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Benjamin Franklin | Biography

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Early Life and Apprenticeship

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706, the youngest son of a candle and soap maker, Josiah Franklin. The large size of the Franklin family (17 children) limited Ben's choices for an education, so he was apprenticed at age 12 to his older brother James, who trained him as a printer.

At several points in the Autobiography, especially in Part 1, Franklin stresses the essential role reading and writing played in his life. He declares, for example, that he spent all his spare money on books when he was a youth. Writing, he asserts, was integral to his success. In these avowals Franklin carefully avoids pedantry or any appearance of narrow, scholastic specialization. It is always clear that he is practical, businesslike, and intensely social. Yet, reading and writing are his nuts and bolts, from early childhood onward throughout his career.

When Benjamin was 17, however, a bitter quarrel between the brothers resulted in Ben's decision to leave Boston and strike out on his own. Virtually penniless, he traveled to New York and subsequently to Philadelphia, which was at that time the largest city in the American colonies.

Success in Philadelphia

Writing when he was in his mid-60s, nearly half a century after the events he describes, Franklin provides in the opening pages of his Autobiography a vivid account of his arrival and early employment in Philadelphia. After an uneven beginning, he established himself in the printing profession and made gradual but steady progress. His circle of contacts expanded, and his participation in civic improvements—a hallmark of his career for many decades—increased. Such projects included the foundation of a lending library, the paving of city streets, and eventually the establishment of an academy that later became the University of Pennsylvania. By his early 40s, Franklin had become wealthy enough to retire from an active role in his business activities.

Science, Public Service, and Diplomacy

One of Franklin's most prominent and persistent character traits was his curiosity. In the Autobiography he remarks that his lifetime spanned "the age of experiments." This observation was true in several senses. Politically, the young American republic was an unparalleled experiment—and one whose fate was far from certain in Franklin's later years. Philosophically and scientifically (the terms were closely related in Franklin's time), experimentation was everywhere. Franklin's own curiosity about lightning and electricity resulted in one of the most famous experiments in the history of science, proving that the two phenomena were one and the same. In 1751 a book of Franklin's papers on the topic made him a worldwide celebrity when he was 45. In due time prestigious universities, including Oxford in Britain, conferred honorary degrees on him, and he became known as Dr. Franklin.

A gentleman of leisure in retirement, Franklin kept busy during his middle years not only with scientific pursuits but also with public service. For many years, he had ingeniously engineered schemes for civic improvements, usually acting behind the scenes. But, in his 40s, he was officially appointed or elected to various posts: membership on the Philadelphia City Council (1748), justice of the peace (1749), membership in the Pennsylvania Assembly (1751), and deputy postmaster general of North America (1753).

Franklin's membership in the colonial assembly, roughly equivalent to today's state legislature, led directly to another milestone in his life when he was 50: his appointment as that body's agent in London. Franklin's task was to persuade the British government to remove the Pennsylvania "proprietors," or the heirs of the colony's founder William Penn, from their positions of authority and to transform Pennsylvania into a royal province, accountable directly to the British monarch. Many Pennsylvanians—including Franklin—detested the proprietors for their inequitable and self-serving taxation policies. Arriving in London in 1757 Franklin spent the next 18 years living abroad, with the exception of a two-year interval back in Philadelphia (1762–64).

Although Franklin was unsuccessful in his primary diplomatic mission, he became enamored with British sophistication and the lifestyle of the British elite. After the Stamp Act crisis (1765–66), when Britain attempted to impose a hugely unpopular set of taxes on the colonies, he focused his diplomatic and writing efforts on trying to reduce tensions between the colonies and the British government. Again, however, his efforts proved unsuccessful.

Elder Statesman

After a humiliating run-in with British officials in early 1774, which forced Franklin to respond to intensely hostile questioning by the British government, he returned the following year to Philadelphia, now convinced that revolution by the colonies against the ruling British was inevitable. He turned 70 six months before signing the Declaration of Independence (1776), which declared American independence from British rule. He and his illegitimate son William quarreled bitterly over their loyalties in the Revolution, with William continuing to support the British. Father and son never reconciled.

In 1776 the Continental Congress sent Franklin to France as the leading agent of a commission charged with securing French aid for the War of Independence. This time, Franklin succeeded brilliantly. Lionized by the French, Franklin persuaded the ministers of King Louis XVI to grant crucial financial and military aid to the revolutionaries. His eight-year stay in France, by many accounts, was the happiest time of his life.

Franklin returned to the newly independent United States in 1785 when he was nearing 80. Although his diplomatic mission probably swung the tide in the colonies' favor during the Revolution, he remained controversial on his home ground. Just as some Americans had thought him too British in former years, some of his compatriots now viewed him as too French. Nevertheless, in 1787 Franklin played a key role in the Constitutional Convention (he was by far the oldest delegate). After his death on April 17, 1790, his reputation steadily magnified his position as a heroic exemplar of the rags to riches American dream.

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