Benjamin Franklin

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Franklin, Benjamin,

1706–90, American statesman, printer, scientist, and writer, b. Boston. The only American of the colonial period to earn a European reputation as a natural philosopher, he is best remembered in the United States as a patriot and diplomat.

Printer and Writer

The son of a tallow chandler and soapmaker, Franklin left school at 10 years of age to help his father. He then was apprenticed to his half-brother James, a printer and publisher of the New England Courant, to which young Ben secretly contributed. After much disagreement he left his brother's employment and went (1723) to Philadelphia to work as a printer. Industry and thrift—qualities he was to praise later—helped him to better himself.

After a sojourn in London (1724–26), he returned and in 1729 acquired an interest in the Pennsylvania Gazette. As owner and editor after 1730, he made the periodical popular. His common sense philosophy and his neatly turned phrases won public attention in the Gazette, in the later General Magazine, and especially in his Poor Richard's Almanack, which he published from 1732 to 1757. Many sayings of Poor Richard, praising prudence, common sense, and honesty, became standard American proverbs.

Franklin also interested himself in selling books, established a circulating library, organized a debating club that developed into the American Philosophical Society, helped to establish (1751) an academy that eventually became the Univ. of Pennsylvania, and brought about civic reforms. His writings are still widely known today, especially his autobiography (covering only his early years), which is generally considered one of the finest autobiographies in any language and has appeared in innumerable editions.


Franklin had steadily extended his own knowledge by study of foreign languages, philosophy, and science. He repeated the experiments of other scientists and showed his usual practical bent by inventing such diverse things as the Franklin stove, bifocal eyeglasses, and a glass harmonica (which he called an armonica; see harmonicaharmonica.
1 The simplest of the musical instruments employing free reeds, known also as the mouth organ or French harp. It was probably invented in 1829 by Friedrich Buschmann of Berlin, who called his instrument the Mundäoline.
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 (2)). The phenomenon of electricity interested him deeply, and in 1748 he turned his printing business over to his foreman, intending to devote his life to science. His experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm, which showed that lightning is an electrical discharge (but which he may not have personally performed), and his invention of the lightning rod were among a series of investigations that won him recognition from the leading scientists in England and on the Continent.


Diplomat from Pennsylvania

Franklin held local public offices and served long (1753–74) as deputy postmaster general of the colonies. As such he reorganized the postal system, making it both efficient and profitable. His status as a public figure grew steadily. A Pennsylvania delegate to the Albany CongressAlbany Congress,
1754, meeting at Albany, N.Y., of commissioners representing seven British colonies in North America to treat with the Iroquois, chiefly because war with France impended.
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 (1754), he proposed there a plan of union for the colonies, which was accepted by the delegates but later rejected by both the provincial assemblies and the British government. He worked for the British cause in the French and Indian War, especially by providing transportation for the ill-fated expedition led by Edward Braddock against Fort Duquesne. Franklin was a leader of the popular party in Pennsylvania against the Penn family, who were the proprietors, and in 1757 he was sent to England to present the case against the Penns. He won (1760) for the colony the right to tax the Penn estates but advised moderation in applying the right.

He returned to America for two years (1762–64) but was in England when the Stamp Act caused a furor. Again he showed prudent moderation; he protested the act but asked the colonists to obey the law, thus losing some popularity in the colonies until he stoutly defended American rights at the time of the debates on repeal of the act. He was made agent for Georgia (1768), New Jersey (1769), and Massachusetts (1770) and seriously considered making his home in England, where his scientific attainments, his brilliant mind, and his social gifts of wit and urbanity had gained him a high place.

Revolutionary Leader

As trouble between the British government and the colonies grew with the approach of the American Revolution, Franklin's deep love for his native land and his devotion to individual freedom brought (1775) him back to America. There, while his illegitimate son, William FranklinFranklin, William,
c.1730–1813, last royal governor of New Jersey; illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin. He grew up in Philadelphia, served in King George's War, and was (1754–56) comptroller of the general post office in Philadelphia.
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, was becoming a leader of the Loyalists, Benjamin Franklin became one of the greatest statesmen of the American Revolution and of the newborn nation. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, was appointed postmaster general, and was sent to Canada with Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll of Carrollton to persuade the people of Canada to join the patriot cause. He was appointed (1776) to the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, which he signed.

Late in 1776 he sailed to France to join Arthur LeeLee, Arthur,
1740–92, American Revolutionary diplomat, b. Westmoreland co., Va.; brother of Francis L. Lee, Richard H. Lee, and William Lee. Educated in Great Britain, he returned to Virginia to practice medicine, but soon decided to study law and went (1768) to London.
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 and Silas DeaneDeane, Silas,
1737–89, political leader and diplomat in the American Revolution, b. Groton, Conn. A lawyer and merchant at Wethersfield, Conn., he was elected (1772) to the state assembly and became a leader in the revolutionary cause.
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 in their diplomatic efforts for the new republic. Franklin, with a high reputation in France well supported by his winning presence, did much to gain French recognition of the new republic in 1778. Franklin helped to direct U.S. naval operations and was a successful agent for the United States in Europe—the sole one after suspicions and quarrels caused Congress to annul the powers of the other American commissioners.

He was chosen (1781) as one of the American diplomats to negotiate peace with Great Britain and laid the groundwork for the treaty before John JayJay, John,
1745–1829, American statesman, 1st chief justice of the United States, b. New York City, grad. King's College (now Columbia Univ.), 1764. He was admitted (1768) to the bar and for a time was a partner of Robert R. Livingston.
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 and John AdamsAdams, John,
1735–1826, 2d President of the United States (1797–1801), b. Quincy (then in Braintree), Mass., grad. Harvard, 1755. John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, founded one of the most distinguished families of the United States; their son, John Quincy
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 arrived. British naval victory in the West Indies made the final treaty less advantageous to the United States than Franklin's original draft. The Treaty of Paris was, in contradiction of the orders of Congress, concluded in 1783 without the concurrence of France, because Jay and Adams distrusted the French.

Constitutional Convention Delegate

Franklin returned in 1785 to the United States and was made president of the Pennsylvania executive council. The last great service rendered to his country by this "wisest American," as he is sometimes called, was his part in the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although his proposals for a single-chamber congress and a weak executive council were rejected, he helped to direct the compromise that brought the Constitution of the United States into being. Though not completely satisfied with the finished product, he worked earnestly for its ratification.


See the definitive edition of Franklin's papers, ed. by L. W. Labaree et al. (40 vol., 1959–). See biographies by J. Parton (1864, repr. 1971), S. G. Fisher (1899), P. L. Ford (1899, repr. 1972), B. Faÿ (1933, repr. 1969), C. Van Doren (1938, repr. 1973), P. W. Conner (1965), A. O. Aldridge (1965), T. J. Fleming (1971), H. W. Brands (2000), E. S. Morgan (2002), W. Isaacson (2003), and J. A. L. Lemay (2 vol., 2005–); C.-A. Lopez, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (1966); C.-A. Lopez and E. W. Herbert, The Private Franklin (1975); I. B. Cohen, Benjamin Franklin's Science (1990); T. Tucker, Bolt of Fate (2003); G. S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2004); S. Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America (2005); P. Dray, Stealing God's Thunder (2005); J. Weinberger, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought (2005).

Franklin, Benjamin


Born Jan. 17, 1706, in Boston; died Apr. 17, 1790, in Philadelphia. American educator, statesman, and scientist.

The son of a craftsman of modest means, Franklin went to work at the age of ten, at first in his father’s shop and later in his older brother’s printing shop. In 1723 he moved to Philadelphia; the following year he went to London and remained there until 1726. In 1727 he founded his own printing business in Philadelphia. Devoting his free time to self-education, Franklin became one of the most educated men of his day. He published The Pennsylvania Gazette from 1729 to 1748 and Poor Richard’s Almanac from 1732 to 1758. In Philadelphia, Franklin founded the first circulating library in the English colonies (1731), the American Philosophical Society (1743), and the Academy for the Education of Youth (1751), which was the forerunner of the University of Pennsylvania. From 1737 to 1753 he was deputy postmaster of Pennsylvania, and from 1753 to 1774 deputy postmaster general for all the North American colonies. Franklin was one of the initiators of the first congress of colonial representatives (the Albany Congress, 1754), to which he proposed a plan for uniting the colonies. From 1757 to 1775 (except for 1762–65), he represented the colonies in London.

Shortly after the American Revolution began, Franklin returned to his homeland. He was chosen a member of the Second Continental Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. From 1776 to 1785, Franklin was an envoy in Paris, where he vigorously promoted the international interests of the USA. He was instrumental in concluding a treaty of alliance with France (1778) and the Peace Treaty of Versailles (1783), whereby Great Britain recognized the independence of the USA. In 1785, Franklin was chosen president of the executive council of Pennsylvania, and in 1787 he was a member of the Constitutional Convention that drew up the US Constitution.

The foundation of Franklin’s political views was the belief in man’s natural and inalienable right to life, liberty, and property. Believing that the consent of the people is the foundation of the state, he sanctioned the people’s right to rise up when the government violates this understanding. Franklin originally favored the independence of the colonies within the British Empire, but after the revolutionary movement developed, he favored the separation of the colonies from the mother country and the declaration of political independence. At the time of writing the Constitution, Franklin upheld the principle of the federation of all the states while retaining a broad range of states’ rights; he opposed an expanded executive power and favored general suffrage not restricted by property qualification. Franklin was strongly opposed to slavery.

In the area of political economy, Franklin was opposed to the prevailing mercantilist theory and advocated the economic view of the Physiocrats. A half century before A. Smith, he formulated the labor theory of value, becoming, in the words of K. Marx, “one of the first economists who . . . discerned the true nature of value” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 60, footnote).

In his philosophical views, Franklin was a deist. He contrasted the idea of natural religion, in which the role of god is reduced to the act of creating the world, to orthodox religious dogma; he regarded motion as an immanent property of matter. Franklin’s ethical views were based on the idea of the natural, utilitarian character of morality, which should be free from religious sanction.

As a scientist, Franklin’s attention was drawn to the most diverse phenomena of nature. He collected extensive data on gale winds (northeasters) and proposed a theory to explain their origin. Franklin was one of the first to study the velocity, dimensions, and course of the Gulf Stream, which he named. However, Franklin’s major field of study was physics. His letters to P. Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, who published them at his own expense, were of great help in disseminating throughout Europe Franklin’s ideas about various aspects of physics. Franklin measured the heat conductivity of various materials, studied the phenomena of liquid cooling during evaporation, and researched the movement of sound in water and air.

Franklin’s work with electricity from 1747 to 1753 was his most important scientific achievement. Franklin explained the principle of operation of the Leyden jar, establishing the decisive role played by the dielectric that separates the conducting plates. He introduced the accepted designation of electrically charged states as + (positive) and – (negative) and developed the unitary theory (“single fluid” theory) of electrical phenomena, which is based on an assumption of the existence of a single electrical substance, a deficiency or surplus of which determines the charge sign of a body. Franklin performed a great service in establishing the identity of atmospheric and static electricity and proving the electrical nature of lightning. After discovering that metal points connected with the ground reduce the electrical charges from charged bodies even without contact with them, Franklin proposed an efficient method of protection from lightning—the lightning rod.

Franklin was also responsible for a number of other technical inventions, including lamps for street lights, the economical Franklin stove, a special musical instrument, Franklin’s electrical machine, which revolves under the influence of electrostatic forces, and the use of an electric spark to ignite powder.

Franklin’s scientific achievements brought him widespread international recognition. He was elected an honorary member of a number of foreign academies and societies, including the Russian Academy of Sciences (1789).


The Writings, vols. 1–10. New York, 1905–07.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proizv. Moscow, 1956.
In Amerikanskie prosvetiteli, vol. 1. Moscow, 1968.
Opyty i nabliudeniia nad elektrichestvom. Moscow, 1956. (Translated from English.)


Radovskii, M. I. B. Franklin. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Gol’dberg, N. M. Svobodomyslie i ateizm v SShA (XVII–XIX vv.). Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Van Doren, C. Benjamin Franklin. New York, 1938.
Crane, V. W. Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People. Boston, 1954.

Franklin, Benjamin

(1706–1790) American statesman; author of famous autobiography. [Am. Lit.: NCE, 1000]

Franklin, Benjamin

(1706–1790) used a simple kite to identify lightning as electricity. [Science: NCE, 1000]

Franklin, Benjamin

(1706–1790) gave us lightning rod, bifocals, efficient stove, etc. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 836]

Franklin, Benjamin

(1706–1790) flew kite in thunderstorm to prove electricity existed in lightning. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1000]

Franklin, Benjamin

(1706–1790) American statesman, inventor, printer, author, scientist. [Am. Hist.: Benét, 366]

Franklin, Benjamin

(1706–90) printer, writer, scientist, statesman; born in Boston, Mass. The 15th child in his family, he went to work at age ten in his father's chandlery, then in a brother's printing house. Ambitious and intent on self-improvement, he became a skilled printer while reading widely and developing a writing style. In 1723, at age 17, he left for Philadelphia; starting with no capital, he advanced rapidly and, after a brief stint as a printer in London, had by 1730 become sole owner of a business that included the Pennsylvania Gazette. In 1732 he began compiling and publishing the annual Poor Richard's Almanac; with its pithy sayings espousing industry, frugality, and other homely virtues, it attracted a large readership and made Franklin's name a household word. Active in the community, he founded a discussion group called the Junta (1727) that evolved into the American Philosophical Association and helped establish the first U.S. lending library (1731), as well as an academy (1751) that evolved into the University of Pennsylvania. Appointed in 1736 as a clerk in the Pennsylvania Assembly, he held a seat from 1751 to 1764. He served as a city deputy postmaster (1737–53); subsequently, as joint deputy postmaster for the colonies (1753–74), he improved postal efficiency and made the postal service solvent. In 1748, his business having expanded and flourished, Franklin retired, turning it over to his foreman in return for a regular stipend, thus gaining more time for scientific pursuits. In the early 1740s he had developed the fuel-efficient Franklin open stove. Later he conducted a series of experiments, described in his Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751–53), which brought him international recognition as a scientist. In 1752 he conducted his famous kite experiment, demonstrating that lightning is an electrical discharge, and he announced his invention of the lightning rod. A later invention for which Franklin is well-known was the bifocal lens (1760). In 1754, Franklin represented Pennsylvania at the Albany Congress, called in response to the French and Indian Wars. From 1757 to 1762 and from 1764 to 1775, he pursued diplomatic activities in England, obtaining permission for Pennsylvania to tax the estates of its proprietors, securing repeal of the Stamp Act, and representing the interests of several colonies. He associated with eminent Britons and wrote political satires and pamphlets on public affairs. In 1776 he went to France to help negotiate treaties of commerce and alliance, signed in 1778. Lionized there, he remained as plenipotentiary, won financial aid for the American Revolution, and then helped negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain, signed in Paris in 1783. Returning to the U.S.A. in 1785, he was a conciliating presence at the Constitutional Convention (1787). In his last years he corresponded widely, received many visitors, and invented a device for lifting books from high shelves. His posthumously published Autobiography, written for his son William Franklin, became a classic.