We know this polymath as a writer, publisher, printer, merchant, scientist, moral philosopher, international diplomat, and inventor. Musically he invented the glass harmonica, but he also invented the Franklin stove and started the first lending library and fire brigade in Philadelphia.
He did experiments in electricity and developed the lightning rod.
Born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, he was one of the earliest and oldest of the American Founding Fathers. He served as lobbyist to England, was first Ambassador to France, and has been called “The First American.”
He was one of the five drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, along with John Adams and primary drafter Thomas Jefferson. Franklin was 70. At 81 he served as the oldest delegate at the Constitutional Convention.
During the Revolutionary War, he served as Minister to France and managed, with his sagacity and salon celebrity, to convince the French King Louis XVI to support the American cause financially and militarily. He dazzled the salon crowd with his notoriety and flirtation, much to John Adam‘s chagrin. When a person appeared before the French king in Versailles, it was always without a hat. Franklin showed up in a coonskin cap. He captivated Paris society. He frequented the first and now oldest coffee house in Paris Café Procope as did other luminaries of the time like Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, Voltaire and a young Napoleon Bonaparte.
He was the most famous private citizen in America and the most celebrated American in Europe. Though he never went past the second grade in school, he was often referred to as “Doctor Franklin” in public. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate by both the University of St. Andrews and Oxford University as well as honorary Masters Degrees at Harvard and Yale.
Following the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as Benjamin Franklin exited the Philadelphia State House he was reportedly asked by the outspoken Mrs. Elizabeth Willing Powel of Philadelphia, the leading saloniste, acquainted with John Adams and a close personal friend of George Washington,
“Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?“
Franklin’s famous reply was,
“A republic, madam, if you can keep it.“
As a moral philosopher, he was a personal mystery. Though he believed that the new Republic could survive only if its citizens were virtuous and he wrote pithy and wise sayings in “Poor Richards’ Almanac” — he did not live by all of them himself. He is usually considered a deist, at least in the early part of his life, nevertheless, he proposed clergy-led prayer each morning during the Constitutional Convention in June of 1787. He said “God governs the affairs of men” yet he also said, “I have some doubts as to [Jesus’] divinity.” He was a huge fan and supporter of the international evangelist George Whitfield and would go on to publish all his sermons, though he did not subscribe to Whitfield’s theology.
Puritan Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, knew of Franklin’s deist leanings, but wanted, if possible, to pin down the nimble-footed freethinker to some basics. In friendship, Stiles asked for some kind of creedal confession, however limited. Franklin, who said that this was the first time he had ever been asked, on March 9, 1790, readily obliged:
“Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe: that he governs the world by his providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we can 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 respect[ing] its conduct 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.”
Also, Stiles wanted to know specifically what Franklin thought of Jesus: Was Franklin really a Christian or not? Franklin responded that Jesus had taught the best system of morals and religion that “the world ever saw.” But on the troublesome question of the divinity of Jesus, he had along with other deists “some doubts.” It was an issue, he said, that he had never carefully studied and, writing only five weeks before his death, he thought it “needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opport[unity] of know[ing]the truth with less trouble.” It would be difficult to burn a heretic like that.
For his own epitaph, Franklin wrote at the age of 22:
“The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out, stripped of its lettering, and gilding, lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author.”
After he died though, his will stipulated that on his gravestone appear only “BENJAMIN And DEBORAH FRANKLIN 1790.” His funeral in Philadelphia attracted the largest crowd of mourners ever known, an estimated 20,000 mourners.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian