Benjamin Franklin


Benjamin Franklin was admired on two continents for his scientific accomplishments, wit, unpretentious manners, diplomatic ability, and kindly personality. He employed these personal qualities in the service of his country as an able diplomat and as the universally respected advocate of compromise in the critical moments of the early republic.

CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Franklin was the tenth son of a Massachusetts soap and candle maker. Largely self-taught, Franklin displayed an intellectual ability, readily apparent to those around him, that would earn him an international reputation in various fields. He began his career as a printer, going on to found the New England Courant, the fourth newspaper in the colonies. Following a serious argument with his brother in 1723, Franklin left Boston to start life anew in Philadelphia. There he quickly became an honored citizen and began his lifelong participation in political affairs. He served in Pennsylvania's colonial legislature (1736-64), both as delegate and elected clerk of the general assembly. In 1737 he also became postmaster of Philadelphia. He rose to prominence throughout the colonies when he became deputy postmaster general of British North America (1753-74).

During this period Franklin found time to publish the Pennsylvania Gazette and to write and publish Poor Richard's Almanac, which enhanced his reputation as a philosopher, scientist, and inventor. His publishing ventures brought financial independence, allowing him to become a philanthropist and to indulge his love for scientific investigation. As a philanthropist, he supported and encouraged such varied programs as the establishment of public schools and libraries and the installation of street lighting. He was elected a member of the Royal Society in recognition of his scientific achievements, especially for his study of electricity. His scientific renown earned him honorary degrees from Yale and Harvard in 1753 and from William and Mary in 1756.

In 1754 Franklin was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Albany Congress, called to unite the colonies during the French and Indian War. At the congress, Franklin advanced his Albany Plan of Union, one of the first proposals to bring the colonies together under some form of central authority. The plan was adopted by the congress, but rejected by the colonial legislatures because they believed it encroached upon their powers.

Franklin then entered what was to be a pivotal period in his life. He went to London as an agent representing the interests of Pennsylvania, and then later as an agent for Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts (1757-62 and 1764-75). Beginning as a contented Englishman who favored Royal rule and distrusted popular movements, he emerged as a leading spokesman for American rights. When the Stamp Act crisis arose, he demonstrated his new political sentiments by speaking out against the Act. He gradually adopted the theory that Parliament did not have the power to tax or to legislate in the colonies, and that the colonies and Great Britain were united "as England and Scotland were before the Union, by having one common Sovereign, the King."

Returning to America, he advanced to the forefront of the Patriot cause as a member of the Continental Congress (1775-76). He served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. (It has been said that he was not chosen to draft the document for fear that he might conceal a joke in it.) He was the eldest signer of the Declaration of Independence, and when he finished signing the document, he joked, "Gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we shall most assuredly all hang separately." Ironically, while Franklin was working on the Declaration, his son William, a militant Loyalist and the last Royal governor of New Jersey, was being incarcerated in Connecticut. Franklin left the Continental Congress to become president of Pennsylvania's constitutional convention in 1776.

The greatest achievement of Franklin's public career occurred during his tenure as one of the fledgling nation's ambassadors. His work as minister to France (1776-85) was critical to the achievement of the nation's first foreign alliance, so essential to the success of the Revolutionary War effort. The respected and admired old statesman obtained loans, negotiated treaties of commerce and alliance, and, along with John Jay and John Adams, negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the War for Independence. Once independence was achieved, Franklin came home to Pennsylvania to serve as the president of the Supreme Executive Council of Philadelphia (1785-88).

CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. At the age of 81, Franklin was the senior statesman of the Constitutional Convention, but his advanced years only served to enhance his importance in the Convention, giving him a singular role to play. His few formal discourses were written out and read, since he was no orator, and none of his major ideas, including a single-chambered legislature, an executive board rather than a single President, and service in public office without pay, was ever adopted. Yet he remained among the most influential delegates because of his unique ability to soothe disputes and encourage compromise through his prestige, humor, and powers of diplomacy. When a deadlock developed over the question of how the states should be represented in Congress, Franklin rephrased the problem in simple yet direct terms: "If a property representation takes place, the small states contend their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes takes place, the large states say their money will be in danger. When a broad table is to be made, and the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint." In the end, Franklin was an important member of the committee that adjusted the matter of representation, thus working out the "good joint" that was to be the most important prerequisite to the adoption of the Constitution. When the time came to sign the document, Franklin encouraged his fellow delegates to take this spirit of compromise to its conclusion by lending the Constitution their unanimous support, despite the fact that he himself did not approve of every aspect of the new plan of government. He concluded: "On the whole . . . I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention . . . would with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to the instrument."

CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Franklin's last public acts were to sign a memorial to Congress urging the abolition of slavery, a cause with which he had sympathized since the 1730s, and to become the first president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. His funeral in 1790 became a national event attended by some 20,000 people.

BIRTH: 17 January 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts
DEATH: 17 April 1790, in Philadelphia
INTERMENT: Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Return to the Table of Contents