AB rief Biography of Benjamin Franklin by H9ogoZc


									                          A Brief Biography of Benjamin Franklin
                                  Donald A. Duhadaway Jr.

       Benjamin Franklin--printer, scientist, inventor, author, philosopher, and statesman--was also
one of the great travelers of the eighteenth century. Living in Europe for more than a quarter of a
century, first as a young entrepreneur, then in service to colonial Pennsylvania, and finally as a
representative of the United States, Franklin made the dangerous Atlantic crossing eight times.
One of his great strengths, according to biographer Esmond Wright, was "his almost total freedom
from the limits of his own environment" and the ease with which he assimilated into European life.
Renowned and respected for his many accomplishments, Franklin was, arguably, America's
premier diplomat during the eighteenth century, a role he played until he was nearly eighty years
       "Travelling," Franklin observed in his papers, "is one Way of lengthening Life, at least in
Appearance." Certainly, some of the most enduring images of Franklin the person are the result of
his journeys. The young Franklin's escape from the overbearing mastership of his brother and his
subsequent flight from Boston to Philadelphia was perhaps the most important trip he ever made.
As depicted in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1868), his entry into Philadelphia with
"three great puffy rolls" tucked under his arms is one of the most famous images in American
history. Franklin's well-known--and self-styled--images as defender of American liberties,
Enlightenment luminary, Bonhomme Richard, and ladies' man were all largely cultivated abroad.
       Although he was a voluminous writer, Franklin was not a systematic chronicler of his
journeys and did not produce a great travelogue. Wright attributes this paucity of travel accounts
to Franklin's almost total lack of aesthetic response: "the assiduous letter-writer left no
descriptions of scenery, of nature, or of buildings; travelling in Scotland thirteen years after
Culloden, he made no reference to the Jacobites and mentioned not a mountain." Franklin, indeed,
often seems to care little for details that other travelers might treasure:
       Many people are fond of accounts of old Buildings and Monuments, but for me I confess that
if I could find in my travels a receipt for Parmesan cheese, it would give me more satisfaction than
a transcript from any inscription from any old Stone whatever.
       But while Franklin's scattered observations on his travels must be gleaned from several
sources, often his personal letters, they are all the more significant for their relative rarity.
       The youngest son of the ten children born to Abigail Folger Franklin and Josiah Franklin
(who had already fathered seven children in a previous marriage), Franklin was raised in humble
circumstances and received only two years of formal education. He read widely, however, and
modeled his writing on that of such authors as Joseph Addison, Daniel Defoe, and Jonathan Swift.
Bored by the family business of making candles and boiling soap, twelve-year-old Franklin
allowed his father to convince him to become an apprentice to his half brother, James, the owner
of a print shop. He worked for his brother until he was seventeen, enjoying his first success as an
author when he anonymously submitted a series of fourteen satiric essays--later known as the
"Silence Dogood Papers"--to his brother's newspaper, The New-England Courant. Franklin's
strained relationship with his brother eventually led him to leave Boston for Philadelphia, where
he was able to establish himself as a skillful printer by working for Samuel Keimer.
     Encouraged by Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith, who promised letters of credit and
introduction that would enable him to establish his own printing shop back in the colony, Franklin
and a friend, James Ralph, embarked for England in November of 1724. As Franklin explained in
his Autobiography, except for the companionship of Quaker merchant Thomas Denham, the
"Voyage was otherwise not a pleasant one, as we had a great deal of bad Weather." Upon arriving
in London on Christmas Eve, Franklin discovered that Keith had not carried through on his
promises; consequently, he remained in England for eighteen months while he worked to save
money for his passage back to Philadelphia.
