Benjamin Franklin was America’s scientist, inventor, politician, philanthropist and business man. He is best known as one of our Founding Fathers and the only one who signed all three documents that freed America from Britain: The Declaration of Independence. The American Constitution and The Treaty of Paris. Franklin was born in a middle class family on January 17, 1706 in the City of Boston, he was the 15th of 17 children and the youngest son. With only 2 years of formal education he rose to the highest level of society. However he was rooted in reality and always acknowledging his background and, as in the opening of his will and testament, referring himself as “B.F. of Philadelphia, Printer”. He had the talent of being at ease with any company, from tradesmen to scholars, merchants and the European elite.
His father, Josiah Franklin, was a true Puritan and immigrated to America from England in 1682. Soon afterward, he married Miss Abiah Folger, a native of Boston. In all, seventeen children were born to Josiah. Being neither a mechanic nor farmer, Josiah Franklin turned his attention to the business of a soap-boiler and tallow-chandler, which was his occupation for life.
Benjamin Franklin also spoke highly of Christianity while making clear that he did not always agree with some of the doctrines of particular denominations (though he rarely specified which ones). He encouraged his daughter, “Be a good girl, and don’t forget your Catechise. Go constantly to meeting – or church … and live like a Christian.”Because he was not part of a particular denomination, some doubted whether he was a Christian or even if he believed in God. Franklin was quick to correct them:
I am so far from thinking that God is not to be worshipped, that I have composed and wrote a whole book of devotions for my own use; and I imagine there are few if any in the world so weak as to imagine that the little good we can do here can merit so vast a reward hereafter. There are some things in your New England doctrine and worship, which I do not agree with; but I do not therefore condemn them, or desire to shake your belief or practice of them.
The young Franklin summed up his religious beliefs in nearly the exact same way he did as an old man many years later:
That there is one God, Father of the Universe. That he is infinitely good, powerful, and wise. That he is omnipresent. That he ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving both in public and private. That he loves such of his creatures as love and do good to others: and will reward them either in this world or hereafter. That men’s minds do not die with their bodies, but are made more happy or miserable after this life according to their actions. That virtuous men ought to league together to strengthen the interest of virtue in the world: and so strengthen themselves in virtue. That knowledge and learning is to be cultivated and ignorance dissipated. That none but the virtuous are wise. That man’s perfection is in virtue.
In his “Autobiography,” he not only affirmed his belief in a non-deistic God, but in the essential connection between religion and morality, as well as his distaste for divisive religion:
I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity, that he made the world and governed it by his Providence, that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man, that our souls are immortal, and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion, and being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respect them all, though with different degrees of respect as I found them more or less mixed with other articles which without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, served principally to divide us and make unfriendly to one another.
He once lamented, “How many observe Christ’s birthday! How few His precepts! O tis easier to keep holidays than commandments!” Like Adams and Jefferson, Franklin had no use for religion that only argued about doctrines and carried out rituals but didn’t produce some good in the world, which he believed was the essential point of Christ’s message:
The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world. I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it: I mean real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday keeping, sermon reading or hearing, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers filled with flatteries and compliments despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity. The worship of God is a duty, the hearing and reading of sermons may be useful; but if men rest in hearing and praying, as too many do, it is as if a tree should value itself on being watered and putting forth leaves, though it never produced any fruit.
Franklin believed that Jesus had more regard “for the heretical but charitable Samaritan” than for “the uncharitable though orthodox priest and sanctified Levite” (see Luke 10:25–37), and “thought much less of these outward appearances and professions than many of his modern disciples. He preferred the doers of the Word to the mere hearers” (see James 1:22). In response to some of his family members who were concerned about the state of his soul, Franklin responded not by appealing to secular arguments, but like many of the other Founders, to the Bible, which he called “that excellent book.” “I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue; and the Scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined for what we thought, but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said Lord! Lord! but that we did good to our fellow creatures. See Matthew 25.”
Rather than feeling any sense of disgust for Christianity, Franklin was in fact very much appreciative of Christianity and its influence in society. His writings throughout his life were, like the rest of the Founders’, full of biblical allusions, appeals to the example of Christ, and citations of the Bible in support of morality and virtue. For example, in the 1730s he wrote an article in the local newspaper encouraging people to visit the sick during a plague in Philadelphia:
The great Author of our Faith, whose life should be the constant object of our imitation, as far as it is not inimitable, always showed the greatest compassion and regard for the sick. … This branch of Christian charity seems essential to the true spirit of Christianity, and it should be extended to all in general, whether deserving or undeserving, as far as our power reaches. … [we] have opportunity enough of exercising that humane and Christian virtue which teaches a tender regard for the afflicted.
