The New Student's Reference Work/Franklin, Benjamin


Franklin, Benjamin. There is something perennial about the spirit of this great American patriot of civil life, philosopher, statesman, diplomat and writer. Though born in the infancy of science (on Jan. 17, 1706), and dying (on April 17, 1790) in the infancy of the republic he had helped establish, he projects himself into the interests and problems of to-day and of all times as does no other man who figures in American history. His many-sided genius, sublimated common-sense, practical citizenship, hospitality to new ideas and ideals and his moral courage make him a character to whom men of any age must have turned with confidence and hope. There is nothing in Franklin's ancestry or environment to account for him. In the family-history for four centuries behind him there had not been one man who rose above mediocrity, or one who fell below respectability. The Franklins were small landed-proprietors or tradesmen in Northamptonshire, England; simple, industrious, pious. The father emigrated to Boston in 1682, and set up in business as a candle-molder and soap-boiler. His tenth child was taken to the Old South Church, christened Benjamin, and dedicated to the ministry. Lack of money for the necessary education forced the boy to learn the printer's trade. Disputatious, sarcastic, vain, resenting control and given to expressing unpopular opinions the boy got into disrepute in the strict Puritan town. So, at 17, he ran away to Philadelphia. He landed with a silver dollar, a trade, plenty of self-confidence and a suddenly-formed resolution to turn over a new leaf, thus showing remarkable strength of character. Ever afterward he was noted for his suavity, avoidance of controversy and patience.

At 23 he owned his own printing-office and was publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette, which, is it claimed, survives to-day in The Saturday Evening Post. For the next 20 years he was the foremost journalist in the colonies. Poor Richard's Almanac, issued annually for a quarter of a century, made him known from city mansion to the remotest frontier-cabin. While making fame and fortune as a printer, publisher and writer, he was studying foreign languages and literatures, experimenting in science and taking a conspicuous part in local affairs. From 1736, when he was chosen clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, until 1786, when he returned from Paris at the close of the American Revolution, he was almost continually in the public service, and this without compensation. Big and little things alike claimed attention. Now he was organizing a police or fire-department or local militia; now putting a street-lamp before his gate and paving his sidewalk to arouse public spirit; building an Academy of Science; a church free for all denominations; collecting books for the first free circulating library; organizing a system of colonial defense against the Indian; inventing rockers for his easy-chair and a portable fireplace, called the Franklin stove, and refusing to take out patents. He always declared that as we are indebted to the ingenuity of men in the past, so it is only a duty to give our own contrivances to the present and future.

After 1760 (his 54th year) Franklin spent a quarter of a century abroad in the service of his country. His discovery of the identity of lightning and electricity had long before made him the best-known American in Europe. Learned societies and universities welcomed him, and he soon won equal distinction as a diplomat. Ten years he spent in London. He got the stamp-act repealed. An eminent English statesman declares to-day that had the king and Parliament accepted Franklin's just contention that the American colonies were self-governing, owing allegiance only to the sovereign, the Revolutionary War might never have been fought. Franklin, after a decade of working in vain for peace with honor and justice, returned to help frame the Declaration of Independence, to place $20,000 of his fortune at the service of Congress, and then cross the sea to win the help of France in the cause of American liberty. His position in Paris, although he represented poor, rebel colonies whose success seemed unlikely, was extraordinarily influential, unprecedented and never again equalled in the history of diplomacy. Camp and court and the world of science were at his feet. Never before had Europe seen a man at once so wise and witty, so urbane and with such upsetting ideas of the equality of men and of the duties of rulers. His simple dress became the fashion; his benign face adorned ornaments of cameo; his portrait was in college, palace and cottage. He was the first great plebeian standing upright before kings, and he fired the imagination of the people. This is believed to have had its influence in hastening the French Revolution.

It is flattering to our pride to learn that the mind, character and versatile genius of Franklin have been called an epitome of all that is best in the typical American. He won as the best among us win,—by straightforwardness. He introduced “shirt-sleeve” diplomacy into Europe; he had shrewdness, good nature, open-mindedness, persistence and infinite knowledge of the world and of human nature.

When Franklin returned to America, he was in his 86th year and begged for rest; but he became chairman of the municipal council, a member of the constitutional convention that drafted the constitution; and he organized the postal service, travelling in a carriage through every state. Conquered at last by the infirmities of age, he continued to give scientific discoveries to the world. His last public act was to affix his signature to a memorial to the state legislature, as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Abolition in 1790 brings Franklin into touch with Lincoln three quarters of a century later. He seems equally in touch with wireless telegraphy, aerial navigation, the currency and other questions of to-day. No life of him is comparable to his own autobiography. As literature it is a classic, and as a human document it is unsurpassed in its illuminating candor.