     Franklin departed for America on 22 July 1726 and landed in Philadelphia on 11 October. A
voluminous writer, Franklin tended to keep a journal of events that interested him. His Journal of
a Voyage, 1726, which has been published in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (1959-), provides a
glimpse of the rigors of the Atlantic crossing. Franklin had a lifelong interest and commitment to
diet, exercise, and hygiene, and the long confinement proved especially taxing to the young man,
who occasionally "leaped overboard and swam round the ship to wash myself." Franklin occupied
his time, as he was to do on other trips across the Atlantic, by observing natural phenomena and
social interaction and with plans for his future conduct, the precursor to his later formula for moral
     Franklin shows an acute interest in scientific observation, as many of the journal entries
discuss weather and its effects on the voyage. He also notes the behavior of dolphins and other
marine life. On 18 August he wrote: "Four dolphins followed the ship for some hours: we struck at
them with the fizgig [harpoon], but took none." In another passage he described the dolphin "as
beautiful and well shaped a fish as any that swims."
     On 19 August, Franklin recorded a rough sample of ship justice when the passengers hung up
a card cheater by the waist:
     We let him hang, cursing and swearing for near a quarter of an hour; but at length he crying
out Murder! and looking black in the face, the rope being overtort about his middle, we thought
proper to let him down again; and our mess have excommunicated him till he pays his fine,
refusing either to play, eat, drink or converse with him.
     On 25 August, with a month and a half remaining in the journal, Franklin recorded the tedium
of an ocean voyage:
     What I have said may in a measure account for some particulars in my present way of living
here on board. Our company is in general very unsuitably mixed, to keep up the pleasure and spirit
of conversation: and if there are one or two pair of us that can sometimes entertain one another for
half an hour agreeable, yet perhaps we are seldom in the humour for it together. I rise in the
morning and read for an hour or two perhaps, and then reading grows tiresome. Want of exercise
occasions want of appetite, so that eating and drinking affords but little pleasure. I tire myself with
playing at draughts, then I go to cards; nay there is no play so trifling or childish, but we fly to it
for entertainment. A contrary wind, I know not how, puts us all out of good humour; we grow
sullen, silent and reserved, and fret at each other upon every little occasion. 'Tis a common opinion
among the ladies, that if a man is ill-natured he infallibly discovers it when he is in liquor. But I,
who have known many instances to the contrary, will teach them a more effectual method to
discover the natural temper and disposition of their humble servants. Let the ladies make one long
sea voyage with them, and if they have the least spark of ill nature in them and conceal it to the
end of the voyage, I will forfeit all my pretensions to their favour.
     A month later Franklin wrote: "All our discourse now is of Philadelphia, and we begin to
fancy ourselves on shore already. Yet a small change of weather, attended by a westerly wind, is
sufficient to blast all our blooming hopes, and quite spoil our present good humour."
     Upon his return Franklin took up residence in Philadelphia, where he would remain for the
next thirty-one years. He married Deborah Reed in 1730, with whom he had two children. His son,
Francis Folger, was born in 1732 and died of smallpox in 1736; his daughter, Sarah, was born in
1743. Franklin's first child, William, born in 1730 or 1731, was illegitimate.
     Resuming his printing trade, he soon owned his own press and published much of the
colony's public printing as well as the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack. So
successful was this endeavor that Franklin could turn control of his enterprises over to a partner
and retire in 1748 at age forty-two. Citizen Franklin served as clerk (1736-1751) and as member of
the Pennsylvania Assembly (1751-1764), postmaster of Philadelphia (1737-1753), deputy
postmaster general for the colonies (1753-1774), delegate to the Albany Congress (1754), and
military leader in the Lehigh Valley. He played a key role in most of Philadelphia's civic
improvements during the eighteenth century, helping establish a circulating library, the American
Philosophical Society, and what would become the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin became
the center of Philadelphia's scientific establishment and was an active participant and
correspondent in the scientific endeavors of his day. When he journeyed abroad again Franklin
was a wealthy, influential man, well known in Europe for his scientific accomplishments,
particularly for his Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America
(1751), which within twenty years had gone through four English editions, three in French, and
one each in German and Italian.
