by Ed Gaustad
This year of 2006 marks the tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth in Boston (January 17, 1706). And many groups have deemed this occasion as worthy of some notice or even celebration. The city of Philadelphia, for example, is giving major attention to Franklin, notably in its newly erected National Constitution Center, and trained personnel who play the role of Franklin have found themselves “overbooked” this year, and not just in Philadelphia. Even the U. S. Postal System has gotten into the act by issuing its new 39-cent envelopes with the Franklin image stamped thereon. (He was, among many other things, the nation’s first postmaster.)
Yet, why celebrate Franklin in 2006?
The reasons are as numerous as the many facets of his personality and the many endeavors of his life. He is, for example, the model of the individual entrepreneur; as a penniless teenage printer in Philadelphia, he had by the age of 24 become the owner of his own prosperous printing business. In his early 40’s he had made enough money (especially with the publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack) to retire completely from the printing business.
But retirement for Franklin did not mean a life of indolence and ease. He had too many interests, too much curiosity, for that to ever happen. And so he soon developed the “Franklin Stove” that would heat Pennsylvania homes with greater efficiency and at less cost. Then he promoted the paving of Philadelphia’s streets, the lighting (by gas) of those streets, and the wider dispersion of knowledge among laboring men such as himself. His reputation in Philadelphia, however, soon spread throughout the western world with his “experiments and observations” concerning electricity, that powerful but poorly understood “fluid” in the 18th century. Once he solved many of electricity’s mysteries, he provided an immediate practical benefit: the lightning rod. The quick adoption of this instrument spared colonial cities (and European ones too) from the costly, devastating hazard of fires caused by lightning.
Meanwhile, politics intruded. In the second half of the 18th century, relationships between England and her colonies grew increasingly strained. Those tensions mounted to the point that the Pennsylvania Assembly thought it wise in 1757 to send a special representative to London to make the colonies’ case, Pennsylvania’s in particular. Benjamin Franklin—no surprise—was chosen as that special agent. Within a few more years, he served in a similar capacity for Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Parliament’s passage of the much-despised Stamp Act in 1765 made Franklin’s task much more difficult—and far more urgent. Franklin wrote letters to the British press, answered articles unfriendly to the American position, and lobbied without ceasing for better understanding between England and her thirteen North American colonies. But to little or no avail.
When the American Revolution broke out, Franklin—back in Philadelphia in 1775—played a key part in the deliberations and decisions of the Second Continental Congress. Those decisions included the appointment in 1775 of a Virginian, George Washington, as a commander of a Continental Army that did not yet exist , and the delegation in 1776 to Thomas Jefferson of the principal role in drawing up some sort of statement declaring the colonies’ reasons for now seeking a complete independence from England. The adoption of such a Declaration, of course, meant war. And to wage war against the most powerful military establishment in the world, America needed help.
That help might best come from France, and the securing of that help might best be achieved by Franklin. So aboard once more in 1776, the seventy-year-old Franklin sailed for France where he would remain for nine years, winning a critical alliance with that country (which brought both financial and military support) and helping to conclude in 1783 the Treaty of Paris with England that brought the Revolution to an end. His vital labors won wide acclaim, but he was not yet through.
The wobbly new nation needed a firmer political foundation than that provided by the Articles of Confederation. So to a 1787 gathering in Philadelphia, soon to be known as the Constitutional Convention, Franklin went as its most senior delegate. When it came time to approve (or not) the summer deliberations of this hard-working body, Franklin lent his not inconsiderable prestige to its approval, urging each member of the Convention to “doubt a little of his own infallibility.” One by one, the states in their separate ratifying conventions gave their blessing as well to this new and daring document, all 13 states finally voting their approval by 1790.
Now, Franklin was almost through. In the last years of his life, he accepted the presidency of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. The institution of slavery, this “atrocious debasement of human nature,” as Franklin called it, had to be driven out of the new United States. It had to be done carefully, with proper education for the newly freed, and with proper compensation to the slave owners–but it had to be done. Franklin would not live to see that great end achieved (he died in 1791), nor would any other of the nation’s founders.
All in all, the remarkable life of Benjamin Franklin does appear to be one worthy of celebration in this year of 2006.
Ed Gaustad is the author of Benjamin Franklin in the Lives and Legacies series and Professor of History and Religious Studies Emeritus at the University of California at Riverside.