Benjamin Franklin is a prominent figure in U.S. History - he was a Founding Father of the United States, a world traveller, inventor, the man who famously flew a kite during a thunderstorm, and so much more.
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts Bay, British America - he had no middle name. He was one of seventeen children.
His father, Josiah Franklin, was a chandler and soap maker. He had seven children with his first wife, and ten with his second. Franklin's mother, Abiah Folger, was Josiah's second wife. His copy of "Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good," by family friend Cotton Mather, had a big influence on young Ben.
Franklin's parents envisioned a career in the church for their son, so they sent him to the Boston Latin School. His formal schooling ended when he was ten, however, because his father needed him to help make candles. Franklin continued his education by reading.
In 1718, at the age of twelve, Franklin was apprenticed to his older brother, James, a printer. This appealed to Franklin much more than candlemaking. James Franklin founded "The New-England Courant," the first truly independent newspaper in the colonies, in 1721.
Ben wasn't allowed to write for the publication, so he sent letters using a pseudonym, Mrs. Silence Dogwood. Mrs. Dogwood, supposedly a middle-aged widow, had fifteen letters published in the paper over time. Incredibly, she received several marriage proposals. Mrs. Dogwood once wrote, "Without Freedom of thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of speech." James was furious when he learned that Mrs. Dogwood was actually his younger brother, Ben.
At the age of seventeen, Franklin left his apprenticeship without his brother's permission, becoming a runaway. He found work as a printer in Philadelphia and proposed to fifteen-year-old Deborah Read. Reed's mother refused to grant permission, due to their youth and his financial instability. Franklin continued working, first as a typesetter in London, then as a shopkeeper, clerk, bookkeeper, and currency cutter in Philadelphia.
In 1726, at the age of twenty, Franklin developed his list of thirteen virtues, which he would later describe in his autobiography. He practiced these virtues in some form for the rest of his life, focusing on one per week, sometimes falling short, but never giving them up. The thirteen virtues were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
Franklin created the Junto in 1927, a group of young men looking to improve themselves and their community. The members gathered their books to create a library they could share, because books were expensive. This expanded into a subscription service which allowed them to pool their funds and buy more books. The collection grew and eventually became the first lending library in the United States.
Franklin once said, "He that has not got a wife, is not yet a complete man." On September 1, 1730, Franklin established a common-law marriage with Deborah Read, the young lady to whom he had proposed marriage years before.
She had married another man in the interim, but he had run off to Barbados with her dowry, leaving her alone and unable to legally remarry. The newlyweds took in Franklin's illegitimate son, William, whose mother is not known, then had two more children, Francis and Sarah.
Franklin published the first German-language newspaper in America in 1732, "Die Philadelphische Zeitung." The paper failed after one year, due to competition from four others. He purchased "The Pennsylvania Gazette" and was selected as the official printer of Pennsylvania.
In 1733 he began publication of the iconic "Poor Richard's Almanac," combining his original content with material he borrowed from elsewhere. He used the pseudonym, "Richard Saunders," but most people knew the true identity of Saunders. The almanac contained many adages, including "A penny saved is twopence clear," "A false friend and a shadow attend only while the sun shines," and "Beware of little expenses, a small leak will sink a great ship."
Income from "Poor Richard's Almanac and "The Pennsylvania Gazette" gave Franklin the freedom to pursue his many other interests, including pamphleteering, inventing, travel, and politics.
He was elected Grand Master of the Pennsylvania Masons and, in 1737, postmaster of Philadelphia.
Franklin joined the Second Continental Congress in 1775. He also served as the first postmaster general for the United States. He helped to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and also helped draft the Articles of Confederation.
After spending time in France, Franklin returned to the U.S. in 1785. He represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, which ratified the new U.S. Constitution; he served as the 6th president of Pennsylvania, a post equivalent to governor; and he helped to elect George Washington as the first president.
Franklin had some reservations about naming the eagle as the national bird of the United States, but he did not, as many people believe, advocate for the turkey. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin wrote, "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly."
Benjamin Franklin is the only person whose signature appears on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Treaty of Paris, and the Treaty of Alliance with France.
Most people know Franklin was an innovator. He invented the Franklin stove and bifocals, and experimented with electricity. His most notorious experiment - flying a kite in a thunderstorm - is considered a work of fiction since few could survive being struck by a bolt of lightning.
It is likely that Franklin ran electricity down a wire and got zapped by the negative charge from a metal object dangling from it. In any case, Franklin did invent the lightning rod and discovered how to conduct electricity. In the course of his work, he invented new words, including "conductor" and "battery."
Franklin formulated an artificial fertilizer, identified lead poisoning, and charted ocean currents. He designed a flexible urinary catheter, swim fins, a rocking chair, a folding library stepstool, a mechanical arm for reaching books on high shelves, a smokeless fireplace, and an improved glass harmonica with spinning goblets.
Franklin never patented his inventions or ideas. He said, "As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."
Once a slaveholder, Franklin became an abolitionist in his later years. He sought to establish a school for the education of slaves in Philadelphia and challenged the notion that blacks were inferior to whites. He eventually freed his own slaves.
At the age of 74, Franklin proposed marriage to a French widow, Madame Helvetius, who turned him down.
Franklin was an Enlightenment thinker and a deist, despite the fact that his parents had wanted him to become a Puritan pastor.
Franklin was a musician. He played violin, harp, and guitar, plus he composed a string quartet in early classical style.
He was an avid chess player. In 1786 he wrote an essay, "The Morals of Chess."
Franklin published the first political cartoon in the American colonies - a famous woodcut of a snake, sectioned into pieces, with the caption, "Join, or Die." Beneath, Franklin added his own words, "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." The cartoon was originally targeted against the French, during the French and Indian War, but later it became a symbol for the Revolutionary War.
Franklin used a number of pseudonyms, in addition to Richard Saunders of Almanac fame. These include Anthony Afterwit, Polly Baker, Alice Addertongue, Caelia Shortface, Martha Careful, Busy Body, and Benevolous.
Despite being one of the most famous Americans of all time, Franklin spent 27 years of his life overseas. He crossed the Atlantic 8 times - the first time at age 18, the final time at age 79. He visited 10 countries in an era when most people never went more than 20 miles from home. His wife never traveled abroad with him, however, because she was afraid of the sea.
As the official printer of Pennsylvania, Franklin was responsible for printing currency. To thwart counterfeiters, he deliberately spelled the name of the state incorrectly.
He advocated a new model for education in American colleges - having classes taught in English, not Latin.
He developed a phonetic alphabet, described in "A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling." His alphabet contained six new letters, standing for sounds that he felt lacked letters; it contained no c, j, q, w, x, or y, because he thought they were redundant.
Franklin was the first U.S. Minister to France. He was also the first U.S. Minister to Sweden, but he never visited that country.
Perhaps Franklin accomplished so much because he slept so little. He reportedly slept only four hours per night. He said, "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."
Franklin died on April 17, 1790, of a pleuritic attack. He was living with his only surviving child, Sarah, in Philadelphia. His wife had died years earlier, in 1774, while Franklin was visiting England.
Benjamin Franklin was a true polymath - largely self-educated, always questioning. He once said, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing."
Surely, Benjamin Franklin will not be forgotten.