     Franklin was the delegate the Pennsylvania Assembly chose as its representative before the
king during the late 1750s and 1760s. In the summer of 1757 Franklin, accompanied by his son,
William, embarked on his second voyage to England. He used the long sea journey to write "The
Way to Wealth," the immensely successful preface to Poor Richard improved: Being an Almanack
and Ephemeris ... For the Year of Our Lord 1758 (1757), a retrospective look at some of Poor
Richard's advice culled from more than two decades. Franklin recounted in his Autobiography the
near shipwreck they endured, the landing at Falmouth--"A most pleasing Spectacle to those who
had been so long without any other Prospects, than the uniform View of a vacant Ocean!"--and
their visit to "Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and Lord Pembroke's House and Gardens, with his
very curious Antiquities at Wilton."
     Franklin arrived in London on 27 July 1757 with the Assembly's instructions to petition the
king for the right to tax proprietary estates. Owing partly to his attacks on the proprietors in the
London press through such vehicles as An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government
of Pennsylvania (1759), which he co-authored with Richard Jackson, an English lawyer, Franklin's
diplomatic endeavors were a qualified success. His second stay in England lasted from 1757 to
     These five years were among Franklin's happiest, for at least during this part of his life he
loved England. On 6 September 1758 Franklin wrote to his wife, Deborah, detailing the trip he
and his son made to Cambridge for commencement ceremonies and to the English countryside,
where he met surviving members of both his and Deborah's families. Franklin enjoyed the
Cambridge activities, and he and his son "were present at all the ceremonies, dined every day in
their halls, and my vanity was not a little gratified by the particular regard shown me by the
chancellor and vice chancellor of the university and the heads of colleges." Viewing the ancestral
family freehold at Ecton, Franklin noted that "the land is now added to another farm, and a school
kept in the house: it is a decayed old stone building, but still known by the name of Franklin
House." The parish rector "showed us the old church register, in which were the births, marriages,
and burials of our ancestors for 200 years," and the rector's wife showed the Franklins gravestones
of their ancestors. At Birmingham, Franklin met some of his wife's relatives.
     Franklin also visited Scotland, Holland, and Belgium during these years. In 1759 he and his
son journeyed to Scotland where he received a doctor of laws from the University of St. Andrews
and began a warm friendship with Henry Home, Lord Kames, to whom Franklin wrote on 5
January 1760:
     On the whole, I must say I think the time we spent there was six weeks of the densest
happiness I have met with in any part of my life; and the agreeable and instructive society we
found there in such plenty has left so pleasing an impression on my memory that, did not strong
connexions draw me elsewhere, I believe Scotland would be the country I should choose to spend
the remainder of my days in.
     Franklin discussed his trip to Flanders in a summer 1761 letter to Jared Ingersoll, a lawyer in
     When I travelled in Flanders, I thought of your excessively strict observation of Sunday; and
that a man could hardly travel on that day among you upon lawful occasions without hazard of
punishment; while, where I was, every one travelled, if he pleased, or diverted himself in any
other way; and in the afternoon both high and low went to the play or to the opera, where there
was plenty of singing, fiddling, and dancing. I looked round for God's judgments, but saw no signs
of them. The cities were well built and full of inhabitants, the markets filled with plenty, the
people well favoured and well clothed, the fields well tilled, the cattle fat and strong, the fences,
houses, and windows all in repair, and no Old Tenor anywhere in the country; which would almost
make one suspect that the Deity is not so angry at that offence as a New England justice.
     Despite his five years' absence from Philadelphia and his family, Franklin regretted leaving
England in 1762. On 17 August he wrote to Lord Kames from Portsmouth, England:
     I am now waiting here only for a wind to waft me to America, but cannot leave this happy
Island and my Friends in it, without extream Regret, tho' I am going to a Country and a People
that I love. I am going from the old World to the new, and I fancy I feel like those who are leaving
this World for the next; Grief at the Parting; Fear of the Passage; Hope of the Future; those
different Passions all affect their Minds at once; and these have tender'd me down exceedingly.
