Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a profoundly influential American whose contributions changed the beginnings and future landscape of the country's political, international, educational, and social life. His roles were in flux throughout his lifetime—writer, printer, editor, free-thinker, inventor, diplomat.
Franklin was the founder of a number of institutions integral, today, to an American way of life—the first lending library (the Philadelphia Library in 1731), the first scholarly voluntary association (the Junto or "Leather Apron" Club), the first fire department (the Union Fire Company of Philadelphia in 1736), and the postal system. He served as the first Postmaster mGeneral in 1753. He wrote and printed the Poor Richard's Almanack, an immensely popular book of homespun wisdom. Franklin Invented the open stove (also called the "Franklin"). He served as a political representative of Pennsylvania to the Colonial Congress; was a contributor and signer of the Declaration of Independence; and participated in the framing of the U.S. Constitution. During his lifetime, Franklin received various academic degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Oxford in England.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Josiah and Abiah (Folger) Franklin. He was the youngest son and tenth child in a family of seventeen children. Franklin's parents wanted to send young Benjamin into the ministry, but could not afford a proper education for him. Therefore, at the age of twelve, Franklin chose to learn a trade. He became an apprentice to his older brother, James, a printer.
While working with James was a learning experience, it was not always harmonious. In 1723, Franklin left Boston for New York City and then, upon finding no employment there, traveled to Philadelphia. He arrived in Pennsylvania with no relatives or acquaintances, no job prospects, and one Dutch dollar and a copper shilling in his pocket. He quickly found employment in the print shop of Samuel Keimer, founder of the Pennsylvania Gazette, which would later be purchased by Franklin and his partner, Hugh Meredith.
At the age of twenty-four, Franklin enjoyed his success as an established printer. He attributed his competence to industry, thrift, and ingenuity as he won great fame for the seventeen-year run of Poor Richard's Almanack, which brought homespun humor and aphorisms to the colonies. Even though the Almanack was a business endeavor, it was considered "a genuine expression of Franklin's passion for improving himself and others" (Johnson 1931, 587).
Franklin was most certainly influenced by Boston's Puritan and Philadelphia's Quaker religious teachings. The strong protestant work ethic valued in each denomination required virtues such as frugality, economy, diligence, and industry. As a young man working in James' print shop, Franklin published his first essays under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood" which were reflections and moral teachings inspired by the Reverend Cotton Mather's Bonifacius or Essays to Do Good. These first published writings would inspire Franklin's lifelong devotion to personal improvement.
Franklin continued to expand his own knowledge base by forming the Junto club in 1727. The Junto was an exclusive club comprised of fellow merchants and artisans devoted to the discussion of morals, politics, science, and history. Franklin's Junto club is credited with the beginning of America's first subscription libraries. Franklin and Junto founded the Philadelphia Library in 1731.
Besides his printing business and associational involvement, Franklin was fascinated by the study of science and invention. He invented a myriad of useful objects, such as a special clock and a home heating stove. He also marveled at the study of electricity and, in 1752, performed his now famous kite experiment to prove the connection between lightning and electricity. Left to his devices, Franklin would have probably been content to spend his days as a scientist, however, civic affairs and international diplomacy consumed a great deal of his time during the second phase of his life.
Officially retired from the printing business at the age of forty-two, Franklin began to take an active part in politics. His initial involvement with the Pennsylvania Assembly led him to a five-year stay in England, where he worked to dissolve the old Pennsylvania charter, which gave considerable (and advantageous) control of the colony to William Penn's descendants living in England. Because of his outstanding work on several key colonial issues, Franklin was later named the official agent of Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. During this time, he furthered his intellectual development and began to correspond with notable scholars such as David Hume. Franklin also received the first of many honorable degrees: an L.L.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Edinburgh, Scotland (1759) and a Doctorate of Civil Laws (D.C.L.) from Oxford (1762).
While he enjoyed his time abroad, Franklin was deeply patriotic and became more focused on the rights of American colonies. He became heavily involved in the debate concerning internal and external taxes, that is, taxes levied either by the colonies to its citizens or by the British government to the colonies. By 1768, Franklin was already beginning to form ideas that would later be penned in the Declaration of Independence (Johnson 1931, 591).
Franklin returned to the colonies for a more permanent stay in 1775 and was elected to the second Continental Congress, where he was credited with many accomplishments. He drew up a Plan of Union for the colonies and also organized a post office (he was the first Postmaster General). Franklin was also a participant on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence (Ibid., 592). In 1776, Franklin was appointed as one of three colonial diplomats to France to rally support for America's independence.
Franklin had been to France on two previous visits in 1767 and 1769. While he was not at first received officially by the French government, he was welcomed warmly by French citizens who had read translated versions of Poor Richard and benefited from his scientific discoveries. "Franklin's popularity contributed much to the success of his diplomatic mission" (Ibid.). Besides numerous other duties, Franklin negotiated much needed loan money for the colonies in order to secure independence from the British. However, ill health combined with excessive work caused him to write to Congress to resign his post in 1781. Yet, Congress did not allow Franklin to relinquish his duties so easily. As America's best diplomat, Congress named Franklin, along with John Jay and John Adams, to negotiate peace with England. Franklin accepted the appointment with the promise from Congress that he would be able to return to America after peace with England was made. In September of 1785, he returned to the United States.
In the last years of his life, Franklin lived with his daughter (his wife had died in 1774) and grandchildren (Ibid., 596). He also served as a member of the Constitutional Convention (1787) and was the oldest signer of the Constitution. "His last public act was to sign a memorial to Congress for the abolition of slavery" (Ibid.). Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790, at the age of eighty-four.
Benjamin Franklin combined his dedication to state and country with his commitment to personal achievement in improving the lives of his fellow Americans. As a businessman, diplomat, statesman, scientist, philosopher, and philanthropist, Franklin provided persuasive direction that guided and shaped Philadelphia as well as a growing colonial America. Of the many influential Americans throughout time, Franklin's scope of influence is perhaps the most profound - his achievements in such diverse and important aspects of American life changed the face of democracy, technology, communication, literacy, voluntary association, fire fighting, and common wisdom (to name a few areas).
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Franklin's best talents lay in his ability to persuade different peoples to join together for benevolent purposes (Hammack 1998, 71). Through his vision, he was able to create the Philadelphia Hospital and the Pennsylvania Academy. The Academy is the country's first modern liberal arts college and the first college intended to prepare people for business and public life, rather than preparing them to enter the clergy (the institution's name was later changed to the University of Pennsylvania). Both the Hospital and Academy "unlike their counterparts in the other colonies . . were independent of church and state" (Ibid.). He argued that private institutions, when supported by government subsidies, fees and private institutions, would serve to "advance civic public purposes and at the same time support the self-help efforts of individuals" (Ibid.).
The historic roots of Benjamin Franklin's involvement with philanthropy are evident in his Autobiography. Franklin began the Autobiography in 1771 so that his son might have an historical record of Franklin's life and the life of their family. While Franklin wrote his memoirs off and on throughout his life, his Autobiography was never finished. However, it does provide an excellent account of Franklin's civic and voluntary involvement.
In the Autobiography, Franklin describes the Junto club in great detail. The club was made of twelve artisans and academics - all working people - who also deemed the group a "Club of Leather Aprons." Franklin called the club one of "mutual improvement" and required that every member "produce queries" on the topics of morals, science, or politics. The members were also required to produce an essay at regular intervals on the topic of his choice for discussion.
Junto was an exclusive club, but Franklin encouraged the original members to form satellite clubs to involve others in the community.
One of the most important works achieved by the Junto was creating America's first subscription library. It was a success and spawned many more libraries throughout the colonies. Franklin noted the importance of libraries in the Autobiography writing, "These libraries have improved the general conversations of the Americans, made the common tradesman 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 defence [sic] of their privileges" (Franklin 1993, 134).
