Benjamin Franklin portrait

The Longstanding Legacy of Benjamin Franklin and His Writing

If you live in the United States, there’s no escaping Benjamin Franklin’s legacy. His face is still printed on hundred-dollar bills. The theories about electricity that he contributed remain in use today. His witty sayings are plastered all over inspirational Pinterest posts. There’s even speculation that he was part of a secret society during his lifetime. You can read more about that here.

He contributed positively to many fields during his lifetime – including science, politics and culture. But there is, perhaps, no field that benefited more than literature. Franklin was many things – an inventor, diplomat, printer and publisher. Yet, his first love was always the written word. Ultimately, throughout his life, it was through his writing that he was able to have such a strong impact.

Who was Benjamin Franklin?

An illustration of a grey-haired man in spectacles reading a paper at a desk.
David Martin’s painting of Franklin, titled “Benjamin Franklin” (1767). Image credit: pafa.org.

This section will briefly cover the main events of Benjamin Franklin’s life. It will also cover the context of the political and cultural world to which he regularly contributed.

Early life

Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706. He was the 10th son of 17 children. His father, Josiah, was a maker of soap and candles. This was considered to be the lowliest of artisan crafts at the time.

Franklin was an early avid reader. He spent one year in grammar school and another with a private tutor. However, his formal education ended at age 10, due to his father being unable to pay for his studies. At age 12, Josiah apprenticed Franklin at his older brother James’s print shop. Thus began Franklin’s lifelong association with and love for the trade.

Though James frequently beat and mistreated Franklin, the latter learned a lot about the publishing industry under the former’s tutelage. Franklin achieved mastery of the printer’s trade between 1718 and 1723. During the same period, he read voraciously and taught himself the art of writing.

 The dawn of Franklin’s writing career

Franklin’s first love was poetry. However, he was discouraged by what he believed to be the low quality of his own. He quickly gave it up in favour of writing prose.

During his apprenticeship, he discovered a volume of The Spectator that featured the periodical essays of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. In this, he felt there was hope for majorly improving his writing. He read these papers repeatedly, copying and recopying them. He was so intent on improving his writing that he even tried to recall the papers from memory.

Franklin realized that writing well, during his time, was a rare talent. So rare was it that anyone who did manage to do it well was immediately placed at the centre of social and cultural attention.

When Franklin was sixteen, his older brother James founded a weekly newspaper, the New-England Courant. Readers were invited to contribute regularly. Franklin, being his brother’s apprentice, read and set in type many of these contributions. This experience made him realize he could probably write just as well as the contributors. In 1722, he decided to submit 14 essays written under the pseudonym of “Mrs Silence Dogood”. Dogood was a fictional middle-aged widow who would satirize a wealth of topics, from funeral eulogies to fashion.

James and his friends were delighted by this contribution – not knowing that it was written by Benjamin. They were convinced that the writing was so skilled, it could only have come from a mature, talented genius. Eventually, however, James uncovered that it was Benjamin who had penned the letters. This, combined with James’ general aggression, led Franklin to flee Boston for Philadelphia in 1723.

Philadelphia

For the next few years, Franklin held down a variety of jobs – including bookkeeper, shopkeeper and currency cutter. As of 1728, he returned to printing paper currency in New Jersey. Shortly afterwards, he partnered with a friend to open up his own print shop in Philadelphia, publishing government books and pamphlets. In 1730, Franklin’s experience within the printing industry earned him the title of “official printer of Pennsylvania”. On September 1, 1730, he had a common-law marriage to Deborah Reading – the daughter of the family with whom he lived during his younger years in Philadelphia.

By then, he had created the “Junto” – a social and self-improvement study group for young men, meeting every Friday to debate a series of topics including morality, politics, culture and philosophy. Eventually, in 1731, Junto members desired to expand their reading and discussion choices. This led Franklin to create and officiate America’s first subscription library, the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The existence of the Junto symbolizes one of the greatest overarching themes of Franklin’s life – and, indeed, one of the things he is most remembered for. That is, his diligence and willingness to constantly self-reflect and self-improve. Particularly evident is his strong belief in the power of education as a method of self-improvement.

