's illegitimate son, , who according to his own correspondence was born in 1730 or 1731 but whose ensign commission (June 1746) may suggest a birth date of about 1729; firm details of William's mother are unknown (Papers, 3.474n.). In October 1732 Deborah gave birth to a son, Francis Folger Franklin, who died of smallpox aged four. Eleven years after the birth of Francis, Franklin's third and last child, Sarah, was born on 31 August 1743. Deborah was a member of Philadelphia's Anglican Christ Church, where both Francis Folger and Sarah were baptized and where Francis was buried. Franklin subscribed for seats for his family in the church and supported its projects, but never became a member.

Admitted a freemason in January 1731 Franklin was elected grand master on St John's day, 24 June 1734, the first indication of his rise to local prominence. In July 1731 he organized the Library Company of Philadelphia and during the autumn he sponsored Thomas Whitemarsh as his printing partner in Charles Town, South Carolina. By 1732 Franklin had taught himself to read and write German and he subsequently studied French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin, attaining a reading knowledge of them all. Later that year Franklin started his own almanac, Poor Richard, to which he contributed and with which he achieved commercial success, selling almost ten thousand copies annually. Even after his retirement from printing in 1748 Franklin supplied the copy for Poor Richard until 1757, when he wrote the last almanac, Poor Richard Improved … 1758, on his voyage to England. The preface of that work, reprinted under the title The Way to Wealth (initially as Father Abraham's Speech), became his best-known writing until the posthumous publication of his Autobiography (see below). Additional work followed his appointment in October 1736 as clerk of the Pennsylvania assembly. The position allowed him to keep up his interest ‘among the Members, which secur'd to me the Business of Printing the Votes, Laws, Paper Money, and other occasional jobs for the Public, that on the whole were very profitable’ (Autobiography, 100).

In addition to new publishing ventures and political responsibilities Franklin was now also engaged in self-improvement. By 1 July 1733 he had devised a scheme of thirteen useful virtues and a chart listing the violations which he recorded in the second part of the Autobiography. Franklin's proposed virtues were intended to correct his particular faults, though he thought the method of attaining the virtues might be useful to others. The morning question on his chart of the day began, ‘What Good shall I do this Day’ and the evening question was ‘What Good have I done to day’ (Autobiography, 83). Discussing the project in the Autobiography, he concluded that though he fell short of the ideal envisioned, ‘Yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been’ (ibid., 87).

Self-improvement also coincided with Franklin's growing interest in, and reputation for, scientific enquiry and experimentation. In the edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette for February 1735, for example, he publicized the importance of firefighting (this followed his proposal for a fire protection society to his Philadelphia debating club, the Junto), and on 7 December 1736 he organized Philadelphia's first fire company. To hinder counterfeiting of paper currency he devised a new printing technique (reproducing images of plant leaves) and used it for the New Jersey paper currency of 1736. On 21 October 1743 Franklin intended to observe an eclipse of the moon but was prevented by bad weather. He found that the eclipse was observed in Boston and that a hurricane, which had passed over Philadelphia on the 21st, had struck there later. That observation led him to speculate that though the hurricane had blown from the north-east the storm itself had moved up from the south. Fascinated by the whirling winds in the great storms he analysed the nature of whirlwinds and waterspouts, correctly theorizing that they had vacuums at their centre, and ingeniously comparing their motion to the circular motion of water draining from a tub. During winter 1740–41 he designed a superior stove and in 1744 he wrote a pamphlet to popularize his invention which conserved wood while proving more efficient: ‘My common Room, I know is made twice as warm as it used to be, with a quarter of the Wood I formerly consum'd’ (Papers, 2.437). The pamphlet was translated into various languages and gave him an international reputation. Though offered a patent on the stove, the practical idealist refused it, saying that since he enjoyed ‘great Advantage from the Inventions of Others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by an Invention of ours’ (Autobiography, 116).

In 1743 Franklin published A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge, the founding document for the precursor of America's first scientific society, the American Philosophical Society. In April 1745 the London merchant Peter Collinson, a member of the Royal Society, sent the Library Company a pamphlet describing the new German investigations in electricity. Franklin and several friends practised the existing experiments with the Leyden jar (an early capacitor) and designed their own tests. On 25 May 1747 Franklin sent Collinson a letter explaining how the capacitor worked. Franklin proved that there were not two kinds of electricity (the current theory) but only one, to which he applied the terms plus and minus, or positive and negative. Franklin demonstrated that in electrifying objects nothing new was created or lost, rather that the electricity was rearranged. For the Nobel prize-winning physicist R. A. Millikin, Franklin's law of the conservation of charge was ‘the most fundamental thing ever done in the field of electricity’ (Millikin, 38).

Finally, these fruitful years also witnessed Franklin's emerging political conscience and spirit of activism. In 1747 French and Spanish privateers attacked ships and settlements in the Delaware River, and the French and Indians assaulted Pennsylvania's frontiers. The authorities were unable to raise a military as the Pennsylvania assembly was controlled by Quakers, many of whom were pacifists. On 17 November 1747 Franklin published a 24-page pamphlet entitled Plain Truth in which he outlined the province's defenceless and alarming situation, and urged private citizens to organize themselves as a defensive force if the government would not. On the verso of the title-page he printed America's first political cartoon with the moral that God helps those who help themselves. He proposed a militia association, which proved successful and made him a popular hero, provoking the jealousy of Pennsylvania's main proprietor, Thomas Penn. When King George's War (1740–48) concluded the militia association dissolved.

The retired printer, 1748–1757

On 1 January 1748 Franklin formed a partnership with his journeyman David Hall and retired as a printer, so acquiring more time for electrical experimentation. In April 1749 he theorized that clouds became electrified and that lightning was electrical in nature, and in July of the following year he devised an experiment to test his hypothesis. By this date Franklin had also proposed the idea of lightning rods (March 1750). In London, Franklin's letters on electricity were gathered by the physician John Fothergill and published as Experiments and Observations on Electricity in February 1751. The brief book was translated into French, and Franklin's experiment was successfully carried out in France on 10 May 1752. Before learning of the French proof Franklin speculated that he might also be able to test his hypothesis by flying a kite at the approach of a thunder storm, and in June 1752 he tried the experiment. Franklin ran a hemp string from the kite to a Leyden jar, insulating himself with a silk ribbon attached to the string. When the fibres on the string stood out, he knew the experiment had succeeded, thus proving electricity to be a basic element of nature. His work made Franklin the most famous natural philosopher since Isaac Newton: ‘The Prometheus of modern times’, as Immanuel Kant put it in 1756 (Papers, 20.490).

In October 1748 the common council of Philadelphia had chosen Franklin to be a councilman. On 3 June of the following year he was named a justice of the peace for Philadelphia, and in 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania assembly. Because Franklin had been the assembly's clerk since 1736 he was intimately familiar with its workings and was immediately assigned to the most important committees. Known as a superior writer he authorized the replies to the governor's messages. His public offices culminated in his being appointed, on 10 August 1753, joint deputy postmaster-general of North America.

In 1749 Franklin projected an academy in Philadelphia, raised funds for it, supervised its construction, and served as its first chairman of the board of trustees. It became the Academy and College of Philadelphia and later the University of Pennsylvania. In 1751 his friend Thomas Bond attempted to raise funds for a hospital in Philadelphia. He enlisted Franklin, who wrote two essays on the subject in the Pennsylvania Gazette and raised subscriptions. When these proved insufficient Franklin petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature for funds. The county legislators objected that it would benefit only the city and claimed that even Philadelphians were not really supporting the plan. Franklin then devised the first matching grant. He proposed a bill making the grant conditional: when the hospital's subscribers had raised £2000 then the legislature would add an additional £2000. Subscriptions increased and the Pennsylvania Hospital, America's first, opened on 6 February 1752. Franklin's varied activities brought recognition. In 1753, while journeying through New England on post office business, he received honorary MAs from Harvard (25 July) and Yale (12 September). On 30 November he was awarded the Copley medal of the British Royal Society, at that time the most distinguished prize for scientific achievement in the world. The Royal Society unanimously elected him to membership on 29 April 1756. On another post office tour to Virginia, William and Mary College granted him its first honorary master's degree (20 April 1756) and on 1 September he became a corresponding member of London's Society of Arts.

Among his contemporaries Franklin's scientific achievements eclipsed his literary output. However, by the mid-eighteenth century he had also established an international reputation as a writer. During the 1730s he had written numerous essays, news note jokes, and hoaxes, among them ‘A witch trial at Mount Holly’ (22 October 1730) which he published in the Pennsylvania Gazette. His salacious ‘Old mistresses' apologue, or, Reasons for preferring an old mistress to a young one’ (25 June 1745) circulated widely in manuscript. ‘The speech of Miss Polly Baker, before a court of judicature, at Connecticut in New England, where she was prosecuted the fifth time for having a bastard child’ (17 April 1747) created a publishing sensation, appearing in seven English newspapers and the two most popular English magazines within three weeks of its first appearance. Much of his work, like ‘The speech of Miss Polly Baker’, appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym. Other pieces, such as his grotesque poem, ‘An apology for the young man in gaol, and in shackels, for ravishing an old woman of 85 at Whitemarsh, who had only one eye, and that a red one’, first appeared in a rival's newspaper, while Franklin's epitaph (1729), his mock biblical parables (1755), and numerous letters, like the one of 6 June 1753 to Joseph Huey on the contest of faith versus good works, circulated privately in manuscript in England and America before being printed.

In addition to belletristic writings Franklin was also increasingly celebrated for the high quality of his pro-American propaganda. The hoax ‘Rattlesnakes for felons’ (9 May 1751) proposed sending rattlesnakes to Great Britain in return for the transported convicts shipped to America. His essay ‘Observations concerning the increase of mankind, peopling of countries, &c.’ (1751) was intended as a response to the British Acts of Trade and Navigation. It roused a young John Adams to contemplate the future independence of what became the United States, as well as influencing the theories of Adam Smith on capitalism and Thomas Malthus on population. Alarmed by the French incursions into the Ohio valley and along the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers, on 4 May 1754 Franklin wrote an editorial in which he urged unification of the colonies, printing it under a cartoon which depicted a snake cut into pieces, with the caption: ‘JOIN OR DIE’, the first symbol of the unified American colonies. That summer, representing Pennsylvania, he attended the Albany conference called by Westminster to urge the Iroquois or Six Nations to remain with the British and to arrange a common defence of the frontier against the French troops and their American Indian allies. Franklin drafted a plan of union as he journeyed to the conference. On 2 July 1754 the conference voted to form a union of the colonies, and on 10 July, it adopted, with revisions, Franklin's plan (Papers, 5.374–87). However, the colonies rejected it because they thought it gave too much power to the British authorities, while the British Board of Trade rejected it because of fears that a union could lead to independence.

