Benjamin Franklin, signer of the Declaration of Independence
Benjamin Franklin is known even to most schoolchildren in the United States. His birthday is given as both January 6, and January 17, 1706, due to the fact that Britain switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, causing a skip of eleven days. (Franklin Institute)
From Franklin’s Autobiography:
Benjamin Franklin was born in Milk Street, Boston, on January 6, 1706. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler who married twice, and of his seventeen children Benjamin was the youngest son. His schooling ended at ten, and at twelve he was bound apprentice to his brother James, a printer, who published the “New England Courant.” To this journal he became a contributor, and later was for a time its nominal editor. But the brothers quarreled, and Benjamin ran away, going first to New York, and thence to Philadelphia, where he arrived in October, 1723. He soon obtained work as a printer, but after a few months he was induced by Governor Keith to go to London, where, finding Keith’s promises empty, he again worked as a compositor till he was brought back to Philadelphia by a merchant named Denman, who gave him a position in his business. On Denman’s death he returned to his former trade, and shortly set up a printing house of his own from which he published “The Pennsylvania Gazette,” to which he contributed many essays, and which he made a medium for agitating a variety of local reforms. In 1732 he began to issue his famous “Poor Richard’s Almanac” for the enrichment of which he borrowed or composed those pithy utterances of worldly wisdom which are the basis of a large part of his popular reputation. In 1758, the year in which he ceased writing for the Almanac, he printed in it “Father Abraham’s Sermon,” now regarded as the most famous piece of literature produced in Colonial America.Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Kindle Locations 14-24).
I find it interesting that this famous journalist, scientist, diplomat, and patriot received probably the least formal schooling of any of the signers, yet his achievements in many areas were unmatched. He started the nation’s postal system, the first public library, and the first non-religious college. Ben experimented and made advancements in scientific theories on electricity, wave mechanics of both water and light, oceanography and meteorology. Franklin is known to have played the violin, the harp, and the guitar. He also composed music, notably a string quartet. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions
Widely regarded as a deist in religious thought, and a Freemason, Ben was a complex man. He was a womanizer and no great moral example. He lived with a woman outside marriage in the 1730s since she could not obtain a divorce( Deborah Read (c. 1705-74), the daughter of his former Philadelphia landlady, as his common-law wife ). He had a son, William, by another unknown woman prior to this relationship. Deborah was deathly afraid of the sea, so she did not accompany Ben on his diplomatic travels. She died of a stroke while he was away. Despite these affairs, Ben begins his biography saying:
“And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to His kind providence, which lead me to the means I used and gave them success. My belief of this induces me to hope, though I must not presume, that the same goodness will still be exercised toward me, in continuing that happiness, or enabling me to bear a fatal reverse, which I may experience as others have done: the complexion of my future fortune being known to Him only in whose power it is to bless to us even our affliction.”Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Kindle Locations 72-75).
Volumes have been written about Franklin, and in this small space, I can only scratch the surface of his life – his autobiography is freely available on Project Gutenberg, and I recommend it.
By 1747, Franklin was already wealthy and retired from printing to pursue other interests. He raised money and a militia for King George’s War( 1744–1748 ) and the defense of Philadelphia from the French.
In 1753, both Harvard and Yale awarded him an honorary master of arts degree. He started what became the University of Pennsylvania. During the period 1750-1770, Franklin was mostly in London, sometimes in a diplomatic capacity, other times furthering his own and others business interests. He opposed the Penn family’s control over Pennsylvania. It was during this period that he published what is widely regarded as the first political cartoon, pictured above “Join or Die”, depicting the disunity of the Colonies. It is a woodcut showing a snake cut into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies or regions. New England was represented as one segment, rather than the four colonies it was at that time. It became a symbol and a rallying point for the Colonies in their struggle against England. Franklin opposed the Stamp Act, changing from his previous support of the Crown. He made a spirited defense in Parliament against further taxing the Colonies to pay for the French and Indian Wars.
“By the time Franklin arrived in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, after his second mission to Great Britain, the American Revolution had begun—with fighting between colonials and British at Lexington and Concord. The New England militia had trapped the main British army in Boston. The Pennsylvania Assembly unanimously chose Franklin as their delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In June 1776, he was appointed a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Although he was temporarily disabled by gout and unable to attend most meetings of the Committee, Franklin made several “small but important” changes to the draft sent to him by Thomas Jefferson. At the signing, he is quoted as having replied to a comment by John Hancock that they must all hang together: “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Franklin
Franklin is the only founding father to have signed the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War.
Ben was a vegetarian. Benjamin Franklin died from a pleuritic attack at his home in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790. He was aged 84 at the time of his death. His last words were reported, “a dying man can do nothing easy”, to his daughter after she suggested that he change position in bed and lay on his side so he could breathe more easily.
Ben Franklin quotes: