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benjamin franklin

citizen ben
wit and wisdom
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timeline: 1742
citizen ben
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drawing: Pennsylvania Hospital
The east wing of Pennsylvania Hospital's Pine Building
Benjamin Franklin founded or helped found numerous organizations and institutions—fire-fighting clubs, academies, hospitals, libraries, and insurance companies. Although important, his roles in those institutions take a back seat to his part in helping found the United States of America.

Of all the founding fathers, Franklin has the unique distinction of having signed all three of the major documents that freed the colonies from British rule and established the United States as an independent nation: the Declaration of Independence, The Treaty of Paris, and the United States Constitution.

Declaration of Independence
In 1776, Franklin was appointed by the Continental Congress to a committee charged with drafting a formal document to justify the colonies' decision of severing political ties with Britain. The other members of the committee included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. The committee gave Jefferson the task of writing the first draft. Franklin, although a talented writer, took a back seat in drafting the document, blaming his lack of participation on poor health.

Jefferson sent his finished draft to Franklin for review. Franklin put on his editor's hat, but made only a few slight changes to Jefferson's prose. When the draft was submitted to Congress, however, sentence after sentence was either deleted or changed, much to the dismay of Jefferson.

Later, Jefferson recalled a story that Franklin told him as members of Congress picked away at the draft.
"I have made a rule, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, 'John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,' with a figure of a hat subjoined. But thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word 'Hatter' tautologous, because followed by the words 'makes hats,' which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word 'makes' might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy them, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words 'for ready money' were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, 'John Thompson sells hats.' 'Sells hats!' says the next friend. 'Why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?' It was stricken out, and 'hats' followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So the inscription was reduced ultimately to 'John Thompson,' with the figure of a hat subjoined."
After several drafts, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The actual document was not signed until August, when Benjamin Franklin signed his name along with the fifty-five other representatives of the thirteen colonies.

The Treaty of Paris
In 1781, Benjamin Franklin was in France. He had been in Paris since 1776, as Minister to France. He had successfully negotiated a treaty of alliance between the French and the united colonies and had secured loans from the French government which helped finance the American revolution against the British.

Franklin understood the French and knew that real diplomacy wasn't accomplished at the negotiating table, but at the dinner table. He spent a great deal of time in the salons and at dinner parties where things could be discussed in an informal manner. In this way, he won the trust and respect of the French court. In the meantime, John Adams felt that Franklin was just enjoying himself while he and John Jay worked.

Although the Continental Congress wanted to negotiate a treaty directly with Great Britain, the French wanted to arrange for a three-way treaty that would end the war between France and England, as well as between England and the colonies. There was some concern on the part of the Congress, as well as other commission members, that Franklin might be unduly influenced by France in the negotiations. Months passed and various offers and counteroffers were made by the former colonies and Great Britain. In addition, France was negotiating settlements with Great Britain that involved portions of the North American continent.

Adams and Jay made an end run around France to negotiate a treaty directly with Great Britain. The British made an incredible offer, one that gave the Americans almost more than they were demanding. Franklin recognized that the British offer was the best that could be had. The French were offended that the Americans had gone behind their back. Franklin used his connections and his diplomatic skills to convince the French that Adams and Jay had acted out of lack of propriety, not hostility. In late November 1782, the Paris pact was signed and sent back to Great Britain and the American Congress for ratification. Thanks to Franklin's diplomacy, along with Adams' and Jay's work, the United States was recognized as a separate and equal nation by the world's great superpowers, France and Great Britain.

The Constitution
Although Franklin was eighty-one years old and in generally poor health, he participated as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia with George Washington presiding. Many of the delegates had widely different ideas about how the country should be organized and run, including Franklin. For instance, he believed that executive power was too great to be placed in the hands of one person and that a committee was a much better option. Alexander Hamilton, on the other end of the argument, wanted a single executive, appointed for life. The convention chose a single executive with a limited term.

For the legislative branch, Franklin favored a unicameral legislature. His beliefs were not favored by the majority, however. The convention deliberated over a way to provide equal representation for both small and large states. Franklin helped break the deadlock and pave the way for what became known as the "great compromise." Larger states would have their way in the lower house of the legislature, where representatives would be selected according to population. The upper house or Senate would have an equal number of senators from each state.

In September 1787, the Constitution was completed, but many delegates were disgruntled. Franklin wrote an impassioned speech, in which he used his persuasive powers to urge all delegates to sign the Constitution. Franklin admitted that it was an imperfect document but probably the best they could expect. Following the speech, the Constitution was signed. To Franklin's disappointment, some delegates still refused to sign.

As the representatives signed the Constitution, Franklin watched. The president's chair was at the front of the hall, and a sun was painted on the back of the chair. Franklin told some of the members near him that it was always difficult for painters to show the difference between the rising sun and the setting sun. He said that during the convention he had often looked at the painted sun and wondered "...whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

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