Franklin, Benjamin

, the celebrated American philosopher, was sprung, as he himself informs us, from a family settled for a long course of years in the village of Ecton, in Northamptonshire, where they had augmented their income, arising from a small patrimony of thirty acres, by adding to it the profits of a blacksmith’s business. His father, Josias, having been converted by some nonconformist ministers, left England for America, in 1682, and | settled at Boston, as a soap-boiler and tallow-chandler. At this place, in 1706, Benjamin, the youngest of his sons, was born. It appeared at first to be his destiny to become a tallow-chandler, like his father; but, as he manifested a particular dislike to that occupation, different plans were thought of, which ended in his becoming a printer, in 1718, under one of his brothers, who was settled at Boston, and in 1721 began to print a newspaper. This was a business much more to his taste, and he soon shewed a talent for reading, and occasionally wrote verses which were printed in his brother’s newspaper, although unknown to the latter. He wrote also in the same some prose essays, and had the sagacity to cultivate his style after the model of the Spectator. With his brother he continued as an apprentice, until their frequent disagreements, and the harsh treatment he experienced, induced him to leave Boston privately, and take a conveyance by sea to New York. This happened in 1723. From New York he immediately proceeded, in quet of employment, to Philadelphia, not without some distressing adventures. His own description of his first entrance into that city, where he was afterwards in so high a situation, is too curious, to be omitted.

"On my arrival at Philadelphia, I was in my working dress, my best clothes being to come by sea. I was covered with dirt; my pockets were filled with shirts and stockings; I was unacquainted with a single soul in the place, and knew not where to seek for a lodging. Fatigued with walking, rowing, and having passed the night without sleep, I was extremely hungry, and all my money consisted of a Dutch dollar, and about a shilling’s-worth of coppers, which I gave to the boatmen for my passage. As I had assisted them in rowing, they refused it at first, but I insisted on their taking it. A man is sometimes more generous when he has little, than when he has much money; probably because in the first case he is desirous of concealing his poverty.

I walked towards the top of the street, looking eagerly on both sides, till I came to Market-street, where I met a child with a loaf of bread. Often had I made my dinner on dry bread. I enquired where he bought it, and went straight to the baker’s shop which he pointed out to me. I asked for some biscuits, expecting to find such as we had 0t Boston; but they made, it seems, none of that sort at | Philadelphia. I then asked for a three-penny loaf. They made no loaves of that price. Finding myself ignorant of the prices as well as of the different kinds of bread, I desired him to let me have three-pennyworth of bread of some kind or other. He gave me three large rolls. I was surprised at receiving so much: I took them, however, and having no room in my pockets, I walked on with a roll under each arm, eating the third. In this manner I went through Market-street to Fourth-street, and passed the house of Mr. Read, the father of my future wife. She was standing at the door, observed me, and thought, with reason, that I made a very singular and grotesque appearance.

Notwithstanding this unpromising commencement, Franklin soon met with employment in his business, working under one Keimer, a very indifferent printer, though at that time almost the only one in Philadelphia. In 1724, encouraged by the specious promises of sir William Keith, governor of the province, Franklin sailed for England, with a view of purchasing materials for setting up a press; though his father, to whom he had applied, prudently declined encouraging the plan, on account of his extreme youth, as he was then only eighteen. On his arrival in England, he had the mortification to find that the governor, who had pretended to give him letters of recommendation, and of credit for the sum required for his purchases, had only deceived him; and he was obliged to work at his trade in London for a maintenance. The most exemplary industry, frugality, and temperance, with great quicknets and skill in his business, both as a pressman and as a compositor, made this rather a lucrative situation. He reformed the workmen in the houses where he was employed, which were, first Mr. Palmer’s, and afterward* Mr. Watty’s, in Wild-street, Lincoln’s-inn-fields, by whom he was treated with a kindness which he always remembered. l)rirmis, however, of returning to Philadelphia, he engaged himself as book-keeper to a merchant, at fifty pounds a year; “which,” says he, “was less than I earned as a compositor.” He left England July 23, 1726, and reached Philadelphia early in October. In 1727, Mr. Deuharn the merchant died, and Franklin returned to his occupation as a printer, under Keimer, his first master, with a handsome salary. But it was not long before he set up for himself in the same business, in | concert with one Meredith, a young man whose father was opulent, and supplied the money required.

A little before this, he had, gradually associated a number of persons, like himself, of an eager and inquisitive turn of mind, and formed them into a club, or society, to hold meetings for their mutual improvement in all kinds of useful knowledge, which was in high repute for many years after. Among many other useful regulations, they agreed to bring such books as they had into one place, to form a common library; but this furnishing only a scanty supply, they resolved to contribute a small sum monthly towards the purchase of books for their use from London. In this way their stock began to increase rapidly; and the inhabitants of Philadelphia, being desirous of profiting by their library, proposed that the books should be lent out on paying a small sum for this indulgence. Thus in a fewyears the society became rich, and possessed more books than were perhaps to be found in all the other colonies; and the example began to be followed in other places.

About 1728 or 1729, Franklin setup a newspaper, the second in Philadelphia, which proved very profitable, and afforded him an opportunity of making himself known as a political writer, by his inserting several attempts of that kind in it. He also set up a shop for the sale of books and articles of stationary, and in 1730 he married a lady, now a widow, whom he had courted before he went to England, when she was a virgin. He afterwards began to have some leisure, both for reading books, and writing them, of which he gave many specimens from time to time. In 1732, he began to publish “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” which was continued for many years. It was always remarkable for the numerous and valuable concise maxims which it contained, for the Œconomy of human life; all tending to industry and frugality; and which were comprized in a well-known address, entitled “The Way to Wealth.” This has been transiated into various languages, and inserted in almost every magazine and newspaper in Great Britain or America. It has also been printed on a large sheet, proper to be framed, and hung up in conspicuous places in all houses, as it very well deserves to be. Mr. Franklin became gradually more known for his political talents. In 1736, he was appointed clerk to the general assembly of Pennsylvania; and was re-elected by succeeding assemblies for several years, till he was | chosen a representative for the city of Philadelphia; and in 1737 he was appointed post-master of that city. In 1738, he formed the first fire-company there, to extinguish and prevent fires and the burning of houses; an example which was soon followed by other persons, and other places. And soon after, he suggested the plan of an association for insuring houses and ships from losses by fire, which was adopted; and the association continues to this day. In 1744, during a war between France and Great Britain, some French and Indians made inroads upon the frontier inhabitants of the province, who were unprovided for such an attack; the situation of the province was at this time truly alarming, being destitute of every means of defence. At this crisis Franklin stepped forth, and proposed to a meeting of the citizens of Philadelphia, a plan, of a voluntary association for the defence of the province. This was approved of, and signed by 1200 persons immediately. Copies of it were circulated through the province; and in a short time the number of signatures amounted to 10,000. Franklin was chosen colonel of the Philadelphia regiment; but he did not think proper to accept of the honour.

Pursuits of a different nature now occupied the greatest part of his attention for some years. Being always much addicted to the study of natural philosophy, and the discovery of the Leyden experiment in electricity having rendered that science an object of general curiosity, Mr. Franklin applied himself to it, and soon began to distinguish himself eminently in that way. He engaged in a course of electrical experiments with all the ardour and thirst for discovery which characterized the philosophers of that day. By these he was enabled to make a number of important discoveries, and to propose theories to account for various phenomena; which have been generally adopted, and which will probably endure for ages. His observations he communicated in a series of letters to his friend Mr. Peter Collinson; the first of which is dated March 28, 1747. In these he makes known the power of points in drawing and throwing off the electric matter, which had hitherto escaped the notice of electricians. He also made the discovery of a plus and minus, or of a positive and negative state of electricity; from whence, in a satisfactory manner he explained the phenomena of the Leyden phial, first observed by Cuneus or | Muschcnbroeck, which had much perplexed philosophers. He shewed that the bottle, when charged, contained no more electricity than before, but that as much was taken from one side as was thrown on the other; and that, to discharge it, it was only necessary to make a communication between the two sides, by which the equilibrium might be restored, and that then no signs of electricity would remain. He afterwards demonstrated by experiments, that the electricity did not reside in the coating, as had been supposed, but in the pores of the glass itself. After a phial was charged, he removed the coating, and found that upon applying a new coating the shock might still be received. In 1749, he first suggested his idea of explaining the phenomena of thunder-gusts, and of the aurora borealis, upon electrical principles. He points out many particulars in which lightning and electricity agree; and he adduces many facts, and reasoning from facts, in support of his positions. In the same year he conceived the bold and grand idea of ascertaining the truth of his doctrine, by actually drawing down the forked lightning, by means of sharp-pointed iron rods raised into the region of the clouds; from whence he derived his method of securing buildings and ships from being damaged by lightning. It was not until the summer of 1752 that he was enabled to complete his grand discovery, the experiment of the electrical kite, which being raised up into the clouds, brought thence the electricity or lightning down to the earth; and M. D’Alibard made the experiment about the same time in France, by following the track which Franklin had before pointed out. The letters which he sent to Mr. Collinson, it is said, were refused a place among the papers of the royal society of London; and Mr. Collinson published them in a separate volume, under the title of “New Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia, in America,” which were read with avidity, and soon translated into different languages. His theories were at first opposed by several philosophers, and by the members of the royal society of London; but in 1755, when he returned to that city, they voted him the gold medal which is annually given to the person who presents the best paper on some interesting subject. He was also admitted a member of the society, and had the degree of LL. D. conferred upon him by different universities; but at this time, by reason of the war which broke out between Britain and | France, he returned to America, and interested himself in the public affairs of that country. Indeed, he had done this long before; for although philosophy was a principal object of Franklin’s pursuit for several years, he did not confine himself to it alone. In 1747 he became a member of the general assembly of Pennsylvania, as a burgess for the city of Philadelphia. Being a friend to the rights of man from his infancy, he soon distinguished himself as a steady opponent of the unjust schemes of the proprietaries. He was soon looked up to as the head of the opposition; and to him have been attributed many of the spirited replies of the assembly to the messages of the governors. His influence in the body was very great, not from any superior powers of eloquence; he spoke but seldom, and be never was known to make any thing like an elaborate harangue; but his speeches generally consisting of a single sentence, or of a well-told story, the moral was always obviously to the point. He never attempted the flowery fields of oratory. His manner was plain and mild. His style in speaking was, like that of his writings, simple, tmadorned, and remarkably concise. With this plain manner, and his penetrating and solid judgment, he was able to confound the most eloquent and subtle of his adversaries, to confirm the opinions of his friends, and to make converts of the unprejudiced who had opposed him. With a single observation he has rendered of no avail a long and elegant discourse, and determined the fate of a question of importance.

In 1749 he proposed a plan of an academy to be erected in the city of Philadelphia, as a foundation for posterity to erect a seminary of learning, more extensive and suitable to future circumstances; and in the beginning of 1750, three of the schools were opened, namely, the Latin and Greek school, the mathematical, and the Eng. lish schools. This foundation soon after gave rise to another more extensive college, incorporated by charter May 27, 1755, which still subsists, and in a very flourishing condition. In 1752 he was instrumental in the establishment of the Pennsylvania hospital, for the cure and relief of indigent invalids, which has proved of the greatest use to that class of persons. Having conducted himself so well as post-master of Philadelphia, he was in 1753 appointed deputy post-master general for the whole British colonies. The colonies being much exposed to depredations in | their frontier by the Indians and the French; at a meeting of commissioners from several of the provinces, Mr. Franklin proposed a plan for the general defence, to establish in the colonies a general government, to be administered by a president-general, appointed by the crown, and by a grand council, consisting of members chosen by the representatives of the different colonies; a plan which was unanimously agreed to by the commissioners present. The plan, however, had a singular fate: it was disapproved of by the ministry of Great Britain, because it gave too much power to the representatives of the people; and it was rejected by every assembly, as giving to the president general, who was to be the representative of the crown, an influence greater than appeared to them proper, in a plan of government intended for freemen. Perhaps this rejection on both sides is the strongest proof that could be adduced of the excellence of it, as suited to the situation of Great Britain and America at that time. It appears to have steered exactly in the middle, between the opposite interests of both. Whether the adoption of this plan would have prevented the separation of America from Great Britain, is a question which might afford much room for speculation.

