The Founders: Benjamin Franklin

“Ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation to the prejudice and oppression of another is certainly the most erroneous and mistaken policy…An equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges, and advantages, is what every part is entitled to, and ought to enjoy.”

-Benjamin Franklin, “Emblematical Representations”, ca. 1774

Benjamin Franklin could be said to be America’s original social media influencer. He published his own newspaper at 23, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and growing his media empire to include various newspapers, Poor Richard’s Almanack1, and being a contributor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, The US Constitution, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris concluding American Revolution hostilities, as well as negotiating or signing several other treaties between European nations and the USA, plus many books and articles discussing topics as varied as abolition of slavery2, to the game of chess3 to his autobiography. He was truly prolific in writing and expansive in his ideas.

This statesman, one of the first ambassadors of America to many countries in Europe, charmed people wherever he went, except perhaps in England where he consistently argued for American priorities and rights. He was a scientist, an inventor, a philosopher and even a vegetarian4, from time to time. Above all, he embodied the American spirit of pragmatism, curiosity and individualism. Indeed, his influence on early American ideas and ideals has had some call him “the only American President that was never president.”5

John Trumbull’s portrait of the Committee of Five presenting their draft of the Declaration to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. 1819

He was a tireless advocate for freedom of speech. Once, when his brother—a newspaper printer in his own right and who taught Ben printing at a young age— was jailed for publishing articles unflattering to the governor of Massachusetts, Benjamin wrote under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood” excoriating the governor’s position and, quoting Cato’s Letters proclaimed, “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”6

With staunch defense for American independence and, even before that was declared, he argued for the American cause. He spoke before the British Parliament often to protest injustices like the Stamp Act7 and promote the welfare of the Colonies. At one time, when Parliament suggested that the Americans pay a considerable sum towards the French and Indian War, Franklin defended America, arguing before Parliament that local governments had already paid millions of pounds and gathered, outfitted and paid 25,000 soldiers in defense of the Empire. That was as many men as Britain had sent to prosecute this war.8

After independence was declared, he returned to Europe to gather support, financing and empathy for the United States of America, a new nation struggling to be free. He collected political support, armies and funds from France9, Prussia 10 and other nations who either believed in the American cause, or at least despised the British Empire.

Benjamin Franklin in his fur cap that so enamored the French court and people.

From a carbonic alloy engraving, drawn by C. N. Cochin 1777, engraved by A.H. Richie.

While in France, as an ambassador from 1776-1785, Franklin used fashion to gain and keep French interest in the cause of the Americans. Instead of donning a powdered wig and refined tailored suits (which he had worn previously to France), he cleverly wore a simple homespun suit and a fur hat.11 It was a hit. Frenchmen who supported the American cause donned fur caps in support, French women wore their hair in a similar fashion and all were enamored by this rustic, rugged American who fit their idea of what these American people were like, to a tee.12

He was a postmaster in Pennsylvania, and later the Colonies, and eventually the first Postmaster General of the United States.13 He had a huge network of contacts where he made use of it. Through distributing satire, essays and other publications throughout the area, Franklin supported American ideology and The American Cause.

Beyond his political and public service, Franklin was an avid scientist and inventor. He invented several things that are still used today such as lightning rods14 and bifocals. He helped support various scientific inquiries such as demography (population studies)15 and oceanography, even charting and naming the Gulf Stream current16, among his other scientific accomplishments.

He had strong views on morality. He believed that Deity was the prime arbiter and deliverer of a moral code and that this American experiment of a just society based on law and not on traditional aristocratic inheritance could not prosper without its people having high moral character.17 18 19

Early in his life, he was a slave owner as was common among wealthy people at the time, however, he later became an outspoken critic and abolitionist.20 He promoted education for slaves and proposed many different plans to free slaves, stop the trade and integrate all into American society. Benjamin Franklin thought that slavery was “an atrocious debasement of human nature” and “a source of serious evils”.21

Although not without vices, he attempted to improve himself as a man and human by developing and focusing on thirteen virtues. As he attempted to cultivate these virtues, one by one, he considered  that even attempting to master them made him a better man, contributing to his success and happiness throughout his life.22

Ben Franklin was a patriot, through and through. Always attempting to reach his ideal, and America’s, and trying again when failing. He was involved in many interests, including an active involvement in politics, obviously, but maintained a studious and calm demeanor, especially in public. This allowed him to be exceedingly influential at home and abroad. No wonder then, that we honor his legacy by placing his likeness on our currency, naming counties, cities, streets and schools after him. May we all seek to be as studious, curious and teachable as he was.

Franklin’s return to Philadelphia, 1785, a portrait by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

For your reference, if you’d like to follow Doctor Franklin’s approach to self improvement, here are the thirteen virtues he would practice. Choose one at a time, “leaving all others to their ordinary chance”. Practice for a week, then choose another and so forth. Good luck! This is pulled from his autobiography.

  • Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  • Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  • Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  • Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

  1. Goodrich, Charles A. (1829). Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. W. Reed & Company. p. 267 ↩︎
  2. National Archives ↩︎
  3. ↩︎
  4. Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin “Part One”. Published 1791 ↩︎
  5. This is a quote from The Firesign Theater album “Everything you know is wrong” It was written for humor, yet is rather profound. Actually, Benjamin Franklin was president of many things such as Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania (1785), Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Academy…of Philadelphia, and more. ↩︎
  6. Silence Dogood no. 8, 1722 ↩︎
  7. Hoffer, Peter Charles, Benjamin Franklin Explains the Stamp Act Protests to Parliament, 1766 (2015) ↩︎
  8. Isaacson, Walter (2003). Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster. P 32, 229-230 ↩︎
  9. National Museum of American Diplomacy ↩︎
  10. “The Avalon Project: Treaty of Amity and Commerce between His Majesty the King of Prussia, and the United States of America” ↩︎
  11.  Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Emma Thompson, February 8, 1777, in Digital Ben Franklin Project, Yale University with The Packard Humanities Institute, ↩︎
  12. See for instance: Durand Echeverria, Mirage in the West: A History of the French Image of American Society to 1815 (New York: Octagon Books, 1966), 32. ↩︎
  13. Isaacson, 2003, p 206-209 ↩︎
  14. Poor Richard’s Almanack 1753. Although Franklin invented the lightning rod, it was perfected by Nikola Tesla. Also, Franklin thought a sharp rod better suited to capturing “the mischief”; however after extensive experimentation by modern engineers, a blunt rod has been found to be better at preventing lightning strikes to the building. Who knew? ↩︎
  15. Houston, Alan (2008). Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement. Yale U.P. pp. 106–41. ISBN 978-0-300-15239-5 ↩︎
  16. Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Alphonsus le Roy “Containing Sundry Maritime Observations” Text pulled from : ↩︎
  17. Franklin, Benjamin (November 20, 1728). “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion”. Benjamin Franklin Papers. ↩︎
  18.  Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin ↩︎
  19.  Isaacson, 2003, p. 486 ↩︎
  20. ↩︎
  21. “An Address to the Public”, Benjamin Franklin, President of the Pennsylvania Society for promoting the Abolition of Slavery, November 9, 1789 ↩︎
  22. Franklin, 1791, Chapter 9 ↩︎