In December 1754 the Board of Trade put forward its own proposals for union about which Franklin consulted William Shirley, governor of Massachusetts. Franklin objected that the British plan did not give the colonists the right to choose their own representatives and also protested against the proposal to have parliament tax Americans. On 4 December he wrote that it was ‘an undoubted Right of Englishmen not to be taxed but by their own Consent given thro' their Representatives’ (Papers, 5.444). On 22 December, in reply to Governor Shirley's suggestion that the colonists elect members of parliament, Franklin argued that if all the past Acts of Trade and Navigation, were repealed and if the colonies were given ‘a reasonable number of Representatives’ then the colonists might be satisfied. Such preferences were, Franklin claimed, certainly due to ‘those who have most contributed to enlarge Britain's empire and commerce, encrease her strength, her wealth, and the numbers of her people, at the risque of their own lives and private fortunes in new and strange countries’ (Papers, 5.451). Franklin's defiant Americanism struck a new chord in eighteenth-century political discourse. Years later James Madison wrote that Franklin's letters to Shirley ‘repelled with the greatest possible force, within the smallest possible compass’ Britain's claim to govern America (Farrand and Hutson, 3.540n.).

London, 1757–1762

Pennsylvania's governors refused to assent to tax bills unless the proprietors' land was exempted, prompting the Pennsylvania assembly to petition the British authorities. The assembly voted Franklin its agent, and on 3 February 1757 he accepted, thereafter spending the period 1757 to 1762 in England, where he lodged with his son, William, at 7 Craven Street, Strand, London. His wife, Deborah, fearing the voyage, remained in Philadelphia. Shortly after arriving in London Franklin met the president of the privy council, Lord Granville, who told him (27 July 1757) that George II's instructions to the governors were law: ‘the King is the Legislator of the Colonies’ (Autobiography, 167). Franklin disagreed. He found the British public and the authorities ignorant about America and began a campaign to enlighten them. His ‘A defence of the Americans’, which appeared in the London Chronicle (12 May 1759), was the grandest statement of Americanism in the colonial period. Franklin's subsequent pamphlet, arguing for the economic and strategic importance of Canada to the colonies and to Great Britain (The Interest of Great Britain Considered, 1760), was partly responsible for convincing the British authorities to retain Canada rather than Guadeloupe at the conclusion of the Seven Years' War (1756–63).

Following instructions Franklin consulted the London physician and friend of Pennsylvania's Quaker leaders, John Fothergill, who advised him to try for an accommodation with the proprietors before appealing to the British authorities. That negotiation dragged on inconclusively but in Pennsylvania on 17 April 1759 the governor passed a tax bill that included the proprietors' estates. The Penn family tried to have the act disallowed and, despite the arguments of lawyers hired by Franklin, the Board of Trade recommended on 24 June 1760 that it be annulled. Franklin appealed to the king in council, and, after personally guaranteeing that the proprietary estates would be taxed with perfect equity, won the case. The Penns, however, continued to oppose acts taxing their lands.

During this first mission to England, Franklin frequently attended two informal clubs. One—consisting primarily of scientists, philanthropists, and explorers (including, on occasions, the navigator, James Cook)—met on Mondays; the other, dubbed the Club of Honest Whigs, met on Thursdays, and included dissenting ministers such as Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, as well as James Boswell. Franklin also regularly attended meetings of the Royal Society, the Associates of Dr Bray (a small philanthropic organization which Samuel Johnson visited on 1 May 1760 while Franklin was its chairman), and the Society of Arts. Time permitting Franklin continued his scientific interests when in Britain, inventing a clock with only three wheels; experimenting with an early form of air conditioning (17 June 1758); designing a damper for stoves and chimneys (2 December 1758); and gradually improving his new musical instrument, the glass armonica (13 July 1762). As in America, Franklin's scientific work was acknowledged by British universities, and he received an honorary degree of doctor of laws from St Andrews (12 February 1759) and from Oxford a doctorate of civil law (30 April 1762).

Philadelphia and London, 1762–1775

Franklin left England in late summer 1762 and arrived back in Philadelphia on 1 November. He found troubles at home following the murder in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, of a group of Christian American Indians by a mob (the Paxton boys). Franklin wrote a scathing denunciation of the act in A Narrative of the Late Massacres, published on 30 January 1764. When the Paxton boys marched on Philadelphia to kill the Christian Indians there the government floundered. Franklin organized Philadelphia's defence, met the leaders of the rioters, and persuaded them to present a list of their grievances and disperse.

On 26 May 1764 Franklin was elected speaker of the Pennsylvania house of representatives, as news of the impending Stamp Act reached the colonies. On 13 June the Massachusetts house of representatives asked colonial assemblies to oppose the act. Franklin presented the request to the Pennsylvania assembly on 12 September. This promptly instructed Pennsylvania's London agent, Richard Jackson, to resist the proposed act and to argue that only the Pennsylvania legislature had the right to impose taxes in the colony.

Before the Pennsylvania election of 1763 Franklin was exposed to a series of allegations by his political opponents that he coveted the governorship; that he had bilked the public moneys while he was the assembly's agent in England; that William Franklin's mother was his maidservant Barbara whom he mistreated and had buried in an unmarked grave; that he was prejudiced against Germans; and that he was overly sympathetic to the cause of the American Indians. The most bitterly contested assembly election in colonial Pennsylvania began at 10 a.m. on 1 October 1764, and continued until 3 p.m. on the following day. Franklin lost by eighteen votes (Papers, 11.390–91). However, the anti-proprietary party retained its majority and appointed Franklin, on 26 October 1764, to join Richard Jackson as the assembly's agent to England.

The purpose of Franklin's second mission to Britain (1764–75) was to petition the new king, George III, for a change from proprietary to royal government in Pennsylvania. But British imperial politics intervened. After Franklin reached London he was immediately immersed in attempts to reject Grenville's Stamp Act. He now began a series of essays and letters to the London newspapers opposing the Stamp Act and distributed a satirical cartoon to members of parliament. Franklin's efforts were, however, in vain. The Stamp Act passed the Commons on 27 February 1765 and received the royal assent on 22 March, to take effect, on 1 November. Franklin had lost, but he supposed the Stamp Act could be tolerated. On 11 July 1765 he wrote to the young Philadelphia patriot Charles Thomson: ‘I took every step in my Power, to prevent the Passing of the Stamp Act’, but ‘We might as well have hinder'd the Sun's setting’. Franklin accepted defeat before hearing of Virginia's Stamp Act resolves. On 30 May 1765 Virginia's house of burgesses denied that Britain had the right to tax Virginians. Emboldened by the Virginia resolves other colonies followed its line and local mobs threatened the stamp distributors. Because of rumours that Franklin had supported the Stamp Act his Philadelphia home was surrounded on the night of 16 September. Deborah armed herself, ready to fight and defend their home, though the threat came to nothing. On 1 November, the day the Stamp Act was to take effect, courts throughout the colonies refused to convene. American colonial administration collapsed.

On 13 February 1766 Franklin attended a parliamentary committee of the whole house to testify against the Stamp Act. His answers to MPs constituted a triumphant display of political knowledge and of pro-Americanism. To the suggestion that military forces should be sent to America he asserted, ‘They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one’ (Papers, 13.142). Publication of his Examination confirmed Franklin's reputation as the pre-eminent spokesman for the American colonies. On 11 April 1768 the Georgia assembly appointed him its agent: on 8 November 1769 New Jersey did the same; and on 24 October 1770 the Massachusetts assembly followed suit, making him the agent for four colonies.

Between 1764 and 1775 Franklin wrote a series of spirited pro-American essays, among them the ‘Grand leap of the whale over Niagara Falls’ (3 May 1765), ‘Rules by which a great empire may be reduced to a small one’ (11 September 1773), and ‘An edict by the king of Prussia’ (22 September 1773). A treasonous manuscript, ‘Remarks on Judge Foster's arguments in favor of the right of impressing seamen’, probably written about 1770, also circulated clandestinely. According to Franklin it was George III not the poor sailor who deserved impressment, for ‘I am not satisfied of the Necessity or Utility’ of the ‘Office of King’ in Great Britain (Papers, 35.500). Though Franklin predicted American independence, he said that every year brought America increasing strength. If there must be war, it was he believed better to postpone it for as long as possible.

The mounting political crisis and his reputation as a critic of the British government did not lessen Franklin's appetite for self, social, and scientific observation. In 1771, while staying at Twyford with the bishop of St Asaph, he wrote, in the form of an open letter to his son William, an account of his life to 1731. This later formed the first part of what was commonly known after Franklin's death as his Autobiography, a remarkably candid and influential study in the genre. In 1766 he visited Germany and journeyed to France in 1767 and 1769. In 1771 he toured Ireland and Scotland with Richard Jackson, staying with David Hume in Edinburgh and with Lord Kames at Blair Drummond. Conditions in Ireland depressed him: there were a few rich ‘Landlords, great Noblemen and Gentlemen, extremely opulent, living in the highest Affluence and magnificence’, while the majority were ‘extremely poor, living in the most sordid Wretchedness in dirty Hovels of mud and Straw, and cloathed only in Rags’. He wrote on 13 January 1772
That in the Possession and Enjoyment of the various Comforts of Life, compar'd to these People every Indian is a Gentleman: and the Effect of this kind of Civil Society seems only to be, the depressing Multitudes below the Savage State that a few may be rais'd above it.
In May 1768 Franklin, as natural philosopher, had experimented on the relationship between canal water depths and the speed of canal boats. In July of that year he devised a phonetic alphabet and corresponded in it; in the autumn he had maps of the Atlantic engraved which contained the course of the ‘river in the ocean’, the gulf stream. Franklin also supervised publication of the revised and enlarged fourth English edition of his Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1769). In August 1772 the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris elected him a foreign associate at a time when he was engaged in repeated experiments concerning the interaction of oil and water, correctly determining ‘the scale of magnitude of molecular dimensions, the first person ever to do so, but he did not recognize it’ (Tanford, 80).

While in London Franklin learned that British repressive tactics had been encouraged by the Massachusetts governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and by his lieutenant-governor Andrew Oliver. Franklin sent their correspondence to Massachusetts, hoping that the letters would lessen the rage of the radicals against the British authorities. Instead the correspondence exacerbated the strife between the governor and the Massachusetts assembly, which petitioned for Hutchinson's and Oliver's removal. At the same time Hutchinson obtained a copy of Franklin's 7 July 1773 letter urging the colonial assemblies to resolve never to ‘grant aids to the Crown in any General War till’ the rights of Americans:
are recogniz'd by the King and both Houses of Parliament. … Such a Step I imagine will bring the Dispute to a Crisis; and whether our Demands are immediately comply'd with, or compulsory Means are thought of to make us Rescind them, our Ends will finally be obtain'd. (Papers, 17.282)
Hutchinson sent the copy to Lord Dartmouth, the colonial secretary, who judged it treasonable. On Dartmouth's instruction General Thomas Gage, military commander-in-chief in America, sought unsuccessfully to obtain the original so that Franklin could be prosecuted.

The Hutchinson–Oliver letters were published in Boston in June 1773. To prevent a duel over the source of the letters on 25 December Franklin published the statement, ‘I alone am the person who obtained and transmitted to Boston the letters in question’. He also forwarded to Lord Dartmouth the Massachusetts petition to remove Hutchinson and Oliver. A preliminary hearing took place on 11 January 1774. News of the Boston Tea Party reached London on 20 January and further infuriated the British authorities with Massachusetts and its agent. The hearing on the Massachusetts petition before the privy council took place in the cockpit on 29 January. In an hour-long diatribe, the British solicitor-general, Alexander Wedderburn, excoriated and denounced Franklin, demanding that he be marked and branded as a criminal. Britain's greatest officials, many of whom Franklin knew well, sneered and snickered while he stood silent, America's scapegoat.

On 31 January 1774 Franklin was dismissed as deputy postmaster-general for North America. The American post office had never been profitable before Franklin took it over and it never has been since. During 1774 and early 1775, even as he petitioned against the Boston Port Bill (which became law on 31 January, closing Boston's port), Franklin satirized the British government's handling of American politics while still attempting to reconcile Great Britain with the colonists. In an effort to forestall the bill he personally guaranteed payment of the cost of the tea dumped in Boston harbour. His efforts, including his collaboration with William Pitt, earl of Chatham, in January 1775, came to nothing. He left London on 20 March, his second mission, like his first, a failure. He was being prosecuted in court, and on 13 May 1775 the sheriff of Middlesex was ordered to arrest him.

Philadelphia, 1775–1776

While Franklin was at sea the battles of Lexington and Concord (17 and 18 April 1775) started the War of American Independence. He arrived at Philadelphia on 5 May and on the following day the Pennsylvania assembly unanimously chose him as a delegate to the second continental congress. His draft ‘Articles of confederation’ (written before 21 July 1775) asserted America's sovereignty and gave greater powers to the central government than did the United States constitution in 1787. But congress was not yet ready. On 23 July John Adams reported that Franklin ‘does not hesitate at our boldest Measures, but rather seems to think us, too irresolute, and backward’ (Diary and Autobiography, 1.253). In the autumn he was appointed by congress to a committee to confer with General George Washington in Massachusetts and, on 29 November, as the chair of a standing committee of secret correspondence to deal with foreign affairs. In effect Franklin was now the first secretary of state. His propagandist writings of the period included the satiric song ‘The King's Own Regulars’ (27 November 1775), which George Washington enjoyed, and the hoax ‘Bradshaw's epitaph’ (14 December 1775), which concluded with the words that Thomas Jefferson adopted as his personal motto: ‘Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God’.

In congress Franklin again argued for an ‘Instrument of confederation’ (16 January 1776), a document giving articles of confederation for the union, but was defeated. Instead Franklin, along with Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Samuel Chase, and Father John Carroll, was appointed a member of the commission to convince the Canadians to join the Americans against Britain. Though now seventy and suffering from ill health Franklin undertook the arduous mission (26 March to 30 May), which failed. After his return he served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson chaired the committee and decided to compose the document himself, though Franklin added to and revised it. Congress voted for independence on 2 July, and then debated, altered, and finally adopted the declaration on 4 July 1776. Elected to the Pennsylvania state convention on 8 July, Franklin was chosen its president on the 16th.

Drafting the Pennsylvania declaration of rights Franklin made the bold assertion that the state had the right to discourage large concentrations of property and wealth in single individuals as a danger to the happiness of the majority (Papers, 22.533). However, the Pennsylvania convention rejected his radical economic suggestion. During congressional debates on the articles of confederation (30 July to 1 August 1776) he unsuccessfully advocated that representation be proportional to population, rather than equal by states. Congress appointed Franklin, Adams, and Edward Rutledge to a committee to confer with Lord Howe on Staten Island. At the meeting, which took place on 11 September, Howe stated that he felt for America and would lament her fall as a brother would, to which Franklin replied with ‘a Bow, a Smile and all the Naivetee which sometimes appeared in his conversation, … “My Lord, We will do our Utmost Endeavours, to save your Lordship that mortification”’ (Diary and Autobiography, 3.422). In the autumn Franklin drafted his ‘Sketch of propositions for a peace’, suggesting that Britain cede Canada to an independent United States. Elected by congress as a commissioner to France with Silas Deane and Arthur Lee he sailed from Philadelphia on 27 October 1776.

