We admit it. There are nights where we lie awake, paralyzed by one recurring thought: We'll never be as cool as Benjamin Franklin.
Because we won't. And neither—we're guessing—will you. This guy crammed an unbelievable amount of amazing achievements into one lifetime, and managed to be a pretty hilarious party guest at the same time.
But ol' Bald Benny (we're on a nickname basis with Benjamin Franklin, at least in our minds) and his insane, jealousy-provoking life wouldn't be possible if Ben Franklin's brother hadn't been such a jerkfaced dirtbag.
Ben Franklin was the tenth kid born to soap-maker Josiah Franklin. Eventually, an exhausted Josiah would stop at seventeen kids (history is just ridiculous). Anyway, Josiah wanted Ben in seminary, but seminary costs money and Josiah had seventeen hungry mouths to feed.
Ben was twelve when Josiah handed him over to his brother James—who ran a newspaper called the New England Courant—and James promptly made Ben sign an indenture contract. That was all pretty normal.
What wasn't normal was what a jerk James was.
Ben was a good writer (he'd later become insanely famous for it), but James would never publish anything he wrote. Eventually, Ben started writing under the name "Silence Dogood," (because subtlety is not the Ben Franklin style) and slipping the articles under James' door. James published those, until Ben revealed that—aha!—he was the real Silence Dogood.
Dude promptly beat Ben severely, fired him, and made sure no one else in Boston would publish him. (Source)
Ben moved to Philadelphia—because he was in some serious need of brotherly love—and started his own printing business. By 1729, he had bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, and by 1733 he had started Poor Richard's Almanack. You might have heard of the last one. It was a smash-hit, and contained such gems as "A friend in need is a friend indeed."
Poor Richard's was written by Franklin in the character of Richard Saunders, a poor man who was filled with folksy advice. Fortunately, old Ben was a pretty smart guy, so the advice was good and pithy. People listened, and Franklin had a ton of readers.
No word at how James took it, but we're pretty sure the answer would be "not well." (Source)
Franklin retired in 1749, but it's pretty clear he didn't have the foggiest notion of what the word "retired" meant. He devoted himself to invention and science. That lightning and key experiment everyone knows about happened in 1752, and, after proving lightning was in fact electricity, he invented the lightning rod. (Source)
He wasn't content with that, and went on to invent a collection of stuff. Some of it was good, like bifocals, and some of it never caught on, like his new alphabet, which was going to eliminate the letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y. Then he remembered he hadn't invented a musical instrument, so he went ahead and did that, creating the armonica. Yes, the armonica—which we know today as the glass harmonica. (It sounds beautiful.)
By 1761, he had honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. Not bad for a guy who couldn't afford an education.
Franklin had been a loyal English subject for his life, and even spent a good deal of time in the old country, serving as a colonial agent to them. (Kind of like an in-house diplomat.) But he was shocked at the reaction to the Stamp Act. He urged Parliament to repeal it, but they weren't listening. Based on that—as well as the widespread corruption he observed while there—he turned into a Patriot.
He hoped that his son William, then the Royal Governor of New Jersey, would fall in line with him and support the Patriots. He was wrong. William was a Loyalist, and unfortunately, the Revolution led to a falling out between them.
By the time war broke out, he was already an old man. He helped out with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but his main contribution to the war was diplomacy…because the French loved him.
His unique combination of wit and rough colonial exterior was like catnip to the French aristocrats. His diplomatic efforts helped place France securely on the side of the colonies in the Revolution. Without him, we might have lost. (Source)
When the fighting stopped, Franklin was the most important person on the American side of the negotiations. He had already served as a diplomat during the war, honing his skills, and polishing his image as a rustic with a keen mind. He was close friends with Britain's main representative on the other side of the table as well, which no doubt assisted with the generous concessions.
He returned to America in 1785, his health deteriorating too much to live abroad. But he wasn't done yet: Franklin wasn't quite sure he was 100% on the right side of history, so he went ahead and wrote an anti-slavery treatise in 1789.
What a dude.
When he died, he left the bulk of his estate to his daughter Sarah. Sorry, William. You weren't down with the Patriot cause, so you don't get any of the old man's Benjamins.