At the end of his life, when asked by the president of Yale what his beliefs about Jesus and Christianity in general were, Franklin summed them up this way:
As to Jesus of Nazareth … I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see. But I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity … I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed … All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my goodwill in assisting them with subscriptions for building their new places of worship. And, as I have never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.
In other words, Franklin, like several of the most prominent Founders, could not easily be put into a box – he was both an enthusiastic admirer of Jesus and a devout supporter of religion, and Christianity in general (with money and time, not just words). At the same time, he was not particularly concerned about what he saw as abstract Christian doctrines that had little effect on the practice of virtue in society, and about which he harbored doubts as to their accurate transmission through the ages.
Becomes a Printer
Josiah and Abiah Franklin wished Benjamin to become a minister of the gospel, and they began to educate him with that goal in mind, but their meager resources could not adequately supply for his preparation for the ministry, so their goal was abandoned. He attended the Boston Latin School for a few years, and then was taken into the service of his father when Ben was only ten. The business did not suit the boy, and he was entered, on probation, with a cutler. The expense for his admission to apprenticeship was too high and was forced to abandon this purpose as well. At that time, apprentices did not receive any pay for their services, but were obligated to pay a bonus, or fee, for the privilege of becoming an apprentice.
At the age of twelve, he became an apprentice to his older brother, James, who taught Ben the printing trade. In this trade, he continued until he became very proficient. All the while, he was remarkably studious, seldom spending an hour away from his books in idle amusement. When the relationship with his brother began to deteriorate, he broke the expectations of his apprenticeship, decided to run away, and in doing so became a fugitive.
He boarded a ship in the Boston harbor bound for New York. In that city, he was unable to find employment and setout on foot to Philadelphia, where he arrived on a Sunday morning. It is said that his first appearance in Philadelphia attracted considerable attention in the streets. With his extra clothing in his pockets and a loaf of bread under each arm, he wandered about Philadelphia until he came to a Quaker meetinghouse. Entering, he sat down, fell asleep, and slept soundly until morning worship had ended. After being awakened by one of the members of the congregation, he then sought another place of rest. He was then only seventeen, friendless and alone, with only a single dollar in his pocket. He soon found employment setting type in one of the two printing establishments then in Philadelphia. Because of his diligence and studious habits, he was quickly noticed and esteemed by his employers.
Travels to England
In a letter to a friend in New Castle, Delaware, Franklin graphically described his journey from Boston to Philadelphia. A copy of this letter made its way into the hands of the Governor of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith, who invited young Benjamin to his mansion. A friendship arose from the first meeting, and the Governor encouraged Ben to establish his own business and offered his support. The business plan was rather extensive, and involved making a trip to England for materials. Franklin went to London, but found the promised support of Sir William Keith of little or no support. Forced to provide for himself, Ben obtained employment as a journeyman printer in one of the important businesses there. His industry, studious spirit, punctuality, and frugality, soon won him a number of friends. To his detriment, he came under the influence of some irreligious infidels while he was in London, among whom was Lord Mandeville. Under their influence, his mind was tainted with deism, which he advocated in a pamphlet that he published. Later in life, he regretted having written it and candidly condemned it. Though he lamented the content of this pamphlet, the influence of these infidels was to forever change his views concerning Jesus Christ.
Return to America
With what he had saved from his earnings, Franklin resolved to take a trip to the Continent, but just before he departed, he received an offer from a merchant friend who was about to sail for America to accompany him as a clerk. He accepted it and embarked for home in July 1726.
At his new position at Philadelphia, Franklin enjoyed the prospect of prosperity and wealth, but heavy clouds of disappointment soon obscured his bright prospects. His friend died, and once more Franklin became a journeyman printer with his former employer. In a short time he formed a partnership with another printer, and began business in Philadelphia, where his character, habits, and talents, soon gained him warm friends, public confidence, and a successful business.
Before traveling to England, he had sought to marry Deborah Read, the daughter of the family in whose house he was boarding, but Deborah’s mother did not think it wise. While Franklin was away in England, Deborah married John Rogers, who shortly after their marriage avoided his debts and prosecution by fleeing to Barbados with her dowry, leaving Deborah behind. With the fate of Rodger unknown, Deborah was not free to remarry, but upon his return from England, Franklin’s relation to Deborah was renewed and they entered into a common-law marriage on September 1, 1730. It may accurately be stated that because of his own indiscretion, Franklin suffered greatly because of this era of his life. It was not the example of his Puritan father that Franklin followed with respect to the issue of marriage, but the example of the infidels under whose influence he had fallen in London.
While liberals seek to libel Franklin’s life on this subject, they always do so in excess. However, such attacks never need to be legitimate or credible to be accepted by the human heart that prefers treachery to truth. Having passed through this stage of his life, Franklin’s writings reflect a contempt for irreligion and infidelity that had influenced him during his stay in England in his late teens. In his 1754 pamphlet providing information to Europeans about the American colonies titled, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, Franklin wrote,
. . . in America, which must be a comfortable Consideration to Parents. To this may be truly added, that serious Religion, under its various Denominations, is not only tolerated, but respected and practiced. Atheism is unknown there; Infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great Age in that Country, without having their Piety shocked by meeting with either an Atheist or an Infidel. And the Divine Being seems to have manifested his Approbation of the mutual Forbearance and Kindness with which the different Sects treat each other, by the remarkable Prosperity with which He has been pleased to favor the whole Country.
So varied were the public and private labors of this great man, from this period of his life until his death, that the limits of our study will only permit a brief chronology.
Printing Business Expands
In 1732, Franklin began his useful annual periodical, called Poor Richard’s Almanac. It was widely circulated in the Colonies, and in England, and was translated into several languages of Europe. It continued until 1757. About the same time he commenced a newspaper, which soon became the most popular one in the Colonies. By constant, persevering study, he acquired knowledge of the Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian languages. He started a literary club, called the Junto, and the books that they collected for their use formed the nucleus of the present extensive Philadelphia Library. He wrote many pamphlets containing essays upon popular subjects, which were avidly read, ensuring his popularity. His popularity was accompanied by an increase in his business, and within a few years, his financial circumstances greatly eased.
In 1734, he was appointed government printer for Pennsylvania, and in 1736 he received the appointment of Clerk of the General Assembly. The next year he was made postmaster of Philadelphia. The income from his business and these offices provided relief from constant financial pressure and afforded him the opportunity for pursuits and research into initiatives for the common good of the public. He organized fire companies in Philadelphia, the first on the Continent, and he devised means for paving the streets and lighting the city with gas. All military discipline in the Province had become entirely neglected, but Franklin saw the importance of a thorough knowledge of tactics, and he applied himself to the task of instruction. He initiated the “American Philosophical Society,” the “Pennsylvania Hospital,” and the “College of Pennsylvania,” which following a merger, became the University of Pennsylvania in 1791. Throughout his public life, Franklin ardently believed that the Christian faith should be conspicuous in its influence. He composed the text for the cornerstone of the Pennsylvania Hospital, which was the first hospital in America. The text he composed for the cornerstone stated,
In the year of Christ, 1755…This building, by the bounty of the Government and of many private persons, was piously founded, for the relief of the sick and miserable. May the God of mercies bless the undertaking!
Concerning the College of Pennsylvania, over one third of the college-affiliated men who contributed to the efforts of the American Continental Congresses between September 4, 1774 and July 4, 1776 were associated with the College of Pennsylvania. Education was a great concern to Franklin. His Christian philosophy of education that gave rise to the University of Pennsylvania was outlined by Franklin in his work, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania. In it he wrote,
History will also afford the frequent opportunities of showing the necessity of a public religion, from its usefulness to the public; the advantage of a religious character among private persons… and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern.
The first building to house the College was constructed in 1740 for the purpose of housing the itinerant preaching ministry of well-known evangelist, George Whitefield. For this reason, a statue of Whitefield stands on the campus today. Franklin published the sermons of Rev. Whitefield and commented in his Autobiography concerning the positive influence of Whitefield had upon Philadelphia, saying,
It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.
In 1742, he published a treatise on the improvement of chimneys, and invented the celebrated stove that bears his name. This invention he gave to the public.
Rise as a Statesman
In 1741, he began the publication of the General Magazine and Historical Chronicle, for the British Plantations, which enjoyed a wide circulation. In 1744 he was elected a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and was annually re-elected for ten consecutive years. He had previously held the office of Justice of the Peace and Alderman of Philadelphia.
It was also about this time that he made some of his scientific discoveries that spread his fame worldwide. His attention was focused upon the subject of electricity as a result of some experiments that had been demonstrated by Europeans in Boston. Not only was he able to successfully repeat them all, but he was also drawn to investigate the nature and effects of electricity that resulted in the discovery of many astounding truths.