Minister to France, 1776–1785

Franklin arrived in France on 3 December 1776 and proceeded to Paris, where he met secretly with the comte de Vergennes, French foreign minister. The American commissioners formally requested French aid on 5 January 1777, and on the 13th they received a verbal promise of 2 million livres. From his knowledge of Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques (1734) and Montesquieu's L'esprit des lois (1748) Franklin understood the French association of Pennsylvania and Quakerism with virtue and simplicity and dressed and presented himself accordingly. (His readiness to discard his wig was also due to a scalp irritation from which he then suffered.) On 8 February 1777 he wrote to his friend Emma Thompson:
Figure me … very plainly dress'd, wearing my thin grey strait Hair, that peeps out under my only Coiffure, a fine Fur Cap, which comes down my Forehead almost to my Spectacles. Think how this must appear among the Powder'd Heads of Paris.
John Adams testified that Franklin was idolized while in France:
His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady's chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him as a friend to human kind. (Works of John Adams, 1.659)
From the French finance minister, Turgot, there came the famous epigram: ‘Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis’ (‘He snatched the lightning from the skies and the sceptre from the tyrants’; Aldridge, 124).

On 21 October 1778, following France's decision to send a minister plenipotentiary to the United States, congress responded by electing Franklin to a similar position. To facilitate the production of passports, loan certificates, promissory notes, and other documents he purchased a press and types and printed such items, as well as a number of his bagatelles. As minister plenipotentiary Franklin's duties were numerous. He borrowed funds from France for the expenses of congress, issued letters of marque for American privateers, managed the interests of the continental navy overseas, and oversaw the purchase and shipping of arms and other supplies for the continental army. He negotiated for the humane treatment and exchanges of American prisoners of war and helped hundreds of escaped American prisoners. On Tuesdays he attended the royal court with his fellow ministers, entertained Americans at dinner on most Sundays and cultivated good relations with a host of influential French intellectuals and politicians. Though his multifarious duties precluded extensive scientific experimentation Franklin nevertheless encouraged it among others and was able to write selective papers himself. Thus learning that ships used in the salt trade lasted longer than others he conceived a method for prolonging the life of lumber by seasoning it in salt. He devised a test for the conductivity of metals; a magnificent display of the aurora borealis (3 December 1778) prompted him to write a series, ‘Suppositions and conjectures’, on the phenomenon. His description of a new technological device, bifocal glasses, came on 23 May 1784.

In June 1781 congress appointed Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson to join John Jay and John Adams as commissioners to negotiate peace following General Cornwallis's surrender to George Washington at Yorktown on 19 October 1781. From March to June 1782 Franklin negotiated with the British emissary Richard Oswald, a London merchant with American sympathies and an old friend of the American minister. On 18 April Franklin suggested that Britain should cede Canada to the United States. Had Franklin been the only commissioner, he might have been able to settle the peace then and to have secured Canada. But when John Jay arrived in Paris on 23 June he insisted on prior recognition of American independence as a condition for formal peace negotiations, thus delaying the talks while the war at sea slowly changed to favour the British.

On 10 July 1782 Franklin proposed to Oswald the ‘necessary’ terms for peace, ignoring congress's instruction to act only with the knowledge and concurrence of France. Oswald's new British commission (21 September 1782) effectively recognized the United States and overcame Jay's hesitation. A draft of the articles for the treaty was prepared and sent to Britain, again without informing the French. John Adams arrived in Paris on 26 October and joined the negotiations, and on 30 November, Oswald and the American commissioners signed the preliminary articles of peace. In December, when the comte de Vergennes complained of America's failure to consult the French, Franklin diplomatically admitted the impropriety, expressed gratitude to France, and asked for another loan. Vergennes assured him of a further 6 million livres. Franklin, Adams, and Jay signed the definitive treaty of peace on behalf of the United States on 3 September 1783.

On 12 May 1784 the formal ratification of the peace treaty with Great Britain was exchanged, and on the next day Franklin requested to be relieved from his post to return home. Jefferson arrived in Paris on 30 August to join Franklin and Adams in attempting to make treaties with the European nations and the Barbary States. On 2 May 1785 Franklin received permission to leave France. ‘I shall now be free of Politicks for the Rest of my Life. Welcome again my dear Philosophical Amusements’ (Writings, ed. Smyth, 9.318). He left Passy on 12 July 1785 at a time when a bladder stone was causing him pain. None the less Franklin spent most of the voyage writing pieces such as his Maritime Observations, which suggested a number of improvements for convenience, safety, and swiftness in sailing.

Philadelphia, 1785–1790

Franklin arrived at Philadelphia on 14 September 1785 to the largest ceremony and reception that city had ever displayed. He was elected to the supreme executive council of Pennsylvania on 11 October, chosen its president on the 18th, and served in that position (in effect, governor) for three years. These years also saw a final flourish of experimentation and invention. In January 1781 he fashioned an instrument for taking down books from high shelves which he followed with a series of chairs with a seat that unfolded to become a ladder, with a writing arm on one side (now a staple feature of university lecture theatres) and a rocking chair with an automatic fan. From 28 May to 17 September 1787 he served in the constitutional convention. Though he had previously argued, and initially continued to advocate, that representation should be proportional to population, on 3 July he moved the ‘Great Compromise’ whereby representation was proportional in the house of delegates but equal by state in the senate. On 7 and 10 August he argued that the right to vote should be extended as widely as possible, and condemned property qualifications as necessary either for the franchise or for office-holding. His closing speech supporting the constitution was the most effective propaganda for its ratification. Aged seventy, he had been the oldest signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and now, aged eighty-one, he again achieved that position with regard to the United States constitution.