     On 23 August, still in Portsmouth, Franklin wrote to his English friend William Strahan
detailing his expectation to bring Deborah and "settle here for ever." Franklin left England before
the end of the month in a convoy of ten merchant ships and a man-of-war. Franklin recalled his
impression of Madeira in a letter to Lord Kames dated 2 June 1765:
     'Tis a fertile Island, and the different Heights and Situations among its Mountains, afford such
different Temperaments of Air, that all the Fruits of Northern and Southern Countries are produc'd
there, Corn, Grapes, Apples, Peaches, Oranges, Lemons, Plaintains, Bananas, &c.
     The remainder of the trip also passed pleasantly, with weather so fine that the passengers
could visit from ship to ship and dine with each other, "which made the time pass agreably, much
more so than when one goes in a single Ship, for this was like travelling in a moving Village, with
all one's Neighbour's about one."
     Even after his return to America, Franklin missed England. On 25 March 1763 he wrote to
Polly Stevenson, the daughter of his London landlady, detailing his fondness for the English:
     Of all the enviable Things England has, I envy it most its People. Why should that petty
Island, which compar'd to America is but like a stepping Stone in a Brook, scarce enough of it
above Water to keep one's Shoes dry; why, I say, should that little Island, enjoy in almost every
Neighbourhood, more sensible, virtuous and elegant Minds, than we can collect in ranging 100
Leagues of our vast Forests.
     Franklin took up his old life in Philadelphia for the two years from 1762 to 1764 but then
returned to England in service of the Assembly. His instructions for this second voyage on behalf
of the colony were to petition the king to make Pennsylvania a royal possession. He was in
England for more than a decade (1764-1775), but instead of securing the conversion of
Pennsylvania into a royal holding, Franklin returned to the colonies embittered and convinced that
America could no longer be joined with England. His changed feelings about the country are
evident in his 25 February 1775 letter to Joseph Galloway, a Philadelphia lawyer and Assembly
     When I consider the extream Corruption prevalent among all Orders of Men in this old rotten
State, and the glorious publick Virtue so predominant in our rising Country, I cannot but
apprehend more Mischief than Benefit from a closer Union. I fear They will drag us after them in
all the plundering Wars their desperate Circumstances, Injustice and Rapacity, may prompt them to
undertake; and then wide-wasting Prodigality and Profusion a Gulph that will swallow up every
Aid we may distress ourselves to afford them. Here Numberless and needless Places, enormous
Salaries, Pensions, Perquisites, Bribes, groundless Quarrels, foolish Expeditions, false Accompts
or no Accompts, Contracts and Jobbs devour all Revenue, and produce continual Necessity in the
Midst of natural plenty. I apprehend therefore To unite us intimately, will only be to corrupt and
poison us also.
     For most of his ten-year stay, however, Franklin had been happy, a fact attested to by the
publication of his daily "newspaper," The Craven Street Gazette, which Wright calls "his genial
parody of royal gazettes." In The Craven Street Gazette Franklin recorded the daily happenings of
his own London household by placing his own family members and friends as members of a royal
     This Morning Queen Margaret, accompanied by her first Maid of Honour, Miss Franklin, set
out for Rochester. Immediately on their Departure, the whole street was in tearsfrom a heavy
Shower of Rain.
     This evening there was high Play at the Groom Porter's in Cravenstreet House. The Great
Person [Franklin] lost Money. It is supposed the Ministers, as is usually supposed of all Ministers,
shared the Emoluments among them.
     Franklin also traveled extensively during these years in London. He visited other parts of
England, including Twyford, where he began writing his Autobiography in 1771. He also
journeyed to Hanover in 1766 and to Paris in 1767 and again in 1769, and he made a long
excursion to Scotland and Ireland in 1771.
     His first visit to France made quite an impression on Franklin; as was often the case, the only
full account of this voyage appears in his correspondence, this time his 14 September 1767 letter
to his friend Polly Stevenson. He discusses the "various imposition we suffer'd from Boat-men,
Porters, &c. on both Sides of the Water. I know not which are most rapacious, the English or the
French; but the latter have, with their Knavery the most Politeness." "The Roads," he wrote, "we
found equally good with ours in England." He comments on the lighter and darker complexions of
women in different parts of France as well as on women's beauty secrets. The queen, he notes,
does not use rouge, "having in the Serenity, Complacence and Benignity that shine so eminently in
or rather through her Countenance, sufficient Beauty, tho' now an old Woman, to do extreamly
well without it."
