Few historical figures have as many talents and accomplishments as Benjamin Franklin. He was born in January of either 1705 or 1706 in Boston, Mass in what was then the British colonies. According to published sources, his impressive list of roles include: writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.
It’s impossible in the space of this blog to do them all adequate justice, so let’s hit on the key themes that ran throughout his life. First and foremost, he was a writer and this served him well in all of his roles from printer to journalist to politician to inventor to scientist. He was adept at getting the word out and loved to use pseudonyms for his writings. When one thinks of the sheer enormity of his writings scratched out by hand using dipper pens and feather quills, the fact that he was a hard worker becomes abundantly clear.
He was also a busy body, and by that I mean a body perpetually in motion. He got a lot done, traveled extensively and was constantly experimenting. Oh, to have been a guest at one of his dinner parties, especially the ones where he killed the turkey to be eaten with electric shock and cooked it on an electrical spit. He wrote that this made the turkey “uncommonly tender.” He also humorously penned a series of essays called busy body in which he describes real busy bodies gossiping and such.
On that note, he was also very humorous. So many of our favorite sayings actually came from his incredibly popular publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack, which is the business venture that made him the most money. It was a yearly publication that had a circulation of 10,000 and ran from 1732 to 1758. The almanack was published under the name Richard Saunders, but it was no secret that Benjamin Franklin was the author and featured humorous lines like “He that lies down with Dogs will rise up with Fleas;” “A True Friend is the Best Possession;” and “Haste makes waste.”
Franklin was also a largely self-made man, though it was clear that he had no problem drumming up investors in his businesses. He had no schooling past the age of 10, but was self educated and a voracious reader and the founder of the Library Company of Philadelphia, which was a subscription library where member dues were pooled together to purchase books for lending. Today the Library Company of Philadelphia is a large and successful public research library.
Although he was born in Boston, he spent much of his adult life in Philadelphia except for large amounts of time spent working in London on both scientific and diplomatic issues, and the years he served as the American Ambassador to France and Sweden.
His many experiments and resulting inventions are legendary including the lightning rod- which was inspired by his efforts to conduct electricity- the Franklin stove, the glass harmonica and bifocal glasses.
Franklin held many public offices and participated in numerous political groups. Most well known was his participation in the Second Continental Congress in 1775-1776 as the representative for the Pennsylvania Assembly where he was one of five authors of the Declaration of Independence. According to his Wikipedia page, he is also, “the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris and the United States Constitution.” He also served as the Postmaster General of British America from 1753 to 1774.
Oddly, when I attended high school, we were made to read his essay, “Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout.” Therefore, I have always associated Franklin with the gout, which plagued him in his later years. Here is a funny, brief excerpt from that essay:
FRANKLIN. Eh! Oh! eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?
GOUT. Many things; you have ate and drank too freely, and too much indulged those legs of yours in their indolence.
FRANKLIN. Who is it that accuses me?
GOUT. It is I, even I, the Gout.
Certainly, if I had the chance to sit down with Benjamin Franklin, he might have something funny to say about my associating him entirely with the gout over his other notable achievements.
Benjamin Franklin died at the age of 84 in Philadelphia from pleurisy, an inflammation of the membranes in the lungs and chest cavity, and had over 20,000 attendees at his funeral.
Here are some resources to help you learn more about Benjamin Franklin: