Anyone serious about getting the most out of life could be served by the example of Benjamin Franklin.
I’m not just talking about following maxims such as “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” The mouthpieces of Franklin’s wisdom, such as Poor Richard, were hilarious and sometimes brilliant. But the man himself was Promethean.
Yes, you could look to gurus such as Russell Conwell, Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Stephen Covey, or Tim Ferriss for advice on how to flourish in life; they offer sound and valuable ideas. Or you could go to the root of the whole principle of rigorous, self-conscious self-improvement. Franklin’s life was the model. He was an innovative entrepreneur who built a network of printers throughout the colonies; spearheaded numerous cooperative enterprises, including a university, a philosophical society, a hospital, a fire company, and a volunteer militia; and though he wasn’t a mathematical theoretician, Franklin was a world-class scientist and inventor. He was also indispensable to the American Revolution. As historian Gordon Wood wrote, “He was the greatest diplomat America has ever had.”1 When he met his French literary counterpart, Voltaire, people cheered that Solon, the celebrated Athenian lawgiver, had embraced Sophocles, the renowned Athenian playwright. And Franklin did more than help create America. He cast the mold for an American ideal: that a free man may rise as high as his ambition will take him, and that his mind and effort are what matter, not his position at birth.
In sum, Benjamin Franklin personified the Enlightenment. If you’re not familiar with Franklin’s life and accomplishments, then you’re missing out on one of the most inspiring and instructive stories in world history.
‘Industry Need Not Wish.’2
Benjamin Franklin—who became the world’s most famous scientist during his life—had only two years of schooling. He was a genius no doubt. More important, he was ambitious.
Books were his first love. By the age of twelve, he had read every book in his house, then got a friend who worked at a bookshop to let him sample the merchandise. “Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night,” Franklin recalled in his tremendous Autobiography, “when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning lest it should be missed or wanted.”3 Among others, Franklin read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Daniel Defoe’s An Essay Upon Projects, and Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good. He imbibed their exhortations to morality and industry but not their religiosity.
In 1718, when twelve years old, Franklin joined his brother James’s printing business as an indentured servant. Within a few years, he developed an ingenious system aimed at making him “a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.”4 He would read an essay by a writer he admired, “making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence.”5 Days or weeks later, he would refer to his notes and attempt to rewrite the essay “in any suitable words that should come to hand.” He then compared his version with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.” In order to increase his vocabulary, he rewrote his prose as poetry, and then later, as prose again. Sometimes he shuffled his notes before the attempt, forcing himself to learn how to structure his writing.6
During his mid-teens, Franklin organized his life around reading and writing. He found less-expensive quarters and became a vegetarian, allocating his resultant savings “for buying books.” During lunch breaks, he ate “a biscuit or a slice of bread . . . and a glass of water.” This not only saved him money but also saved him time “for study, in which I made the greater progress from the greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking.”7
In 1721, his brother James started a newspaper to bolster his printing business. Realizing he wouldn’t be allowed to contribute articles, Franklin created a character through which to express his ideas and submitted his pieces pseudonymously. The result was a convincing and often humorous widow named Silence Dogood. Through Dogood, Franklin chided the things he thought silly or retrograde. “I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country,” wrote the fifteen-year-old in one passage, “and the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges, is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly.”8
However, his brother James long preceded him in such dissidence by printing satires of local authorities. In 1722, James was jailed for almost a month, leaving his precocious sixteen-year-old brother to manage, edit, and publish the paper. By the time Franklin was twenty-two in 1728, he would own his own printing business, and then the following year, his own newspaper.
Franklin would later reflect, “Prose writing has been a great use to me in the course of my life, and was a principal means of my advancement.”9 The story of how he acquired the paper illustrates this fact. He intended to start his own paper but made the mistake of sharing his idea with a loose-lipped former coworker, who promptly shared the idea with Franklin’s one-time employer and now direct competitor, Samuel Keimer. Keimer rushed into print with his own paper, titled The Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences: and Pennsylvania Gazette. The paper purported to instruct by reprinting encyclopedia entries, and his first installment printed an entry on abortion. This was a mistake.
Keimer had presented an opening that Franklin was prepared to take advantage of. From the moment Franklin began writing, he was a practicing humorist, and his wit proved to be the only real weapon he ever had need of. His humor had teeth, and on several occasions throughout his life, he would turn the opposition into a laughingstock while endearing great majorities or powerful influencers to his views.
Under the pen names “Martha Careful” and “Celia Shortface,” Franklin responded to Keimer’s abortion faux pas with a hoax. Martha and Celia feigned great disapproval at the way Keimer had exposed “the secrets of our sex in that audacious manner.”10 He wrote these as letters to the editor at the only other Philadelphia newspaper, then proceeded with a series of humorous “Busy Body” essays.11 His entertaining prose quickly siphoned readership from The Universal Instructor. In less than a year, Keimer’s paper was failing, and he agreed to sell it to Franklin, who would turn it into the most successful newspaper in colonial America—after cutting down its cumbersome name to The Pennsylvania Gazette.
This victory, which would open up so many doors for Franklin, was the direct result of his writing ability, which he had developed during a decade of intense focus. According to literary critic and Franklin biographer Carl Van Doren, Franklin was, at the time, “the best writer in America.”12
Franklin employed similar tactics in his next literary triumph. In 1732, he began publishing an almanac—a type of yearly calendar that attempted to predict the weather and tides. For this, Franklin created a character: an “excessive[ly] poor” man named Richard Saunders: hence its title, Poor Richard’s Almanack. The introduction of his first almanac contained the opening salvo in a battle of wits between Franklin and his principal competitor, Titan Leeds. It wasn’t a fair fight; Leeds had no chance. Saunders claimed that he would have begun printing an almanac years prior had his inclination “not been overpowered by my regard for my good friend . . . Mr. Titan Leeds, whose interest I was extremely unwilling to hurt. But this obstacle (I am far from speaking it with pleasure) is soon to be removed.”13 Saunders, whose art required predicting the weather, also predicted his competitor’s death—down to the minute—and so excused himself for edging in on his friend’s business. The two went back and forth for several years, with Saunders claiming that his old friend’s hostility toward him now proved that Leeds was dead, and an impostor had taken over his almanac business.
In addition to these humorous introductions, Saunders laced the typical content with epigrams to prudence, utility, and hard work. Rarely did Franklin create these witticisms from scratch; rather, he distilled common sayings to their best components and put his own humorous and memorable spin on them. For instance, the English proverb “Fresh fish and new-come guests smell, but that they are three days old” he changed to “Fish and visitors stink in three days.”14 In other cases he used rhymes to lodge his sayings into the memories of readers: “Tongue double, brings trouble.”15
Poor Richard’s became the best-selling almanac of its time, contributing to Franklin’s increasing wealth. The pithy sayings stuck with people, becoming maxims for the burgeoning class of ambitious tradesmen. Parents often invoked—and still invoke—proverbs such as “Early to bed, early to rise” to teach their children the values of disciplined and mature living. Thus, these proverbs helped make Franklin a symbol of the self-made man: he who helps himself by helping others. Franklin’s focus on mutual benefit proved to be another aspect of his tremendous success.
‘When You’re Good to Others, You Are Best to Yourself.’16
Franklin parlayed his rigorous approach to self-development into myriad mutually beneficial partnerships and associations. He developed an incredible ability to spearhead cooperative efforts. The result? In the twenty years after opening his business, he leaped tremendous bounds, going from young, upstart printer at the age of twenty-two to retired gentleman, philosopher, and public figure just shy of his forty-second birthday.
Shortly before opening his printing business, he realized that interacting regularly with other “ingenious” young men could augment his self-improvement efforts and so organized a small group of ambitious tradesmen called the Junto. When they met each week, a member proposed some useful inquiry into morality, politics, or science to be discussed the following week. This “put us on reading with attention upon the several subjects, that we might speak more to the purpose.”17 Franklin later declared it the best school on these subjects in the province. In addition, once every three months each member was required to write and share an essay on any topic he chose. They also shared news about successful people and their strategies, and they aided one another in whatever ways they could. In fact, Franklin reflected that once he opened his shop, every member exerted “themselves in recommending business to us.”18
As Franklin’s wealth grew, so did his standing in the community. For much of the 18th century, most people accepted a societal division between gentlemen and commoners. Most held that a man who was born a commoner would necessarily die one. Franklin was one of many—and would become the symbol for all—who would test and eventually begin to dissolve that distinction.
For Franklin, joining the Freemasons was a step along that path. The Freemasons was one of the few organizations that attracted and admitted both gentleman aristocrats and up-and-coming businessmen. In 1731, Franklin was admitted into the group, enabling him to establish bonds with wealthy, highly educated men. Within six months, he’d take on the first of many official roles, and he would hold various positions within the organization throughout the rest of his life.
The month following his official appointment within the Freemasons, Franklin stretched himself in yet another direction, relying on and tying together the interests of many people, among them both “commoners” and “gentlemen.” The Junto wanted to expand and maintain its stock of books, which required a lot of money. Franklin came up with and drafted the “instrument of association” for an organization that came to be called the Library Company of Philadelphia—the first American subscription library. Franklin solicited the help of several gentleman scholars to select and procure the books. He would live to see his idea spread throughout the colonies and later reflected, “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges.”19
In 1731, Franklin began another initiative that would in time likewise spread throughout the colonies, bolstering both his income and his entrepreneurial confidence. He arranged the first of many franchising agreements, this one to start a printing business in South Carolina with one of his journeymen printers. Franklin advanced the money for all of the equipment and supplies in exchange for one-third of the profit for a period of six years. The network he went on to build increased his knowledge of and interest in the other colonies; it also substantially increased both his income and that of his several partners.
Franklin would go on to lead an astounding number of widely beneficial cooperative projects. He organized the Union Fire Company—the first in Philadelphia—which fought fires and met monthly to discuss methods of preventing and extinguishing them. It, in turn, spawned sister organizations all over the city. He helped to found the Philadelphia Academy—known today as the University of Pennsylvania—as well as Pennsylvania Hospital, and the Philadelphia Contributionship: an insurance company formed out of the city’s growing number of fire companies. He was instrumental in getting the city’s streets paved and lighted, and in establishing a formal system of night watchmen.
In 1747, Franklin even organized a volunteer militia, perhaps his first act with revolutionary implications. Pennsylvania (along with Maryland and Delaware) was a proprietary colony; the land had been granted to a proprietor or owner, who had king-like control.20 In 1744, King George’s War erupted in the colonies. Although Pennsylvania was relatively isolated from the conflict, by 1747, settlers along the borders and waterways were vulnerable. Yet, Pennsylvania’s proprietary family refused to subject its own landholdings to the taxes necessary for defense spending.
In characteristic fashion, Franklin “determined to try what might be done by a voluntary association of the people.” In a pamphlet titled Plain Truth, he warned his fellow Pennsylvanians of their vulnerability and floated the idea of a volunteer militia. “The pamphlet had a sudden and surprising effect,” Franklin recalled. Some ten thousand men quickly enlisted and “furnished themselves as soon as they could with arms, formed themselves into companies and regiments, chose their own officers, and met every week to be instructed in the manual exercise, and other parts of military discipline.”21
When the proprietaries back in England learned of this, they were furious—particularly Thomas Penn. Penn wrote to a Pennsylvania correspondent, “This Association is founded on a Contempt to Government,” adding, “I am sure the people of America are too often ready to act in defiance of the Government they live in, without associating themselves for that purpose.”22 Of the instigator he noted, “He is a dangerous man and I should be very glad he inhabited any other country, as I believe him of a very uneasy spirit. However, as he is a sort of tribune of the people, he must be treated with regard.”23
However, in 1748, almost as soon as Franklin’s militia was raised and the town’s defenses were erected, King George’s War concluded in a transient peace.
Franklin’s boldest attempt at association building came in 1754. The Pennsylvania Assembly sent him to the Albany Conference to restore an alliance with the Iroquois Confederacy. With prominent representatives from seven other colonies in attendance, Franklin proposed a plan for unifying a colonial defense. The congress approved the plan. However, foreshadowing the obstacles to a future American federal government, the colonies “did not adopt it, as they all thought there was too much prerogative [i.e., concentrated power] in it.” Conversely—and foreshadowing a different conflict—“in England it was judged to have too much of the democratic.”24 British officials would not dream of granting Americans the level of self-government and internal organization that Franklin’s plan proposed. For now, it was shelved.
Nonetheless, Franklin’s rigorous approach to self-improvement—when turned outward on his business and community—was a powerful demonstration of the social benefits of pursuing one’s own rational interests.
‘Sin Is Not Hurtful Because It Is Forbidden but It Is Forbidden Because It’s Hurtful. Nor Is a Duty Beneficial Because It Is Commanded, but It Is Commanded, Because It’s Beneficial.’25
When Franklin was young, his father had expressed intentions to send him to Harvard, where he would study divinity and go on to become a preacher. However, as biographer Walter Isaacson notes, it’s likely Franklin’s irreverence led his father to scuttle the plan.26 Take just one example. “Dr. Franklin, when a child,” his grandson later recalled, “found the long graces used by his father before and after meals very tedious.” So, “One day after the winter’s provisions had been salted—‘I think, Father,’ said Benjamin, ‘if you were to say Grace over the whole cask—once for all—it would be a vast saving of time.’”27
However, Franklin was no atheist. In one of his last public letters he restated the “Creed” he had long held:
I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he covers it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this.28
Yet, Franklin also doubted that Jesus Christ was a divine being, found religious dogma “unintelligible,” and stopped regularly attending church after concluding that the “polemic Arguments, or Explications of the peculiar Doctrines of our Sect” were “very dry, uninteresting and unedifying, since not a single moral Principle was inculcated.”29 He considered himself “a thorough Deist,” and once wrote to a close friend, “Those who have Reason to regulate their Actions, have no occasion for [religious] enthusiasm.”30
Yet though he lacked religious fervor, he held that moral character, like his writing ability or business acumen, was a necessary and useful means for living a good life. And, like these others, it was an aspect of himself that he could consciously work to improve. “I grew convinced,” he later wrote, “that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life.”31 In 1732, he quit making occasional appearances at Presbyterian services, later acknowledging:
Revelation had indeed no weight with me as such; but I entertained an opinion, that though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them; yet probably those actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered.32
Astoundingly, Franklin—in his mid-twenties—identified the fact that morality has a natural basis and accordingly grasped that it is also practical. He wrote out a list of thirteen virtues and held that, if practiced, they would improve his life. He later wrote:
These names of virtues, with their precepts, were: 1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. 2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. 3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. 4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. 5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing. 6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. 7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly. 8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty. 9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. 10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation. 11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable. 12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation. 13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.33
Humility did not make it onto Franklin’s original list. However, he wrote, “a Quaker friend . . . kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right . . . but was overbearing, and rather insolent.”34 Franklin obliged and added humility to his list. Yet, he never seems to have fully accepted the suggestion. For one, imitating Socrates—who tended rather to humble others by spotlighting their specious reasonings—does not make a man humble, though Franklin certainly practiced this virtue. In addition, he confessed a very different evaluation of pride or “vanity” in the introduction of his Autobiography:
Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.35
Franklin’s realization that morality is rooted in nature had an important implication for him: It also must be practicable. If morality is based in nature (as against super-nature), then there had to be a rational approach to being moral. Thus, Franklin conceived his own “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”36 He realized that he could not develop and hone thirteen virtues at once. Instead, he would focus on one per week, cycling through his list repeatedly. He would not forsake the other virtues but rather record his progress on all of them each week. But he focused on consciously developing only one at a time. He would continue this process for most of his life, even creating his own ledger system along with a book of ivory pages that he could erase and reuse.37
On a few occasions throughout his life, Franklin’s interest in a particular preacher would alight, and he would attend that preacher’s sermons. Rev. Samuel Hemphill, a Presbyterian who emphasized practical morality—as opposed to the typical dogma—was one such preacher. In 1735, when Hemphill’s ministerial colleagues denounced him and his focus on the practical, Franklin was furious. He published a pamphlet defending Hemphill. When the reverend was nevertheless suspended, Franklin split from the congregation, never again regularly attending any church.