Key Related Ideas
Among the many ideas related to Franklin's work and accomplishments are:
- Civic duty
- Declaration of Independence
- Founding fathers
- Libraries, lending libraries, and public libraries
- Postal service and Postmaster General
- United States Constitution
- Voluntary association: A group of people, with at least one common factor, that gathers together to accomplish a task or share ideas; they gather out of their own free will.
- Volunteer fire departments
In addition, Benjamin Franklin was a writer and publisher and a very persuasive one at that. He learned very early the power of the well-written word, as noted by scholar David Larson (1986) in his article discussing Franklin's capacity for persuasion:
- Franklin learned how to use words to inspire people to action by developing his written campaigns for civic improvement. Writing in support of philanthropic projects, Franklin gradually developed the persona which lies behind much of his writings"”the well intentioned man who seeks only to assist his fellows. (200)
Larson further writes:
Convinced that mankind is neither so blatantly selfish as to be moved solely by appeals of self-interest, nor so wholly altruistic as to act simply through sympathy for others, Franklin develops techniques which appeal to both sides of human nature. (216)
Franklin would use his unique style to successfully develop many civic causes, such as a fire company, a hospital, and the Pennsylvania Academy (now the University of Pennsylvania).
Important People Related to the Topic
Benjamin Franklin was associated with many important people during his lifetime. Some of the most prominent of these people include:
Pierre Augustin Caron Beaumarchais (1732-1799): Author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, Beaumarchais was influenced by Franklin to give financial support to the Revolutionary War (Wright 1990, 277).
The Reverend Cotton Mather (1663-1728): "Minister of the Congregational Church of Boston. . . Interested in science, he was a pioneer advocate of inoculation against smallpox. Franklin rejected his theological orthodoxy, but accepted the social ethic implicit in the Essays to do Good. His Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) is still a useful ecclesiastical history of New England" (Ibid,. 286).
Francois-Marie-Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778): "One of the greatest satirical writers of all time . . . belonged to the same Masonic lodge as Franklin. Considered the only peer Franklin had" (Ibid., 291).
Additionally, Ben Franklin was a colleague of other founding fathers such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and James Madison. During his travels abroad he met with noted philosopher David Hume, who influenced Franklin's thinking.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
In 1743, Benjamin Franklin revamped the Junto organization. It was renamed the American Philosophical Society (APS), whose purpose was to promote useful knowledge throughout the colonies. In 1769, the APS merged with the American Society of Promoting Useful Knowledge. "Since then, the Society has expanded into an international institution and maintains an extremely extensive library in Philadelphia" (Thinkquest Challenge Library 2002).
Anderson, Douglas. The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0801867398.
Clark, Ronald. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1983. Paperback: ISBN: 184212272X.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Louis P. Masur. Boston: St Martin's Press, 1993. Dover Thrift paperback: ISBN: 0486290735.
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes. American National Biography, Vol. 8: 382-394. London: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hammack, David C. Introduction to "Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography: Recollections of Institution-Building, 1771-84." In Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States, 70-84. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998. Paperback: ISBN: 0253214106.
Huang, Nian-Sheng. Benjamin Franklin in American Thought and Culture, 1790-1990. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1994.
Johnson, Allen, and Dumas Malone. Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 6: 585-598. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931.
Larson, David M. "Benevolent Persuasion: The Art of Benjamin Franklin's Philanthropic Papers." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 110 (1986): 2, 195-217.
Schneider, Herbert W. "Ungodly Puritans." In Benjamin Franklin and the American Character: Problems in American Civilization, edited by Charles L. Sanford, 77-82. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1955.
Seavey, Ormond. Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and the Life. London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. ASIN: 0271006277.
Van Doren, Carl. The Will of Benjamin Franklin, 1757. Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute, 1949.
Wright, Esmond. Benjamin Franklin: His Life as He Wrote It. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. Paperback: ISBN: 0674066553.
This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning to Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.