Guide to Benjamin Franklin
by Richard Jensen
efficient Franklin Stove resulted from study of heat
The bracketed citations in this article are to The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Collected and edited with a Life and Introduction (10 vols., 1905-07), by Albert Henry Smyth.
Franklin, Benjamin, 1706---1790, (Jan. 17, 1706 - Apr. 17, 1790), printer, author, philanthropist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, and scientist, was born in Milk Street, Boston. His father, Josiah, came to New England "about 1682" (moving from Banbury to Boston, 1685) from Ecton, Northamptonshire, England, where the parish records of his Protestant ancestors run back to 1555 (Smyth, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, I, 228; III, 453). His mother, second wife of Josiah, was Abiah, the daughter of Peter Folger, a man of liberal views who taught the Indians to read and wrote some doggerel verse (A Looking Glass for the Times). Benjamin was the tenth son of Josiah, and the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations. He learned to read at a very early age, probably taught by his father who destined him for the church as "the tithe of his sons," and sent him at eight years to the Boston Grammar School. The expense proving too great, he was transferred within less than a year to George Brownell's school for writing and arithmetic. At the age of ten he was taken into his father's business (tallow chandler and soap boiler). Disliking this, he was apprenticed at twelve years to his half-brother, James, a printer, who later (1721) started the New England Courant, the fourth newspaper established in the British colonies. In 1722 James was "taken up, censur'd, and imprisoned for a month." During this time the paper was issued under the management of Benjamin, his status as apprentice being concealed by a "flimsy" (dishonest) device (Writings, I, 248). Repeated quarrels with his brother led Benjamin to leave Boston for Philadelphia, where he arrived in October 1723, at the age of seventeen.
At this early age Benjamin was already an expert printer, and had begun that close application to reading, writing, reflection, and self-improvement which, continued through life, was one secret of his intellectual eminence and of his practical success. Besides a few books in his father's house, he had access to the small library of Matthew Adams. Bunyan, Plutarch, Defoe, and Cotton Mather came his way. Tyron's book on "vegetable diet" interested him. Cocker's arithmetic, Seller's work on navigation, and an English grammar (Greenwood?) were studied. Locke's Essay, some works of Shaftesbury and Collins, Xenophon's Memorabilia, the "Art of Thinking by Messrs. du Port Royal"--all of these were pored over and reflected upon to some purpose. By some happy chance he bought an odd volume of Addison's Spectator, which he read "over and over," the style of which he thought "excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate." Making notes of the ideas in several papers, he laid them by, and after some days "try'd to compleat the papers again.... Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them" (Writings, I, 241). Thus playing the "sedulous ape," the boy acquired a vocabulary and fashioned his style. One day he composed a labored "essay," signed it Silence Dogood, and secretly slipped it under the door of his brother's shop. To his great delight it was printed. Others followed, fourteen in all--his earliest publications, crude indeed but characteristic.
Franklin arrived in Philadelphia with one Dutch dollar and a copper shilling. Obtaining employment in the print-shop of Samuel Keimer, he soon demonstrated his ability and made a circle of friends. Through his brother-in-law, Robert Holmes, he fell under the notice of the eccentric Gov. Keith, who urged him to set up for himself and sent him off to London to buy equipment, promising him letters of credit for the purpose. In London (1724), no letters of credit being forthcoming, Franklin found employment at Palmer's (later at Watts's) printing-house. At the former he set up William Wollaston's The Religion of Nature Delineated (1725) which inspired him to write and print a refutation--A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain (1725), in which he presented, cleverly for a boy, the current theory of necessity. He returned to Philadelphia in October 1726, with Mr. Denham, a Quaker merchant, in whose shop he served as clerk, learning accounts and becoming "expert in selling." Upon the sudden death of Denham, Franklin was once more employed by Keimer, but in 1728 left him to form a partnership with Hugh Meredith. In 1730 he became sole owner of the business, including The Pennsylvania Gazette (founded in 1728 by Keimer) which Franklin and Meredith had purchased in 1729.
Established in business on his own at the age of twenty-four, Franklin settled down. On Sept. 1, 1730, he "took to wife" Deborah Read, the daughter of his first landlady. Since she was already married to a certain Rogers who had deserted her (never afterwards heard of) the marriage was a common-law union. To them two children were born: Francis Folger (1732-1736), and Sarah (1744-1808), later the wife of Richard Bache. Franklin had besides two illegitimate children: William Franklin, later governor of New Jersey and a Loyalist during the Revolution, and a daughter. Franklin's wife was an illiterate person (Writings, X, 289), incapable of sharing, or even of understanding, the importance of his intellectual interests. But she was devoted to him, even taking William Franklin to live in the house for a time, and by her industry and thrift contributed to his material comfort and welfare. "She proved a good and faithful helpmate, assisted me much by attending the shop; we throve together, and have ever mutually endeavor'd to make each other happy" (Writings, I, 311). Marrying chiefly in order to relieve the strain of youthful passion, Franklin thus makes the best of a bad business.
From 1730 to 1748 Franklin applied himself to business, won a competence, and laid the foundation of his fame at home and abroad. Industry and thrift contributed to the prosperity of his business. "In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearance to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauch'd me from my work, but that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal; and, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchas'd at the stores thro' the streets on a wheel-barrow" (Writings, I, 307-08). But the chief reason for his success was his capacity for making friends, influential and otherwise, his uncanny instinct for advertising himself and his paper, and above all the sense, novelty, and charm of the things he wrote for it. Nothing better exhibits the man, or better illustrates his ingenuity as an advertiser, than Poor Richard's Almanack (1732-57). "Richard Saunders," the Philomath of the Almanack, was the Sir Roger de Coverley of the masses, pilfering the world's store of aphorisms, and adapting them to the circumstances and the understanding of the poor. "Necessity never made a good bargain." "It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright." "Many dishes make diseases." "The used key is always bright." The Almanack was immediately successful, and commonly sold about ten thousand copies. "As poor Richard says" became a current phrase, used to give weight to any counsel of thrift. The work made Franklin's name a household word throughout the colonies, and gave a homespun flavor to American humor. The introduction to the last Almanack (Father Abraham's speech at the auction) spread the fame of Poor Richard in Europe. It was printed in broadsides and posted on walls in England, and, in translation, distributed by the French clergy among their parishioners. It has been translated into fifteen languages, and reprinted at least four hundred times.
Although in origin a business venture, Poor Richard was a genuine expression of Franklin's passion for improving himself and others. He was forever laboring consciously to perfect his mind and his character. He taught himself (beginning in 1733) to read French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin. In 1727 he established the "Junto," a debating club devoted to the discussion of morals, politics, and natural philosophy. He was easily the best informed and the most skilled in discussion. At first he was inclined to be argumentative, given to laying traps for his opponents (a trick learned from Socrates), in order to show up their errors or stupidities. Finding this not useful, since it got him disliked and only confirmed his opponents in their opinions, he deliberately adopted the habit of expressing himself "in terms of modest diffidence; never using ... the words certainly, undoubtedly, ... but rather say, I conceive or apprehend, ... or, it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions" (Writings, I, 244, 338). Thus early in life Franklin trained himself in the fine art of inducing others to appropriate as their own the ideas or the projects which he wished to have prevail.
In the same pragmatic way Franklin set about devising a religion for the practice of the useful virtues. He regretted his youthful essay on Liberty and Necessity, suspecting, from sad experience, that a materialistic doctrine, "tho' it might be true, was not very useful." It seemed to him far more useful to believe in God and to infer that "though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden [by Revelation] ... yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad" (Writings, I, 296). At the age of twenty-two he drafted "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion" (Ibid., II, 91). The substance of the creed which he held throughout his life was that the one God, who made all things and governs the world through his providence, ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving; that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to men; that the soul is immortal, and that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter. Aiming at "moral perfection," he made a list of the useful virtues, which turned out to be thirteen--Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity, and Humility. To each of these in turn he gave "a week's strict attention, marking down in a book the measure of daily success achieved in the practice of each." Thus he went through "a course compleat in thirteen weeks, and four courses a year." He was surprised to find himself "so much fuller of faults" than he had imagined, but persisting for some years he had the satisfaction of "seeing them diminish." To propagate these simple doctrines and practices, Franklin designed (1732) to write a book on "The Art of Virtue," and to unite all men of good will in a society for the practice of it."
His passion for improvement made him the leader in many movements for the benefit of his community. He initiated projects for establishing a city police, and for the paving and the better cleaning and lighting of city streets. He was largely instrumental in establishing a circulating library in Philadelphia, the first in America, 1731; in founding in 1743 the American Philosophical Society, incorporated 1780; a city hospital, 1751; and an Academy for the Education of Youth, opened in 1751, incorporated, 1753 (the origin of the University of Pennsylvania). Franklin rarely solicited public office; but he was too public-spirited to avoid such honors. In 1729 he supported the popular demand for paper money (Writings, I, 306; II, 133). He was clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly (1736-51); member for Philadelphia (1751-64); deputy postmaster at Philadelphia (1737-53), and, jointly with William Hunter, deputy postmaster-general for the colonies (1753-74). This was one of the few offices he ever solicited (Ibid., X, 173-74). In the latter capacity he made visits of inspection to nearly every colony, and not only increased the frequency and efficiency of the mail deliveries, but made the post-office a financial success as well.
In the intervals of his varied activities as printer, philanthropist, and politician, Franklin found time for the study of science. It was probably in England that his attention was first turned to "Natural Philosophy." There he met Mandeville, and Dr. Pemberton, the secretary of the Royal Society, and was "extremely desirous" of seeing Newton, then at the height of his fame. Returning to America he was soon discussing, in the Junto, such questions as: "Is sound an entity or a body?" "How may the phenomena of vapors be explained?" As early as 1737 he was writing, in the Gazette, on earthquakes (Writings, I, 54). In the same year, prevented from observing an eclipse of the moon by a "northeaster," he was surprised to learn that the storm struck Philadelphia sooner than it struck Boston; which led him to the discovery that northeast storms on the Atlantic coast move against the wind (Ibid., II, 311; IV, 16). About 1744 he invented the "Pennsylvania Fireplace," a stove with an open firebox, which heated rooms better with less expense (Ibid., II, 246). He contrived a clock which told the hours, minutes, and seconds with only three wheels and two pinions in the movement (improved by James Ferguson, it was known as Ferguson's clock, Ibid., I, 52). Every sort of natural phenomenon enlisted his interest and called forth some ingenious idea. In one short letter he speaks of linseed oil, hemp land, swamp draining, variations in climate, northeast storms, the cause of springs on mountains, sea-shell rocks, grass seed, taxation, and smuggling (Ibid., II, 310). So fascinating was natural philosophy to Franklin that he determined to make it his vocation. Business was a game which he could play with skill, but he cared little for it, or for the money it brought, except as a guarantee of independence. At the age of forty-two he had won a competence. Besides the income from some real estate, his business was worth perhaps £2,000 a year. In 1748 he therefore entered into a partnership with his foreman, David Hall, who was to run the business, relieving Franklin "of all care of the printing office" and paying him £1,000 annually, an arrangement which lasted eighteen years. "I flatter'd myself that, by the sufficient tho' modest fortune I had acquir'd, I had secured leisure during the rest of my life for philosophical studies and amusements" (Ibid., I, 373-74). The leisure acquired lasted without serious interruptions for no more than six years; but it was during these years that he made those electrical experiments on which his fame as a scientist chiefly rests.
Franklin became interested in electricity about 1746, when Peter Collinson sent to the Philadelphia Library an "electric tube." With this fascinating toy he spent all of his spare time. "I never was before engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attention" (Writings, II, 302). After four months he sent to Collinson an amazingly precise, clear, and intelligible account of his experiments. He noted "the wonderful effect of pointed bodies, both in drawing off and throwing off, the electrical fire." He noted that a person "standing on wax" was differently affected by the electrical charge than a person standing on the floor; and from this fact, tested in a variety of ways, "there have arisen," he says, "some new terms among us: we say B (and bodies like circumstanced) is electrised positively; A, negatively. Or, rather, B is electrised plus; A, minus" (Ibid., II, 302-10). He was soon experimenting with "Muschenbroek's wonderful bottle" (Leyden jar), and was confirmed in his "single fluid" theory (Ibid., I, 95; II, 325). "The eleven experiments, to each of which a single brief paragraph is given, cover the essential phenomena of the condenser. As statements of fact they will stand almost without revision or amendment to the present day" (Writings, II, 328). Franklin was not the first to suggest the identity of lightning and electricity; but he proposed a method of testing the theory by erecting an iron rod on a high tower or steeple (letter to Collinson, July 29, 1750; Writings, II, 426, 437). On May 10, 1752, Mr. Dalibard, who knew of Franklin's proposed method through Collinson's publication of Franklin's letter in 1751, performed the experiment with success at Marley-la-Valle. The experiment was successfully repeated at Paris but failed in England. Franklin, not having the means of testing his own method, devised a simpler one. This was the famous kite experiment, performed by Franklin in the summer of 1752, and described by him in a letter to Collinson, Oct. 19 (Ibid., III, 99). These experiments, together with Collinson's publication of his letters on the subject (Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America, by Mr. Benjamin Franklin, London, 1751, reprinted with additions, 1753, 1760-62. Ibid., I, 15-16), which were immediately translated into French, established Franklin's fame as a scientist. The degree of Master of Arts was conferred on him by Harvard and by Yale (1753), and by William and Mary (1756). His fame pleased as much as it surprised him. More than ever he desired to devote his time to "philosophical studies," which it now seemed might be something more than mere "amusements."
His dream of leisure for philosophical studies was never to be realized. Six years after retiring from private business, public affairs began to claim him in earnest, and during the rest of his life he was chiefly engaged in politics and diplomacy. In 1754 he was sent to represent Pennsylvania at the Albany Congress, called to unite the colonies in the war against the French and Indians. His "Plan of Union" was adopted by the Congress in preference to others; but "its fate was singular: the assemblies did not adopt it, as they all thought there was too much prerogative in it, and in England it was judged to have too much of the democratic" (Writings, I, 388; III, 197). Meantime the war had intensified the old dispute between the Assembly and the proprietors (descendants of William Penn, who lived in England and by the charter were privileged to appoint and instruct the governors of Pennsylvania). The chief grievance was that the proprietors forbade the governor to pass money bills for defense unless the vast proprietary estates were exempt from taxation (report of the Assembly committee, drafted by Franklin, 1757. Ibid., III, 370). The proprietors proving obdurate, the Assembly decided to appeal directly to the British government, and in 1757 Franklin was sent to England to present its case.
The business of his first mission was not settled for nearly three years. In 1760, after two hearings before the Privy Council, a bill of the Assembly taxing the proprietary estates, except unsurveyed waste lands, was allowed by the King. In spite of the long delay, perhaps because of it, Franklin remained in England until 1762. These five years were perhaps the happiest of his life. He resided with Mrs. Margaret Stevenson, at 7 Craven St., where he became at once the beloved and well-cared-for foster father of the family. With Mrs. Stevenson, and especially with her daughter Mary, he formed an enduring friendship. In the Craven Street house he set up an "electrical machine" and carried on experiments. He indulged his humor by composing "The Craven Street Gazette" in which the doings of Her Majesty's Court were related with becoming solemnity. He made journeys--to Holland, to Cambridge, to the ancestral home at Ecton. He became intimate with Collinson, Fothergill, Priestley, Strahan; and corresponded with Lord Kames, David Hume, and Dr. Johnson. He visited the University of Edinburgh, received the degree of LL.D. from St. Andrews (1759), and of D.C.L. from Oxford (1762). He followed the war with interest, opposed the clamor for peace in 1760 by publishing in the London Chronicle a satire "On the Meanes of Disposing the Enemie to Peace" (Writings, IV, 90); and argued at length the advantages of taking Canada rather than Guadaloupe from France ("The Interest of Great Britain Considered," Ibid., IV, 35). To this pamphlet, which tradition supposes to have had some influence with the government, there was appended a brief paper written in 1751 and first published in 1755 which in some points anticipates the Malthusian theory of population ("Observations on the Increase of Mankind, the peopling of Countries," etc., Ibid., III, 63. See T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principles of Population, ed., 1803, pp. iv, 2). In these papers he argued: (1) that in America, where land is easily obtained, population doubled every twenty years; (2) that where land is easily obtained manufactures will not develop; (3) that Canada (including the Mississippi Valley) was accordingly more valuable than Guadaloupe since (a) becoming populous it will furnish rich markets for British goods, but (b) remaining indefinitely agricultural it will not compete with British industry.
In 1762 Franklin returned reluctantly to Philadelphia, envying the "petty island" its "sensible, virtuous and elegant Minds" (Writings, IV, 194), and flirting with the idea of settling his affairs so that "in two years at farthest . . . I may then remove to England--provided we can persuade the good Woman to cross the seas" (Ibid., IV, 182). Pressure of affairs, or perhaps the "good Woman," persuaded him to conclude that "old Trees cannot safely be transplanted" (Ibid., IV, 217); but, new disputes arising with the proprietors, the Assembly once more sent him to England to obtain a recall of the Charter. This object was not attained, was indeed submerged in the greater issue raised by Grenville's proposal to levy a stamp tax in the colonies. In the second interview between Grenville and the colonial agents Franklin was present and protested against the measure, suggesting instead the "usual constitutional method" of raising a revenue. Perceiving that the bill would be enacted, he advised his friends to make the best of it. "We might as well have hindered the sun's setting.... But since 'tis down ... let us make as good a night of it as we can. We may still light candles" (Ibid., IV, 390). When Grenville applied to the colonial agents to recommend Americans for the new office of stamp distributor, Franklin named his friend John Hughes for Philadelphia; and failing to foresee opposition to the act he sent over some stamped papers to be sold by his partner. These acts laid him open to the charge of having urged the law in order to profit by it; his house was menaced, and his wife advised to seek safety (Writings, X, 226-27); but his prestige was soon restored by his famous "examination" before the House of Commons. In February 1766, during the debates on the repeal of the Stamp Act, he was called before the House (committee of the whole) and questioned on the subject. Of the 174 questions asked, some were put by opponents, some by friends, of the act. The replies, brief, lucid, and to the point, aimed to show that the tax was contrary to custom, and administratively impracticable both on account of the circumstances of the country and the settled opposition of the people (Writings, IV, 412). Published immediately and widely read, the performance greatly increased Franklin's influence in America and his reputation abroad. "The questions . . . are answered with such deep and familiar knowledge of the subject, such precision and perspicuity, such temper and yet such spirit, as do the greatest honor to Dr. Franklin, and justify the general opinion of his character and abilities."
