No other American stood in the 1780s as a definition of what an American was more than Benjamin Franklin. For David Hume, the philosopher, Franklin was the first Great Man of Letters. Let us take a look at the early life of Benjamin Franklin who was also one of America’s Founding Fathers.
Benjamin Franklin had been awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal for his curious experiments and observations on electricity. He had been named one of just eight foreign members of the French Royal Academy of Sciences, and he’d been showered with honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and College of William & Mary.
Of course, no one had worked harder throughout his life to make himself into an object of honor, especially considering how low was the rung of the ladder on which he had been born. “From the poverty and obscurity in which I was born, and in which I passed my earliest years,” it gave Franklin enormous satisfaction to say in 1771 that “I have raised myself to a state of affluence and some celebrity in the world.” And it really had been quite a climb.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Benjamin Franklin’s Family
Franklin was born in Boston on 17 January 1706, one of 17 children sired by Josiah Franklin, who had emigrated to New England in 1682. Josiah Franklin was a tallow chandler, and even though he possessed sound understanding and solid judgment in prudential matters, both in private and public affairs, the numerous family he had to educate, and the strictness of his circumstances kept him close to his trade.
And kept his sons, too—in 1718, Benjamin was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. This satisfied Benjamin, since “from my infancy I was passionately fond of reading, and all the money that came into my hands was laid out in the purchasing of books.”
Benjamin Franklin Leaves His Family
Reading, however, was not what James Franklin wanted from his brother:
Though a brother, he considered himself my master, and me as his apprentice, and accordingly expected the same services from me as he would from another. Thinking my apprenticeship very tedious, I was continually wishing for some opportunity of shortening it.
Benjamin Franklin eventually shortened his apprenticeship by running away in 1723 to Philadelphia. The city of Philadelphia was 41 years old when Benjamin Franklin disembarked at the foot of Market Street, but it was already home to 2,000 people, the second in size in America after Boston. The city was also the seat of government of Pennsylvania’s ruling family, the Penns.
In Philadelphia, Franklin found work with a printer named Samuel Keimer.
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The Penns of Pennsylvania
William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony, had obtained his charter as an absolute proprietorship, which meant that he and his heirs literally owned Pennsylvania in the old manner of medieval lords. But Penn had not had a cheerfully medieval time in managing the colony.
Penn was a convert to Quakerism, a radical offshoot of Puritanism, and Quakerism imposed on Penn an ethic of non-violence and decision-making by consensus, which turned out to be poor instruments for governing a colony on the edge of a wilderness.
Nevertheless, Penn’s sons and heirs—Thomas, John, and Richard—clung tightly to the family proprietorship, insisting on the right to collect quitrents and name the colony’s governor.
Benjamin Franklin’s Trip to London
In 1724, the governor of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith, offered to fund a print shop for Franklin himself if he would journey to London to select an appropriate press and type.
Keith’s schemes eventually came to nothing, something which Franklin discovered too late, after he had arrived in London and found that Keith’s letters of credit were worthless. Stranded, Franklin secured printers’ work in London, and “by my uncommon quickness in composing went on now agreeably.”
Benjamin Franklin Comes Back Home
Not until two years later, when a Philadelphia merchant offered to hire him as a clerk and pay for his transportation, did Franklin return to Philadelphia. When his employer died a year later, Franklin went back to work for Keimer. Soon, Franklin bought out Keimer and set up as an independent printer. He now became the model of the virtuous leather apron tradesman:
In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid the appearances to the contrary. I dressed plain, and was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing or shooting; and, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchased at the stores, through the streets on a wheelbarrow. Thus being esteemed an industrious, thriving young man, and paying duly for what I bought, I went on prosperously.
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Benjamin Franklin’s Career as a Printer
Franklin produced a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He also began issuing an almanac, Poor Richard’s Almanac, vending annually near ten thousand copies. In 1727, he organized a club with a dozen other intellectually curious tradesmen like himself, which he called the Junto.
In 1730, he was named the Pennsylvania Assembly’s official printer. Six years later, he was elected to a seat in the Assembly, and in 1737 was named postmaster for Philadelphia, which came, as he said, “to afford me a very considerable income.”
He hit on the novelty of franchising his print shop operations to other cities, and by 1743, had part interest in three other printing firms in three other cities. He bought shares in paper mills, purchased rental properties, and in 1748 had become wealthy enough—with an income of almost £2,000 per annum, more than three times the income George Washington enjoyed as the master of Mount Vernon—to retire from active business. He had become a gentleman.
Common Questions about Benjamin Franklin’s Early Success
In 1727, Benjamin Franklin organized a club with a dozen other intellectually curious tradesmen like himself, which he called the Junto.
Benjamin Franklin’s father, Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler.
Benjamin Franklin went to London to select an appropriate press and type for his print shop, which the governor of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith, had offered to fund.