On 14 October 1788 Franklin ended his service as president of the supreme executive council of Pennsylvania, terminating his career in public office. Despite suffering from gout and a bladder stone, he still, as of 25 November 1788, enjoyed ‘many comfortable Intervals, in which I forget all my Ills, and amuse myself in Reading or Writing, or in conversation with Friends, joking, laughing, and telling merry Stories’ (Writings, ed. Smyth, 9.683). On 23 April 1787 he had been elected president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and on 12 February 1789 he wrote and signed the first remonstrance against slavery addressed to the American congress, though congress said it had no authority to interfere in the internal affairs of the states. His final work, published on 20 March 1790, was a brilliant satire on a defence of slavery. In these final months Franklin also returned to his autobiographical essay. Between his starting the project in England in 1771 and his final period of writing he had added two further sections. The first composed in France in 1784 was a dozen-page survey on his method of self-discipline, and was followed during 1788–9 when he carried his account down to his arrival in England in 1757. The final section, written in bed, provided a brief sketch of Franklin's English agency from 1757 to 1762.

To the man who had written that ‘nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes’ (to Jean Baptiste Le Roy, 13 Nov 1789) life's second great inevitability came about, from pleurisy, on 17 April 1790 in Philadelphia. Franklin, who was then eighty-four, was buried four days later at Philadelphia's Christ Church burial-ground beside his wife, Deborah, who had died on 19 December 1774, and their son Francis. On hearing of the news of Franklin's death the French assembly voted to wear mourning for three days. The United States house of representatives passed, but the senate defeated, a motion to wear mourning for a month. Franklin was survived by his son William, from whom he had been alienated following the latter's support for the British during the revolution; among other members of his family to survive him were William's illegitimate son, William Temple Franklin, William Temple Franklin's illegitimate daughter, Ellen Franklin, and his daughter, Sarah, who had married Richard Bache in October 1767. Months after his death the first part of Franklin's unfinished autobiographical essay (to 1731) was published in France. Two versions of this first part, anonymously retranslated into English, appeared in 1793 and were thereafter much reprinted, usually as The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself. In 1817 Franklin's grandson, William Temple Franklin, brought out the first three parts of the original English version and in an 1848 edition the work was first called the Autobiography; John Bigelow's edition of 1868 included Franklin's fourth and final section, again under the title of Autobiography, the name by which the text is now best-known. From the eighteenth century to the present it has proved one of the world's most popular autobiographical studies, remarkable for its frank account of the author's misadventures and for an ability to inspire numerous individuals with its account of self-discipline and motivation.


During the 1730s Franklin became known as the most successful newspaperman and writer in the colonies. In the 1740s he was celebrated as Philadelphia's most public-spirited citizen. He became the world's best-known living scientist through his design, in 1744, of a stove more efficient than any previous one, and his proof in 1752 that lightning was electrical in nature. During the 1750s he also became the dominant Pennsylvania politician. From 1757 to 1764 and again from 1764 to 1775 he lived in England, where he was America's spokesperson and unofficial ambassador. He was the best-known American before George Washington's rise to prominence during the revolution. During the 1770s and 1780s he was famous as a revolutionary and then as a statesman. At his death in 1790 he was celebrated as a patriot and founding father, being the only person to sign all three fundamental documents of American statehood: the Declaration of Independence (1776), the peace treaty with Britain (1783), and the constitution of the United States (1787). His contemporaries often commented on his egalitarianism (Thomas Penn called him a ‘Tribune of the People’ in 1748; Papers, 3.186) and on his metaphysical scepticism (Condorcet thought him a Pyrrhonist). Throughout the latter part of his life he was renowned for his self-motivation. Without education he had become one of the most learned persons of his time. Without inherited money he had become wealthy. Without prospects as a young man he had become famous.

Five aspects of Franklin's reputation endure. His standing as a public-spirited citizen has been kept alive by his Autobiography and by the institutions that he founded—among them the Library Company of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania. His reputation as a scientist is confirmed by the existence of every lightning rod. The best-known period of Franklin's life, the French years (1777–85), authenticates his position as a statesman. David Hume's 1763 description of Franklin as a ‘Great Man of Letters’ (Papers, 10.81) and the inclusion of his writings in almost all anthologies of American literature attest to his ability as a writer. The poverty and obscurity of his family background, coupled with his later fame as a scientist, statesman, and writer, continue to make Franklin the single most famous example of a self-made man.

Posthumously three major elements have been added to his reputation: materialist, philistine, and rake. The three supposed characteristics say more about later times and the naïvety of the writers than about Franklin. The popularity of The Way to Wealth (a name later given to the preface for the Poor Richard almanac of 1758) identified Franklin with getting and saving money. This aspect of Franklin's posthumous reputation was reinforced by Max Weber's influential identification of him with ‘The Spirit of Capitalism’ and by Franklin's picture on the United States $100 bill. However, instead of spending his life in the acquisition of wealth, Franklin retired aged forty-one to produce ‘something for the common Benefit of Mankind’ (Papers, 3.317). He dedicated thousands of hours to public-spirited causes without expecting or receiving any material reward. He turned down a patent for his stove design which would have made him a fortune and he offered to pay for the tea dumped into the harbour at the Boston Tea Party, though to have done so would have impoverished him. Few men of any time were as idealistic as Franklin.