In 1766, after the repeal of the Stamp Act, Franklin requested permission to return to Philadelphia, but the Assembly reappointed him its agent. He was also named colonial agent of Georgia (1768), New Jersey (1769), and Massachusetts (1770). These appointments, together with his outstanding reputation, made Franklin a kind of ambassador extraordinary from the colonies to Great Britain. During those years he worked persistently for reconciliation: urging his American friends to avoid indiscreet conduct (Writings, V, 42, 197, 204, 222); in England defending the colonies in private conversation and by published articles (Ibid., V, 78, 127, 206, 236). Until the passing of the coercive acts (1774) he never quite despaired; but as the years passed he became less hopeful. A more serious note creeps into his correspondence; his sympathies become more American, less British. As early as 1768 he complained that all his efforts were without avail except to make him suspect: "In England, of being too much of an American, and in America, of being too much of an Englishman" (Ibid., V, 182). His close observation of British politics abated both his admiration for the English government and his expectation that conciliatory measures would prevail. In 1768 he wrote, no doubt in an unusually depressed mood: "Some punishment seems preparing for a people, who are ungratefully abusing the best constitution and the best King . . . any nation was ever blessed with, intent on nothing but luxury, licentuousness, power, places, pensions, and plunder" (Ibid., V, 133). He welcomed every prospect of returning to America. He had indeed friends enough in England to live there comfortably the rest of his days, "if it were not for my American connections, & the indelible Affection I retain for that dear Country" (Ibid., V, 382).
As his admiration for England abated and his love of America deepened, his ideas on American rights became more precise and more advanced. In 1765 he did not doubt the right of Parliament to levy the Stamp Act. In 1766 he defended the distinction between internal and external taxes, contenting himself with an ironical and prophetic comment: "Many arguments have lately been made here to shew them [Americans] . . . that if you have no right to tax them internally you have none to tax them externally, or make any other law to bind them. At present they do not reason so; but in time they may possibly be convinced by these arguments" (Writings, IV, 446). By 1768 Franklin was himself convinced. In order to resist the Townshend duties (1767), Dickinson and Samuel Adams had devised ingenious arguments designed to admit the right of Parliament to legislate for the colonies while denying the right to tax them (Ibid., I, 97). Franklin caused Dickinson's letters to be published in England, but writing to William Franklin Mar. 13, 1768, he brushed aside these too subtle distinctions. "The more I have thought and read on the subject, the more I find myself confirmed in opinion, that no middle doctrine can be well maintained, I mean not clearly with intelligible arguments. Something might be made of either of the extremes; that Parliament has a power to make all laws for us, or that it has a power to make no laws for us; and I think the arguments for the latter more numerous and weighty, than those for the former" (Ibid., V, 115). Two years later he deprecated the use of such phrases as "supreme authority of Parliament," and urged Americans to base their rights on the theory that the colonies and England were united only, "as England and Scotland were before the Union, by having one common Sovereign, the King" (Ibid., V, 260). Thus early did Franklin accept the doctrine later formulated in the Declaration of Independence.
Appointed agent by the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Oct. 24, 1770, Franklin's American sympathies were intensified by the truculent unfriendliness of Hillsborough, who refused to recognize the appointment until approved by Gov. Hutchinson. Too long absent from America to form an independent judgment of the situation in Massachusetts, he was further prejudiced by the colored accounts of it transmitted by Samuel Cooper and Thomas Cushing. Although deprecating violence, and advising the Boston leaders that the government contemplated no new taxes, he agreed with Samuel Adams that good relations could not be established until the British government had repealed the tea duty. He welcomed the establishment of correspondence committees, and suggested, as a means of bringing "the Dispute to a Crisis," that the colonies should "engage . . . with each other . . . never [to] grant Aids to the Crown in any General War, till . . . [their] Rights are recogniz'd by the King and both Houses of Parliament" (1773. Writings, VI, 77). He was convinced of Hutchinson's "duplicity," and thought his controversy with the House of Representatives would discredit him in England. While encouraging the anti-British party in Boston, Franklin contrived to exasperate the anti-American party in London. He published two pointed satires, "Edict by the King of Prussia," and "Rules by which a Great Empire may be reduced to a Small one" (Ibid., VI, 118, 127), which did more to aggravate than to compose the quarrel (see Mansfield's opinion, Ibid., VI, 145); and, wittingly or unwittingly, he contributed much to the final breach by his part in the famous affair of the "Hutchinson Letters." In 1772 an unknown member of Parliament showed Franklin certain letters, six of which were written by Gov. Hutchinson in 1768-69, said to have been addressed (the name had been erased) to William Whately, former secretary of Grenville, urging drastic measures on the ground that "there must be an abridgment of what are called English Liberties" (the letters are in J. K. Hosmer, Life of Hutchinson, 1896, p. 429). By permission of the possessor, Franklin sent the letters to Thomas Cushing, with the stipulation that they should be returned to him without being either copied or printed (Writings, V, 448; VI, 265; X, 260). The letters were shortly printed in Boston and circulated in London, the immediate result of which was a duel between Thomas Whately, executor of the estate of William Whately, and John Temple, whom Whately accused of stealing the letters. To exonerate Temple, Franklin declared that he alone had procured and transmitted the letters, and that neither Thomas Whately nor Temple had ever had possession of them (Ibid., VI, 284). In conservative circles Franklin was at once denounced as an incendiary and a thief; the government dismissed him from his office as deputy postmaster-general (Ibid., VI, 191); and on Jan. 29, 1774, at a hearing before the Privy Council in the Cockpit on a petition of the Massachusetts House to remove Hutchinson, Solicitor General Wedderburn, on the assumption that Franklin had purloined the letters, denounced him in unmeasured terms as a man without honor who would "henceforth esteem it a libel to be called a man of letters: homo TRIUM literarum"--a man of three letters, i.e. FUR, the Latin word for thief (Ibid., X, 269.] Supported by his friends, and convinced that the sending of the letters was "one of the best actions of his life" (Writings, X, 270), Franklin remained in England, aiding Pitt in his fruitless efforts at conciliation (Ibid., VI, 318-98; X, 272 ff.), until Mar. 20, 1775, when he sailed for America.
On May 6, 1775, the day following his return to Philadelphia, Franklin was chosen a member of the second Continental Congress. Conciliation seemed to him now no more than a vain hope. To satisfy the moderates he supported the Petition to the King, giving "Britain ... one opportunity more of recovering the friendship of the colonies," but "I think she has not sense enough to embrace [it], and so I conclude she has lost them forever" (Writings, VI, 408). He sketched a Plan of Union for the colonies; organized the Post-Office, of which he was the first postmaster-general; served on the commissions sent to induce the Canadians to join the colonies, to advise Washington on defense, and to listen to Howe's peace proposals (Ibid., VI, 457 ff.); and on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence (C. L. Becker, Declaration of Independence, 1922, ch. IV). As a member of the committee appointed Nov. 29, 1775, to correspond "with friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world" (Journals of the Continental Congress, Nov. 29, 1775), he prepared the instructions for Silas Deane whom the committee sent to France in 1776, and through Barbeu Dubourg, the translator of his works, did much to facilitate Deane's reception by Vergennes. Encouraged by letters from Deane, Congress decided, Sept. 26, 1776, to send a commission of three to negotiate a treaty with France. Franklin, Deane, and Jefferson were first chosen (Journals of the Continental Congress, Sept. 26, 1776). Upon Jefferson's declination, Arthur Lee was appointed in his place. Franklin was then almost seventy years old: "I am but a fag end, and you may have me for what you please" (Writings, X, 301). His last act before leaving Philadelphia (Oct. 26) was to lend Congress some three or four thousand pounds. He arrived in France Dec. 4, 1776.
Unwilling as yet to recognize the rebellious colonies, the French government could not openly receive Franklin; but the French people gave him a welcome rarely if ever accorded to any foreigner. He was already well known in France through two previous visits in 1767 and 1769, and through the translations of his scientific works, parts of Poor Richard, and the examination in Parliament. To the readers of Plutarch and Rousseau nothing could be more appropriate than that this backwoods sage and philosopher should now come to plead the cause of a young nation claiming its "natural right" to freedom from oppression. And Franklin had only to be himself to play the part allotted to him. His fur cap (very rarely worn indeed), covering unpowdered gray locks; his simple dress and unpretentious manners; his countenance, shrewd, placid, benignant; his wit and wisdom, homely indeed but somehow lifted above the provincial; the flexibility of his unwarped and emancipated intelligence, and the natural courtesy with which the sage from Arcady demeaned himself, without arrogance and without servility, in the most sophisticated society in the world--all this made Franklin more than an ambassador: it made him a symbol, the personification of all the ideas dear to the Age of Enlightment. To the French people Franklin was Socrates born again in the imagined state of nature. At Passy, where M. Ray de Chaumont placed at his disposal part of the H"tel de Valentinois, he lived for nine years, in comparative seclusion, and yet the object of unmeasured adulation. His sayings were treasured and repeated as bon mots. His portrait was to be seen everywhere in shop windows and in many private houses. His image was stamped on innumerable medals, medallions, rings, watches, snuff-boxes, and bracelets. John Adams, who later replaced Silas Deane, contrived, in spite of characteristic exaggeration and a certain irascible jealousy, to describe exactly the impression which Franklin made in France. "His reputation was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them. . . . His name was familiar to government and people . . . to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady's chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him as a friend to human kind. When they spoke of him, they seemed to think he was to restore the Golden Age."
Franklin's popularity contributed much to the success of his diplomatic mission. On Dec. 28, 1776, the Commissioners, secretly received by Vergennes, presented their instructions and requested a treaty of commerce: and on Feb. 2, they went so far as to promise that if France became involved in war with Great Britain on account of such a treaty, the United States would not "separately conclude a peace, nor aid Great Britain against France or Spain". Vergennes was more than willing to aid in disrupting the British Empire in order to redress the European balance in favor of France; but he could not take the decisive step until the King consented, and wished not to do so without the cooperation of Spain or until it was clear that the colonies would be content with nothing less than independence. Meantime, Franklin had been in communication with British agents through unofficial messengers; and in April 1778 he negotiated directly with Hartley, a member of Parliament, who came over to Paris. These overtures came to nothing, however, because of the British refusal to grant independence to the American colonies as a condition of peace. Franklin's contribution to the success of Vergennes's policy was indirect, but not unimportant. His mere presence in France, intensifying popular enthusiasm for the Americans and encouraging American privateers to operate from French ports, made it increasingly difficult for the French government to avoid a rupture with Great Britain in any case; while his relations with persons in England gave life to the rumor that the colonies, failing the aid of France, would as a price of independence join Great Britain in the conquest of the French and Spanish West Indies, a rumor which Vergennes, without crediting, made use of to persuade the King. In the actual negotiations for an alliance (Dec. 1777-Feb. 1778), which the King authorized after the Battle of Saratoga, Franklin seems to have desired the French government to guarantee the conquest of the Mississippi Valley (where he was personally interested in certain land grants) as a condition of peace, a point which Vergennes, not wishing to alienate Spain, was unwilling to concede. The final treaties (a treaty of commerce, and a treaty of "defensive alliance . . . to maintain effectively the . . . independence absolute and unlimited of the United States") were signed Feb. 6, 1778.
Meantime the relations between the commissioners were anything but cordial. Arthur Lee, an incurably vain, suspicious, and wrong-headed person, charged Beaumarchais and Deane, and by implication Franklin, with incompetence and venality, especially in connection with the supplies furnished the colonies through the dummy company of Beaumarchais, Hortalez et cie. The arrangements between Beaumarchais and Vergennes were made before Franklin arrived in France, and Deane was the American agent in whom Beaumarchais confided. Franklin, leaving the business to Deane whom he trusted, seems not to have informed himself of the exact nature of the understanding. The most that can rightly be charged against Franklin is that he appointed as his secretary his grandson, Temple Franklin, an incompetent boy; that his accounts were accordingly in confusion; and that he appointed as naval agent at Nantes his nephew, Jonathan Williams, who proved incompetent if not venal. Franklin made it a rule never to engage in personal controversies; he had learned early in life that "spots of dirt" thrown on one's character were best left alone since "they would all rub off when they were dry." He suffered Lee's "magisterial snubbings and rebukes" with a serene patience that rarely failed (see, however, Writings, VII, 129-38); but he had more important tasks than the hopeless one of setting Arthur Lee right. Being the only American with whom Vergennes cared to deal, the chief burden of the negotiations with the French government fell to him. He also served virtually as consul, judge of admiralty, and director of naval affairs. He negotiated for the exchange of prisoners in England. He was burdened with innumerable applications, from Americans desiring recommendation in France, from Frenchmen desiring recommendation in America (Writings, VII, 30, 36, 38, 43, 58, 77, 80). In addition he found time to publish articles designed to strengthen American credit abroad (Ibid., I, 82, 86). In April 1778, John Adams, replacing Deane, came to Paris, offended de Chaumont by offering to pay rent for Franklin's house at Passy, helped Franklin to straighten out his account, was made "sick to death" by the Lee-Deane controversy, and recommended that the commission be replaced by a single agent. Lee was of the same opinion, suggesting himself as the proper person. On Sept. 14, 1778, Congress appointed Franklin sole plenipotentiary (Journals of the Continental Congress, Sept. 14, 1778). With his status made definite his life became pleasanter. He found some time to write on scientific subjects (Writings, VII, 209; VIII, 9, 115, 189, 244, 246, 285, 309); to carry on a gay and frivolous correspondence with Madame Helvetius and Madame Brillon; and to amuse himself and his friends with satires and bagatelles printed on his excellent Passy press (Ibid., X, ch. XI.) But if his life was pleasanter, his responsibilities were if anything heavier. For three years his chief service was to obtain money; his chief task to persuade Vergennes to overlook irregular methods and to honor debts for which the French government was in no way obligated. Aside from negotiating loans, Franklin was expected to meet the innumerable bills of exchange which were drawn on him, by Congress, by John Adams in Holland, by John Jay in Spain, by ship captains fitting out in any port that was handiest, even by his villifiers, Arthur Lee and Ralph Izard (Writings, VII, 382, 405; VIII, 14, 59, 139, 142, 174, 200, 208, 211, 217; X, 337 ff., 374 ff.). On Mar. 12, 1781, on the ground that excessive duties were impairing his health, Franklin tendered his resignation to Congress (Writings, VIII, 221). He was well aware that the friends of Lee, Izard, and Adams were about to move for his recall (Ibid., VIII, 236, 250; X, 342), and his resignation was probably no more than a shrewd political move designed to defeat the motion. At all events, when Congress voted to continue him, he slyly remarked: "I must . . . buckle again to Business, and thank God my Health & Spirits are of late improved ... I call this Continuance an Honour . . . greater than my first Appointment, when I consider that all the Interest of my Enemies, united with my own Request, were not sufficient to prevent it" (Ibid., VIII, 294).
On June 8, 1781, Franklin was named one of the commissioners to negotiate peace with Great Britain (Journals of the Continental Congress, June 8, 1781). While awaiting the arrival of Jay and Adams he assumed responsibility for the preliminary conversations, of which he wrote a detailed account (Writings, VIII, 459 ff.). Resisting every suggestion that the colonies should make a separate peace, and keeping Vergennes informed of every step, he proposed as a basis of negotiation: (1) independence; (2) the cession of the Mississippi Valley; (3) fishing rights "on the banks of Newfoundland, and elsewhere." He objected to the British claim for the recovery of debts (later he conceded that just debts should be paid). He took the ground that Congress could not compensate the Loyalists, since the confiscation acts were state laws; but he suggested that Britain might contribute much to real conciliation by voluntarily ceding Canada, in which case the Loyalists might possibly be compensated by grants of wild lands in that country. Uncertain of the outcome of the naval war, the British government was apparently ready early in June to make peace on Franklin's terms (Writings, VII, 572). But at this point two circumstances contributed to give a new direction to the negotiations. Jay, arriving June 23, and suspecting the sincerity of the British, delayed matters by insisting that the British commissioners be authorized to treat with the United States as an independent state. Meantime British naval successes, culminating in the relief of Gibraltar, Oct. 10, strengthened the hands of the British commissioners, who now renewed the demand for compensation to the Loyalists, and objected to the American claim (injected into the negotiations by Adams) of a right to dry fish on British coasts. When the conference reached an impasse on these points, Franklin came forward with a proposal which seems to have turned the scale in favor of the Americans. On Nov. 29, according to Adams, Franklin "produced a paper from his pocket, in which he had drawn up a claim, and he said the first principle of the treaty was equality and reciprocity. Now, they demanded of us payment of debts, and . . . compensation to the refugees. . . . Then he stated the carrying off of goods from Boston, Philadelphia, and the Carolinas, . . . and the burning of towns, etc., and demanded that this might be sent with the rest." After further discussion of Franklin's counter demand for compensation, the British commissioners accepted the American "ultimatum respecting the fishery and the loyalists"; and on the following day the preliminaries were signed.
In negotiating and signing the preliminaries without keeping the French government informed, the commissioners violated not only the instructions of Congress, but Franklin's earlier agreement with Vergennes. The responsibility for this step rests with Jay and Adams, who were convinced: (1) that Franklin was too subservient to French influence; and especially, (2) that France and Spain were secretly working to restrict the boundaries of the United States to the Alleghenies. The latter was true of Spain; true of France only so far as Vergennes was bound to consider the interest of Spain. Franklin's "subserviency" was only a superior diplomacy; but he yielded to his colleagues in order to maintain harmony. When Adams, shortly after his arrival (Oct. 26), gave Franklin his and Jay's reasons for ignoring Vergennes, "the Doctor," Adams reports, "heard me patiently, but said nothing; but at the next conference with Oswald, he turned to Jay and said: 'I am of your opinion, and will go on with these gentlemen in the business without consulting this court.' He accordingly met with us in most of our conferences, and has gone with us in entire harmony and unanimity throughout". Upon receiving the preliminaries, Vergennes wrote Franklin a sharp formal protest. It is possible that Vergennes, hampered by his obligations to Spain, was really pleased with the outcome, and that his protest was merely formal, and so understood by Franklin. It is difficult to suppose that Vergennes was unaware of the separate negotiations. Earlier he had himself said that each country "will make its own Treaty. All that is necessary . . . is, that the Treaties go hand in hand, and are sign'd all on the same day" (Writings, VIII, 512). Although the negotiations had not gone "hand in hand," it was stipulated in the preliminaries that the final treaty "is not to be concluded until terms of peace shall be agreed upon between Great Britain and France". There was therefore some basis for Franklin's reply to Vergennes's protest, in which he admitted that the commissioners had been "guilty of neglecting a point of bienséance," but contended that in substance there had been no breach of agreement since "no peace is to take place between us and England till you have concluded yours" (Ibid., 144). He added: "The English, I just now learn, flatter themselves they have already divided us." Few diplomats, taking Vergennes's protest at its face value, would have ventured to unite with this bland apology a request for twenty million livres, or have contrived so to word it as to have obtained from the irritated minister a grant of six millons. The final peace was signed Sept. 3, 1783. ...
On Dec. 26, 1783, Franklin reminded Congress of its promise to recall him after the peace was made (Writings, IX, 141). Not until May 2, 1785, did he receive notice of the desired release. He left Passy, July 12, in one of "the King's Litters, carried by mules" (Ibid., 363), to embark from Havre de Grace. He arrived in Philadelphia Sept. 14, having profitably employed his time on the long voyage in making "Maritime Observations" and writing a detailed account of "The Causes and Cure of Smoky Chimneys" (Ibid., IX, 372-462). He was shortly chosen president of the executive council of Pennsylvania. After serving in this capacity for three years, he was chosen a member of the Constitutional Convention which met in May 1787. Although suffering from the stone he attended the sessions regularly for over four months. Like Jefferson, this master of discussion was no speechmaker; and his few formal discourses were written out and read. ... None of his cardinal ideas was adopted. He favored a single chamber, an executive board, and opposed the payment of salaries to executive officials. Yet Franklin contributed not a little to the final result. His immense prestige, and the persuasive effect of his kindly personality and genial humor, were of great value in calming passions and compromising disputes. When the convention was at a dead-lock over the question of representation, Franklin said: "If a property representation takes place, the small states contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large states say their money will be in danger. When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint" (Elliot's Debates, V, 266). Franklin's first proposal for a compromise was not adopted; but he was a member of the committee appointed to adjust the matter, and largely responsible for the compromise actually incorporated in the Constitution (Ibid., 273-74, 487). Although the Constitution was not to his liking, he urged in his inimitable manner that it be unanimously adopted. "I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. . . . The older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment. ... Though many ... persons think ... highly of their own infallibility . . . few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who . . . said: 'I don't know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself who is always in the right'--il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison. . . . On the whole, sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention ... would with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to the instrument" (Ibid., 554-55).
During the last five years of his life Franklin lived in a commodious house near Market Street with his daughter (his wife died in 1774) and his grandchildren. He invented a device for lifting books from high shelves (Writings, IX, 483), wrote to his numerous friends at home and abroad, entertained his neighbors and the many strangers come to do him homage, enjoying to the last that ceaseless flow of "agreeable and instructive conversation" of which he was the master and the devotee (see Cutler's description, Ibid., X, 478). His last public act was to sign a memorial to Congress for the abolition of slavery. He died Apr. 17, 1790, at the age of eighty-four years. At his funeral twenty thousand people assembled to do him honor. He was buried in Christ Church Burial Ground under a stone bearing a simple inscription of his own devising: Benjamin and Deborah Franklin (Ibid., 489, 508).
Great men are often hampered by some inner discord or want of harmony with the world in which they live. It was Franklin's good fortune to have been endowed with a rare combination of rare qualities, and to have lived at a time when circumstances favored the development of all his powers to their fullest extent. He was a true child of the Enlightenment, not indeed of the school of Rousseau, but of Defoe and Pope and Swift, of Fontenelle and Montesquieu and Voltaire. He spoke their language, although with a homely accent, a tang of the soil, that bears witness to his lowly and provincial origin. His wit and humor, lacking indeed the cool, quivering brilliance of Voltaire or the corrosive bitterness of Pope and Swift, were all the more effective and humane for their dash of genial and kindly cynicism. He accepted without question and expressed without effort all the characteristic ideas and prepossessions of the century--its aversion to "superstition" and "enthusiasms" and mystery; its contempt for hocus-pocus and its dislike of dim perspectives; its healthy, clarifying scepticism; its passion for freedom and its humane sympathies; its preoccupation with the world that is evident to the senses; its profound faith in common sense, in the efficacy of Reason for the solution of human problems and the advancement of human welfare.
For impressing his age with the validity of these ideas, both by precept and example, Franklin's native qualities were admirably suited. His mind, essentially pragmatic and realistic, by preference occupied itself with what was before it, with the present rather than with the past or the future, with the best of possible rather than with the best of conceivable worlds. He accepted men and things, including himself, as they were, with a grain of salt indeed but with insatiable curiosity, with irrepressible zest and good humor. He took life as it came, with the full-blooded heartiness of a man unacquainted with inhibitions and repressions and spiritual malaise, as a game to be played, with honesty and sincerity, but with shrewdness and an eye to the main chance, above all without pontifical solemnity, without self-pity, eschewing vain regrets for lost illusions and vain striving for the light that never was. Both his achievements and his limitations spring from this: that he accepted the world as given with imperturbable serenity; without repining identified himself with it; and brought to the understanding and the mastery of it rare common sense, genuine disinterestedness, a fertile and imaginative curiosity, and a cool, flexible intelligence fortified by exact knowledge and chastened and humanized by practical activities.
