Laura Dean Bennett
Benjamin Franklin was born January 17 – 350 years ago, yet, his name is known to every American. Most of us could probably summon from memory more than one quote by this famous founding father, many of which we learned in school.
But Franklin is so much more than the composer of words of wisdom. With practically no formal education – his intelligence, personality and ingenuity brought him to prominence in practically every field of endeavor.
Among his many accomplishments, Franklin was a gifted writer, humorist, civic activist, scientist, inventor, musician, a freemason, public servant and a mapmaker.
More than just a shrewd politician, he was political philosopher and, of course, a preeminent statesman.
He was the only one of America’s founding fathers to have signed all four of the foundational documents of our government – the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778, the Treaty of Paris (which established peace with Great Britain) in 1783 and the United States Constitution in 1787.
Most of us may know that Franklin was our nation’s first postmaster general and the inventor of the lightning rod, but many may not realize that he also charted and named the Gulf Stream, and he was a military commander on the frontier during the French and Indian War.
He could rightly be called the Father of American Philanthropy – establishing a model for public-private partnership and dozens of civic organizations dedicated to the betterment of society.
Here was a “Renaissance Man,” who rose from a working class background to become the most famous person of his era – a man seemingly born to take his place in history.
Even his surname seems to have predestined him to be one of our founding fathers.
Sometime during the Middle Ages, the term “frankeleyn,” meaning “freeman,” came into use in the English language.
It referred to a new class of Englishmen who owned property and businesses, but were not titled aristocrats.
Benjamin Franklin’s great-great-grandfather was a blacksmith – Thomas Francklyne – who lived in Northamptonshire, England, during the Reformation when the violent struggle between advocates of Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church was raging.
Benjamin was known to refer proudly to his ancestors, who, as he said, “were sometimes in danger… on account of their zeal against popery.”
The family’s American chapter began when Benjamin’s father, Josiah Franklin, and his brother, also named Benjamin, came to the New World in 1682.
Josiah had seven children with his first wife when he remarried Abiah Folger, the daughter of one of the first settlers of New England, with whom he had another 10 children.
Benjamin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston in what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony – the youngest son of a struggling Presbyterian family.
As a soap and candlemaker, and with such a large family to support, Benjamin’s father couldn’t afford to pay for Benjamin’s education past the age of 10, at which time Benjamin became an apprentice in his father’s business.
But he continued his education on his own – voraciously reading borrowed books.
His father hoped his youngest son would inherit his business, but this didn’t interest the boy – he was adamant that he wanted to be a sailor.
When Benjamin’s brother, James, came back from England in 1717, ready to begin a printing business, their father forced 12 year old Benjamin into indentured servitude, as an unpaid apprentice, to James.
As it turned out, Benjamin was well suited to the printing business – and took to it like a duck to water, as his later successes in the business would prove.
He set type and sold papers on the street, but soon developed the ambition to write for James’ newspaper, The New England Courant.
James wouldn’t permit Benjamin to write for the paper, so, at the age of 16, and unbeknownst to his brother, he began writing letters to the Courant under the pseudonym, Silence Dogood – the witty and opinionated fictitious widow of a country minister.
This was Benjamin Franklin’s first foray into the literary world.
Years later, he again used a pseudonym when he published Poor Richard’s Almanack under the name of Richard Saunders. The almanac – popular throughout the colonies – was a best-seller for 25 years – and it made Benjamin a rich man.
The almanac contained information that businessmen and farmers would find compelling – an annual calendar noting days of the week, dates for meetings and social events, times for sunrise and sunset and phases of the moon.
There were also weather predictions, math exercises, colonial demographic information and tips for farming and medicine.
It was also the source of many of Franklin’s famous quotes.
They seem to be the distillation of so much wisdom and his life was such a succession of great accomplishments that we might be forgiven for assuming that Franklin was a paragon of virtue with no flaws.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
For one thing – although he did pen the phrase, “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” – Franklin much preferred late nights and sleeping in.
For another, there could possibly be bones to pick about Franklin’s personal life at home in Philadelphia and abroad, while he was living for so many years in London and France.
As Franklin would occasionally admit in moments of self-examination, his life did contain, what he referred to as, erratum, or errors.
Such fertile ground was his amazingly productive life and complicated character that there have been hundreds of biographies written about Benjamin Franklin and one autobiography written by the man himself.
There is so much about Franklin’s life that has resonance today.
For instance, vaccination against deadly disease.
Franklin, along with George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, was an outspoken advocate of vaccination against smallpox, a science which was controversial when in its infancy in the 18th century.
In researching this article, I came across what I believe must be one of the best Franklin biographies ever written.
Benjamin Franklin – An American Life by Walter Isaacson is thoroughly informative, well-documented and a delight to read.
I heartily commend it to anyone wishing to become more familiar with Franklin’s multi-faceted character and achievements.
Isaacson credits Franklin with the formation of our national character.
He writes that Franklin was “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society that America would become… its cracker-barrel humor and wisdom; its technological ingenuity; its pluralistic tolerance; its ability to weave together individualism and community cooperation … and the Main Street virtues that serve as the foundation for its civic values.”
“He was egalitarian in what became the American sense: he approved of individuals making their way to wealth through diligence and talent, but opposed giving special privileges to people based on their birth.”
Benjamin Franklin – An American Life by Walter Isaacson is available wherever books are sold and through the Pocahontas County Library system.