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Benjamin Franklin is one the more colorful figures of early American history: a self-taught writer and inventor, who famously liked the ladies, and who, despite his lack of education, contributed to the founding documents of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence. His look of disapproval still haunts our $100 bills.
Yeah. They gave him the big bucks.
His life was vastly different than the other Founding Fathers, including (but not limited to) humble beginnings, a witty public sense of humor, and a common law marriage. During his years in France he became extremely popular with the Parisian locals in the years leading up to their own Revolution. There is also that famous legend that he "discovered" electricity by flying a kite in a storm, although Mythbusters has pretty much debunked that one. He did invent the lightening rod and formulated a sophisticated theory about electricity, though, and was a very accomplished scientist. How's that for multitasking?
Much of Franklin's popularity, both during his own life and since his death, comes from the fact that he was a self-made man, which embodies the ultimate American ideal of a man pulling himself up by his bootstraps to make something of himself in the world. His father made candles, and little Ben started there too before getting into printing and publishing.
Franklin's financial and social success grew out of his printing business, including the publication of some of his own writing. In fact, he was so successful that he was able to retire from active business at age forty-two and focus on being a gentleman. Much like today, this was a pretty impressive achievement. Usually only the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world can retire that early.
Fun fact that will make you feel unaccomplished: Franklin had already started his own newspaper by age sixteen, the New England Courant, which included a series of essays he secretly wrote as the character Silence Dogood, a middle-aged woman who mocked pretty much everything in local politics and culture. Within a year the paper had been banned by the somewhat puritanical Boston authorities, and young Benjamin moved to Philadelphia to have more freedom with his writing.
From there he worked his way up in the printing and publishing business, spending time in London (1724-1726) before returning to Philadelphia and eventually running his own printing business, where he even received the commission to print Pennsylvania's paper money.
One of Franklin's most enduring legacies is the Poor Richard's Almanack, which he first wrote and published in 1729, then every year from 1732 to 1757. Written under another pseudonym, the poor man Richard Saunders, the popular annual publication was a collection of knowledge and advice about living life, including such gems as "Better slip with the foot than tongue" and the one you've probably heard before: "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."
Franklin started getting involved in local governance through the Junto, a.k.a. the Leather Apron Club, which he established in 1727 as a place for men to gather and debate current issues and events. Through his involvement with this group he was involved with the establishment of the Library Company of Philadelphia, a volunteer fireman service, and the Academy of Philadelphia to educate children. He became clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature (1736) and Philadelphia postmaster (1748), and organized a militia to defend the Pennsylvania colony against French and Spanish vessels threatening ships on the Delaware River.
For a while, Benjamin Franklin was firmly supportive of Great Britain and its control of the colonies. He spent a number of years in London, a city he loved, and published many articles between the Stamp Act and the outbreak of war, trying to reconcile the colonies with Britain by explaining both sides of the situation…though he was against taxation without representation himself.
However, as he wrote in a 1768 letter:
Being born and bred in one of the countries, and having lived long and made many agreeable connections of friendship in the other...I do not find I have gained any point, in either country, except that of rendering myself suspected, by my impartiality; in England, of being too much an American, and in America, of being too much an Englishman. (Source)
One of the turning points in Franklin's career as a Founding Father occurred in 1772, when he was given a group of letters written by Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, in which Hutchinson wrote that the royal government needed to restrict the rights of the colonists to keep them dependent on Britain. Franklin published the letters, thinking people would calm down about Parliament, seeing that some of the policies they hated so much were coming from local governments.
He couldn't have been more wrong—the letters pissed people off even more, and now the British government hated him for being a traitor. He was in London at the time, and ended up spending an hour literally just getting yelled at by the head of the king's council, who was cheered on by the crowd. After that, Franklin became increasingly sympathetic to the cause of American independence, although he tried vainly to stay in London and plead against the passage of oppressive legislation until 1775.
The day after Franklin returned to Philadelphia in May 1775, he was elected to the Second Continental Congress. He was a celebrity by this time, considered an expert on Britain, and now angrily advocated for America's self-defense against the British Crown.
He was a busy man, postmaster general for the colonies as well as running a number of other projects in preparation for independence, including designing the new currency and making ingredients for gunpowder. He served on a number of committees, including the one drafted to write the official Declaration of Independence. Although the vast majority of the text remained Jefferson's, Franklin was one of the committee members who made minor revisions before its adoption on July 4, 1776.
Soon after, Franklin was chosen to represent the new United States in France and work on an alliance, which he achieved in 1778, and which was vital to the American victory in the war. When he arrived in Paris he found out that he was already a famous and adored man, and could just hang out with interesting people (and many beautiful ladies) just by the virtue of being the Benjamin Franklin.
He wasn't only a diplomat, but also a scientist whose advice and inventions were sought by intellectuals from all over Europe. He played up his American-ness by dressing simply and avoiding the fancy accessories of European courtiers, and those same courtiers thought was the coolest for doing it.
It's worth noting that Franklin actually spent the majority of the American Revolution in Paris, not returning until 1784. He may have played a big role in the lead-up to the war, but wasn't exactly a major participant in the battles themselves.
After the end of the Revolutionary War, Franklin was the primary negotiator of the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain (which, to be confusing, was negotiated in London), along with John Adams and John Jay. The treaty led to the recognition of the colonies as an independent nation, while Britain got to keep Canada. All those years being gushed over in Paris apparently didn't dull Franklin's mad diplomatic skills.
Ben Franklin was also involved with the drafting of the U.S. Constitution years later, although his ideas about proportional representation by state size weren't adopted at first. He was more successful in leading the draft of the Pennsylvania constitution, which included county representation by size and updating those sizes every seven years.
When Franklin had returned from France, the country he had grown to love, in 1785, his reception was mixed. Some thought him too European now, which seems to be a lifelong issue for the man. The year he died, Franklin signed a statement asking for the abolishment of slavery, which Congress firmly rejected. When he died later that year, the House of Representatives voted to declare a month of mourning for him, but the Senate rejected that as well, possibly because he wrote a scathing response to the failure of his antislavery petition.
The leaders of the new nation couldn't make up their mind if they still liked him or not.
Franklin's autobiography was published in 1794, and fame for his achievements continued throughout the 19th century, prompting Mark Twain to write an essay in 1870 called "The Late Benjamin Franklin," where Twain jokingly lamented that:
His simplest acts...were contrived with a view to their being held up for the emulation of boys forever—boys who might otherwise have been happy. (Source)
In other words: thanks a lot, Mr. Franklin, for setting the bar so high that none of us can live up to your example.
Twain's sarcastic tone also indicates that Franklin was immune from criticism. In fact, after his death especially he became the target of mockery and ridicule for the very characteristics that many others found so impressive: his humble background, capitalistic goals, and lack of intellectualism.
Despite his less impressive upbringing, Franklin invented the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the odometer, along with all of his political achievements. He firmly believed in public service for the sake of public service, arguing for low or no wages for congressmen and presidents. Whatever your opinion on Franklin, one thing you can't call him is an underachiever.
Benjamin Franklin remains one of the most famous Americans to have ever lived, both in his home country and abroad. His shift from loyal British subject to staunch supporter of independence illustrates the conflict that led up to the American Revolution, just as his life and career embody the image of what America was in relation to the old world of Europe. His political ideals and ability to negotiate played a significant role in the formation of the new America.
Nowadays, he stares with pursed lips from the $100 bill, one of the two non-Presidents to get his face on currency. He's mostly back in favor, with such famous quotes as: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." (Source)
Leave it to good ol' Benjamin Franklin to make us feel better about the world.