Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706. He was the
tenth son of soap maker, Josiah Franklin. Benjamin’s mother was Abiah
Folger, the second wife of Josiah. In all, Josiah would father 17
Josiah intended for Benjamin to enter into the clergy. However, Josiah
could only afford to send his son to school for one year and clergymen
needed years of schooling. But, as young Benjamin loved to read he had
him apprenticed to his brother James, who was a printer. After helping
James compose pamphlets and set type which was grueling work,
12-year-old Benjamin would sell their products in the streets.
When Benjamin was 15 his brother started The New England Courant the
first “newspaper” in Boston. Though there were two papers in the city
before James’s Courant, they only reprinted news from abroad. James’s
paper carried articles, opinion pieces written by James’s friends,
advertisements, and news of ship schedules.
Benjamin wanted to write for the paper too, but he knew that James would
never let him. After all, Benjamin was just a lowly apprentice. So Ben
began writing letters at night and signing them with the name of a
fictional widow, Silence Dogood. Dogood was filled with advice and very
critical of the world around her, particularly concerning the issue of
how women were treated. Ben would sneak the letters under the print shop
door at night so no one knew who was writing the pieces. They were a
smash hit, and everyone wanted to know who was the real “Silence
After 16 letters, Ben confessed that he had been writing the letters all
along. While James’s friends thought Ben was quite precocious and funny,
James scolded his brother and was very jealous of the attention paid to
Before long the Franklins found themselves at odds with Boston’s
powerful Puritan preachers, the Mathers. Smallpox was a deadly disease
in those times, and the Mathers supported inoculation; the Franklins’
believed inoculation only made people sicker. And while most Bostonians
agreed with the Franklins, they did not like the way James made fun of
the clergy, during the debate. Ultimately, James was thrown in jail for
his views, and Benjamin was left to run the paper for several issues.
Upon release from jail, James was not grateful to Ben for keeping the
paper going. Instead he kept harassing his younger brother and
administering beatings from time to time. Ben could not take it and
decided to run away in 1723.
Escape to Philadelphia
Running away was illegal. In early America, people all had to have a
place in society and runaways did not fit in anywhere. Regardless Ben
took a boat to New York where he hoped to find work as a printer. He
didn’t, and walked across New Jersey, finally arriving in Philadelphia
via a boat ride. After debarking, he used the last of his money to buy
some rolls. He was wet, disheveled, and messy when his future wife,
Deborah Read, saw him on that day, October, 6, 1723. She thought him
odd-looking, never dreaming that seven years later they would be
Franklin found work as an apprentice printer. He did so well that the
governor of Pennsylvania promised to set him up in business for himself
if young Franklin would just go to London to buy fonts and printing
equipment. Franklin did go to London, but the governor reneged on his
promise and Benjamin was forced to spend several months in England doing
Benjamin had been living with the Read family before he left for London.
Deborah Read, the very same girl who had seen young Benjamin arrive in
Philadelphia, started talking marriage, with the young printer. But Ben
did not think he was ready. While he was gone, she married another man.
Upon returning to Philadelphia, Franklin tried his hand at helping to
run a shop, but soon went back to being a printer’s helper. Franklin was
a better printer than the man he was working for, so he borrowed some
money and set himself up in the printing business. Franklin seemed to
work all the time, and the citizens of Philadelphia began to notice the
diligent young businessman. Soon he began getting the contract to do
government jobs and started thriving in business.
In 1728, Benjamin fathered a child named William. The mother of William
is not known. However, in 1730 Benjamin married his childhood
sweetheart, Deborah Read. Deborah’s husband had run off, and now she was
able to marry.
In addition to running a print shop, the Franklins also ran their own
store at this time, with Deborah selling everything from soap to fabric.
Ben also ran a book store. They were quite enterprising.
The Pennsylvania Gazette
In 1729, Benjamin Franklin bought a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Franklin not only printed the paper, but often contributed pieces to the
paper under aliases. His newspaper soon became the most successful in
the colonies. This newspaper, among other firsts, would print the first
political cartoon, authored by Ben himself.
During the 1720s and 1730s, the side of Franklin devoted to public good
started to show itself. He organized the Junto, a young working-man’s
group dedicated to self- and-civic improvement. He joined the Masons. He
was a very busy man socially.
Poor Richard’s Almanack
But Franklin thrived on work. In 1733 he started publishing Poor
Richard’s Almanack. Almanacs of the era were printed annually, and
contained things like weather reports, recipes, predictions and
homilies. Franklin published his almanac under the guise of a man named
Richard Saunders, a poor man who needed money to take care of his
carping wife. What distinguished Franklin’s almanac were his witty
aphorisms and lively writing. Many of the famous phrases associated with
Franklin, such as, “A penny saved is a penny earned” come from Poor
Franklin continued his civic contributions during the 1730s and 1740s.
He helped launch projects to pave, clean and light Philadelphia’s
streets. He started agitating for environmental clean up. Among the
chief accomplishments of Franklin in this era was helping to launch the
Library Company in 1731. During this time books were scarce and
expensive. Franklin recognized that by pooling together resources,
members could afford to buy books from England. Thus was born the
nation’s first subscription library. In 1743, he helped to launch the
American Philosophical Society, the first learned society in America.
Recognizing that the city needed better help in treating the sick,
Franklin brought together a group who formed the Pennsylvania Hospital
in 1751. The Library Company, Philosophical Society, and Pennsylvania
Hospital are all in existence today.
Fires were very dangerous threat to Philadelphians, so Franklin set
about trying to remedy the situation. In 1736, he organized
Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company, the first in the city. His famous
saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” was actually
Those who suffered fire damage to their homes often suffered
irreversible economic loss. So, in 1752, Franklin helped to found the
Philadelphia Contribution for Insurance Against Loss by Fire. Those with
insurance policies were not wiped out financially. The Contributionship
is still in business today.
Franklin’s printing business was thriving in this 1730s and 1740s. He
also started setting up franchise printing partnerships in other cities.
By 1749 he retired from business and started concentrating on science,
experiments, and inventions. This was nothing new to Franklin. In 1743,
he had already invented a heat-efficient stove — called the Franklin
stove — to help warm houses efficiently. As the stove was invented to
help improve society, he refused to take out a patent.
Among Franklin’s other inventions are swim fins, the glass armonica (a
musical instrument) and bifocals.
In the early 1750’s he turned to the study of electricity. His
observations, including his kite experiment which verified the nature of
electricity and lightning brought Franklin international fame.
The Political Scene
Politics became more of an active interest for Franklin in the 1750s. In
1757, he went to England to represent Pennsylvania in its fight with the
descendants of the Penn family over who should represent the Colony. He
remained in England to 1775, as a Colonial representative not only of
Pennsylvania, but of Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts as well.
Early in his time abroad, Franklin considered himself a loyal
Englishman. England had many of the amenities that America lacked. The
country also had fine thinkers, theater, witty conversation — things in
short supply in America. He kept asking Deborah to come visit him in
England. He had thoughts of staying there permanently, but she was
afraid of traveling by ship.
In 1765, Franklin was caught by surprise by America’s overwhelming
opposition to the Stamp Act. His testimony before Parliament helped
persuade the members to repeal the law. He started wondering if America
should break free of England. Franklin, though he had many friends in
England, was growing sick of the corruption he saw all around him in
politics and royal circles. Franklin, who had proposed a plan for united
colonies in 1754, now would earnestly start working toward that goal.
Franklin’s big break with England occurred in the “Hutchinson Affair.”
Thomas Hutchinson was an English-appointed governor of Massachusetts.
Although he pretended to take the side of the people of Massachusetts in
their complaints against England, he was actually still working for the
King. Franklin got a hold of some letters in which Hutchinson called for
“an abridgment of what are called English Liberties” in America. He sent
the letters to America where much of the population was outraged. After
leaking the letters Franklin was called to Whitehall, the English
Foreign Ministry, where he was condemned in public.
A New Nation
Franklin came home.
He started working actively for Independence. He naturally thought his
son William, now the Royal governor of New Jersey, would agree with his
views. William did not. William remained a Loyal Englishman. This caused
a rift between father and son which was never healed.
Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress and worked on a
committee of five that helped to draft the Declaration of Independence.
Though much of the writing is Thomas Jefferson’s, much of the
contribution is Franklin’s. In 1776 Franklin signed the Declaration, and
afterward sailed to France as an ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI.
The French loved Franklin. He was the man who had tamed lightning, the
humble American who dressed like a backwoodsman but was a match for any
wit in the world. He spoke French, though stutteringly. He was a
favorite of the ladies. Several years earlier his wife Deborah had died,
and Benjamin was now a notorious flirt.
In part via Franklin’s popularity, the government of France signed a
Treaty of Alliance with the Americans in 1778. Franklin also helped
secure loans and persuade the French they were doing the right thing.
Franklin was on hand to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783, after the
Americans had won the Revolution.
uncil of Pennsylvania. He served as a delegate to the Constitutional
Convention and signed the Constitution. One of his last public acts was
writing an anti-slavery treatise in 1789.
Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84. 20,000 people attended
the funeral of the man who was called, “the harmonious human multitude.”
His electric personality, however, still lights the world.
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