Not only was Franklin by temperament disposed to take life as it came and to make the most of it; in addition fate provided him with a rich diversity of experience such as has rarely fallen to the lot of any man. Rising from poverty to affluence, from obscurity to fame, he lived on every social level in turn, was equally at ease with rich and poor, the cultivated and the untutored, and spoke with equal facility the language of vagabonds and kings, politicians and philosophers, men of letters, kitchen girls, and femmes savantes. Reared in Boston, a citizen of Philadelphia, residing for sixteen years in London and for nine in Paris, he was equally at home in three countries, knew Europe better than any other American, America better than any European, England better than most Frenchmen, France better than most Englishmen, and was acquainted personally or through correspondence with more men of eminence in letters, science, and politics than any other man of his time. Such a variety of experience would have confused and disoriented any man less happily endowed with a capacity for assimilating it. Franklin took it all easily, relishing it, savoring it, without rest and without haste adding to his knowledge, fortifying and tempering his intelligence, broadening his point of view, humanizing and mellowing his tolerant acceptance of men and things--in short chastening and perfecting the qualities that were natively his; so that in the end he emerges the most universal and cosmopolitan spirit of his age. Far more a "good European," a citizen of the world, than Adams or Jefferson, Washington or Hutchinson, he remained to the end more pungently American than any of them. Jefferson said that Franklin was the one exception to the rule that seven years of diplomatic service abroad spoiled an American. Twenty-five years of almost continuous residence abroad did not spoil Franklin. Acclaimed and decorated as no American had ever been, he returned to Philadelphia and was immediately at home again, easily recognizable by his neighbors as the man they had always known--Ben Franklin, printer.
The secret of Franklin's amazing capacity for assimilating experience without being warped or discolored by it is perhaps to be found in his disposition to take life with infinite zest and yet with humorous detachment. Always immersed in affairs, he seems never completely absorbed by them; mastering easily whatever comes his way, there remain powers in reserve never wholly engaged. It is significant that his activities, with the exception of his researches in science, seem to have been the result, not of any compelling inner impulse or settled purpose, but rather of the pressure of external need or circumstance. He was a business man, and a good one; but having won a competence he retired. He was an inventor and a philanthropist, but not by profession; perceiving the need, he invented a stove or founded a hospital. He was a politician and a diplomat, and none more skilled; but not from choice; for the most part he accepted as a duty the offices that were thrust upon him. He was a writer, a prolific one; yet his writings were nearly all occasional, prompted by the need of the moment. His one book, the Autobiography, was begun as something that might be useful to his son; that purpose served, it was never finished. He was a literary artist of rare merit, the master of a style which for clarity, precision, and pliable adhesion to the form and pressure of the idea to be conveyed has rarely been equaled. Yet once having learned the trade he was little preoccupied with the art of writing, content to throw off in passing an acute pragmatic definition: Good writing "ought to have a tendency to benefit the reader. . . . But taking the question otherwise, an ill man may write an ill thing well. . . . In this sense, that is well wrote, which is best adapted for obtaining the end of the writer" (Writings, I, 37). It has been said that Franklin was not entrusted with the task of writing the Declaration of Independence for fear he might conceal a joke in the middle of it. The myth holds a profound symbolic truth. In all of Franklin's dealings with men and affairs, genuine, sincere, loyal as he surely was, one feels that he is nevertheless not wholly committed; some thought remains uncommunicated; some penetrating observation is held in reserve. In spite of his ready attention to the business in hand, there is something casual about his efficient dispatch of it; he manages somehow to remain aloof, a spectator still, with amiable curiosity watching himself functioning effectively in the world. After all men were but children needing to be cajoled; affairs a game not to be played without finesse. Was there not then, on that placid countenance, even at the signing of the great Declaration, the bland smile which seems to say: This is an interesting, alas even a necessary, game; and we are playing it well, according to all the rules; but men being what they are it is perhaps best not to inquire too curiously what its ultimate significance may be.
One exception there was--science: one activity which Franklin pursued without outward prompting, from some compelling inner impulse; one activity from which he never wished to retire, to which he would willingly have devoted his life, to which he always gladly turned in every odd day or hour of leisure, even in the midst of the exacting duties and heavy responsibilities of his public career. Science was after all the one mistress to whom he gave himself without reserve and served neither from a sense of duty nor for any practical purpose. Nature alone met him on equal terms, with a disinterestedness matching his own; needing not to be cajoled or managed with finesse, she enlisted in the solution of her problems the full power of his mind. In dealing with nature he could be, as he could not be in dealing with men and affairs, entirely sincere, pacific, objective, rational, could speak his whole thought without reservation, with no suggestion of a stupendous cosmic joke concealed in the premises. Franklin was indeed "many sided." From the varied facets of his powerful mind he threw a brilliant light on all aspects of human life; it is only in his character of natural philosopher that he emits a light quite unclouded. It is in this character therefore that the essential quality of the man appears to best advantage. Sir Humphry Davy has happily noted it for us. "The experiments adduced by Dr. Franklin . . . were most ingeniously contrived and happily executed. A singular felicity of induction guided all his researches, and by very small means he established very grand truths. The style and manner of his publication [on electricity] are almost as worthy of admiration as the doctrine it contains. He has endeavoured to remove all mystery and obscurity from the subject; he has written equally for the uninitiated and for the philosopher; and he has rendered his details amusing as well as perspicuous, elegant as well as simple. Science appears in his language in a dress wonderfully decorous, the best adapted to display her native loveliness. He has in no case exhibited that false dignity, by which philosophy is kept aloof from common applications, and he has sought rather to make her a useful inmate and servant in the common habitations of man, than to preserve her merely as an object of admiration in temples and palaces".
Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 3 copyright 1931 by American Council of Learned Societies