By 1748, Franklin was 42 years old and had become one of Pennsylvania’s richest men. He also became a soldier in the Pennsylvania militia. He turned over his printing business to a friend, thus giving him more time to perform scientific experiments and explore his ideas for inventions.

Franklin the inventor

Since he had accumulated enough wealth at this point, Franklin moved to a new, larger house in a quieter part of Philadelphia. He abandoned the printer’s trade, due to the societal convention that no busy artisan could be a gentleman. Instead, he became a silent partner in the printing firm of Franklin and Hall – from which he would gain an average annual profit of over $600 annually.

During this period, Franklin used his time to educate himself in philosophy, politics, and science. Specifically, he chose to cultivate his scientific experience through his inventions. Over the course of his life, he was responsible for several inventions, many of which remain significant today.

The first, created around 1740, was a stove that provided more heat with less fuel, thereby making it more efficient. Throughout the 1740s, he also experimented with electricity, publishing his findings in an 1751 book titled Experiments and Observations on Electricity.

In 1761, Franklin commenced the development of his favourite invention – the armonica, a musical instrument comprising spinning glass bowls on a shaft. This instrument was utilized by both Mozart and Beethoven – but fell out of popularity around the turn of the century.

Alongside those, Franklin’s other scientific contributions and findings include uncovering the distinction between insulators and conductors, proving the identity of lightning and electricity, contributing new vocabulary to the science of electricity (including conductor, charge, discharge, condense, and electrify). He demonstrated that electricity was a single “fluid” with positive and negative (+/-) charges rather than, as conventionally believed, two separate kinds of fluids. As a result, his fame spread rapidly.

Franklin’s political career

Franklin joined the Philadelphia City Council in 1748. A year later, he became a justice of the peace; and in 1751, he became a city alderman and member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. His greatest political interest, however, was the British Empire – which he viewed as “the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected.”. In 1753, Franklin also became a royal officeholder, deputy postmaster general, and in charge of mail in all northern colonies.

Over the grand course of Franklin’s political involvement, he contributed many things. He had a hand in the writing of the Declaration of Independence. He also partook in drafting the Articles of Confederation, America’s first national constitution. In addition, he negotiated the Treaty of Paris – which put an end to the American Revolutionary War. This article hasn’t gone into much depth regarding the American Revolution, so if you’re looking for more details, click here.

In addition, he was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that wrote the Constitution of the United States of America in Philadelphia. He was also a diplomatic representative of the new American republic in France during the French Revolution – garnering so much social recognition that the way he styled his hair even became trendy among the men of France.

Death

Towards the end of his life, Franklin complained frequently of ailments – it turned out, he was suffering from gout. It was this illness that eventually killed him in April 1790.

At the time of his death, he had fallen out of favor with both his friends and family in the United States. This was mainly due to the fact that he had spent the majority of his life outside of the country, in France and London.

Nonetheless, around 20,000 mourners attended his funeral in Philadelphia. In June 1970, the Frenchman Count Mirabeau suggested to the French National Assembly that they, too, should mourn Franklin’s death.

Franklin’s relationship to slavery

A sheet of yellowed paper titled "The Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society Promoting the Abolition of Slavery."y,
The constitution of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, of which Franklin later became a part. Image credit: ushistory.org.

When discussing the life of Franklin, it’s important to place it in context and understand another very significant – yet largely ignored – aspect of 18th-century life. Slavery, as an institution, was still alive and legal. Unfortunately, despite Franklin’s wider political involvement, he did not speak up about the harm caused by slavery. That is, not until later in his life.

Franklin’s involvement with slavery

Overall, like other white Americans of his day, he profited from both the domestic and international slave trade. He staunchly defended enslavers during the Revolution, and lamented the ease with which enslaved people and servants fled to the British army during the colonial wars of the 1740s and 50s. For more on Franklin’s involvement with slavery and racism, two incredibly insightful, detailed, and well-written articles have been linked for convenience, here and here.