Despite this controversy and his ideas about the natural basis for morality, Franklin never gave up religion entirely. In 1757, he even warned one religious satirist: “He that spits in the wind, spits in his own face.” Franklin was not merely attempting to avoid controversy. He wrote:
You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life without the assistance afforded by Religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue and disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a proportion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, of the inexperienced and inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. . . . If men are so wicked as we now see with religion what would they be if without it?”38
In 1787, while Franklin sat miserably through weeks of unproductive debate in the Constitutional Convention, the idea that “the motives of religion” could restrain men from vice and support their virtue certainly occurred to him.39 He wrote that “when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, [and] their errors of opinion.”40 Thus, Franklin, the “thorough deist”—who had “early absented myself from the public assemblies” of religion—proposed beginning sessions of the Constitutional Convention with prayer.41 He thought these young men “running about in search of political wisdom” needed not divine intervention but a moral crutch.42
However, earlier in life, shortly after forming the Junto, Franklin had envisioned another means for advancing virtue:
There seems to me at present to be great occasion for raising a United Party of Virtue, by forming the virtuous and good men of all nations into a regular body, to be governed by suitable good and wise rules, which good and wise men may probably be more unanimous in their obedience to, than common people are to common laws.43
Franklin went no further with the idea than to share it with a couple of friends, nor did he write The Art of Virtue, which he had planned as the party’s guide. Nonetheless, even at the end of his life, he reflected, “I am still of opinion that it was a practicable scheme, and might have been very useful.”44 In 1780, he noted to a friend “The rapid progress true science now makes,” but he also pointed out an alarming contrast: “O that moral science were in as fair a way of improvement, that men would cease to be wolves to one another, and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity.”45 Franklin had the tools to advance this “moral science”; it is unfortunate that he did not make as much progress here as he did in his other scientific endeavors.
‘Wealth Is Not His That Has It, but His That Enjoys It.’46
Franklin’s approach to writing, business, and morality was to observe reality, grasp causal relationships, and use this knowledge for his chosen ends. In other words, he used induction and the scientific method to solve practical problems, and doing so had made him happy and wealthy. By the time Franklin was thirty-seven (in 1743), his business acumen and frugality had enabled him to devote more of his time, resources, and rigorous scientific thinking to a field that had increasingly fascinated him: science itself.
To rapidly advance his understanding of science, Franklin fell back on the method he was most partial to: organizing a forum for the mutual benefit of like-minded people. On May 14, 1743, he published A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge, which became the founding document of yet another Franklin institution—the American Philosophical Society. The proposal made clear Franklin’s views on the purpose of both science and the society. He wrote that “many hints must from time to time arise, many observations occur, which if well-examined, pursued and improved, might produce discoveries to the advantage of some or all of the British plantations, or to the benefit of mankind in general.” Franklin observed that those unencumbered by the “necessaries” of life were “widely separated, and seldom can see and converse or be acquainted with each other, so that many useful particulars remain uncommunicated, die with the discoverers, and are lost to mankind.” The society, with Franklin’s Philadelphia library as its nucleus, would remedy the problem by becoming a central repository and clearinghouse for knowledge on “all philosophical experiments that let light into the nature of things, tend to increase the power of man over matter, and multiply the conveniencies or pleasures of life.”47 Unlike Franklin’s other associations, his philosophical society was not an instant hit, but with time it would catch on.
That same year, Franklin traveled to Boston to attend a lecture by Scottish scientist Archibald Spencer. This included some electrical demonstrations—the first Franklin had ever seen. Soon after, Franklin and several friends began conducting their own experiments. Peter Collinson, Franklin’s friend and the London agent of the Library Company, supplied them with the necessary basics, and Franklin kept Collinson informed on their progress.
In the earliest surviving letter from this correspondence, Franklin told Collinson, “For my own part, I never was before engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attention and my time as this has lately done.”48 This all-consuming interest motivated Franklin to retire from his printing business. In early 1748, just shy of his forty-second birthday, Franklin formed a partnership whereby he left his business with a friend in exchange for half of the profits.49 He explained to another friend that he wanted “no other tasks than such as I shall like to give my self” and was intent on “enjoying what I look upon as a great happiness, leisure to read, study, make experiments, and converse at large with such ingenious and worthy men as are pleased to honor me with their friendship or acquaintance.”50
In his second letter to Collinson in May 1747, Franklin relayed several novel and important insights that he and his fellow experimenters had uncovered. European scientists believed that two different types of materials created two different types of electrical phenomena: those described as vitreous and others as resinous. But various observations led Franklin and his friends to conclude that all electrical phenomena were actually of one “common element.”51 The different phenomena were best described by some “new terms”: positive and negative, or plus and minus. In his letter describing the experiments that led to his new, unified conception of electrical phenomena, Franklin added, “These terms we may use till your philosophers give us better.” Of course, these terms are still in use today, as are several other Franklin originals that describe electrical properties and applications, including “electric motor” and “electrical battery.”52
Another insight revealed in this letter is that sharp metal points are effective “both in drawing off and throwing” electricity,53 an observation that would lead Franklin to a monumental scientific breakthrough. Many scientists believed that lightning was an electrical phenomenon, but none had come up with a means of proving it. In 1749, Franklin listed all of the similar characteristics he could think of between lightning and electricity, then noted: “The electric fluid is attracted by points. We do not know whether this property is in lightning. But since they agree in all the particulars wherein we can already compare them, is it not probable they agree likewise in this? Let the experiment be made.”54 But before even devising the experiment, Franklin—who was constantly looking for the practical applications of his fledgling science—suggested how the properties of metal points might be used. Replace the “round balls of wood or metal which are commonly placed on the tops of weathercocks, vanes, or spindles of churches, spires, or masts” with “a rod of iron eight or ten feet in length, sharpened gradually to a point like a needle.” “I am of the opinion,” he wrote to Collinson, “that houses, ships, and even towers and churches may be effectually secured from the strokes of lightning” by the use of such rods.55
He devised “the experiment” the following year. It called for a large, pointed rod affixed to a sentry box that could be placed on a hilltop or church steeple. And, to prove that lightning was a form of electricity, the rod would be connected to a Leyden jar, a capacitor, to collect the charge.
Franklin’s proposal received an unenthusiastic response in London, where Collinson had communicated it to the Royal Society. However, it was translated into French the following year, and a French scientist was the first to perform the lightning rod experiment and confirm Franklin’s hypothesis.
Instead of pursuing this rather costly and time-consuming experiment himself, Franklin concocted an easier and cheaper one that would demonstrate the same thing. If the object was merely to get a pointed metal rod as close as possible to the clouds and to transmit their charge into a Leyden jar, why not just attach a pointed metal rod to a kite, the kite string to a key, and the key to a Leyden jar? In 1752, before news had arrived of the success of his lightning rod experiment in France, Franklin performed the kite experiment, likewise confirming that lighting is electrical. An October issue of his newspaper explained to others how to conduct the kite experiment, and his subsequent almanac provided instructions for installing lightning rods.
