No matter how much you have read about Benjamin Franklin and there is a huge library of biographies, historical papers, collections of anecdotes and even a recipe book (Dubourcq) there will always be some new fact to surprise you. This great mans life is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and amusement for the modern reader. He was a Leonardo da Vinci of his own time, Homo Universalis, who proved that nothing is impossible for a self-made man in the country of possibilities. Known as the "first American", Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, scientist, civil servant, diplomat, philosopher, musician, lucrative businessman, writer and prosperous publisher. His life was as diverse and fascinating as the very history of the country he served so vehemently. He can be rightfully called an embodiment of the entrepreneurial, resourceful, freedom-loving American spirit. Probably, this is why Franklin is depicted on the US banknotes, although he has never been the president. By looking at his biography one traces not only ups and downs of a single human life, but rather a symbolic representation of the way the nation has come in the process of its consolidation and self-identification.
Despite the fact that Benjamin Franklin was born in a family where, apart from him, there were 16 other children and he could not afford to attend school until the age of 10, he became the most famous American scientist of his time. At a young age, Benjamin learned about the printed mastery from his older brother. Benjamin's father wanted him to go to church and sent the boy to various religious schools. Nevertheless, the young Benjamin Franklin was more interested in the printing business, following in the footsteps of his older brother. By the time Benjamin turned 17, he was already tired of his father's plans concerning his future. Franklin fled to Philadelphia, a city where, in his opinion, a new life would begin for him. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin worked in the industry he knew best, namely, in publishing. Then Franklin went to London to work as a typist at the printing house and, a few years later, returned to the States to work as an accountant in the trading business. Franklin soon founded his own publishing house which bought and went on printing the Pennsylvania Gazette, which made him quite rich. His wealth grew exponentially when he began publishing the Poor Richard's Almanack, which contained meteorological forecasts, daily quotes, in general, something that other almanacs did not provide to the reader (Haugen, Santella 13-54). Franklin had a very good business instinct which he utilized in all spheres of his activities and today he serves as one of the examples for the modern American self-made men.
After several more favorable business negotiations, Benjamin Franklin began to pay more attention to his inventions and the theory of electricity, where he proved that lightning is actually an electrical charge that can even be accumulated. In his experiment which helped Franklin clarify the nature of lightning (today called "Franklin's Serpent"), the scientist launched a kite into a thundercloud and discovered that it was accumulating electric charge. Proceeding from this, Franklin invented a lightning rod and even came up with an idea of rudimentary batteries. Also, Benjamin Franklin was the inventor of bifocals, a rocking chair and many other devices (Krull 3-4). All in all, Franklin can rightfully be called the first American scientist. At the same time, his science was never merely theoretical he always proceeded from the practical considerations, having become one of the fathers of the famous American pragmatism.
Franklins agile mind never stopped working and some of his observations grew into a foundation of very beneficial social developments. For example, Franklin noticed the contagious nature of common colds. In his biography of Benjamin Franklin, Hal Marcovitz retells a historical anecdote according to which one night in September 1776, on his trip to meet British Admiral Lord Richard Howe, Benjamin Franklin had to a share a room in the roadside inn with John Adams who had been suffering from a severe cold. Franklin refused to close the window and lectured his happenstance roommate on the danger of small, stuffy rooms and close interpersonal communication when one of the interlocutors has a cold he had observed this connection during his long and frequent travels (Marcovitz 3). Franklin discovered that germs could be passed through close contact one hundred years before Louis Pasteurs discovery of germs became widely popular. Franklin was also one of the first to promote exercise and air baths as the superior means of health improvement (Marcovitz 4). This historical anecdote is very demonstrative and perfectly reveals Franklins way of thinking: he used every occasion for observation, research and propaganda of science.
Having built his reputation as a successful businessman, inventor, and social activist, Benjamin Franklin became more involved in political life and was sent to England and France as a diplomat to help smooth out the conflict around the high taxes that Britain collected on its territory in America. When Britain refused to settle for a compromise, Franklin began to advocate the creation of an independent state. When the War of Independence began, only Franklin managed to get help from France for the newly established United States. In the last years of his life, Benjamin Franklin fought for the abolition of slavery and created trusts that funded colleges and public works programs for the next two centuries (Haugen, Santella 65-86). His active social work helped him build an image of a successful businessman who is also an active philanthropist this ideal is immensely popular to this day.