In 1753, both Harvard and Yale Universities awarded him honorary degrees, and he was appointed a commissioner to address matters related to the Indians at Carlisle. In 1754, he was selected to be a delegate from Pennsylvania to a conference of representatives of the Colonies that met at Albany to discuss the general defense and security against the French. At this conference, he proposed an admirable plan of confederation for the union of the Colonies. About this time he was appointed deputy Postmaster General. He was also active in improving the military interests of Pennsylvania, and provided General Braddock the supplies necessary for his expedition against Fort Duquesne. Several years earlier when France and Spain were raiding the American colonies, Franklin raised Pennsylvania’s first volunteer militia and sought to address the conflict spiritually by proposing a day of fasting and prayer, which was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on December 12, 1747. He wrote:
We have…thought fit…to appoint…a Day of Fasting and Prayer, exhorting all, both Ministers and People…to join with one accord in the most humble and fervent supplications that Almighty God would mercifully interpose and still the rage of war among the nations and put a stop to the effusion of Christian blood.
In 1757, Franklin was sent by the General Assembly of the Province to London as its counsel in a dispute with the governor. He managed the case as to obtain a favorable decision for the Assembly but remained a resident agent for the Colony in England for five years. During this period, he formed many valuable acquaintances. On his return, the General Assembly publically expressed its gratitude to Franklin and the sum of twenty thousand dollars was presented to him as compensation for his important services.
Prelude to War
In 1764, he was again sent to England as agent for the Colony of Pennsylvania upon business similar to that for which he was first sent. While in England, the Stamp Act was passed, evoking his loud and bold protest against it. His opinions had great weight there, and, having been appointed to represent the interests of several of the Colonies, the eyes of statesmen at home and abroad were turned anxiously to him, as the storm of the Revolution rapidly gathered in dark and threatening clouds. He labored assiduously to effect conciliation, and he did much to arrest for a long time the blow that finally severed the Colonies from the mother country. Having arrived at the conclusion that war was inevitable, he returned home in 1775, and was at once elected a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was re-elected in 1776, and was appointed to the Committee of Five to draft a Declaration of Independence; he voted for its adoption, and signed it with most of the other delegates on the second of August.
In September 1776, Franklin was appointed one of three commissioners to meet Lord Howe in conference on Staten Island, and hear his propositions for peace. Franklin had formed a personal acquaintance with Lord Howe while in England. At this conference, when his lordship expressed his kind feelings toward the Americans and his regret that they would not share in the protection of British power, Franklin told him plainly that he need not concern himself on their account as the Americans were fully able to take care of themselves. This attempt at conciliation proved fruitless, and hostilities soon followed. About this time a convention was called in Pennsylvania, for the purpose of organizing the state government, according to the recommendation of the Continental Congress. Franklin was chosen President and his wisdom was manifested in the Constitution that followed. Again, the Christian convictions of Franklin and the other delegates that helped prepare Pennsylvania’s first constitution were plainly engrafted into the text. On September 28, 1776, Franklin signed this first constitution, Section 10 of which read as follows:
And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz:
I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.
And no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this State.
Passed in Convention the 28th day of September, 1776, and signed by their order.
BENJ. FRANKLIN, Prest.
Commissioner to France
He was appointed by the Continental Congress as a commissioner to the Court of France to negotiate a treaty of alliance. Although then over seventy years of age, he accepted the appointment and sailed in October 1776. He was received with distinguished honors, and strong expressions of sympathy in behalf of his country were made. Yet, the French ministry was so cautious that it was not until after the news of the capture of Burgoyne had reached them (October 1777), and American prospects looked brighter, that they were willing to enter into formal negotiations. A treaty was finally achieved and was signed by Franklin and the French Minister in February 1778. America was recognized as an independent nation and the French government openly espoused her cause. Congress had invested Franklin with almost unlimited discretionary powers and his duties were very arduous and complex; yet, he discharged them with a fidelity and skill that excited the admiration of Europe. Finally persuaded by the military success of the new American States in their War of Independence, Great Britain finally yielded, and consented to negotiate a treaty of peace upon the basis of American independence, and on the third day of September 1783, Doctor Franklin and the other American representatives sent to the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty had the pleasure of signing a definitive treaty to that effect. It was on this occasion, that Doctor Franklin again put on a suit of clothes that ten years, on the occasion he was insulted before the English Privy Council, he declared he would never wear again until he had “signed England’s degradation and America’s independence.”
Following the signing of the Treaty, Mr. Franklin asked permission of Congress to return home to his family, but he was retained there until the arrival of his successor, Thomas Jefferson, in 1785. Doctor Franklin had two children, a son and daughter. His son was a royal governor of New Jersey before the Revolution, but he broke with his father’s political sympathy for America, and fled to England at the outbreak of the Revolution; here he died. His daughter married into the Bache family of Philadelphia, and her descendants were numbered among the first families of that city. His final return to America was received with every demonstration of joy and respect, not only from the most distinguished individuals, but also from nearly every public body in the country.
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