Arising in great part because of Franklin's identification with materialism, but also because he belonged to no religious sect, the idea of Franklin as philistine, without idealism or spirituality, has been presented most forcefully in D. H. Lawrence's characterization in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). Lawrence, like some other critics, identified Franklin as the embodiment of an acquisitive American culture. But, again, such judgements are misleading. Franklin wrote more about religion and virtue than any other colonial American layman. He contributed money to every religious society of Philadelphia. He devoted his time and money to more idealistic causes throughout his life than almost any of his contemporaries. Even in his will he tried to help the young artisans of Boston and Philadelphia.

Finally comparatively frank details of his interest in sex in the Autobiography, the knowledge that he had an illegitimate son, and a number of his risqué writings, such as ‘Old mistresses' apologue’ and ‘The Elysian Fields’ have contributed to the idea of Franklin as a womanizer, a view that became increasingly popular during the twentieth century. But after he married Deborah Read, at the age of twenty-four, there is no evidence whatever that he had any other sexual relations. His affectionate lifelong relationships with several women in America, England, and France during his mature years bespeak, in many cases, delightful flirtation and, in all cases, devoted friendship.

Franklin's reputation during his own lifetime was well founded. Besides dozens of general biographies numerous books are devoted to various aspects of Franklin—as businessman, economist, printer, postmaster, philosopher, politician, scientist, theologian, statesman, writer, private citizen, friend—and to numerous specialized topics within these and other general subjects. Franklin's great ability and drive were exceeded only by his interests and achievements. Every study of Franklin must be selective and none can do him justice.

Perhaps Franklin would have wished to be remembered for his concern for the ‘common Good of Mankind’ (Papers, 9.229). He wanted to become an amicus humani generis. Numerous contemporaries thought he realized that ambition (Edmund Burke called him the ‘friend to mankind’; Correspondence, 4.419). When thanked for aiding a stranger Franklin replied, on 6 June 1753: ‘the only Thanks I should desire is, that you would always be equally ready to serve any other Person that may need your Assistance, and so let good Offices go round, for Mankind are all of a Family’ (Papers, 4.504). Near the end of his life he wrote, ‘God grant, that not only the Love of Liberty, but a thorough Knowledge of the Rights of Man, may pervade all the Nations of the Earth, so that a Philosopher may set his Foot anywhere on its Surface, and say, “This is my Country”’ (Writings, ed. Smyth, 10.72).

J. A. Leo Lemay


The papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. L. W. Labaree and others, [35 vols.] (1959–) · The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: a genetic text, ed. J. A. L. Lemay and P. M. Zall (1981) · B. Franklin: writings, ed. J. A. L. Lemay (1987) · J. A. L. Lemay, The canon of Benjamin Franklin, 1722–1776: new attributions and reconsiderations (1986) · B. Franklin, The writings, ed. A. H. Smyth, 10 vols. (1905–7) · C. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (1938) · Diary and autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, 1–4 (1961), vol. 3 · Papers of John Adams, ed. R. J. Taylor and others, 10 vols. (1977–96), vol. 1 · L. H. Butterfield and others, eds., Adams family correspondence, 1 (1963–) · The works of John Adams, ed. C. F. Adams, 10 vols. (1850–56) · The papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. J. P. Boyd and others, 27 vols. (1950–) · G. Hunt, ed., Journals of the continental congress, 20 (1912) · M. Farrand and J. Hutson, eds., Records of the federal convention of 1787, 4 vols. (1966–87) · A. O. Aldridge, Franklin and his French contemporaries (1957) · Autobiography of Joseph Priestley (1970) · The correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. T. W. Copeland and others, 10 vols. (1958–78) · R. A. Millikin, ‘Benjamin Franklin as a scientist’, Meet Dr Franklin, ed. R. N. Lokken (1981) · C. Tanford, Ben Franklin stilled the waves (1989)


American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, corresp. and papers · BL, corresp. · Hist. Soc. Penn., corresp. and papers · Hunt. L. · L. Cong. · University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia · University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, MSS · Yale U. |  Glos. RO, corresp. with Granville Sharp · NA Scot., letters to Lord Kames · Sheff. Arch., corresp. with Edmund Burke · U. Mich., Clements L., letters relating to British politics


D. Martin, 1766, White House, Washington, DC · J. B. Nini, medallion, 1777, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC · plaster replica, 1777 (after medallion by J. B. Nini), Scot. NPG · J. S. Duplessis, portrait, 1778, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [see illus.] · Houdon, bust, 1778, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York · oils, Scot. NPG · plaster replica (after medallion by unknown artist), Scot. NPG

Wealth at death  

among wealthier persons in Philadelphia at death: will, inventory, City Hall, Philadelphia · left lands in Nova Scotia, Philadelphia, Ohio, Boston, and Georgia to son, William Franklin, to daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache, and to their children, with numerous bequests to other friends, relatives, and institutions; left £1000 to Boston and £1000 to Philadelphia for loans to young artificers; personal property, mainly the furnishings of home, valued at £22,554 9s. 10d. Pennsylvania currency; plus £3500 sterling; plus cash in the hands of French and English bankers: Writings, ed. Smyth, vol. 10, pp. 493–510