Take a jack-of-all-trades kind of man. Add to him a good dose of wit, a dash of curiosity, a strong work ethic, and a brilliant mind. Whom do you get? You get Benjamin Franklin, one of the most colorful characters of the eighteenth century. From candle maker to ambassador, to Founding Father of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin gave a tremendous amount of himself to the Thirteen Colonies.

Take a jack-of-all-trades kind of man. Add to him a good dose of wit, a dash of curiosity, a strong work ethic, and a brilliant mind. Whom do you get? You get Benjamin Franklin, one of the most colorful characters of the eighteenth century. From candle maker, to ambassador, to Founding Father of theStates of America, Benjamin Franklin gave a tremendous amount of himself to the Thirteen Colonies.

Benjamin Franklin—A-Jack-of-All-Trades

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1706, Benjamin was the 15th of 17 children in his family. He had so many brothers and sisters that his father could not afford a formal education for all of them. But young Benjamin showed a great interest in learning, so his father sent him to school at age 10. Benjamin proved to be very good at reading and writing, but he didn’t do well in math. After two years of formal schooling, he quit. But Benjamin never gave up on learning. Back in his father’s candle shop, he read into the late hours and taught himself a myriad of subjects. Often using his lunch money to buy books, he read Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, the works of Plutarch, and just about anything else he could get his hands on.

Restless for more than candle making, Benjamin went to live with his older brother who ran a printing press. Surely the printing business would give Benjamin even more access to the books he loved. It did, but Benjamin and his brother didn’t get along very well. Benjamin wanted to write for the newspaper but his brother wouldn’t allow it. So Benjamin wrote in secret. He submitted letters to the newspaper signed by “Mrs. Silence Dogood.” Benjamin’s brother was amused by the Dogood letters and printed them in his paper until he found out he had been duped by his little brother! At 16, Benjamin ran away from his apprenticeship. He first went to New York, then to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1723.

A Penny Saved . . .

To make his way in Philadelphia, Benjamin went into the printing business. (One of his customers was the bold evangelist George Whitefield.) Franklin bought his own print shop and started writing The Pennsylvania Gazette. He kept this paper business for 37 years. But he became more famous for writing Poor Richard’s Almanack, a clever calendar and handbook for farmers and families that included the witty sayings of Benjamin Franklin. For years to come, these almanacs were found in nearly every home of the Thirteen Colonies. Franklin wrote quips on the pages to inspire kindness, hard work, and thriftiness. You’ve probably heard a few of these tips, such as “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” The colonists adored Benjamin Franklin for his sensible advice.

Benjamin Franklin put into practice his common sense and jack-of-all-trades mentality. For the city of Philadelphia, he started a volunteer fire department, a loaner library, a hospital for the poor and deranged, a philosophical society, and a school. He improved the police force, paved and lit the dirty streets, and created a more efficient postal service. His mail system was so successful that he was given the job of deputy postmaster general for all the colonies. He expanded his services to speed up the delivery of letters sent back and forth to Canada and parts of Europe. (This system was essential during the American Revolution.)

Besides all of this, Benjamin Franklin busied himself with science and inventions. He was fascinated with electricity, and so the famous story goes that one day in 1752, he and his son William flew a kite in a thunderstorm with a key attached to the string. Why did he do this? Franklin wished to prove that lightning was made of electricity. The wet hemp string attracted the lightning, which traveled down to the metal key and gave off electrical sparks. As a result of his dangerous experiment, Franklin invented the lightning rod, a metal pole that could redirect a bolt of lightning from a rooftop to the ground. It wasn’t long before every house in Philadelphia had a lightning rod. Franklin’s other inventions would include an iron stove (whose design is still considered state-of-the-art today), bifocals, swim fins, a glass harmonica, and a device for retrieving books from high shelves. (I need one of those!) He also studied and named the Gulf Stream, a natural waterway in the Atlantic Ocean.

Benjamin Franklin, the Statesman

Now, Benjamin Franklin performed his famous kite experiment just two years before the French and Indian War, which started in 1754. I point that out because that war would draw Franklin’s interests away from science and into politics. In June of 1754, he joined other colonial representatives and 150 Iroquois (EAR uh kwoy) chiefs at the Albany Congress. This gathering in Albany, New York, was designed to persuade the Iroquois to side with the colonists and the British in the French and Indian War.

But Benjamin Franklin brought up something else at the Albany Congress. Using his witty mind, and with remarkable insight, he brought with him a strange drawing of a snake cut into eight pieces. Each piece was labeled with the initial (or initials) of one of the colonies. (He lumped four New England colonies and Delaware together, so there were only eight pieces to the snake. Georgia, because it was the last colony founded, did not make it into the drawing!) Franklin used his clever diagram to make the statement that unless the colonies united, they, like the sliced-up snake, were sure to die. The slogan under the snake read,“JOIN, or DIE”.

Benjamin Franklin had the foresight to see that the colonies needed to be better organized and somewhat centralized. (Remember, he was always practical and a jack-of-all-trades!) He suggested that representatives of each colony begin to meet once a year in some form of a council or congress to make laws, elect a governor general, and discuss their issues. Believe it or not, his idea was not adopted! The king of England thought it gave too much control to the colonists, and the colonists thought it left too much control with the king. Neither side would give in to the other, and so Franklin’s ideas for a congress were shelved.

Nonetheless, the citizens of Philadelphia recognized the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin and asked him to sail to England on their behalf. Why England? Well, as you may already know, the relationship between the British and the Thirteen Colonies was growing tense. There was great disagreement over taxes. So, in 1757, Franklin, always seeking to improve society, traveled to England to represent the American colonists.

In the House of Commons in London, Benjamin Franklin debated the issue of “taxation without representation”; he spoke against the Stamp Act; and he offered to pay for the tea that was destroyed in the Boston Tea Party! (They turned him down on his offer.) Franklin went back and forth to London over the next 10 years, missing most of the French and Indian War. His visits were not as successful as he hoped. During this time period, his wife died in the colonies and his son William grew loyal to the British. Benjamin returned to North America without his son on May 5, 1775, about two weeks after the colonies launched their War of Independence. (Benjamin Franklin and his son remained on opposing sides of the war!)

Now, we don’t have the space to cover all the details of America’s War of Independence, but I will tell you this — Benjamin Franklin was the only Founding Father to sign all four of these famous U.S. documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain, and the Constitution of the United States. And you’ll want to know now that throughout the American Revolution, Franklin went back and forth to France as an ambassador, pleading with the French for their help. His first trip was at age 70, just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Take a jack-of-all-trades kind of man. Add to him a good dose of wit, a dash of curiosity, a strong work ethic, and a brilliant mind. Whom do you get? You get Benjamin Franklin, one of the most colorful characters of the eighteenth century. From candle maker, to ambassador, to Founding Father of the States of America, Benjamin Franklin gave a tremendous amount of himself to the Thirteen Colonies.

Benjamin Franklin’s Later Years

For his efforts and his charm, Benjamin Franklin was as loved in France as he was by most in America. All over Paris, his portrait graced hearths and clocks and fine tea sets. The French accepted him in his bifocal spectacles, frumpy clothes, and the fur hat that he frequently wore without a wig. (Though Franklin was a product of the city, the French expected him to be a frontiersman. So he may have worn a fur hat to play up his role as an ambassador of the rugged New World.) For all he represented, the French embraced Benjamin Franklin as another voice in the Enlightenment. In many ways, Franklin was a lot like the philosophes of the Enlightenment. He surely hoped to improve society around him. And he looked mainly to practical reason to do so. He once said:

He [God] has given us Reason whereby we are capable of observing his wisdom in the Creation, he is not above caring for us, being pleased with our praise, and offended when we slight him or neglect his glory. (Word in brackets is mine.)

As you might notice, Franklin’s views were similar to those of the deists of his time in that he saw God as Creator. But he was not purely deistic since he believed that God cared for mankind and delighted in praise. Franklin’s religious views were not entirely clear. Though he had a wide variety of interests, religion itself was not one of them. He was raised Presbyterian, but shied away from church as an adult. As a reflection of his unorthodox views, Franklin once said, “There is in all men something like a natural principle which inclines them to devotion or the worship of some unseen power.”

In his later years, Benjamin Franklin would be more traditional in his beliefs and not at all appear to be a deist. He demonstrated belief in a personal God (who hears prayer) when he addressed the deadlocked Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. When men were bickering over the details of the new Constitution, it was Franklin who suggested prayer. In June 1787, at 81 years of age, he said the following:

“I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that except the Lord build the house they labour in vain that build it. I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the builders of Babel.”

Following this speech, Franklin proposed that from that time on, the convention meetings begin with prayer by one or more of the clergy. The Constitutional Convention proceeded with much less tension after Franklin’s suggestion.

It’s no wonder that Benjamin Franklin has been remembered as one of the most prominent characters in early American history. From Poor Richard’s Almanack to the Constitution, he was there, shaping the history of the United States. After participating in the Constitutional Convention, in his eighties, he continued to serve America by fighting against slavery. Tragically, Franklin was not consistent in his convictions because he had at least two household slaves! On the issue of slavery, his views were quite mixed and tainted by his own lifestyle. Nonetheless, in 1789, one year before Benjamin Franklin died, George Washington wrote him a letter, saying:

If to be venerated for benevolence, if to be admired for talents, if to be esteemed for patriotism, if to be beloved for philanthropy, can gratify the human mind, you must have the pleasing consolation to know that you have not lived in vain.

Benjamin Franklin, a true jack-of-all-trades, died peacefully in his sleep in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790. He was 84 years old. At the time of Franklin’s death, 14 years after the American Revolution, you could say that the United States was but a “teenager,” well on the way to adulthood.