Alongside the acquirement of new property in 1748, Franklin also had several enslaved people working in his new home and the print shop. Over the next two decades, however, Franklin’s views on slavery would evolve so much that he would eventually recognize the institution’s inherent injustice and wrongness.

The evolution of Franklin’s understanding of slavery

In 1759, Franklin met Anthony Benezet, who later co-founded the Abolition Society. In 1763, Franklin wrote that “African shortcomings and ignorance” were not natural – as was, mistakenly, believed at the time, attempting to justify their enslavement – but stemmed from a lack of education, enslavement, and negative environments. For the context in which he lived, this take was a relatively insightful one.

With this in mind, he freed his enslaved people in the 1760s. In 1787, he also served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. This society, originally formed under a different name in April 1775, advocated for the abolition of slavery alongside making efforts to integrate freed slaves into American society afterwards. It focused on abolishing slavery as an institution – but, equally, abolishing its remnants in other institutions, such as education, moral instruction, and employment.

During this time, he wrote many tracts urging the abolition of the institution. Notably, in 1790 – not long before his death – he petitioned the U.S. Congress to end both slavery and the slave trade.

Franklin’s words

An illustration of Franklin writing on a piece of paper with a white feather quill. He is seated at a desk, likely in a study, by a large window.
Franklin doing one of the things he loved best – writing. Image credit: blinkist.com.

This concluding section will focus on the written works of Benjamin Franklin, as well as their cultural and political impact.

Poor Richard’s Almanack

“Poor Richard’s Almanack” catapulted Franklin to further financial success and fame. This text, which he published every year from 1733 to 1758, became known for its witty aphorisms. Often, they were concerned about the necessity and significance of diligence, economy, and hard work. An example of this is the famous saying “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

Almanacs were a popular era of the genre. People printed almanacs annually, and included in them things like weather reports, recipes, and predictions. Franklin published his almanac under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders, a fictional poor man who required money to look after his constantly complaining wife.

The Way to Wealth

Franklin compiled the content he used for Poor Richard’s Almanack into a short 30-page pocket-sized book, titling it The Way to Wealth. Franklin intended it to be used as a more succinct version of the almanac. It primarily focused on offering its readers financial advice.

Franklin’s Autobiography

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is perhaps one of his most famous works. In it, he details his many life experiences, from childhood to adulthood. He originally called this work his “Memoirs”. However, editors later changed it to “Autobiography”. He wrote the text as if he were writing letters to his illegitimate son, William – whom he had a falling out with later in his life. Franklin wrote the text long after the fight. He imbues it with details of his faults, achievements, beliefs about religion, and, of course, his writing career.

In addition, he discussed his ancestry in extensive detail. Given his intention for writing the text, this was likely so that his son would acknowledge his background. Franklin always wanted his children – and others – to remember his humble beginnings, in order to appreciate how far he had come.

Unfinished works

Right up until his death, Franklin was working on a final book. He left the book unfinished. He initially intended it to be a planned, detailed guide to living. In it, he included wisdom he had accumulated over the course of his life, on a variety of topics.

Eventually, editor George L. Rogers compiled these notes into a single book. He published them under the name “Benjamin Franklin’s The Art of Virtue: His Formula for Successful Living”.

The cultural significance of Franklin and his words

A picture of the original autobiography of Franklin, titled "Memoirs". On the left page, there is a picture of Franklin himself, and on the write, the title page.
A copy of Franklin’s original autobiography, titled “Memoirs”.

To this day, you don’t have to look far to see the legacy Franklin has left behind him in the USA. With an abundance of parks, schools, towns, and universities named after him, there is no downplaying his influence. As this article has noted, he made numerous significant contributions to a wide variety of fields – from science to politics – and on consistently wide scales.

However, it is his eloquent, intelligent, and efficient manner of self-expression – through his writing – that ties it all together. It is, arguably, through language and literature that Franklin made the greatest impact. Millions continue to quote the witty words from his Poor Richard’s Almanack in times of difficulty. The many political treatises that he drafted, contributed to, and signed helped majorly shape the direction of his country. And the intimate details of his autobiography, above all, help us remember him. Not as the man we want him to be, but as the man he was.

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