As others in the colonies and in Europe verified his results, Franklin was widely and legitimately hailed not merely as a genius, but as a savior. By discovering how to protect tall buildings and ship masts from lightning strikes, he tamed an unpredictable and terrifying aspect of nature and taught people how to protect their lives and property. After a demonstration, King Louis XV of France sent Franklin congratulations via the Royal Society of London. And the Royal Society awarded Franklin its prestigious Copley Medal and soon after elected him a member, both firsts for an American. As biographer Carl Van Doren noted, “[Franklin] found electricity a curiosity and left it a science.”56
Although his breakthroughs in electricity were Franklin’s greatest scientific achievements, they were far from being his only. For instance, Franklin invented a new type of stove that produced more heat and less smoke, as well as bifocal glasses. He also made useful observations about the calming effect of oil on water. And in 1785, on his last overseas voyage, he wrote his “Maritime Observations,” which poured forth a lifetime’s worth of fruitful ideas regarding ocean travel.
Late in life, while ambassador to France, Franklin wrote to a friend, “It is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity, for the sake of easy transport.”57 Five years later, Franklin attended some of the very first manned flights in history: two ascensions made via hot-air balloon and hydrogen balloon. When one observer scoffed, “What use is it?,” Franklin responded, “What use is a new-born baby?”58
‘Force Shites Upon Reason’s Back.’59
Whereas many of America’s Founders entered politics after studying and practicing law—John Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, to name a few—Franklin’s only profession was that of printer. Yet, his life and work prepared him for politics and enabled him to hone skills that were complementary to those of his later colleagues—and, in certain respects, unparalleled among them.
First, he had worked tirelessly to become a “tolerable English writer.” He held that good writing “should be smooth, clear, and short,” a premise that motivated him to pare his ideas to essentials. This amplified his powerful thinking and enabled him to communicate clearly with any person or audience, including mass audiences such as those of his Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack.
Second, he fully grasped that rational argumentation was the only means of changing people’s minds and accepted that it often took time for an idea to take hold. For instance, in his Junto he once shared an idea to establish “a more effectual” night watch for Philadelphia. In time, the idea circulated among other clubs and through the city’s population. Franklin later reflected that “though the plan was not immediately carried into execution, yet, by preparing the minds of people for the change, it paved the way for the law obtained a few years after.”60 As a young printer and writer, the only means of effecting change open to him was to secure the rational convictions of his fellow man. In time, Franklin came to oppose all forms of elitism.
Third, he concluded from numerous life experiences that outright confrontation rarely produced the results he was after. In his Autobiography, Franklin recalled a childhood friend, writing, “We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another.” But before finishing the story, he interjected:
Which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and, perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship.61
He later learned the Socratic method and dropped his “abrupt contradiction, and positive argumentation, and put on the humble enquirer and doubter.” He “grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.” But he “gradually left” this method, “retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence.”62 He observed:
This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us.63
To these qualities of character, Franklin added his one trusted weapon to be employed when clear, modest arguments failed to convince: his wit. These qualities were well-solidified parts of Franklin’s character before he entered politics, and they made him a powerful spokesman for the American cause.
‘A Mortal Enemy to Arbitrary Government & Unlimited Power’64
In 1764, the Pennsylvania Assembly sent Franklin to England to oppose an act of Parliament, the Stamp Act, which taxed colonists without their consent and without parliamentary representation.
On February 13, 1766, Franklin was called upon to speak in front of the House of Commons. He patiently explained that Americans respected Britain’s right to lay duties on imports, “but a right to lay internal taxes was never supposed to be in parliament, as we are not represented there.” What difference did it make, asked a minister, whether it be an “internal” or “external” tax? Franklin explained:
I think the difference is very great. An external tax is a duty laid on commodities imported; that duty is added to the first cost, and other charges on the commodity, and when it is offered to sale, makes a part of the price. If the people do not like it at that price, they refuse it; they are not obliged to pay it. But an internal tax is forced from the people without their consent, if not laid by their own representatives. The stamp-act says, we shall have no commerce, make no exchange of property with each other, neither purchase nor grant, nor recover debts; we shall neither marry, nor make our wills, unless we pay such and such sums, and thus it is intended to extort our money from us, or ruin us by the consequences of refusing to pay it.65
What if Britain placed an import duty on some “necessaries of life,” a minister inquired? “I do not know a single article imported into the Northern Colonies, but what they can either do without, or make themselves,” Franklin responded. But, asked another, would they pay more for American-made goods of lesser quality? “Yes, I think so,” Franklin answered. “People will pay as freely to gratify one passion as another, their resentment as their pride.”
Perhaps the crescendo of Franklin’s performance came when a minister asked, “Can anything less than a military force carry the stamp-act into execution?” “I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose,” he answered. “Why may it not?,” he was asked. “Suppose a military force sent into America,” said Franklin, “they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.”66
Nine days after the hearing, Parliament scrapped the Stamp Act. An English friend of Franklin’s wrote to their mutual friend in America, “To this very examination, more than to any thing else, you are indebted to the speedy and total repeal of this odious law.”67
But upon the repeal of the Stamp Act, Parliament issued the Declaratory Act, which asserted its right to impose any taxes it chose on the colonies. Franklin stayed in Britain, pleading the American position in a series of newspaper articles. He was the right man for the job. He had perhaps the most nuanced understanding of both British and American interests. In 1753, he had been chosen as a deputy postmaster general of North America. In that position—which he still held—he had traveled through all of the American colonies as an employee of the British government. He had also previously lived in London, most recently for a period of five years. Even now, he considered himself a faithful royal subject, as did many Americans.
Presenting himself as “an impartial historian and observer of American facts and opinions,” his article “Causes of the American Discontents before 1768” aimed for what he still considered the best option for all: mediation. In the article, Franklin preceded Thomas Jefferson’s later Summary View of the Rights of British North America in arguing that the common link between Britain and the colonies was the king. Parliament’s authority stemmed from its representation of the people. However, the British Parliament represented only England and Scotland. Practicing intelligent diplomacy, Franklin perhaps went overboard in professing America’s loyalty to the king, claiming, “there is not a single native of our country who is not firmly attached to his King by principle and by affection.” “But,” he continued:
A new kind of loyalty seems to be required of us, a loyalty to Parliament; a loyalty that is to extend, it seems, to a surrender of all our properties, whenever a House of Commons, in which there is not a single member of our choosing, shall think fit to grant them away without our consent.68
“This unhappy new system of politics,” he declared in another precedent to Jefferson, “tends to dissolve those bands of union, and to sever us for ever.”
‘A Slip of the Foot You May Soon Recover: But a Slip of the Tongue You May Never Get Over.’69
In 1772, Franklin made a monumental misjudgment, the result of which, in retrospect, has as much claim as any other single act for igniting the American Revolution.
In the late 1760s, Thomas Hutchison, while lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, along with several other loyalists in the colonies, wrote to a British official, urging Parliament to take measures against the colonists’ increasingly open defiance of British authority.70 “There must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties” in order to “maintain . . . the dependance which a colony ought to have upon the parent State.”71
In 1772, Franklin obtained copies of these letters.72 He believed that they held the solution to all of the problems between Britain and her colonies. In his interpretation, a few “mere time-servers, seeking their own private” gain had “laid the foundation of most if not all our present grievances.” Franklin believed that Hutchison and a few others had invoked what he termed the “arbitrary measures” of Parliament. He reasoned that if the colonists knew the truth, their resentment toward Britain would be “considerably abated,” as he claimed his own was. Thus, Americans would forgive Parliament for its injustices toward them. And British ministers would likewise be thankful to be rid of Hutchison and his coconspirators: these “betrayers of the interest, not of their native country only, but of the government they pretend to serve, and of the whole English empire.” So, Franklin sent the letters to the speaker of the Massachusetts assembly, Thomas Cushing, asking that they “not be printed, nor any copies taken,” but instead clandestinely circulated among “some men of worth in the province.” Then, “After being some months in your possession, you are requested to return them to me.”73
The result of Franklin’s decision to send the letters could not have been more antithetical to his goal. Against Franklin’s request—repeated several times throughout his letter to Cushing—the Hutchison letters were published and made widely available throughout Massachusetts by June 1773. Instead of procuring the reflective understanding of a few “men of worth” who could thereafter help to calm anti-British sentiments, the letters inflamed everyone.74 The Massachusetts House resolved that the letters proved that Hutchison and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver intended to subvert the state constitution. They quickly petitioned the king to remove both men from office, which led to the installment of a military governor, Thomas Gage.
Back in England, accusations flew as to who obtained the letters and sent them to the Massachusetts house. Realizing that his plan had backfired, Franklin published several anonymous satires, which ridiculed British policy toward America. “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One” was an instruction manual for destroying colonial relations. It counseled ministers to “take special care” to ensure that colonists “do not enjoy the same common Rights,” as mainlanders “and that they are governed by severer laws, all of your enacting, without allowing them any share in the choice of the legislators.”75 Another satire, “Edict by the King of Prussia,” was commonly mistaken as the king’s genuine royal order. “It is well known to all the world,” King Frederick declared, “that the first German settlements made in the island of Britain, were by colonies of people, subjects to our renowned Ducal ancestors” and that “the said colonies have flourished under the protection of our august house.” Frederick proceeded to declare Britain subject to taxes and controls that mirrored those Britain had placed on Americans. Among the orders was one that Americans despised:
We do hereby also ordain and command, that all the theives, highway and street-robbers, house-breakers, forgers, murderers, . . . and villains of every denomination, who have forfeited their lives to the law in Prussia, but who we, in our great clemency, do not think fit here to hang, shall be emptied out of our [jails] into the said island of Great Britain for the BETTER PEOPLING of that country.76
But by the end of 1773, Massachusetts colonists responded less humorously to the growing controversy. They dumped 346 chests of British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor. Then things turned deadly serious. Britain responded by closing the port, which cut off the bay colony’s primary source of basic necessities.
In England, one man accused another of leaking the Hutchison letters and was subsequently wounded in a duel. When Franklin heard that other men were engaged for a second duel, he interceded, publicly admitting that he had sent the letters. Ironically, when the scapegoats he had blamed for the entire crisis were ousted, Franklin was left in the spotlight, appearing to be the most egregious instigator of all. He was grilled and humiliated before the King’s Privy Council by Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn and dismissed as deputy postmaster general for the colonies. As historian Gordon Wood notes, “the British government may have vented some of its rising hostility toward its rebellious colonists, but at the same time it virtually destroyed the affections of the only colonist in England who might have brought about reconciliation.”77
Pennsylvanians responded by hanging effigies of Hutchison and Wedderburn, then burning them using electricity. Though incensed, Franklin was not yet convinced that he could not solve the Imperial crisis. In early 1775, he met with a British lord and concocted a plan for reconciliation.78 Upon its first reading in the House of Lords, the plan was bitterly derided “with as much contempt as they could have shown a ballad offered by a drunken porter.”79 After this and other ministerial blunders, Franklin completely abandoned the idea that reconciliation was possible. Parliament simply would not listen to reason.
‘They Will Not Find a Rebellion; They May Indeed Make One.’80
Given that the situation in Britain was now beyond diplomatic solution, Franklin sailed back to Philadelphia. The day after he arrived, he was unanimously chosen as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Despite the vote of confidence, not everyone trusted him. He’d been in Britain so long that many questioned his loyalty. Franklin was surrounded by men who were ignorant of the personal attacks that he’d endured on their behalf. They could not fathom the depth of the wound that England had inflicted on him. John Adams, who had “seen Franklin from day to day Sitting in Silence, a great part of his time fast asleep in his Chair,” suspected that Franklin might be a British spy.81
By July, however, Adams was writing to his wife, Abigail, that Franklin was “a great and good Man” with “a disposition entirely American” and that “He does not hesitate at our boldest measures, but rather seems to think us, too irresolute, and backward.”82
As the oldest, most worldly member of Congress, and as the man most intimate with parliamentary affairs, Franklin was given numerous responsibilities and voluntarily took on still more. He drafted Articles of Confederation (a modification of his earlier Albany Plan), designed Continental currency that could not be counterfeited, proposed a plan for duty-free trade, and traveled to Canada to commission loans. This last was no easy task for a sixty-nine-year-old man. In fact, the trip damaged his health, and he was recuperating at home in bed when appointed to a committee to draft a declaration asserting the independence of the colonies. The head of the committee, thirty-three-year-old Virginian Thomas Jefferson, asked Franklin to draft it, but he demurred, saying, “I have made it a rule, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.”83
In late June 1776, Jefferson sent Franklin a draft, asking him to “peruse it and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate.”84 As biographer Walter Isaacson wrote, “The most important of [Franklin’s] edits was small but resounding.” Jefferson had opened the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin crossed out the last three words and replaced them with one: self-evident. Of this, Isaacson wrote, “The idea of ‘self-evident’ truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume.”85
Franklin also lightened Jefferson’s mood with an anecdote when he saw the younger man’s pain at having his declaration edited by Congress. It was about a hatter who needed a sign for his business:
He composed it in these words, “John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,” with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word “Hatter” tautologous, because followed by the words “makes hats,” which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word “makes” might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats . . . He struck it out. A third said he thought the words “for ready money” were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, “John Thompson sells hats.” “Sells hats!” says his next friend; “why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?” It was stricken out, and “hats” followed, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to “John Thompson,” with the figure of a hat subjoined.86
‘Little Strokes, Fell Great Oaks.’87
The colonies soon declared independence from—and thus war on—Great Britain, and they desperately needed money and allies. Who better to plead America’s case abroad than the world’s most famous American? In October of 1776, Franklin, now seventy years old, sailed to France. His reputation preceded him—by more than a decade. A translation of his Experiments and Observations on Electricity had been available in France since 1752. King Louis XV had endorsed it and praised Franklin. His scientific achievements were repeatedly applauded in French intellectual journals. Five editions of his Stamp Act testimony had been published in France. Franklin had dined with the royal family on a visit in 1767 and again in 1769. After Franklin arrived, his image was painted, sculpted, and printed on every consumer good, becoming so ubiquitous that he remarked to his daughter that artisans “have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.”88 In France, Franklin was America; he symbolized the new world, republicanism, and the Enlightenment.
America was fortunate to have so celebrated an emissary, because the American delegation—first consisting of Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Silas Deane—faced overwhelming obstacles. They went months without news from Congress. “Our total Ignorance of the truth or Falsehood of Facts, when questions are asked of us,” they wrote, “makes us appear small in the Eyes of the People here, and is prejudicial to our Negotiations.”89 Franklin was constantly harassed by Frenchmen requesting that he grant them a government or military post, which was not even in his power. He was surrounded by spies—some of whom had been longtime friends. His colleagues, who had until recently considered themselves Englishmen, were deeply suspicious of France, which had traditionally been their enemy—most recently in the French and Indian War.
Franklin’s fellow diplomats suspected him as well. Not only had he long been employed by the British, but now many thought he assimilated too well with the French. Fellow diplomat Arthur Lee had long been envious of Franklin’s abilities and acclaim. He threw out suspicious accusations at a rapid clip and was the center of much controversy. Lee also deeply distrusted France and acted insolently toward the French foreign minister, Comte de Vergennes. John Adams would later make the same blunder, leading Vergennes to request that Adams be recalled. In fact, the revolving cast of characters that made up the American delegation was overwhelmingly hostile and suspicious toward France. Franklin repeatedly had to mend relations and try to keep his mouthy colleagues in check.
And then there was the real ministerial work. Although France had an incentive to get back at its longtime nemesis, Britain, openly assisting an antimonarchical cause was not immediately appealing to the French monarchy. Franklin exercised incredible tact, securing loan after loan for the American cause. Still, France was hesitant to openly ally with America—even after the great American victory at the Battle of Saratoga, which is commonly held to have definitively convinced the French to enter the war.
Luckily for America, Franklin was a public relations genius and an incredibly adroit diplomat; he knew what would get the French to agree to an alliance. In January 1778, Franklin met with a British agent. He was confident that the French would not fail to notice and certain of what they would suspect: a British-American reconciliation. For France, the prospect of a renewed British-American alliance was even less desirable than entering yet another bank-busting conflict. In the month following Franklin’s meeting, France finally signed a treaty of military alliance with America.
As the war turned in America’s favor, and France proved itself a strong ally, Congress ordered that any American peace negotiations with Britain be overseen and approved by France. Though Franklin was grateful to France, his fellow delegates—John Jay and John Adams—convinced him that this was not in America’s best interest. It gave France the power to prolong the war until it could get what it wanted in negotiations with Britain. For instance, France could continue the war until Britain was willing to cede Canada or other North American lands.
So, Franklin disregarded the order and began outlining a separate peace treaty with a British diplomat. When Vergennes found out, he was understandably angry. Franklin responded in such conciliating terms that the French forgave the indiscretion and even granted America its single largest loan of the war. In fact, Franklin had the gall to inquire about it in the very same letter, writing that without continued assistance from France, “the whole Edifice falls to the ground immediately.”90 Likewise, without the great perseverance of Franklin, the American edifice—so dependent on French support—would have crumbled. “If Washington was indispensable to the success of the Revolution in America,” wrote Gordon Wood, “Franklin was indispensable to the success of the Revolution abroad.”91
‘A Mob’s a Monster; Heads Enough, but No Brains.’92
At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, Franklin may have harbored some hope to spend the rest of his days on “philosophical studies and amusements” as he had when he had first retired from his printing business some thirty-seven years earlier. The week after he returned to America, he attended meetings of the Union Fire Company—which he’d founded nearly fifty years earlier—and of the American Philosophical Society, for which he had been serving as president since 1769.
However, if he did harbor hopes to become a reclusive scientist, they quickly dissipated. In less than a month, he was pulled back into politics. Franklin, now seventy-nine, was elected to Pennsylvania’s legislature; a week later, he was elected its president. Next, in 1787, less than two years after Franklin’s return to America, the colonies agreed to a convention to revise their union. It was to be held in Philadelphia, and Franklin, now eighty-one, was chosen as a delegate for Pennsylvania.
Franklin was at once an obvious choice and an unlikely one. In the 1750s, when the public “laid hold” of him, he was thrown into the role of justice of the peace. It may have been the only public role Franklin ever willingly abandoned, and he did so because, as he said, “more knowledge of the common law than I possessed was necessary to act in that station with credit.”93 And though he had since worked for several decades in important government posts, none of them could be called a remedy for Franklin’s relative ignorance of law.
Franklin was not a great nor even a good legal thinker. The 1776 constitution for Pennsylvania that he helped create called for a government consisting of a single house with a president and a supreme council. It mandated relatively short terms, caps on eligibility, the requirement that “all bills of public nature shall be printed for the consideration of the people,” and that officials demonstrate a “firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality.”94 But it lacked any meaningful system of checks on government power and sparked criticism from other founders, particularly John Adams, who thought it was much too democratic.
Franklin’s thinking on the subject was more reactionary than revolutionary, more a backlash to the failings of the British government than the result of sober and studious reflection. He and those in his camp reasoned that Britain’s divisions into commons and lords reflected the social strata that Franklin and the burgeoning middle class were constructively demolishing.
However, though Franklin was antielitist and more comfortable with democracy than his peers, he was also staunchly opposed to mob rule. In 1764, a gang of Pennsylvania frontiersman, distraught over Indian attacks, slaughtered a village of Indians who were long known to be peaceful—they had absolutely no connection with the offending tribes. Franklin passionately denounced the mob attack in a pamphlet. He pointed out the mob’s disrespect of government—and clarified his animosity toward anarchy—writing, “The faith of this government has been frequently given to those Indians;—but that did not avail them with people who despise government.”95 However, Franklin’s actions spoke even louder than his words. The month after he published his poignant denunciation, the mob marched on Philadelphia, threatening to slaughter all Indians in the city as well as anyone who rose to defend them. Franklin organized the city’s defense, and when the mob arrived, Pennsylvania’s governor sent him to corral their leadership into a meeting. He did so and persuaded the mob to disperse.
Franklin was a man who always trusted the evidence of his experience, and his experience led him to believe that a few rational and virtuous men who had the trust of those they represented could lead effectively. Moreover, America had severed itself from a multiheaded government after it proved itself as capable as any other of infringing upon people’s rights. Why, then, not have a single-bodied government like Pennsylvania’s?
‘Declaiming against Pride, Is Not Always a Sign of Humility.’96
Ignorant as he was of the proper structure of government, Franklin—the ambassador—was a powerful conciliating force and an essential asset to the Constitutional Convention. Humility and consideration of the ideas of others were the motifs of his contribution. This is interesting given his own struggles with humility. When reflecting in his Autobiography on his “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral perfection,” Franklin had admitted, “In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. . . . for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”97 Yet given the number of geniuses now surrounding Franklin—geniuses who could agree on almost nothing—exhorting them to consider the opinions of others was perhaps the greatest thing this wise old man could do. This was the great fortune of America: to have so many complementary prodigies that served as checks and balances on each other while erecting a system of checks and balances for their countrymen. Franklin helped bring the conflicting sides into cohesion.
The issue that perhaps most threatened the breakup of the convention was that of apportioning representation for the states. The Virginia Plan, which informed much of the structure of the resulting government, called for a two-house legislature. Representation in both houses was to be determined by each state’s population. But delegates from small states, fearing that they would be left powerless in the hands of large states, rallied behind a plan granting the same number of representatives to all states in both houses.
For weeks these two factions were deadlocked. Congress formed a “Grand Committee” to find a solution, and Franklin represented Pennsylvania. Echoing a sentiment he had lived by since his earliest days in the Junto, he counseled the members on how to negotiate productively: “We are sent hither to consult, not to contend, with each other; and declaration of a fixed opinion, and of determined resolutions never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us.” Franklin did not deny the importance of the state representation issue, but he did take the opportunity to remind his colleagues that such representation mattered only up to a certain point. After all, “The interest of a state is made up of the interests of its individual members. If they are not injured, the state is not injured.”98
In time, the committee developed a compromise—which came to be known as the Great Compromise. On July 5, 1787, the committee reported back to the Convention. Their solution called for representation based on population in the lower house and equal representation in the upper house. In addition, the compromise required that all spending bills originate in the lower house, thus ensuring that smaller states could not band together to promote spending measures that most Americans opposed. The Great Compromise broke the deadlock and was adopted by the convention.
As the convention closed, every member questioned the success of their efforts. As in the Great Compromise, every member had to “part with some of their demands.” Would the result work? Or, of more immediate import, would the states ratify and adopt it? On September 17, 1787, with these questions hanging in the air, Franklin offered some parting thoughts. (Due to age and infirmity, Franklin’s colleague, James Wilson, delivered the speech on his behalf.)
It began with empathy. Franklin confessed that he too did not approve everything in the Constitution. Yet, he said, “I doubt too whether any convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution.” Even the wisest men who could be assembled would still be, to some degree, partial to their local interests. “It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near perfection as it does.” Appealing to the delegates’ pride in the still fresh American victory, he added, “I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded, like those of the builders of Babel.” The members could, if they chose, return to their respective states, complain about every detail that didn’t go their way, and thereby doom ratification efforts. But, said Franklin, “I hope therefore that for our own sakes, . . . and for the sake of our posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution, wherever our influence may extend.” He ended with a refrain to his theme of humility: “On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish, that every member of the Convention, who may still have objections to it, would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”99
James Madison relayed the closing scene:
Whilst the last members were signing it, Doctor Franklin, looking towards the president’s chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that painters had often found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often . . . in the course of the session, . . . looked at that behind the president, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.100
When Franklin was leaving the convention, a group approached him and asked what kind of government he and the other delegates had created. He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”101
‘Without Justice, Courage is Weak.’102
Slavery had existed throughout all of world history and, before the 1750s, Franklin had unreflectively accepted the horrific practice. He ran ads for slaves in his papers and had even owned several.
However, in 1751, he first criticized slavery, not to point out its injustice but rather to point out its economic shortsightedness and its dulling effect on whites. He wrote, “The whites who have slaves, not laboring, are enfeebled, and therefore not so generally prolific; the slaves being worked too hard, and ill fed, their constitutions are broken, and the deaths among them are more than the births.” He added that “the white children become proud, disgusted with labour, and being educated in idleness, are rendered unfit to get a living by industry.”103
But by 1758, Franklin was beginning to question more broadly the propriety of slavery. On one of his post office trips, his friend gave him a tour of a school for blacks run by a philanthropic organization. Observing the black students, he realized, “Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children.”104 In 1759, he joined the organization and began donating money to it.
In 1772, while Franklin was in England, he wrote his first public paper in support of abolition. It was regarding the case of Somerset v. Stewart, which tested the legality of slavery under English common law. Anticipating a ruling in the black man’s favor, Franklin wrote, “It is to be wished that the same humanity may extend itself among numbers.” If “procuring liberty” for all slaves was at present impossible, then England could at least abolish “the African commerce in slaves, and [declare] the children of present Slaves free after they become of age.” Franklin noted that many slaves were used in the sugar trade and recounted recent statistics, which showed that about one-third of all slaves died in passage. “Can sweetening our tea, etc. with sugar, be a circumstance of such absolute necessity?” he asked. “Can the pretty pleasure thence arising to the taste, compensate for so much misery produced among our fellow creatures, and such a constant butchery of the human species by the pestilential detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men?” Slipping into biblical language, he charged that “to pride thyself in setting free a single slave that happens to land on thy coasts, while thy merchants in all thy ports are encouraged by thy laws to continue a commerce whereby so many hundreds of thousands are dragged into a slavery,” was self-righteous hypocrisy.105
In 1787, Franklin was elected president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. After the Constitutional Convention, he would devote much of his remaining time and energy to its cause. In a 1789 statement signed by Franklin, the society declared, “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.” It was unlikely that “The unhappy man, who has long been treated as a brute animal,” could simply go on with a normal life when freed. The Society took it “as a serious duty incumbent on us . . . To instruct, to advise, . . . to promote in them habits of industry, to furnish them with employments suited to their age, sex, talents, and other circumstances, and to procure their children an education.”106 It expressed hope that “Attention to emancipated black people, . . . will become a branch of our national policy.”
And three months later, the Society tried to make it so. In February 1790, Franklin signed a letter to Congress advocating the abolition of slavery. It was the job of the government to secure “the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States,” and it ought to do so “without distinction of color.”107 Franklin, as a member of the Constitutional Convention, knew what contortive compromises had been made in order to unite the states. He was well aware that the Constitution did not allow Congress to prohibit the slave trade before 1808. But he also knew that he had the moral high ground. “From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally . . . and is still the birth-right of all men,” those who enjoyed that liberty were “bound to use all justifiable endeavors to loosen the bands of slavery, and promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom.” The letter entreated Congress to “devise means for removing this inconsistency from the character of the American people” and urged congressmen to “step to the very verge of the power vested in you for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men.”108
In a speech opposing the measure and the broader abolitionist movement, Senator James Jackson of Georgia asked who would do plantation work if not slaves. He pointed out that if “the slave trade was abolished, it would [suggest] to the people a disposition towards a total emancipation,” and asked whether those “desirous of freeing the negroes . . . have funds sufficient to pay for them,” in compensation to slaveholders. He continued: “If they were to consult that book [the Bible], . . . they will find that slavery is not only allowed but commended.”109 After all, it brought heathens to a land where they could hear God’s word. In sum, Jackson pleaded that the needs of southern whites superseded the rights of blacks, and that religion superseded reason—claims Franklin knew exactly how to counter.
Under the pen name Historicus, Franklin sent a “translation” of a speech supposedly delivered one hundred years earlier by a Muslim leader—Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim—to an Algerian council. With “surprising similarity” to Jackson’s speech, the leader opposed a measure to end piracy and enslavement of white Christians. “If we cease our cruises against the Christians, how shall we be furnished with the commodities their countries produce, and which are so necessary for us? If we forbear to make slaves of their people, who in this hot climate are to cultivate our lands?,” asked Ibrahim. Further, “who is to indemnify their masters for the loss” if those currently enslaved were freed? Ibrahim also argued that the slaves were much better off in their current condition, “for here they are brought into a land where the sun of Islamism gives forth its light,” affording an opportunity at “saving their immortal Souls.”110 The piece was published in the Federal Gazette on March 25, 1790, some seventy-two years after Franklin’s first published writing.111 It was to be his last.
‘The Master-Piece of Man, Is to Live to the Purpose.’112
Less than a month later, on April 17, 1790, Franklin died at home at the age of eighty-four. In 1728, when he was twenty-two, the young printer had written a humorous epitaph, perhaps only to amuse himself. It read:
The Body of B. Franklin,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stripped of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.113
As biographer H. W. Brands observed, Franklin’s “ingenuity would not die with him.”114 Indeed, his will was as intelligent, inventive, and industrious as he was. In it, Franklin granted one thousand pounds each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, to be loaned at 5 percent interest to young tradesmen of good moral character who wanted to start their own businesses. “I wish to be useful even after my death, if possible,” he wrote, “in forming and advancing other young men that may be serviceable to their country.”115 These trusts grew to millions of dollars. Nearly 120 years after Franklin’s death, Andrew Carnegie—who considered Franklin a hero—matched a disbursement from the Boston fund to found the Franklin Union school, known today as Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. “Well over 200 years after his death,” according to the school’s website, “Franklin’s legacy continues to do great public good.”116 Philadelphia used a portion of its bequest to found Franklin Institute, a science museum that continues to thrive. Thus, short of a “more perfect edition” of his own life, Franklin has enabled others to live out innumerable variations of his rags-to-riches tale.
When the news of Franklin’s death arrived in the new nation’s capital on April 22, James Madison rose and proposed that the members wear badges of mourning for one month in tribute to “a citizen whose native genius was not more an ornament to human nature” and whose “various exertions . . . have been precious to science, to freedom, and to his country.”117 The members promptly and unanimously agreed.
Months later, when word finally reached Franklin’s friend Comte du Mirabeau in France, he stunned his countrymen in the National Assembly with the news: “Franklin est mort.” Then he assumed powers for the assembly that it had never had, calling for three days of national mourning—a tribute reserved for royalty—in homage to “the rights of man and to the philosopher who has most contributed to extend their sway over the whole earth.” “Antiquity,” he said, “would have raised altars to this mighty genius, who, to the advantage of mankind, . . . was able to restrain alike thunderbolts and tyrants.”118 Indeed, Franklin had done these things and so much more. He had taught himself how to be virtuous, industrious, collaborative, wealthy, and innovative—and he helped countless others do the same. He was “a tolerable English writer,” an innovative entrepreneur, an association builder, a first-rate scientist, an unequaled ambassador, a public relations expert, an American founder, a devoted abolitionist, “a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power,” and a fountain of enduring—often amusing—wisdom. The National Assembly stood and applauded Mirabeau’s measure of homage to Franklin. And its leaders wrote to the president and the Congress of the United States to express their gratitude as his benefactors. “The name of Benjamin Franklin,” they wrote, “will be immortal in the records of Freedom and Philosophy.”119 Indeed it will.
You might also like
1. Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 196.
2. Benjamin Franklin, Writings (New York: Library Company of America, 1987), 1213.
3. Franklin, Writings, 1318.
4. Franklin, Writings, 1320.
5. Franklin aimed to emulate the straightforward, impactful style of the British essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who wrote and published The Spectator.
6. Franklin, Writings, 1319–20.
7. Franklin, Writings, 1320–21.
8. Franklin, Writings, 8.
9. Franklin, Writings, 1318.
10. Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 61.
11. The competing paper was the American Weekly Mercury, which was owned by Andrew Bradford.
12. Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York: Bramhall House, 1987), 94.
13. Franklin, Writings, 1185.
14. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 98.
15. Franklin, Writings, 1187.
16. Franklin, Writings, 1249.
17. Franklin, Writings, 1362.
18. Franklin, Writings, 1362.
19. Franklin, Writings, 1372.
20. A 1682 decree granted Pennsylvania to William Penn. Penn set out to create a colony devoted to religious freedom, and indeed Pennsylvania thrived by attracting thousands of immigrants from all religions and sects. However, his heirs lived in England and did little to help advance or protect the colony.
21. Franklin, Writings, 1411.
22. Thomas Penn to Richard Peters, August 31, 1748. See “Plain Truth, 17 November 1747,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0091.
23. Thomas Penn to Richard Peters, August 31, 1748.
24. Franklin, Writings, 1431.
25. Franklin, Writings, 1213.
26. In his Autobiography, Franklin claimed, “My father, burdened with a numerous family, was unable without inconvenience to support the expense of a college education.” However, as Walter Isaacson points out in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, “This economic explanation is unsatisfying. The family was well-off enough, and there were fewer Franklin children being supported at home . . . than had been the case for many years. There was no tuition at the Latin School, and as the top of his class [Franklin] would easily have won a scholarship to Harvard.” See Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 18.
27. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 19.
28. Franklin, Writings, 1179–80.
29. Franklin, Writings, 1179–80; 1382–83.
30. Franklin, Writings, 1359; 846.
31. Franklin, Writings, 1359.
32. Franklin, Writings, 1359–60.
33. Franklin, Writings, 1384–85.
34. Franklin, Writings, 1392.
35. Franklin, Writings, 1308.
36. Franklin, Writings, 1475.
37. Modern-day fans of Franklin who are interested in taking on his moral project can download a mobile application titled “Ben’s Virtues” to track their progress in a way that, other than being digital, mirrors Franklin’s method.
38. Franklin, Writings, 748–49.
39. Franklin, Writings, 748–49.
40. Franklin, Writings, 1140.
41. Franklin, Writings, 1382.
42. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 748.
43. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 79.
44. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 79.
45. Franklin, Writings, 1017.
46. Franklin, Writings, 1200.
47. “A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge, 14 May 1743,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-02-02-0092.
48. “From Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, 28 March 1747,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0055.
49. This deal was to last for eighteen years.
50. H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 191.
51. “From Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, 25 May 1747,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0059.
52. I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin’s Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 40.
53. “From Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, 25 May 1747.”
54. “From Benjamin Franklin to John Lining, 18 March 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-05-02-0149.
55. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 159–60.
56. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 171.
57. Franklin, Writings, 1017.
58. Franklin, Writings, 1492.
59. Franklin, Writings, 1201.
60. Franklin, Writings, 1405.
61. Franklin, Writings, 1318.
62. Franklin, Writings, 1321.
63. Franklin, Writings, 1322.
64. Franklin, Writings, 8.
65. “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-13-02-0035.
66. “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766.”
67. “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766.”
68. Franklin, Writings, 615.
69. Franklin, Writings, 1241.
70. The recipient in Britain was Undersecretary Thomas Whately.
71. “Thomas Hutchinson to ——, 20 January 1769,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-20-02-0282-0007.
72. Historians still have not identified who divulged these letters to Franklin.
73. “From Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Cushing, 2 December 1772,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-19-02-0267.
74. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 143–44.
75. Franklin, Writings, 689–97.
76. Franklin, Writings, 698–99.
77. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 147.
78. Lord Chatham.
79. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 150.
80. “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-13-02-0035.
81. “From John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 8 August 1807,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5203.
82. “John Adams to Abigail Adams, 23 July 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0164.
83. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 310.
84. “From Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin, [21 June 1776?],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0168.
85. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 312.
86. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 313.
87. Franklin, Writings, 1259.
88. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 169–71.
89. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 184.
90. “From Benjamin Franklin to Vergennes, 17 December 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-38-02-0345.
91. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 200.
92. Franklin, Writings, 1241.
93. Franklin, Writings, 1421.
94. “Constitution of Pennsylvania, September 28, 1776,” available via Yale Law School’s Avalon Project, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pa08.asp (accessed April 20, 2018).
95. Franklin, Writings, 547.
96. Franklin, Writings, 1254.
97. Franklin, Writings, 1475.
98. Franklin, Writings, 1134–36.
99. Franklin, Writings, 1139–41.
100. Brands, First American, 691.
101. Richard R. Beeman, “Perspectives on the Constitution: A Republic, If You Can Keep It,” National Constitution Center, https://constitutioncenter.org/learn/educational-resources/historical-documents/perspectives-on-the-constitution-a-republic-if-you-can-keep-it (accessed April 24, 2018).
102. Franklin, Writings, 1190.
103. Franklin, Writings, 371.
104. From Benjamin Franklin to John Waring, 17 December 1763,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-10-02-0214.
105. Franklin, Writings, 677–78.
106. Franklin, Writings, 1154–55.
107. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 228.
108. Howard Gillman et al., “Supplementary Material,” American Constitutionalism Volume I: Structures of Government, global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/fdscontent/uscompanion/us/static/companion.websites/gillman/instructor/Chapter_4/quaker_petition_on_slavery.pdf (accessed April 7, 2018).
109. Gillman et al., “Supplementary Material.”
110. Franklin, Writings, 1157–60.
111. Franklin’s first published writings have been lost to history. However, we know that he published two “broadside ballads,” the first being “The Lighthouse Tragedy” in 1718. The second was “On the Taking of Teach or Blackbeard the Pirate.” Although Franklin’s older brother James, to whom he was indentured, was not interested in publishing his brother’s work in his paper, he did help Franklin publish these, and Franklin sold them in town in Boston.
112. Franklin, Writings, 1204.
113. Franklin, Writings, 91.
114. Brands, First American, 712.
115. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 474.
116. “Benjamin Franklin’s Legacy,” http://www.bfit.edu/about-us/benjamin-franklins-living-legacy (accessed April 20, 2018).
117. “Editorial Note: Death of Franklin,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-19-02-0005-0001.
118. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 780–81.
119. “Enclosure II: The President of the National Assembly of France to ‘The President of Congress’, [20 June 1790],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-19-02-0005-0007.