Biography: Benjamin Franklin
Ever prescient, John Adams rightly predicted that Benjamin Franklin would forever occupy an elevated position in the American imagination. He was, after all, the man who risked life and limb to fly a kite in a lightning storm. (He was well insulated, it turns out, and in no danger of being electrocuted.) The eclectic inventor, scientist, author, and statesman, who was lionized at home and abroad, did not count John Adams among his admirers.
Born on January 17, 1706, to a poor English chandler (a candle and soap maker) living in Boston, Franklin was the 15th of 17 children. Franklin left school at 10 and began an apprenticeship in his brother's print shop at 12. At 17 he ran away, first to Philadelphia, then to London, then back to Philadelphia, where he set up a print shop and began to publish The Pennsylvania Gazette.
A Man of Ideas and Inventions
The creations and inventions of Franklin's adult life are legendary and far-flung. He published the oft-quoted Poor Richard's Almanack, established Philadelphia's first public library, and created both America's first volunteer firefighting company and the first fire insurance company. He opened the University of Pennsylvania, founded the American Philosophical Society for scientists, and obtained a charter to start America's first hospital, the Pennsylvania Hospital. Around 1748 Franklin began his electricity research, establishing electricity and meteorology as viable fields of study. The list of his inventions included: bifocals; the medical catheter; the odometer; the Franklin stove (a wood burning stove that made home heating safer); and, of course, the lightning rod. Later, while in France, he pioneered the idea of daylight saving time, which moved an hour of daylight from morning to evening during summer months in order to save energy.
Politics and Diplomacy
Having accumulated a modest fortune, Franklin retired at age 42 and turned to politics. Between 1766 and 1775, Franklin was Pennsylvania's agent in London, where he testified before the British Parliament about the colony's attitude toward the despised Stamp Act. He explained that colonists could tolerate duties to regulate commerce, but Parliament was not to levy internal taxes. The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766. After a brief return to America, where he served as a member of the Second Continental Congress, Franklin was dispatched to France to secure recognition of the new United States. Esteemed in America, he was revered in France. Shortly after Adams arrived in paris, he wrote to Abigail Adams: "His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady's chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with it. ... " Women had taken to wearing a version of Franklin's trademark bearskin cap, and his likeness was everywhere. Franklin was seen as the quintessential American, ascending from humble origins, imbued with the endearing qualities of "simplicity and innocence." Never mind that he had lived in London for 16 years. His super-star status served him well in his diplomacy.
Adams could not match Franklin's charisma. In 1777 the two men served on a joint diplomatic commission with Arthur Lee of Virginia. Although they were meant to act together, Franklin had negotiated an alliance with France more than two months before Adams' arrival in Paris. Later Franklin was named the first American minister to France. Despite their differences, Franklin and Adams eventually found a way to work together, and with John Jay they negotiated the Treaty of Paris that officially ended The Revolutionary War. Of the "Founding Fathers," Benjamin Franklin alone signed the three pivotal documents associated with the nation's birth: the Declaration of Independence; the Treaty of Paris; and the United States Constitution.
The World Stood Still
Franklin's long European sojourn ended with his return to America in 1785. With electricity explained and independence achieved, he turned his attention to the abolition of slavery. Before this goal could be achieved, however, Franklin died on April 17, 1790. The nation, and particularly Philadelphia, mourned the loss of its favorite son and paid him unprecedented public tributes. Adams, then vice president, watched the homages cynically. In a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush he predicted that future generations would believe that "The essence of the [American Revolution was] that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation, and war."