     In the letter Franklin also reports attending court at Versailles with Sir John Pringle, a fellow
member of the Royal Academy:
     We went to Versailles last Sunday, and had the Honour of being presented to the King, he
spoke to both of us very graciously and chearfully, is a handsome Man, has a very lively Look,
and appears younger than he is. In the Evening we were at the Grand Couvert, where the Family
sup in Publick.... The King talk'd a great deal to Sir John [Pringle], asking many Questions about
our Royal Family; and did me too the Honour of taking some Notice of me.
     On this rare occasion Franklin also takes notice of the buildings and grounds:
     Versailles has had infinite Sums laid out in Building it and Supplying it with Water: Some say
the Expence exceeded 80 Millions Sterling. The Range of Building is immense, the Garden Front
most magnificent all of hewn Stone, the Number of Statues, Figures, Urns, &c in Marble and
Bronze of exquisite Workmanship is beyond Conception. But the Waterworks are out of Repair,
and so is great Part of the Front next the Town, looking with its shabby half Brick Walls and
broken Windows not much better than the Houses in Durham Yard. There is, in short, both at
Versailles and Paris, a prodigious Mixture of Magnificence and Negligence, with every kind of
Elegance except that of Cleanliness, and what we call Tidyness.
     Franklin believed that the French were extraordinarily polite, an impression he returned to
time and again over the years:
     The Civilities we every where receive give us the strongest Impressions of the French
Politeness. It seems to be a Point settled here universally that Strangers are to be treated with
Respect, and one has just the same Deference shewn one here by being a Stranger as in England
by being a Lady.
     Visiting France was a delight to Franklin, as living there would be to him in the 1770s and
1780s: "It is but a Fortnight since we left London; but the Variety of Scenes we have gone through
makes it seem equal to Six Months living in one Place."
     In a letter dated 6 February 1772 Franklin describes the social conditions he saw during his
trip to Ireland and Scotland the previous year:
     My last Tour was thro' Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland I had a good deal of Conversation
with the Patriots; they are all on the American side of the Question in which I endeavour'd to
confirm them. The lower People in that unhappy Country, are in a most wretched Situation, thro'
the Restraints on their Trade and Manufactures. Their Houses are dirty Hovels of Mud and Straw;
their Clothing Rags, and their Food little beside Potatoes. Perhaps three fourths of the Inhabitants
are in this Situation;...In Scotland things make a better Appearance, and seem on the mending
Hand. Yet half the People there wear neither Shoes nor Stockings, or wear them only in Church;
No wonder that Scotch Stockings are imported into America. The Gentry in both Countries live
extreamly well, are a hospitable Friendly People to Strangers, and very sensible in Conversation.
In many parts of England, too, the Working Poor are miserably fed, clothed and lodged. In short, I
see no Country of Europe where there is so much general Comfort and Happiness as in America,
Holland perhaps excepted.
     Increasingly, Franklin's efforts and energy were dedicated to the political events of the 1760s
and 1770s. Originally sent to England as agent for Pennsylvania, by 1770 he also acted as
spokesman for Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts in the growing friction between mother
country and colonies. The Franklin who returned to Philadelphia in May of 1775 was a deeply
saddened man, afflicted by the breakdown in relations between the colonies and England and the
recent death of his wife, whom he had not seen in a decade.
     Franklin was called upon in late 1776 to be a representative of the American people overseas.
Active since his return the previous year, most notably in his work on the Pennsylvania
Constitution of 1776 and the Declaration of Independence, Franklin was asked by Congress to join
the delegation to France to negotiate for a treaty that would bring the French government into the
war on the side of the United States. Franklin reached France with his two grandsons in December
1776, "safe after a Passage of 30 Days, somewhat fatigued and weakened by the Voyage, which
was a rough one," as he wrote his sister Jane Mecom.
