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Early in life, Franklin developed a love of reading. As he recalled in his autobiography, "From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books. Pleased with the Pilgrim's Progress, my first collection was of John Bunyan's works in separate little volumes. My old favorite author, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress… has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, and suppose it has been more generally read than any other book, except perhaps the Bible."
As a youth, Franklin was apprenticed to his older brother James, as a printer. Using several different pen names, Benjamin contributed many articles to James' newspaper. However, Benjamin felt his brother mistreated him and in 1723, he ran away to Philadelphia, then the largest city in British North America.
In Philadelphia, Franklin began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette, which was the longest lived and most successful of colonial newspapers. He published his Poor Richard's Almanack for twenty-five years; it was filled with witty sayings penned by Franklin and others. Franklin often borrowed material and rewrote it as he saw fit.
Franklin became one of Philadelphia's leading citizens, founding a sanitation department, a fire brigade, the American Philosophical Society, and the first circulating library in British North America.
He recalled that his "parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist."
Franklin remained a deist until the end of his life. In a letter dated March 9, 1790, a little more than a month before his death, Franklin outlined his beliefs to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale:
- "Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its conduct in in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.
- "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and His Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubt as to his Divinity; tho' it is a question I need not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm in its being believed, if that belief has the good Consequence, as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive, that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Unbelievers in his Government of the world with any peculiar Marks of his Displeasure."
This quote reflects Franklin’s leanings toward deism. In the first paragraph, Franklin professes a belief in a god, but does not name that deity. In the second paragraph, Franklin acknowledges that Jesus Christ existed, but he doubts he is the son of God. While he recognizes the value of Christ’s moral teachings, he thinks they may have been corrupted over time.
As Franklin grew older, he recognized that Christianity had positive effects on colonial society, yet he never became a Christian himself. Franklin befriended George Whitefield, the best known of the Great Awakening evangelicals. The two also had a business relationship, with Franklin printing nearly all of Whitefield’s North American sermons. After one of Whitefield's sermons, Franklin noted the "wonderful… change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."[note 1]
Franklin was also a member of a secret society named the Hellfire Club, where, according to some, he and his fellow club members often engaged in Satanic rituals including sacrificial rites, prostitution and orgies. Similarly, those people who will emphasise this supposedly scandalous and outrageous behavior will also point to Franklin's alleged links to the Freemasons (very plausible as loads of upper class people in the British Empire were either members of masonic lodges or close friends with those who were; conspiracy theorists will of course see this as sinister confirmation of their darkest fears) and the Illuminati (unlikely, as the actual Illuminati were a tiny Bavarian group that only existed for just over a decade in the 1770s and '80s, not the tentacled monstrosity of conspiracy/NWO lore).
Careless research into early American history can result in confusion between the well-known deist and an obscure fundamentalist preacher, his distant cousin. Check your dates carefully.
By age 42, Franklin was wealthy enough to retire from the newspaper business, and devoted most of his time to his scientific pursuits. Franklin invented bi-focal lenses, a heat-efficient stove, swim fins, a flexible urinary catheter, a version of the odometer, and a musical instrument called the glass armonica. His famous experiment with a kite won him membership in the prestigious Royal Society, but it also had a practical effect: it led to Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod, and increased his fortune when he was contracted to fit them to all the ships in the Royal Navy. By 1750, Franklin was easily the most famous of the King’s North American subjects. While Franklin thought of himself as a loyal subject, he did question some of the Crown’s actions. In 1754, he proposed the Albany Plan of Union, which would have united the colonies (and the Iroquois League as well) under a Royal governor, and given the colonies the power to tax themselves. Many of the colonies did not send representatives to Albany, and nothing came of the plan.
Franklin put his prestige on the line to assist the expedition of British general Edward Braddock to capture Fort Duquesne (present day Pittsburgh) from the French. Pennsylvania’s Quaker dominated legislature refused to help provide supplies for the expedition, so Franklin made an appeal for colonists to provide provisions, horses, and wagons for Braddock’s army. In his autobiography, Franklin recalled questioning Braddock about the expedition’s chances of success. Braddock assured him he would easily capture the fort. After the disaster that Braddock met on the Monongahela, Franklin was less sanguine about accepting professional military opinion.
In 1757, Franklin went to London to represent Pennsylvania in its quarrel with William Penn’s heirs (Pennsylvania was the last of the proprietary colonies). He remained abroad for eighteen years, not returning to American until 1775.
During Franklin’s tenure in England, he also represented several other colonies and became a regular observer, and unofficial representative of the colonies. In 1765, he assured British politicians that Americans would accept the Stamp Act, but news of colonial protest caused him to back away from that position. Afterwards, Franklin regularly opposed English attempts to tax the colonies.
All the founding fathers are complicated. Like most of the others, he owned slaves (two, named George and King), most likely had a sexual relationship with at least one, and for most of his life, he spoke of black people as an inferior race. Initially, his support of abolitionism was an economic one, but somewhere around the 1760s, he did opine that negroes appear to be inferior because of nurture rather than nature—that society was keeping them uneducated and subservient. During the time we tend to focus on in our remembrance of him, he was against slavery: after a trip to France in 1785, he became an abolitionist, eventually becoming the president of an organization called "the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage."
American Revolution and legacy
Returning from England in 1775, Franklin surprised some by coming out in favor of independence. For Franklin, this stance carried a personal price. His son William, the Royal Governor of New Jersey, remained loyal to the Crown, and father and son never reconciled (though not for lack of effort on his son's part).
Until the end of the American Revolution, he was easily the most famous American in the world. He was one of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers, early political figures and statesmen of the United States.
He served as the Continental Congress ambassador to France, where he was instrumental in obtaining military and economic support for the struggle against England. In Paris, Franklin attracted attention by attending many of the salons and downplayed his status as Dr. Franklin. Instead, he sometimes cultivated the image of a rustic American, sometimes wearing a coonskin cap. Franklin's popularity helped in securing monetary and later military support from the French.
Franklin is one of the few non-presidents whose likeness appears on U.S. currency. Franklin graces the $100 bill while Alexander Hamilton appears on the $10 bill. Also, the hip-hop slang term for a $100 bill is a "Benjamin".
A franchise chain of variety and craft stores, named "Ben Franklin", first opened in 1927 and is still in business today.
Did you know...
- …that despite his usual depiction as an overweight, gout stricken old man, young Franklin was actually quite the athlete, setting several records in swimming, and was an avid weightlifter?
- …that amongst Franklin's many public literary works are essays entitled Fart Proudly and Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress?
- …that Franklin didn't actually nominate the wild turkey over the bald eagle for the national seal? His own suggestion for the seal, deist though he was, was the scene of the Pharaoh's army drowning in the Red Sea, with Moses and his fellow refugees in the foreground. If you'd forced the seal to be an animal, he probably would have suggested the rattlesnake.
- …that Franklin intentionally never patented any of his inventions? In his autobiography, he wrote, "…as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."
- …that Franklin was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia by the British Crown in 1737, and the first Postmaster General of the United Colonies in 1775?
- …that there are 26 counties and parishes, 46 municipalities, 3 geological features, 6 colleges and universities, and even a crater on the Moon named after Benjamin Franklin?
- …that Franklin didn't consider Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, Swedes or even Germans white? Only Saxons and English made "the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth"
- At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Franklin proposed a prayer for divine intervention to aid the troubled proceedings.
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin at Project Gutenberg (searchable text file)
- The Library Company of Philadelphia Still exists!
- "Oldest Library", Sturgis Library
- http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=Fra2Aut.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=all The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p.57
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p.104-108
- Dave J Stewart — the Satanic HELLFIRE CLUB! (oh noez!!) http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/False%20Religions/Illuminati/hellfire_club.htm
- Citizen Ben, Abolitionist Twin Cities public television
- Wikipedia: List of places named for Benjamin Franklin
- Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc. - Benjamin Franklin