Benjamin Franklin (January 17 [O.S. January 6] 1706 – April 17, 1790) was one of the best-known Founding Fathers of the United States. He was a leading author, political theorist, politician, printer, scientist, inventor, civic activist, and diplomat. As a scientist he was a major figure in the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As a political writer and activist he, more than anyone, invented the idea of an American nation,[1] and as a diplomat during the American Revolution, he secured the French alliance that helped to make independence possible.

Franklin was noted for his curiosity, his writings (popular, political and scientific), and his diversity of interests. As a leader of the Enlightenment, he gained the recognition of scientists and intellectuals across Europe. An agent in London before the Revolution, and Minister to France during it, he more than anyone defined the new nation in the minds of Europe. His success in securing French military and financial aid was a great contributor to the American victory over Britain. He invented the lightning rod; he was an early proponent of colonial unity; historians hail him as the “First American.”

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Franklin learned printing from his older brother and became a newspaper editor, printer, and merchant in Philadelphia, becoming very wealthy. He spent many years in England and published the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac and the Pennsylvania Gazette. He formed both the first public lending library and fire department in America as well as the Junto, a political discussion club. During this period he wrote in favor of paper money, against mercantilist policies such as the Iron Act of 1750, and also drafted, in 1754, the Albany Plan of Union, which would have created a continental legislature; demonstrating how early he conceived of the colonies as being naturally one political unit.

Franklin became a national hero in America when he spearheaded the effort to have Parliament repeal the unpopular Stamp Act. An accomplished diplomat, he was widely admired among the French as American minister to Paris and was a major figure in the development of positive Franco-American relations. From 1775 to 1776, Franklin was Postmaster General under the Continental Congress and from 1785 to 1788 was President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. Toward the end of his life, he became one of the most prominent abolitionists.

Franklin was interested in science and technology, carrying out his famous electricity experiments and inventing—in addition to the lightning rod—the Franklin stove, catheter, swimfins, glass harmonica, and bifocals. He also played a major role in establishing the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin and Marshall College. He was elected the first president of the American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in the United States, in 1769. Franklin was fluent in five languages. He is typically recognized as a polymath.



Franklin’s father, Josiah Franklin, was born at Ecton, Northamptonshire, England on December 23, 1657, the son of Thomas Franklin, a blacksmith and farmer, and Jane White. His mother, Abiah Folger, was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, on August 15, 1667, to Peter Folger, a miller and schoolteacher and his wife Mary Morrill, a former indentured servant. A descendant of the Folgers, J. A. Folger, founded Folgers Coffee in the 19th century.

Around 1677, Josiah married Anne Child at Ecton, and over the next few years had three children. These half-siblings of Benjamin Franklin included Elizabeth (March 2, 1678), Samuel (May 16, 1681), and Hannah (May 25, 1683).

Sometime during the second half of 1683, the Franklins left England for Boston, Massachusetts. They had several more children in Boston, including Josiah Jr. (August 23, 1685), Ann (January 5, 1687), Joseph (February 5, 1688), and Joseph (June 30, 1689) (the first Joseph died soon after birth).

Josiah’s first wife, Anne, died in Boston on July 9, 1689. He was married to Abiah Folger on November 25, 1689 in the Old South Church of Boston by Samuel Willard.

Josiah and Abiah had the following children: John (December 7, 1690), Peter (November 22, 1692), Mary (September 26, 1694), James (February 4, 1697), Sarah (July 9, 1699), Ebenezer (September 20, 1701), Thomas (December 7, 1703), Benjamin (January 17, 1706), Lydia (August 8, 1708), and Jane (March 27, 1712).

Early life

Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street in Boston on January 17, 1706 [6] and baptized at Old South Meeting House. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler, a maker of candles and soap, whose second wife, Abiah Folger, was Benjamin’s mother. Josiah’s marriages produced 17 children; Benjamin was the fifteenth child and youngest son. Josiah wanted Ben to attend school with the clergy but only had enough money to send him to school for two years. He attended Boston Latin School but did not graduate; he continued his education through voracious reading. Although “his parents talked of the church as a career” for Franklin, his schooling ended when he was ten. He then worked for his father for a time and at 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James, a printer. When Ben was 15, James created the New England Courant, the first truly independent newspaper in the colonies. When denied the option to write to the paper, Franklin invented the pseudonym of ‘Mrs. Silence Dogood’ who was ostensibly a middle-aged widow. The letters were published in the paper and became a subject of conversation around town. Neither James nor the Courant’s readers were aware of the ruse, and James was unhappy with Ben when he discovered the popular correspondent was his younger brother. Franklin left his apprenticeship without permission and in so doing became a fugitive.[2]

At age 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, seeking a new start in a new city. When he first arrived he worked in several printer shops around town. However, he was not satisfied by the immediate prospects. After a few months, while working in a printing house, Franklin was convinced by Pennsylvania Governor Sir William Keith to go to London, ostensibly to acquire the equipment necessary for establishing another newspaper in Philadelphia. Finding Keith’s promises of backing a newspaper to be empty, Franklin worked as a compositor in a printer’s shop in what is now the Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great in the Smithfield area of London. Following this, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726 with the help of a merchant named Thomas Denham, who gave Franklin a position as clerk, shopkeeper, and bookkeeper in Denham’s merchant business.[3]

In 1727, Benjamin Franklin, at age 21, created the Junto, a group of “like minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community.” The Junto was a discussion group for issues of the day; it subsequently gave rise to many organizations in Philadelphia.

Reading was a great past time of the Junto, but books were rare and expensive. The members created a library, and at first they pooled their own books together. This did not work, however, and Franklin came up with the idea of a subscription library, where the members pooled their monetary resources to buy books. This idea was the birth of the Library Company, and the charter of the Library Company of Philadelphia was created in 1731 by Franklin.

Originally, the books were kept in the homes of the first librarians, but in 1739 the collection was moved to the second floor of the State House of Pennsylvania, and is now known as Independence Hall. In 1791, a new building was built for the library specifically. The Library Company flourished without any competition and gained many priceless collections from bibliophiles such as James Logan and his physician brother William. The Library Company in the twentieth century is a great scholarly and research library because of its 500,000 rare books, pamphlets, and broadsides, more than 160,000 manuscripts, and 75,000 graphic items.

Upon Denham’s death, Franklin returned to his former trade. By 1730, Franklin had set up a printing house of his own and had contrived to become the publisher of a newspaper called “The Pennsylvania Gazette”. The Gazette gave Franklin a forum for agitation about a variety of local reforms and initiatives through printed essays and observations. Over time, his commentary, together with a great deal of savvy about cultivating a positive image of an industrious and intellectual young man, earned him a great deal of social respect; though even after Franklin had achieved fame as a scientist and statesman, he habitually signed his letters with the unpretentious ‘B. Franklin, Printer’.[4]

Franklin was initiated into the local Freemason lodge in 1731 and became a grand master in 1734, indicating his rapid rise to prominence in Pennsylvania.[5][6] That same year, he edited and published the first Masonic book in the Americas, a reprint of James Anderson’s The Constitutions of the Free-Masons. Franklin remained a Freemason throughout the rest of his life.[7][8]

Deborah Read

In 1724, while a boarder in the Read home, Franklin had courted Deborah Read before going to London at Governor Keith’s request. At that time, Miss Read’s mother was wary of allowing her daughter to wed a seventeen-year old who was on his way to London. Her own husband having recently died, Mrs. Read declined Franklin’s offer of marriage.[9]

While Franklin was in London, Deborah married a man named John Rodgers. This proved to be a regrettable decision. Rodgers shortly avoided his debts and prosecution by fleeing to Barbados, leaving Deborah behind. With Rodgers’ fate unknown, and bigamy illegal, Deborah was not free to remarry formally.

Franklin had his own actions to ponder. In 1730, Franklin acknowledged an illegitimate son named William, who would eventually become the last Loyalist governor of New Jersey. While the identity of William’s mother remains unknown, perhaps the responsibility of an infant child gave Franklin a reason to take up residence with Deborah Read. William was raised in the Franklin household but eventually broke with his father over the treatment of the colonies at the hands of the crown. However, he was not above using his father’s fame to enhance his own standing.

Franklin established a common-law marriage with Deborah Read on September 1, 1730. Benjamin and Deborah Franklin had two children (in addition to raising William). The first was Francis Folger Franklin, born October 1732; he died of smallpox in 1736. Sarah Franklin, nicknamed Sally, was born in 1743. She eventually married Richard Bache, had seven children, and cared for her father in his old age.

Deborah’s fear of the sea meant that she never accompanied Franklin on any of his extended trips to Europe, despite his repeated requests.

Success as author

In 1733, Franklin began to issue the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac (with content both original and borrowed) on which much of his popular reputation is based. Adages from this almanac such as “A penny saved is twopence dear” (often misquoted as “A penny saved is a penny earned”), “Fish and visitors stink in three days” and “Mapping ain’t easy” remain common quotations in the modern world. Wisdom in folk society meant the ability to provide an apt adage for any occasion, and Franklin’s readers became well prepared. He sold about ten thousand copies per year.[10]

In 1758, the year in which he ceased writing for the Almanac, he printed Father Abraham’s Sermon. Franklin’s autobiography, published after his death, has become one of the classics of the genre.

Inventions and scientific inquiries

Franklin was a prodigious inventor. Among his many creations were the lightning rod, the glass harmonica, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the flexible urinary catheter. Franklin never patented his inventions; in his autobiography he wrote, “[A]s we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”[11]

In 1743, Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society to help scientific men discuss their discoveries. He began the electrical research that, along with other scientific inquiries, would occupy him for the rest of his life, in between bouts of politics and moneymaking.[12]

In 1748, he retired from printing and went into other businesses. He created a partnership with his foreman, David Hall, which provided Franklin with half of the shop’s profits for 18 years. This lucrative business arrangement provided leisure time for study, and in a few years he had made discoveries that gave him a reputation with the educated throughout Europe and especially in France.

These include his investigations of electricity. Franklin proposed that “vitreous” and “resinous” electricity were not different types of “electrical fluid” (as electricity was called then), but the same electrical fluid under different pressures. He was the first to label them as positive and negative respectively,[13] and he was the first to discover the principle of conservation of charge.[14] In 1750, he published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a storm that appeared capable of becoming a lightning storm. On May 10, 1752, Thomas-François Dalibard of France conducted Franklin’s experiment (using a 40-foot-tall iron rod instead of a kite) and extracted electrical sparks from a cloud. On June 15, Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment in Philadelphia and also successfully extracted sparks from a cloud (unaware that Dalibard had already done so, 36 days earlier). Franklin’s experiment was not written up until Joseph Priestley’s 1767 History and Present Status of Electricity; the evidence shows that Franklin was insulated (not in a conducting path, since he would have been in danger of electrocution in the event of a lightning strike). (Others, such as Prof. Georg Wilhelm Richmann of St. Petersburg, Russia, were electrocuted during the months following Franklin’s experiment.) In his writings, Franklin indicates that he was aware of the dangers and offered alternative ways to demonstrate that lightning was electrical, as shown by his use of the concept of electrical ground. If Franklin did perform this experiment, he did not do it in the way that is often described, flying the kite and waiting to be struck by lightning, (as it would have been dramatic but fatal). Instead he used the kite to collect some electric charge from a storm cloud, which implied that lightning was electrical.

On October 19 in a letter to England explaining directions for repeating the experiment, Franklin wrote:

“When rain has wet the kite twine so that it can conduct the electric fire freely, you will find it streams out plentifully from the key at the approach of your knuckle, and with this key a phial, or Leiden jar, maybe charged: and from electric fire thus obtained spirits may be kindled, and all other electric experiments [may be] performed which are usually done by the help of a rubber glass globe or tube; and therefore the sameness of the electrical matter with that of lightening completely demonstrated.”[15]

Franklin’s electrical experiments led to his invention of the lightning rod. He noted that conductors with a sharp rather than a smooth point were capable of discharging silently, and at a far greater distance. He surmised that this knowledge could be of use in protecting buildings from lightning, by attaching “upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground;…Would not these pointed Rods probably draw the Electrical Fire silently out of a Cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible Mischief!” Following a series of experiments on Franklin’s own house, lightning rods were installed on the Academy of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) in 1752.[16]

In recognition of his work with electricity, Franklin received the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1753, and in 1756 he became one of the few eighteenth century Americans to be elected as a Fellow of the Society. The cgs unit of electric charge has been named after him: one franklin (Fr) is equal to one statcoulomb.

On October 21, 1743, a storm moving from the southwest denied Franklin the opportunity of witnessing a lunar eclipse. Franklin noted that the prevailing winds were actually from the northeast, contrary to what he had expected. In correspondence with his brother, Franklin learned that the same storm had not reached Boston until after the eclipse, despite the fact that Boston is to the northeast of Philadelphia. He deduced that storms do not always travel in the direction of the prevailing wind, a concept which would have great influence in meteorology.[17]

Franklin noted a principle of refrigeration by observing that on a very hot day, he stayed cooler in a wet shirt in a breeze than he did in a dry one. To understand this phenomenon more clearly Franklin conducted experiments. On one warm day in Cambridge, England, in 1758, Franklin and fellow scientist John Hadley experimented by continually wetting the ball of a mercury thermometer with ether and using bellows to evaporate the ether. With each subsequent evaporation, the thermometer read a lower temperature, eventually reaching 7 °F (-14 °C). Another thermometer showed the room temperature to be constant at 65 °F (18 °C). In his letter “Cooling by Evaporation,” Franklin noted that “one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.” Each year the frozen food industry gives a Franklin Award in honor of his observing this phenomenon.

Musical endeavors

Franklin is known to have played the violin, the harp, and the guitar. He also composed music, notably a string quartet in early classical style, and invented a much-improved version of the glass harmonica, in which each glass was made to rotate on its own, with the player’s fingers held steady, instead of the other way around; this version soon found its way to Europe.[18]

Public life

In 1736, Franklin created the Union Fire Company, the first volunteer firefighting company in America. In the same year he printed a new currency for New Jersey based on innovative anti-counterfeiting techniques which he had devised.

As he matured, Franklin began to concern himself more with public affairs. In 1743, he set forth a scheme for The Academy and College of Philadelphia. He was appointed president of the academy in November 13, 1749, and it opened on August 13, 1751. At its first commencement, on May 17, 1757, seven men graduated; six with a Bachelor of Arts and one as Master of Arts. It was later merged with the University of the State of Pennsylvania to become the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1753, both Harvard and Yale awarded him honorary degrees [7].

In 1751, Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond obtained a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature to establish a hospital. Pennsylvania Hospital was the first hospital in what was to become the United States of America.

Franklin became involved in Philadelphia politics and progressed rapidly. In October 1748 he was selected as a councilman, in June 1749 he became a Justice of the Peace for Philadelphia, and in 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. On August 10, 1753, Franklin was appointed joint deputy postmaster-general of North America. His most notable service in domestic politics was his reform of the postal system, but his fame as a statesman rests chiefly on his subsequent diplomatic services in connection with the relations of the colonies with Great Britain, and later with France.[19]

In 1754, he headed the Pennsylvania delegation to the Albany Congress. This meeting of several colonies had been requested by the Board of Trade in England to improve relations with the Indians and defense against the French. Franklin proposed a broad Plan of Union for the colonies. While the plan was not adopted, elements of it found their way into the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

In 1757, he was sent to England by the Pennsylvania Assembly as a colonial agent to protest against the political influence of the Penn family, the proprietors of the colony. For five years he remained there, striving to end the proprietors’ prerogative to overturn legislation from the elected Assembly, and their exemption from paying taxes on their land. His lack of influential allies in Whitehall led to the failure of this mission. In 1759, the University of St Andrews awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. In 1762, Oxford University awarded Franklin an honorary doctorate for his scientific accomplishments and from then on he went by “Doctor Franklin.” He also managed to secure a post for his illegitimate son, William Franklin, as Colonial Governor of New Jersey.[20]

During his stay in London, Franklin became involved in radical politics. He was a member of the Club of Honest Whigs, alongside thinkers such as Richard Price.

In 1756, Franklin became a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (now Royal Society of Arts or RSA, which had been founded in 1754), whose early meetings took place in coffee shops in London’s Covent Garden district, close to Franklin’s main residence in Craven Street (the only one of his residences to survive and which opened to the public as the Benjamin Franklin House museum on January 17, 2006). After his return to America, Franklin became the Society’s Corresponding Member and remained closely connected with the Society. The RSA instituted a Benjamin Franklin Medal in 1956 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Franklin’s birth and the 200th anniversary of his membership of the RSA.

During his stays at Craven Street in London between 1757 and 1775, Franklin developed a close friendship with his landlady Margaret Stevenson and her circle of friends and relations, in particular her daughter Mary, who was more often known as Polly.

In 1759, he was to visit Edinburgh with his son, and he recalled his conversations there as “the densest happiness of my life.”[21]

He also joined the influential Birmingham based Lunar Society who he regularly corresponded with and visited in Birmingham in the West Midlands, on occasion.

Coming of Revolution
In 1763, soon after Franklin returned to Pennsylvania, the western frontier was engulfed in a bitter war known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. The Paxton Boys, a group of settlers convinced that the Pennsylvania government was not doing enough to protect them from American Indian raids, murdered a group of peaceful Indians and then marched on Philadephia. Franklin helped to organize the local miltia in order to defend the capital against the mob, and then met with the Paxton leaders and persuaded them to disperse. Franklin wrote a scathing attack against the racial prejudice of the Paxton Boys. “If an Indian injures me,” he asked, “does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians?”[22]

Many of the Paxton Boys’ supporters were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and German Reformed or Lutherans from rural western Pennsylvania, leading to claims that Franklin was biased in favor of the urban Quaker elite of the East. Because of these accusations, and other attacks on his character, Franklin lost his seat in the 1764 Assembly elections. This defeat, however, allowed him the opportunity to return to London, where he sealed his reputation as a pro-American radical.[23]

In 1764, Franklin was dispatched to England as an agent for the colony, this time to petition King George III to establish central British control of Pennsylvania, away from its hereditary “proprietors”. During this visit he also became colonial agent for Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. In London, he actively opposed the proposed Stamp Act, despite accusations by opponents in America that he had been complicit in its creation. His principled opposition to the Stamp Act, and later to the Townshend Acts of 1767, lead to the end of his dream of a career in the British Government and his alliance with proponents of colonial independence. It also led to an irreconcilable break with his son William, who remained loyal to the British.[24]

In September 1767, Franklin visited Paris with his usual traveling partner, Sir John Pringle. News of his electrical discoveries was widespread in France. His reputation meant that he was introduced to many influential scientists and politicians, and also to King Louis XV.[25]

While living in London in 1768, he developed a phonetic alphabet in A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling. This reformed alphabet discarded six letters Franklin regarded as redundant (c, j, q, w, x and y), and substituted six new letters for sounds he felt lacked letters of their own; however, his new alphabet never caught on and he eventually lost interest. [8]

In 1771, Franklin traveled extensively around the British Isles staying with, among others, Joseph Priestley and David Hume. In Dublin, Franklin was invited to sit with the members of the Irish Parliament rather than in the gallery. He was the first American to be given this honor.[9] While touring Ireland he was astounded and moved by the level of poverty he saw there. Ireland was subject to the trade regulations and laws of England, which affected the Irish economy, and Franklin feared that America could suffer the same plight if Britain’s exploitation of the colonies continued.[10]

In 1773, Franklin published two of his most celebrated pro-American satirical essays: Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One, and An Edict by the King of Prussia.[11] He also published an Abridgment of the Book of Common Prayer, anonymously with Francis Dashwood. Among the unusual features of this work is a funeral service reduced to six minutes in length, “to preserve the health and lives of the living”.[26]

Hutchinson Letters

Franklin obtained some private letters from Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson and lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver which proved they were encouraging London to crack down in the rights of the Bostonians. Franklin sent them to America where they escalated the tensions. Franklin now appeared to the British as the fomenter of serious trouble. Hopes for a peaceful solution ended as he was systematically ridiculed and humiliated by the Privy Council. He left London in March 1775.[27]

Declaration of Independence

By the time Franklin arrived in Philadelphia on May 5, the American Revolution had begun with fighting at Lexington and Concord. The New England militia had trapped the main British army in Boston. The Revolutionary War had begun. The Pennsylvania Assembly unanimously chose Franklin as their delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In 1776, he was a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence and made several small changes to Thomas Jefferson’s draft.[29]

At the signing, he is quoted as having stated: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Ambassador to France: 1776-1785

In December 1776, he was dispatched to France as commissioner for the United States. He lived in a home in the Parisian suburb of Passy, donated by Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont who helped the United States. Franklin remained in France until 1785, and was such a favorite of French society that it became fashionable for wealthy French families to decorate their parlors with a painting of him. He was highly flirtatious in the French manner (but did not have any actual affairs.) He conducted the affairs of his country towards the French nation with great success, which included securing a critical military alliance and negotiating the Treaty of Paris (1783). When he finally returned home in 1785, he received a place only second to that of George Washington as the champion of American independence. Le Ray honored him with a commissioned portrait painted by Joseph Duplessis that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

After his return from France, Franklin became an abolitionist, freeing both of his slaves. He eventually became president of The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. [12]

In 1787, he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He played an honorific role but seldom engaged in debate. He is the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Treaty of Alliance with France, and the United States Constitution.

In 1787, a group of prominent ministers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, proposed the foundation of a new college to be named in Franklin’s honor. Franklin donated £200 towards the development of Franklin College; which is now called Franklin and Marshall College.

Between 1771 and 1788, he finished his autobiography. While it was at first addressed to his son, it was later completed for the benefit of mankind at the request of a friend.

In his later years, as Congress was forced to deal with the issue of slavery, Franklin wrote several essays that attempted to convince his readers of the importance of the abolition of slavery and of the integration of Africans into American society. These writings included:

An Address to the Public from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, (1789)
Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks (1789), and
Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade (1790).
In 1790, Quakers from New York and Pennsylvania presented their petition for abolition. Their argument against slavery was backed by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society and its president, Benjamin Franklin.

President of Pennsylvania

In special balloting conducted 18 November 1785 Franklin was unanimously elected the sixth President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, replacing John Dickinson. The office of President of Pennsylvania was analogous to the modern position of Governor. It is not clear why Dickinson needed to be replaced with less than two weeks remaining before the regular election. Franklin held that office for slightly over three years, longer than any other President of the Council, and served the Constitutional limit of three full terms. Shortly after his initial election he was reelected to a full term on 29 October 1785, and again in the fall of 1786 and on 31 October 1787. Officially, his term concluded on 5 November 1788, but there is some question regarding the de facto end of his term, suggesting that the aging Franklin may not have been actively involved in the day-to-day operation of the Council toward the end of his time in office.

Virtue, religion and personal beliefs

Like the other advocates of republicanism, Franklin emphasized that the new republic could survive only if the people were virtuous in the sense of attention to civic duty and rejection of corruption. Indeed all his life he had been exploring the role of civic and personal virtue, as expressed in Poor Richard’s aphorisms.

Although Franklin’s parents had intended for him to have a career in the church, Franklin became disillusioned with organized religion after discovering Deism. “I soon became a thorough Deist.”[13] He went on to attack Christian principles of free will and morality in a 1725 pamphlet, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain.[14] He consistently attacked religious dogma, arguing that morality was more dependent upon virtue and benevolent actions than on strict obedience to religious orthodoxy: “I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.”[15] A few years later, Franklin repudiated his 1725 pamphlet as an embarrassing “erratum”. In 1790, just about a month before he died, Franklin wrote the following in a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, who had asked him his views on religion…:

“ As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, 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 corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble….” (Carl Van Doren. Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Viking Press, 1938, p. 777.) ”

Like most Enlightenment intellectuals, Franklin separated virtue, morality, and faith from organized religion, although he felt that if religion in general grew weaker, morality, virtue, and society in general would also decline. Thus he wrote Thomas Paine, “If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it.” According to David Morgan,[30] Franklin was a proponent of all religions. He prayed to “Powerful Goodness” and referred to God as the “INFINITE.” John Adams noted that Franklin was a mirror in which people saw their own religion: “The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker.” Whatever else Benjamin Franklin was, concludes Morgan, “he was a true champion of generic religion.” Ben Frankin was noted to be “the spirit of the Enlightenment”.

Walter Isaacson argues[16] that Franklin became uncomfortable with an unenhanced version of deism and comes up with his own conception of the Creator. Franklin outlined his concept of deity in 1728, in his “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion” [17]. From this, Isaacson compares Franklin’s conception of deity to that of strict deists and orthodox Christians. Isaacson concludes that unlike most pure deists, Franklin believed that a faith in God should inform our daily actions, but that, like other deists, his faith was devoid of sectarian dogma. Isaacson also discusses Franklin’s conception that God had created beings who do interfere in wordly matters—a point that has lead some commentators, most notably A. Owen Aldridge, to read Franklin as embracing some sort of polytheism, with a bevy of lesser gods overseeing various realms and planets.

On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed a committee that included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to design the Great Seal of the United States. Skousen[31] summarizes how this committee created and approved the first proposed design for the seal (which ultimately was not adopted). Each member of the committee proposed a unique design: Franklin’s proposal featured a design with the motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”. This design was to portray a scene from the Book of Exodus, complete with Moses, the Israelites, the pillar of fire, and George III depicted as Pharaoh [18].

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when the convention seemed to head for disaster due to heated debate, the elderly Franklin displayed his conviction of a deity that was intimately involved in human affairs by requesting that each day’s session begin with prayers. Franklin recalled the days of the Revolutionary War, when the American leaders assembled in prayer daily, seeking “divine guidance” from the “Father of lights.” He then rhetorically asked, “And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?” [19].

Although Franklin may have financially supported one particular Presbyterian group in Philadelphia [20], it nevertheless appears that he never formally joined any particular Christian denomination or any other religion.

According to the epitaph Franklin wrote for himself at the age of 20, it is clear that he believed in a physical resurrection of the body some time after death. Whether this belief was held throughout his life is unclear.[21]


Franklin sought to cultivate his character by a plan of thirteen virtues, which he developed at age 20 (in 1726) and continued to practice in some form for the rest of his life. His autobiography (see references below) lists his thirteen virtues as:

“TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
“SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
“ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
“RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
“FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
“INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
“SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
“JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
“MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
“CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
“TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
“CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
“HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Death and afterwards

Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790, at age 84. His funeral was attended by about 20,000 people. He was interred in Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Christ Church Burial Ground is also the home of Benjamin Rush. One of the houses he lived in on Craven Street was previously marked with a blue plaque and has since been opened to the public as the Benjamin Franklin House [22]. In 1728, as a young man, Franklin wrote what he hoped would be his own epitaph: “The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author. He was born on January 17, 1706. Died 17.”[23] Franklin’s actual grave, however, as he specified in his final will[24], simply reads “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”

In the book The Life of Benjamin Franklin as written by himself, a passage (obviously not written by himself) reads thus about Franklin’s death: “…when his pain and difficulty of breathing entirely left him, and his family were flattering themselves wit the hopes of his recovery, when an imposthumations, which had formed itself in his lungs, suddenly burst, and discharged a great quantity of matter, which he continued to throw up while he had strength to do it; but, as that failed, the organ of inspiration became gradually oppressed; a calm lethargic state succeeded, and on the 17th of April, 1790, at eleven o’clock at night, he quietly expired, closing a long and useful life of eighty-four years and three months”

At his death, Franklin bequeathed £1,000 (about $4,400 at the time) each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, in trust for 200 years. The origin of the trust began in 1785 when a French mathematician named Charles-Joseph Mathon de la Cour wrote a parody of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack called Fortunate Richard. In it he mocked the unbearable spirit of American optimism represented by Franklin. The Frenchman wrote a piece about Fortunate Richard leaving a small sum of money in his will to be used only after it had collected interest for 500 years. Franklin, who was 79 years old at the time, wrote back to the Frenchman, thanking him for a great idea and telling him that he had decided to leave a bequest of 1,000 pounds each to his native Boston and his adopted Philadelphia, on the condition that it be placed in a fund that would gather interest over a period of 200 years. As of 1990, over $2,000,000 had accumulated in Franklin’s Philadelphia trust since his death. During the lifetime of the trust, Philadelphia used it for a variety of loan programs to local residents. From 1940 to 1990, the money was used mostly for mortgage loans. When the trust came due, Philadelphia decided to spend it on scholarships for local high school students. Franklin’s Boston trust fund accumulated almost $5,000,000 during that same time, and eventually was used to establish a trade school that, over time, became the Franklin Institute of Boston. (Excerpt from Philadelphia Inquirer article by Clark De Leon)