Franklin died April 17, 1790, in Philadelphia at the age of 84 years. Until his very death, he stayed energized and productive. As Kathleen Krull writes in her book Benjamin Franklin (a part of the Giants of Science series), It was science and his passion for it that kept him alive and active until the age of eighty-four and made him sorry to leave this earth (Krull 2). Being a shrewd thinker, Franklin realized that the times were to come when his inventions would be in great demand. In one of his letters to a fellow scientist Joseph Priestley (8 February 1780), he wrote: The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my Regretting sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried in a 1000 Years the Power of Man over Matter (Franklin). It seems that more than two hundred years after Franklins death we have not yet fully realized the potential inherent in his ideas and designs. He was, indeed, ahead of his time.
Many authors have tried to pin down the multiple roles that Franklin played during his long and eventful life. Walter Isaacson, the author of the New York Times best-selling biography, singles out some of them: a pilgrim, a journeyman, a printer, a public citizen, a scientist and inventor, a politician, an agent provocateur, a rebel, a courtier, a bon vivant, a peacemaker and a sage (Isaacson). And this list is not even full. Another biographer, Gordon S. Wood, enumerates five major steps that Franklin has made in his life: becoming a Gentleman, becoming a British Imperialist, becoming a Patriot, becoming a Diplomat, becoming an American (Wood). Obviously, Franklin has come a long way from a poor young boy hungry for knowledge and success to a sage, a peacemaker and, as surprising as it may seem, an American.
Franklins contribution to the well-being of the American nation is hard to overestimate. Yet, probably, one of his greatest achievements that have had the most long-lasting consequences for the United States is his becoming an American creating an iconic image of the average American and the ideology of the middle class as the foundation of the state. Franklin was a man who created himself in all senses: he deliberately conceived himself according to the model of the archetypal exemplary American and thereby earned the love of some and the hatred of others for centuries to come. He created this image mainly in the Autobiography (Franklin), which became one of the most popular books in the USA. It describes Franklin's path from poverty and uncertainty to the heights of wealth and glory. But this is also a story of remorse and redemption. Franklin portrays himself as a teenager who, after reading modern books, deviates from his father's morality and religion and becomes a rebel freethinker. Realizing what great suffering he has caused his family and what harm he inflicted on himself, Franklin gives himself another chance: he returns to God and develops his famous project of moral improvement aimed at gaining control over himself and devoting himself to serving God by providing help and support to his compatriots. This ambitious project was conceived as a lesson for all Americans.
Some may admire Franklin as an exemplary representative of a democratic America, who with his inherent diligence and moral discipline came from nowhere to become a great man and serve his fellow citizens; others may hate him as a soulless reasoner, an unprincipled materialist, and accumulator representing an unprincipled and accumulative society. The attitude towards Franklin depends on how a person treats the United States: this figure is a unique image that is easily and naturally identified with America, whatever you think about it.
I would like to finish with a quote from Isaacsons biographical best-seller where the author calls Franklin the founding father who winks at us: He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time (Isaacson 2). Thanks to Franklins amazing ability to think globally, to use his imagination and see things in the historical perspective, just like Shakespeare, Franklin will always be our contemporary.
Dubourcq, Hilaire. Benjamin Franklin Book of Recipes. FlyFizzi Pub., 2004.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Applewood Books, 2008.Franklin, Benjamin. To Joseph Priestley, 8 February 1780. Founders Online, National Archives and Records Administration, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-31-02-0325.Haugen, Brenda, and Andrew Santella. Benjamin Franklin: Scientist and Statesman. Compass Point Books, 2005.
Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: an American life. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Krull, Kathleen. Benjamin Franklin. Penguin, 2013.
Marcovitz, Hal. Benjamin Franklin . Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. Penguin Books, 2005.
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