Benjamin Franklin was the ultimate American figure of the Enlightenment. Renowned on both sides of the Atlantic, he used his enormous energy and talents for philosophy, politics, and diplomacy in service to the new United States and was involved in every aspect of its successful separation from the British Empire.
Born in colonial Boston, youngest son of English immigrant candlemaker Josiah Franklin, Benjamin began a lifelong career as printer and publisher as an apprentice to James, his older brother. Benjamin decamped to Philadelphia at age 17 in search of greater intellectual and religious independence. Despite later long absences in Europe, Philadelphia became Franklin’s lifelong home. There he and Deborah Read raised their family, and there he returned to live his final years among old friends and young admirers.
In 1732, the year of George Washington’s birth, Franklin launched the first number of his immensely successful Poor Richard’s Almanack, which would appear annually through 1759. A compendium of weather lore, scientific observations, and advice for right living, the almanack helped Franklin achieve financial success, allowing him to “retire” to science and public service in 1748. As “Poor Richard,” Franklin also spread enlightenment ideas about politics and virtue in an easily understandable form.
By age 30, Franklin was embarked on a political career, serving as Pennsylvania’s postmaster, assembly member, and agent in London. Franklin used his contacts and the persuasive powers of his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, to enrich Philadelphia’s civic life, spearheading the creation of a lending library, volunteer fire company, and hospital for the city’s poor.
Beyond Philadelphia, Franklin soon became internationally known as the experimenter and explainer of electricity and inventor of the protective lightning rod. His discoveries won him membership in Britain’s Royal Society. In an age before scientific specialization, his curiosity was not limited to electricity. He made important findings in astronomy, meteorology, and zoology; encouraged others, including inventors of the steam engine and steamship; documented the dangers of lead poisoning; and, in his 80s, collaborated on Noah Webster’s project of spelling reform.
Franklin’s enduring importance, however, stems from his crucial role in the process by which 13 of Britain’s North American colonies gained independence. As early as 1747 when Philadelphia faced possible attack from French freebooters and their Indian allies, Franklin challenged Quaker Pennsylvania’s official pacifism to muster an armed militia to protect his colony. As the Seven Years’/French and Indian War loomed in 1754, Franklin’s “Albany Plan of Union” proposed a colonywide Grand Council to improve relations with Indian tribes and foster better coordination among the colonies themselves. The plan failed, but it presaged initiatives leading to the Revolution.
Historians have shown that Franklin loved England and was deeply committed to the British Empire, of which he saw the colonies as an integral and, eventually, an economically dominant part. But as Britain’s government, in the years following its 1763 war victory, made clear that Americans would never win political or social equality with the mother country, Franklin became a committed separationist. In 1762 Franklin had pulled strings to effect the appointment of his eldest child, William, as royal governor of New Jersey. In 1775 the elder Franklin broke off relations with his son (who remained loyal to the Crown) and did not communicate with him for a decade.
Franklin spent most of the politically agitated period between 1764 and the 1775 outbreak of the American Revolution in London, fruitlessly trying to persuade Parliament that its taxes and other colonial policies would lead to a rupture. Even the death of his wife, Deborah, in December 1774 did not bring him home, but Franklin arrived on American shores in time to help Thomas Paine publish and distribute his fiery pro-independence pamphlet, Common Sense, and to be Pennsylvania’s delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he sat on a committee working with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, Franklin helped shape a democratic constitution for the State of Pennsylvania.
As the war intensified, Franklin sailed for France on a mission that would make possible the United States’s ultimate victory. Although his French was not fluent, Franklin was already hugely admired there, and his patient and subtle diplomacy eventually gained major military and monetary aid for the emerging United States.
When, with France’s assistance, the war’s end came into view in 1781, Franklin became the central member of a treaty-negotiating team that included John Adams and John Jay. The resulting Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783. Gladly relieved of his official duties abroad, Franklin returned to Philadelphia in time to participate in the Constitutional Convention in summer 1787. Although the now elderly statesman did not play a central role in the major debates of that contentious proceeding, Franklin’s eminence and daily participation helped to keep the delegates on track. Benjamin Franklin is the only founding father whose signature appears on the Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Paris, and U.S. Constitution.
In 1790, as he lay dying at his Philadelphia home, Franklin took up a final cause. Joining with others, he petitioned the U.S. government to bring an end to slavery. Franklin had once himself owned at least two slaves; having helped make a revolution, this man who never stopped questioning, investigating, or evolving had, in his final chapter, cast a final vote for freedom.