Everyone knows something about Ben Franklin. What that something is varies from person to person. Some folks know a lot about his private life, such as the child he had out of wedlock, the mistresses he kept in France, or the fact that even though he is so associated with Philadelphia, he was raised in Boston. Others know of his political life. He was postmaster general of Philadelphia for years before becoming the first postmaster general of the United States. Some folks know about his work as a scientist, “discovering” electricity, and inventing bifocals, the glass harmonica, and the Franklin stove. This article will be an extremely cursory look at Ben Franklin’s life, because frankly he did too much to make for easy computer-screen-reading. If you want a book recommendation, I highly recommend this one written by H.W. Brands.
Regardless of what people know about him, he was a critical piece in the machinery of the American Revolution. And he was born January 17, 1706.
Well, he was kinda born on January 17, 1706. At the time he was born, his birthday was actually January 6, 1705. I know. It’s awful. But, you see, at the time there were two calendars being used. The old style calendar, also known as the Julian calendar, was used by Great Britain until 1752. It was a less accurate calendar than the modern one, known as the Gregorian calendar, and had confusing quirks like beginning the year on March 25. This meant that in British territories prior to 1752, you would go to sleep on March 24, 1699 and wake up on March 25, 1700. Weird, right? But you can read all about that here. This is a post about Ben Franklin, who, after having his birthday adjusted to the Gregorian calendar could honestly say he was born January 17, 1706.
He was born in Boston and stayed in Beantown until he was 17. His life in Massachusetts is not well documented, but we do know he began writing newspaper articles under the pen name “Silence Dogood.” This, coupled with the fact that his brother James ran a newspaper, instilled a love of print that stayed with Franklin for the rest of his life.
At 17, Franklin moved from Boston to Philadelphia, which would become his official home for the rest of his life. In Philadelphia he had several developments in his personal life. He married Deborah Reed, who would be his wife until her death in 1774. Deborah and Ben had two children of their own. Franklin also acknowledged a son he had out of wedlock, William Franklin, who was accepted into the household by Deborah and by all accounts treated well. Franklin’s relationship with William would be strained for many years, culminating in uneasy animosity after William became an outspoken loyalist during the Revolutionary War. Franklin tried to make the best of the tension, but ultimately the two were estranged at the time of Franklin’s death.
Philadelphia also saw Franklin develop all of his non-political interests. He founded a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and ran a successful print shop as well. He also began experimenting with various scientific concentrations. Most notably, he was fascinated by electricity. He devised an idea to tie a metal key to a kite and fly it in a thunderstorm. The experiment was circulated in the scientific community, most notably by Thomas-Francois Dalibard in France, who actually performed the experiment before Franklin himself did. Historians do not know the exact date of Franklin’s famous experiment, though many believe it was in Philadelphia on June 15, 1752. Regardless, Franklin used his experiment to invent the lightning rod, which would help avoid the massive fires that were so deadly in towns constructed almost entirely of wood. Franklin would also go on to theorize about tides, light waves, meteorology, and refrigeration, among other things. He was eventually accepted as a member in what is now known as the Royal Society of Arts.
Ben Franklin was also an accomplished musician. He played violin, harp, and guitar, and composed music for string quartets. He also invented his own instrument, called the glass harmonica. The glass harmonica is played by wetting the fingers and applying pressure to spinning glass discs of varying sizes. The principles are the same as playing the wine glasses. The glass harmonica was so popular that both Mozart and Beethoven composed pieces for it.
It was during these middle years in Philadelphia that Franklin first began criticizing slavery. Franklin became an outspoken abolitionist during his life and advocated for inclusiveness for Black people in America. He wanted the United States to be a diverse culture with a strong national interest in inclusiveness. Progressive as his visions were, he was, unfortunately, ultimately unsuccessful when advocating for such culture. However, we can now look back and clearly see that Franklin was ahead of his time and indeed a greater humanitarian than many other Founding Fathers.
Even prior to the American Revolution, Franklin was well-traveled. He spent months in Great Britain and Ireland, and spent time in Germany and France as well. In 1766 he even gave testimony in England’s Parliament regarding taxation of the colonies. The colonies had, argued Franklin, provided monetary and practical support to the Crown, most notably during the French and Indian War, and as such should not be subjected to additional Parliament-sanctioned taxes. He extended this line of thinking during speaking engagements in England, becoming a champion of the American cause. During one of his trips to France he was introduced to King Louis XV himself, and became a favorite of the French Court. This would come in especially handy during the Revolution when Franklin served as a liaison and ambassador to France.
Franklin’s quiet and devoted wife, Deborah, died in 1774 while Franklin was traveling. He returned to America in 1775 to tend to his home and affairs. At this point, revolution was palpable in many American cities, and a core group that would later be known as the Founding Fathers were discussing options for handling oppressive British action. In 1776, Franklin was appointed as Pennsylvania’s delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and was one of five men tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence. (The other four men were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston). While Jefferson was the primary author, Franklin himself and contemporaries acknowledged that Franklin made a few small but significant changes to Jefferson’s draft.
From 1776 to 1785, Franklin served as the United States Ambassador to France. It was in this position that Franklin really became effective. His constant presence at the French Court, as well as his popularity with men and women of influence, ultimately helped persuade France to provide aid to the United States in its fight for independence.
His time in France also satiated his interest in science. On August 27, 1783, Franklin witnessed the first ever hydrogen balloon flight. Interestingly, this tethered flight took place where the Eiffel Tower now stands. Franklin was so intrigued by the technology that he helped fund a second flight, which he then witnessed in December 1783.
In 1785, Franklin returned to the United States, where he threw himself wholeheartedly into helping the new nation get its legs under itself. He was present during the debates that led to the Constitution being adopted, and in fact is the only Founding Father to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris ending the war with Britain, and the United States Constitution. He was an outspoken proponent of freedom of speech, and after his constitutional duties ended, he was elected president of Pennsylvania.
Post-Revolution Life and Death
Franklin published an autobiography in 1790, which listed his thirteen virtues for life. They are: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. Even back then his contemporaries must surely have laughed at the irony of Ben Franklin preaching chastity. Regardless, however, his autobiography was well-received by domestic and international critics alike.
Franklin was a vegetarian, but suffered from many health issues. Gout, tooth rot, obesity, and myriad other conditions associated with aging in a time before antibiotics riddled him. He was in such poor health with the Constitution was signed that he became somewhat of a hermit after that. On April 17, 1790, he died in his home in Philadelphia.
In his will he left £1,000 (about $125,000 adjusted for inflation) to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia to be held in trust for 200 years. When the amounts matured, Philadelphia had about $2 million in its account, and Boston had about $5 million. The cities used the money for education, primarily. A more complete account can be found here.
This has been an almost offensive abbreviation of what has to be considered one of the most interesting men to have ever lived. Ben Franklin was ahead of his time in so many ways, and ultimately a victim of the lack of technology of his day. In today’s world he would likely be compared to an amalgamation of Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Bill Clinton. There are at least 16 states that have counties named after Ben Franklin, which is incredible considering there were only thirteen states in existence when he died. (Technically Rhode Island didn’t ratify the Constitution until about a month after Franklin died. However, even Franklin would have told you there were 13 states when he died).
To celebrate, have some wine (in moderation, of course), play some music, speak a little French, and use a Union Jack flag to blow your nose! Happiest of 215th birthdays, Benjamin Franklin!