     From the end of 1776 until September 1785, when he returned to Philadelphia, Franklin's was
the most important American voice in France. He provided military intelligence to the colonies,
played the dominant American role in enacting the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France in
1778, and, perhaps even more importantly for the financially strapped colonists, secured loan after
loan from the near-bankrupt French government. Franklin also played a leading role in the Treaty
of Paris, which ended the war in 1783. Faced with enormous obstacles and despite schisms within
his own delegation, Franklin--already into his seventies--proved himself a masterful diplomat,
skillfully using his reputation as an American sage and rustic in his efforts.
     Franklin captivated the French. Known and revered for his science, for his creation of Poor
Richard, and for being the emissary from a nation willing to oppose the British, the great Doctor
Franklin was a celebrity during all of his stay in the country. Shortly after arriving Franklin
commented on the hospitality accorded him in an 8 December 1776 letter to Mecom: "You can
have no Conceptions of the Respect with which I am receiv'd and treated here by the first People,
in my private Character: for as yet I have assumed no public One." He held court at Passy, just as
he had in Craven Street. His contentment with life there is apparent in his 5 October 1777 letter to
     I enjoy here an exceeding good state of Health.--I live in a fine airy House upon a Hill, which
has a large Garden with fine Walks in it, about 1/2 an hours Drive from the City of Paris. I walk a
little every Day in the Garden, have a good Appetite & sleep well.--I think the French Cookery
agrees with me better than the English;--I suppose there is little or no Butter in their Sauces: for I
have never once had the Heartburn since my being here tho' I eat heartily, which shows that my
Digestion is good. I have got into a good Neighborhood, of very agreable People who appear very
fond of me; at least they are pleasingly civil: so that upon the whole I live as comfortably as a Man
can well do so far from his Home & his Family.
     Franklin maintained a busy social life with the luminaries of French society, especially the
ladies. Franklin clearly relished the attention that he received from French women, as is clear in
his 11 October 1779 letter to Eliza Hubbard Partride, a stepniece:
     Somebody, it seems, gave it out that I lov'd Ladies; and then every body presented me their
Ladies (or the Ladies presented themselves) to be embrac'd, that is to have their Necks kiss'd. For
as to kissing of Lips or Cheeks it is not the Mode here, the first is reckon'd rude, & the other may
rub off the Paint. The French Ladies have however 1000 other ways of rendering themselves
agreable; by their various Attentions and Civilities, & their sensible Conversation. 'Tis a delightful
People to live with.
     Franklin became a close confidant to several women, maintained a flirtatious correspondence,
and even asked Madame Helvetius to marry him; she politely declined.
     While in France, Franklin kept up an active correspondence concerning scientific matters,
writing even to acquaintances in England. He was witness to two of France's most exciting
developments during the 1780s, the successful launch of the first hot air balloons and mesmerism.
In a 16 January 1784 letter to John Ingenhousz, a Dutch physician, Franklin presents his estimate
of the importance of balloons: "Five thousand balloons, capable of raising two men each, could
not cost more than five ships of the line, and where is the prince who can afford so to cover his
country with troops for its defence as that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not
in many places do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel
them?" He expresses his doubts about Friedrich Anton Mesmer and animal magnetism in a letter
dated 19 March: "I cannot but fear that the expectation of great advantage from this new method
of treating diseases will prove a delusion."
     Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1785. He used his last voyage across the Atlantic, as he
had always done before, to observe and wonder, writing on this occasion about such topics as the
Gulf Stream, the use of kayaks, and smoky chimneys. Though he spent many years abroad, as he
wrote to Richard Jackson on 7 October 1755, "Pensilvania is my Darling." He lived out his
remaining years in Philadelphia. Franklin's service to his nation was far from over, however; he
served as chief executive of Pennsylvania and as an adviser to the Constitutional Convention
before dying at home on 17 April 1790.

   (Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 183: American Travel Writers, 1776-1864.
                             Edited by James Schramer, and Donald Ross. The Gale Group, 1997.)

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