Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard's Almanac in the city of Philadelphia.
Benjamin Franklin, born in 1706, is best known for his civic work in Philadelphia pushing for the independence of the Americas as well as his work as an inventor and scientist, his most popular experiment being the kite he flew during a lightning storm to prove statements regarding electricity. His most notable publication was Poor Richard’s Almanack, written under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, giving advice, citing moral proverbs, and publishing general pieces about life, some comical and others practical. He was a significant American patriot for the bulk of his life, working hard to cultivate America almost up until the day he died in 1790.
When speaking of Benjamin Franklin, J. Henry Smythe said “[he] was the first of American diplomats and in his simplicity, his candor, his intellectual power, ardent patriotism and in the desire which dominated his every action to be of practical service to humanity, he has for all time set the standards for American diplomacy.”
Benjamin Franklin was one of seventeen children, the youngest son, born January 6, 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts, to Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger. He had very little formal education – a year at South Grammar School and another year at George Brownell’s English school, but the cost became too much for his family to bear. Instead, Franklin worked for his father making soap and candles until the age of twelve, when he signed on with his older brother James in a nine-year indenture to work at his printing shop. This position heightened his love of books and reading, a pastime which taught him how to write proper essays, copying down already written texts and rewriting them his own way. Eager to try his new talents, he secretly wrote essays for his brother’s newspaper, New England Courant, under the pen name of “Silence Dogood.” On two occasions when his brother was imprisoned for speaking out against the clergy, Franklin was left in charge of the printing shop, becoming acquainted with every aspect of the business. When he and James quarreled in 1723, Franklin moved to New York and then Philadelphia. Confident in his printing skills, he was able to find work in a printing shop for a short time, moved to London briefly, but returned to Philadelphia two years later, continuing his work in printing and taking over the Pennsylvania Gazette. He wed Deborah Read in a common law marriage in 1730. They gave birth to a son, Francis, who died four years later of smallpox and later a daughter, Sarah. Franklin also had an illegitimate son, William, who they raised as their own.
Franklin spent most of his life in Philadelphia, working at everything including founding the Junto, a young men’s group dedicated to bettering oneself; organizing the first Fire Company; writing pieces urging certain laws to be passed regarding printing or currency; doing scientific research on storm systems and electricity; and inventing bifocals. This passion for scientific study and invention is one that lasted throughout his life, earning him recognition in most every country he visited. It was not until 1747 that Franklin became truly involved in the politics of Philadelphia as well as the colonies as a whole. Since the government could not seem to organize a proper militia to defend the colonies against foreign invaders and Indians, Franklin wrote a piece explaining the dangerous situation and urging private citizens to take up arms and defend their home. In this piece, he included one of America’s first political cartoons, using the lesson that “God helps those who help themselves.” This cartoon bore the famous caption “Join, or Die,” depicting the colonies as a snake in several separate pieces. This paper was wildly successful and elevated him to a local hero of sorts. In 1748, he retired from printing altogether in order to devote his time to civic and scientific affairs. He was named city councilman, Postmaster General of North America, founded what would later become the University of Pennsylvania, helped garner funds for the first hospital in America – Pennsylvania Hospital – and much more.
Of all of the work Benjamin Franklin did, he is probably best remembered for his work pushing for the unification and independence of the American colonies. He was one of the first to support this notion, publishing a variety of pieces denouncing the treatment of the colonies by the British as well as urging the colonies to unify. His ideas were revolutionary and, initially, too radical for the present government. They rejected his plans again and again, fearing independence and isolation from the British superpower. Regardless, he became one of America’s first patriots. As the colonies needed money to function properly, and as the proprietor of Pennsylvania (William Penn and family) refused to pay taxes on their lands, the Privy Council appointed Franklin to travel to England in order to petition the King. During his stay, he was successful not only in winning his battle with the Penns but also with the British in general – he worked overtime trying to enlighten them about America. He was a walking propaganda machine, trying to set right many ill-conceived notions the British had about the colony.
When he returned to Philadelphia, he worked exhaustively to change the system of government from a proprietary government to a royal government, which would give more power to the legislature, taking it from the Penn family, who had become extremely difficult regarding taxation. Though he could not seem to persuade the Assembly to make the change, he was sent back to England by its supporters in order to petition the King to make the change to royal government for them. While in England, the Stamp Act was passed, requiring Americans to be taxed without their consent, and Philadelphia erupted in rage. As the colonial administration collapsed, Franklin worked fervently to write against the Stamp Act and urge its repeal and even testified in a British court for its eventual repeal. However, turmoil continued between England and the Americas, so Franklin was forced to stay, even though his wife suffered a stroke and eventually died in 1774. Up until he left England in 1775, he worked constantly not only trying to repair the image the British had of the colonists, but also to repair the relationships between the two governments. However, with events like the Boston Tea Party and his scolding by the British in front of the Privy Council, it was beyond repair. He left England having failed to accomplish his goal of a royal government for the Americas.
When he returned to Pennsylvania, he was selected for the Continental Congress and became one of its most outspoken and radical members, calling for stronger powers for the central government and a confederation to be formed between the New England colonies. Though it took perseverance and determination, he was eventually able to convince the colonies around him to call for independence. Franklin assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Knowing full well that America could not succeed in its revolution without outside assistance, he was sent to France in order to request aid in the defense of the colonies, a task at which he was wildly successful. He managed to convince the French to send not only financial assistance but military assistance as well. During his stay, he also became extremely popular in France, meeting the likes of Voltaire and Louis XVI. He stayed in France until 1785, not long after the war ended and the peace treaty with Great Britain was ratified.
Franklin lived out his final few years in Philadelphia, doing his scientific research, writing philosophical musings, and being part of the Constitutional Convention, acting not only as a vocal member but as a pacifist who helped push the Constitution into existence. In his final years, he was an avid anti-slavery writer, writing to Congress in the hopes of abolishing it. Though he did not succeed, he was one of the most vocal men on the subject at the time. Before he died, Franklin completed his final book, an autobiography, The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin; in this book, he wrote down his entire life as well as the principles by which he attempted to live, in order to instruct his son about himself and about life in general: “Speak not but what may benefit others or your self. Avoid trifling conversation.” In March of 1790, he died in his Philadelphia home from pleurisy and was buried in Christ Church beside his wife and son.
Silence Dogood. Boston, 1722.
A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. London, 1725.
Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. Philadelphia, 1728.
A Modest Inquiry into the Nature and Necessity of Paper Currency. Philadelphia, 1729.
Poor Richard’s Almanack. Philadelphia, 1732.
A Proposal Promoting Useful Knowledge. Philadelphia, 1741.
The General Magazine. Philadelphia, 1741.
The Way to Wealth. Philadelphia, 1757.
Father Abraham’s Sermon. London, 1758.
Observations Relative to the Intentions of the Original Founders of the Academy in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, 1789.
Petition to Congress on the Abolish of Slavery. Philadelphia, 1790.
The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia, 1791.