The lasting legacy of Benjamin Franklin has resulted in the appearance of his image in various places. Franklin’s likeness adorns the American $100 bill (as a result, $100 bills are sometimes referred to in slang as “Benjamins” or “Franklins.”) From 1948 to 1964, Franklin’s portrait was also on the half dollar. He has also appeared on a $50 bill in the past, as well as several varieties of the $100 bill from 1914 and 1918, and every $100 bill from 1928 to the present. Franklin also appears on the $1,000 Series EE Savings bond. As a tribute to Franklin’s legacy, the city of Philadelphia contains around 5,000 likenesses of Benjamin Franklin, about half of which are located on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Additionally, Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Parkway (a major thoroughfare) and Ben Franklin Bridge (the first major bridge to connect Philadelphia with New Jersey) are named in his honor.

In 1976, as part of a bicentennial celebration, Congress dedicated a 20-foot (6 m) high marble statue in Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute as the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial. Many of Franklin’s personal possessions are also on display at the Institute. It is one of the few national memorials located on private property.

In 1998, workmen restoring Franklin’s London home (Benjamin Franklin House) dug up the remains of six children and four adults hidden below the home. The Times reported on February 11, 1998:

Initial estimates are that the bones are about 200 years old and were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house, which was his home from 1757 to 1762 and from 1764 to 1775. Most of the bones show signs of having been dissected, sawn or cut. One skull has been drilled with several holes. Paul Knapman, the Westminster Coroner, said yesterday: “I cannot totally discount the possibility of a crime. There is still a possibility that I may have to hold an inquest.”

The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House (the organization responsible for the restoration of Franklin’s house at 36 Craven Street in London) note that the bones were likely placed there by William Hewson, who lived in the house for 2 years and who had built a small anatomy school at the back of the house. They note that while Franklin likely knew what Hewson was doing, he probably did not participate in any dissections because he was much more of a physicist than a medical man. [25]

^ “Benjamin Franklin: America’s Inventor” article from
^ Van Doren (1991)
^ Van Doren (1991)
^ Van Doren (1991)
^ The History Channel, Mysteries of the Freemasons: America, video documentary, August 1, 2006, written by Noah Nicholas and Molly Bedell
^ John C. van Horne, “The History and Collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia,” The Magazine Antiques, v. 170. no. 2: 58-65 (1971).
^ J.A. Leo Lemay, “Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004).[1]
^ Van Doren (1991)
^ Van Doren (1991)
^ Benjamin Franklin. “Part three”, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
^ Van Doren (1991)
^ [2]
^ [3]
^ Wolf, A., History of Science, Technology, and Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1939) p.232
^ [4]
^ [5]
^ Van Doren (1991)
^ Van Doren (1991)
^ Buchan, Crowded with Genius, p.2
^ Franklin, “A Narrative of the Late Massacres…”
^ Isaacson (2003).
^ Isaacson (2003)
^ Isaacson (2003)
^ Isaacson (2003)
^ Isaacson (2003)
^ Isaacson (2003)
^ David T. Morgan, “Benjamin Franklin: Champion of Generic Religion.” The Historian. 62#4 2000. pp 722+
^ Skousen, W. Cleon, “The Five Thousand Year Leap”, National Center for Constitutional Studies (1981), pp. 17-18.


3 Responses to “Benjamin Franklin”

  1. 1 barryhwwx February 19, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further write
    ups thank you once again.

  1. 1 Pages « Friends of the American Revolution Trackback on October 21, 2008 at 1:58 pm
  2. 2 Benjamin Franklin « Friends of the American Revolution Trackback on March 23, 2012 at 11:24 am

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