Benjamin Franklin was America’s scientist, inventor, politician, philanthropist and business man. He is best known as one of our Founding Fathers and the only one who signed all three documents that freed America from Britain: The Declaration of Independence. The American Constitution and The Treaty of Paris.
Franklin was born in a middle class family on January 17, 1706 in the City of Boston, he was the 15th of 17 children and the youngest son. With only 2 years of formal education he rose to the highest level of society. However he was rooted in reality and always acknowledging his background and, as in the opening of his will and testament, referring himself as “B.F. of Philadelphia, Printer”. He had the talent of being at ease with any company, from tradesmen to scholars, merchants and the European elite.
He strove to improve himself cultivating personal virtues and taking on public projects for the benefit of society. One of his first public projects was to organize a block watch and raise money to pave and clean Philadelphia roads. His projects gradually became more ambitious and included creating pensions, providing welfare for widows, creating a volunteer militia, and building the University of Pennsylvania to educate the middle class children. Franklin was also a founder of the Pennsylvania Hospital, built for those who could not afford care, he built institutions for the mentally disabled, a lending library, fire corps and insurance. This was long before governments began to provide services to their citizens.
Benjamin Franklin was also a scientist. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity and invented a rod to prevent it from hitting buildings. He invented bifocal glasses, charted the Gulf Stream, invented a clean burning stove and proposed theories on the contagiousness of the common cold. His approach was more practical than theoretical. His training as a craftsman made him more accomplished as an inventor.
As a journalist his most important journalistic influence was his brother James who is considered the first fighter for journalistic freedom in America. Franklin wrote: “Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public, and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter”. This legacy is framed and hanged in many newsroom walls in America. He also published the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack.
Franklin was an ambitious entrepreneur, disciplined and industrious, working hard until late at night. He nurtured his appearance and reputation “I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal but to avoid all appearances of the contrary”.
He was against slavery as an institution. For part of his life he held the usual prejudices against African Americans but came to realize that they were “in every respect equal” to his own.
As a politician he was the first one to propose the union of the colonies for common defense. He was accused as a royalist but when the time came he stood up for freedom becoming one of the Founding Fathers.
Benjamin Franklin genius is centered on the use of his network of business and social connections. He leveraged this network to the benefit of his variety of interests from science and politics to business and journalism.
Unlike the other Founding Fathers, Franklin began as an artisan, with only two years of formal education, and was the architect of his own fortune. He was a self-made man representing American social mobility through frugality and industriousness. According to historian Perry Miller, Benjamin Franklin has become the most “massively symbolic” figures in American history.
Benjamin Franklin died at age 84, on April 17, 1790. The cause of his death was empyema brought by attacks of pleurisy, which he had suffered earlier in his life. During his later years Franklin’s health gradually deteriorated. He suffered from gout and had a large kidney stone which confined him to bed.