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Summary Article: Franklin, Benjamin from Encyclopedia of American Studies
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Image from: Portrait of Benjamin Franklin with scientific... in Science in the Enlightenment: An Encyclopedia

Benjamin Franklin described himself, when he wrote his will, merely as a printer, ambassador to France, and resident of Pennsylvania. He was characteristically modest. He could have noted also that he had been famous as a scientist, an inventor, an author, a philanthropist, a statesman, and a draftsman of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Born in Boston on January 17, 1706, Franklin moved to Philadelphia in 1723 and learned the printing trade as an apprentice. By 1729 he owned, edited, and published a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, which quickly became the leading newspaper in Philadelphia. He wrote and published, for nearly thirty years, Poor Richard: An Almanack, in which he offered many of the sayings that are still in use today.

Franklin was extremely inquisitive about scientific matters. Although he had no formal education, he read voraciously and experimented continually. He designed a metal stove that was many times more efficient than a fireplace and published its specifications for anyone to copy. In the 1740s electricity was the newest curiosity of the age, and Franklin read all the available literature. His famous experiment, in which he flew a kite with a metal key attached to the string in a thunderstorm, proved that lightning was a form of electricity and led to his invention of the lightning rod.

Franklin's other activities of a scientific nature include the charting of the Gulf Stream, the invention of bifocals, the design of the glass harmonica, and the suggestion of daylight savings time. His philanthropy included the establishment of the first fire company in Pennsylvania and the founding of the University of Pennsylvania.

Franklin's printing business brought him both wealth and fame and led to his government service. He won the contract to print the colony's currency. He became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1736 and was elected a member in 1751. In 1757 Franklin went to England to be the Assembly's agent in London. In this capacity he was the spokesman for Pennsylvania (and he later became the agent for Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey as well) before Parliament.

Franklin argued in Parliament against the Stamp Tax in 1765, and his efforts contributed to its repeal. During the next ten years, whenever Parliament proposed an imposition of duties on the colonies or a restriction of colonial trade, Franklin lobbied members of Parliament and wrote articles in London newspapers in opposition. His most famous piece was a satire, which purported to be an edict by the King of Prussia, ordering restraints on British trade. The article said that the King of Prussia based his authority to do so on the fact that emigrants from Saxony had originally settled Britain.

Franklin returned to Philadelphia in April 1775, just after the beginning of the Revolution. Because of his fame, he was immediately elected to be a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Franklin served on several key committees, including those that organized and armed the Continental Army, printed paper money, established the post office, and drafted Articles of Confederation of the colonies.

His most important efforts as a member of Congress were in the area of foreign affairs. For several months after the outbreak of the Revolution, it was not clear that a breach with England was inevitable. Franklin, as the elder statesman and the member with the most foreign experience, took on the difficult diplomatic effort of seeking reconciliation. His letters to friends in Parliament, however, proved fruitless. At the same time, he sought aid from other countries to oppose England. He negotiated with France, and even went to Montreal to seek Canadian support.

By June 1776 Congress was ready for independence. Franklin served on the committee (led by Thomas Jefferson) that wrote the Declaration of Independence. When Congress voted to adopt it, John Hancock insisted that all delegates sign the Declaration of Independence, because, he said, all must hang together. Franklin is reported to have agreed, adding that otherwise “we shall all hang separately.”

In October 1776 Franklin sailed to France, where he negotiated the treaty of alliance with France. He stayed in Paris throughout the war and negotiated the treaty with England that ended the Revolutionary War.

After his return to Philadelphia he became a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. His experience in England with the British system enabled him to contribute to the design of the United States's form of government. For example, he had seen King George's control of Parliament provoke the Revolution. This led him to propose that Congress have the power to override the president's veto of legislation. His most important contribution to the convention's debates resulted in Congress having two chambers. The convention was deadlocked on the issue of whether larger states would have more voting power in Congress than smaller states, or whether all would be equal. It was Franklin who crafted the compromise that gave the states equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House, with the distribution of powers to the two chambers. Franklin died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790.

Benjamin Franklin shown in an engraving made from a 1783 portrait. H.B. Hall, engraver. J.A. Duplessis, painter. 1868. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Bibliography
  • Anderson, Douglas, The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 2000).
  • Clark, Ronald W., Benjamin Franklin: A Biography (Random House 1983).
  • Durham, Jennifer L., Benjamin Franklin, a Biographical Companion (ABC-CLIO 1997).
  • Frasca, Ralph, Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America (Univ. of Mo. Press 2006).
  • Houston, Alan, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement (Yale Univ. Press 2008).
  • Kerry, Paul E., Benjamin Franklin's Intellectual World (Fairleigh Dickinson 2012).
  • Ketcham, Ralph L., Benjamin Franklin (Wash. Square Press 1965).
  • Morgan, Edmund S., Benjamin Franklin (Yale Univ. Press 2003).
  • Pangle, Lorraine Smith, The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 2007).
  • Skemp, Sheila, The Making of a Patriot: Benjamin Franklin at the Cockpit (Oxford 2012).
  • Van Doren, Carl, Benjamin Franklin (Viking 1938).
  • Eli Bortman
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