» Biography Home
» Biographies A-F
» Biographies G-M
» Biographies N-S
» Biographies T-Z
Though eminent qualities are generally necessary to the acquisition of permanent fame, the life of Franklin affords signal proof that moderate talents, judiciously directed, when aided by industry and perseverance, will enable a man to render signal services to his country and his kind, and give him a claim to the homage of posterity. He was the fifteenth child of a tallow-chandler in Boston, where he was born January 17, 1706. His father at first intended to educate him for the church, but finding that the expense was likely to exceed his means, he took the boy home after he had acquired little more than the elements of learning, to assist him in his own trade. The boy greatly disliked the nature of the employment, and was very anxious to become a sailor. Fortunately for him his friends controlled his inclinations; instead of going to sea he was apprenticed to his eldest brother, James, who was a printer. Franklin records in his Memoirs that though he had only at this time entered his twelfth year he paid so much attention to his business that he soon became proficient in all its details, and, by the quickness with which he executed his work, obtained a little leisure, which he devoted to study. His studious habits were noticed by a gentleman named Adams, who had a large collection of books, which he placed at the disposal of Franklin; among these were some volumes of poetry, which fired his emulation, and he began to compose little pieces in verse. Two of these were printed by his brother and sold as street-ballads, but they were, as he informs us, wretched doggerel, and the ridicule thrown on them by his father deterred him from similar attempts. But though he laid aside poetry, he did not abandon his ambition to become a good English writer; he studied the art of composition with great labor, being rewarded by the consciousness of improvement.
Franklin's self-denial and power of control over his appetites were not less remarkable than his industry. Having, at the age of sixteen, read a work which recommended vegetable diet, he determined to adopt the system, and undertook to provide for himself upon his brother's allowing him one-half of the ordinary expenses of board. On this pittance he not only supported himself, but contrived, by great abstemiousness, to save a portion of it, which he devoted to the purchase of books. He soon had an opportunity of testing his literary progress; in 1720 his brother commenced the publication of a newspaper, the second which had appeared in America, called the New England Courant. This paper, at a time when periodicals were rare, attracted most of the literary men of Boston to the house of the proprietor; their conversation, and particularly their remarks on the authorship of the various articles contributed to the paper, revived Franklin's literary ambition; he sent some communications to the journal in a feigned hand; they were inserted, and he tells us that "he had the exquisite pleasure to find that they met with approbation, and that, in the various conjectures respecting the author, no one was mentioned who did not enjoy a high reputation in the country for talents and genius." He was thus encouraged to reveal his secret to his brother, but he did not obtain the respect and fraternal indulgence which he had anticipated. James Franklin was a man of violent temper; he treated Benjamin with great harshness, and often proceeded to the extremity of blows.
An article which appeared in the Courant having given offence to the authorities, James was thrown into prison for a month, and the management of the paper devolved on Benjamin. He conducted it with great spirit, but with questionable prudence, for he made it the vehicle of sharp attacks on the principal persons in the colony. This gave such offence that when James was liberated from prison, an arbitrary order was issued that he should no longer print the paper called the New England Courant. To evade this order it was arranged that Benjamin's indentures should be cancelled in order that the paper might be published in his name, but at the same time a secret contract was made between the parties, by which James was entitled to his brother's services during the unexpired period of apprenticeship. A fresh quarrel, however, soon arose, and Benjamin separated from his brother, taking what he has confessed to be an unfair advantage of the circumstance that the contract could not be safely brought forward.
The circumstance produced an unfavorable impression on the minds of the printers in Boston, and Franklin, finding it impossible to obtain employment in his native town, resolved to seek it in New York. Aware that his father would be opposed to this measure, he was compelled to sell his books to raise money for defraying the expenses of his journey. America was at this time very thinly inhabited; there were no public conveyances on the roads, the inns were few, and their accommodations miserable; but Franklin had accustomed himself to hard fare, and he did not allow the inconvenience he endured to interfere with his enjoyment of new scenery. On reaching New York he found that the printers there had no occasion for his services, and he continued his journey to Philadelphia. Having obtained employment in that city from a printer named Keimer, Franklin continued to devote his leisure hours to literature. The respectability of his appearance and the superior tone of his conversation began soon to be remarked; they led to his being introduced to several eminent men, and particularly to Sir William Keith, the Governor of Pennsylvania, who frequently invited him to his table. Keith urged Franklin to commence business on his own account, and when the young man had ineffectually applied for assistance to his father in Boston, he advised him to go to London and form a connection with some of the great publishing houses, promising him letters of credit and recommendation. Franklin sailed for London, but the promised letters were never sent; and he found himself, on his arrival in England, thrown entirely on his own resources.
Having soon obtained employment, he exhibited to his fellow-workmen an edifying example of industry and temperance, by which many of them profited. He also published a little work of a sceptical tendency, which procured him introductions to some eminent men, but which he afterward lamented as one of the greatest errors of his life. After remaining about eighteen months in England, he returned to Philadelphia as a clerk to Mr. Denham, and on the death of that gentleman went back once more to his old employer, Keimer. About this time he established a debating society, or club of persons of his own age, for the discussion of subjects connected with morals, politics, and natural philosophy. These discussions gradually assumed political importance, and had a great effect in stimulating the public mind during the War of Independence.
Having quarrelled with Keimer, Franklin entered into partnership with a young man named Meredith, and commenced publishing a paper in opposition to one which had been started by his former employer. Meredith proving negligent of business, Franklin was enabled by his friends to dissolve the partnership, and to take the entire business into his own hands. His steady adherence to habits of industry and economy had brought him comparative wealth; and he now married Miss Read, whom he had met on his first arrival in Philadelphia.
In 1732 Franklin began the publication of "Poor Richard's Almanac," which soon became celebrated for its important lessons of practical morality. These were subsequently collected in a little volume, and are still highly esteemed both in England and America. His high character for probity and intelligence induced the citizens of Philadelphia to intrust him with the management of public affairs; he was appointed clerk of the general assembly, postmaster, and alderman, and was put by the governor into the commission of the peace. All the hours he could spare from business he now devoted to objects of local utility, and the city of Philadelphia is indebted to him for some of its finest buildings and best institutions. As his wealth increased he obtained leisure to devote himself to the study of philosophy, and to take a leading part in political life.
We shall first look at his philosophical labors, by which his name first became known abroad. His attention was drawn to the subject of electricity in 1746, by some experiments exhibited by Dr. Spence, who had come to Boston from Scotland. These isolated experiments were made with no regard to system, and led to no results. A glass tube, and some other apparatus that had been sent to Franklin by a friend in London, enabled him to repeat and verify these experiments. He soon began to devise new forms of investigation for himself, and at length made the great discovery, which may be said to be the foundation of electrical science, that there is a positive and negative state of electricity. By this fact he explained the phenomenon of the Leyden phial, which at that time excited great attention in Europe, and had foiled the sagacity of its principal philosophers. In the course of his investigations he was led to suspect the identity of lightning and the electric fluid; and he resolved to test this happy conjecture by a direct experiment. His apparatus was simply a paper-kite with a key attached to the tail. Having raised the kite during a thunder-storm, he watched the result with great anxiety; after an interval of painful suspense, he saw the filaments of the string exhibit by their motion signs of electrical action; he drew in the kite, and, presenting his knuckles to the key, received a strong spark, which of course decided the success of the experiment. Repeated sparks were drawn from the key, a phial was charged, a shock given, and the identity of lightning with the electric fluid demonstrated beyond all possibility of doubt.
Franklin had from time to time transmitted accounts of his electrical experiments to his friend, Mr. Collinson, in England, in order that they should be laid before the Council of the Royal Society; but, as they were not published in the "Transactions" of that learned body, Collinson gave copies of the communications to Cave, for insertion in the Gentleman's Magazine. Cave resolved to publish them in a separate form, and the work, soon after its appearance, became generally recognized as the text-book of electrical science. It was translated into French, German, and Latin; the author's experiments were repeated, and verified by the leading philosophers of France, Germany, and even Russia; the Royal Society atoned for its former tardiness by a hearty recognition of their value, and Franklin was elected a member of their body without solicitation or expense. The universities of St. Andrews, Edinburgh, and Oxford subsequently conferred upon him the honorary title of Doctor of Laws.
We must pass more briefly over Franklin's political career. In 1753 he was appointed Deputy Postmaster of the American colonies. The post-office, which had previously supplied no revenue to the Government, became very productive under his management, and yielded three times as much as the post-office in Ireland. Nor was this the only service he rendered to the Government. At the time of Braddock's unfortunate expedition against the French and Indians, he provided conveyances for the troops and stores at his own risk; he took a leading part in obtaining a militia bill, and he proposed a plan for the union of the several colonies in a common system of defence against the Indians. These measures greatly increased his influence and popularity.
Pennsylvania was at this period a proprietary government, and the proprietary body claimed exemption from taxation. In consequence of the disputes to which these claims gave rise, he was sent to England by the General Assembly, as agent for the provinces. He performed his duties with such zeal and ability, that he was appointed agent for the provinces of Massachusetts, Georgia, and Maryland; and, on his return to America in 1762, received not only the thanks of the House of Assembly, but a grant of #5,000. Previous to his return he made a short visit to the continent, and was everywhere received with great honor, especially at the court of Louis XV.
In the year 1764, the American colonies, alarmed at the system of taxation with which they were menaced by the British, resolved that Franklin should be sent to England, no longer as an agent, but as the general representative of the States. In this character he arrived in London about forty years after his first appearance in that city as a distressed mechanic. His own mind was strongly impressed by the contrast; he went to the printing-office where he had worked, introduced himself to the men employed there, and joined in a little festival in honor of printing. He officially presented to Mr. Grenville a petition against the Stamp Act, but finding that the minister was not deterred from his purpose, he zealously exerted himself to organize an opposition to the measure. When it was proposed to repeal the bill in the following year, Franklin was examined before the House of Commons; the effect of his evidence was decisive, and the Stamp Act was repealed.
The quarrel with the colonies, however, grew more and more bitter; and while Franklin's words were always of peace, he championed the American cause with power and dignity. Attempts were made to win him over to the side of the Government, by offers of high honors and liberal emoluments; but threats and promises were alike unavailing to divert him from his course. He lingered in England, hoping that some turn in public affairs would avert the fatal necessity of war; but when the petition of the American Congress was rejected, and Lord Chatham's plan of reconciliation outvoted, he resolved to return home and share the fortunes of his countrymen. His departure was hastened by the intelligence that the ministers intended to arrest him on a charge of fomenting rebellion in the colonies; he narrowly escaped this danger, and on landing in America, he was elected a member of Congress.
Soon after the declaration of independence was issued, Dr. Franklin was sent as ambassador to France, to solicit aid for the infant republic. On his first arrival, in 1776, he was not officially received; but when the intelligence of the English losses had given courage to the French court, negotiations were formally commenced, and on February 7, 1778, he had the honor of signing the first treaty between the United States and a foreign power. He remained at the French court as ambassador until the end of the war, when, as an American plenipotentiary, he signed the treaty of Paris, by which Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. At the close of the negotiations (November, 1782), he was anxious to be recalled; but his diplomatic services were too highly valued to be spared, and he remained at Paris three years longer, during which period he negotiated treaties with Sweden and with Prussia. His residence in France was cheered by the enthusiasm with which he was regarded by all classes, particularly persons of literature and science; his departure from that city was lamented as a general loss to society.
Honors of every kind awaited him on his return to his native land; he was appointed President of the State of Pennsylvania, and a member of the Federal Convention, by which the American Constitution was framed. But old age, and a painful disease, to which he had been long subject, compelled him to retire into the bosom of his family. Notwithstanding his sufferings, he preserved his affections and faculties unimpaired to the last, and died tranquilly, April 17, 1790. The American Congress, and the National Assembly of France, both went into mourning on receiving the intelligence of his death.
Franklin's powers were useful rather than brilliant; his philosophical discoveries were the result of patience and perseverance; with a warmer imagination he would probably have been misled by speculative theory, like so many of his contemporaries. His industry and his temperance were the sources of his early success, and they nurtured in him that spirit of independence which was the leading characteristic of his private and public career.