In 1755, general Braddock, with some regiments of regular troops and provincial levies, was sent to dispossess the French of the posts upon which they had seized in the back settlements. After the men were all ready, a- difficulty occurred, which had nearly prevented the expedition this was the want of waggons. Franklin now step-: ped forward, and, with the assistance of his son, in a little time procured 150. After the defeat of Braddock, Franklin introduced into the assembly a bill for organizing a militia, and had the dexterity to get it passed. In consequence of this act, a very respectable militia was formed; and Franklin was appointed colonel of a regiment in Philadelphia, which consisted of 1200 men; in which capacity he acquitted himself with much propriety, and was of singular service, though this militia was soon after disbanded by order of the English ministry.

In 1757 he was sent to England, with a petition to the king and council, against the proprietaries, who refused to bear any share in the public expences and assessments; which he got settled to the satisfaction of the state. After the completion of this business, Franklin remained at the | court of Great Britain for some time, as agent for the pn>­vince of Pennsylvania; and also for those of Massachusetts, Maryland, and Georgia. Soon after this, he published his Canada pamphlet, in which he pointed out, in a very forcible manner, the advantages that would result from the conquest of this province from the French. An expedition was accordingly planned, and the command given to general Wolfe; the success of which is well known. He now divided his time indeed between philosophy and politics, rendering many services to both. Whilst here, he invented the elegant musical instrument called the Armonica, formed of glasses played on by the fingers. In the summer of 1762 he returned to America; on the passage to which he observed the singular effect produced by the agitation of a vessel containing oil, floating on water; the upper surface of the oil remained smooth and undisturbed, whilst the water was agitated with the utmost commotion. On his return he received the thanks of the assembly of Pennsylvania; which having annually elected him a member in his absence, he again took his seat in this body, and continued a steady defender of the liberties of the people.

In 1764, by the intrigues of the proprietaries, Franklin lost his seat in the assembly, which he had possessed for fourteen years; but was immediately appointed provincial agent to England, for which country he presently set out. In 1766 he was examined before the parliament, relative to the stamp-act; which was soon after repealed. The same year he made a journey into Holland and Germany; and another into France; being everywhere received with the greatest respect by the literati of all nations. In 1773 he attracted the public attention by a letter on the duel between Mr. Whateley and Mr. Temple, concerning the publication of governor Hutchinson’s letters, declaring that he was the person who had discovered those letters. On the 29th of January next year, he was examined before the privy-council, on a petition he had presented long before as agent for Massachusetts Bay against Mr. Hutchinson: but this petition being disagreeable to ministry, it was precipitately rejected, and Dr. Franklin was soon after removed from his office of postmaster-general for America. Finding now all efforts to restore harmony between Great Britain and her Colonies useless, he returned to America in 1775, just after the commencement of | hostilities. Being named orie of the delegates to the Continental congress, he had a principal share in bringing about the revolution and declaration of independency on the part of the Colonies. In 1776 he was deputed by congress to Canada, to negociate with the people of that country, and to persuade them to throw off the British yoke; but the Canadians had been so much disgusted with the hot-headed zeal of the New Englanders, who had burnt some of their chapels, that they refused to listen to the proposals, though enforced by all the arguments Dr. Franklin could make use of. On the arrival of lord Howe in America, in 1776, he entered upon a correspondence with him on the subject of reconciliation. He was afterwards appointed, with two others, to wait upon the English commissioners, and learn the extent of their powers; but as these only went to the granting pardon upon submission, he joined his colleagues in considering them as insufficient. Dr. Franklin was decidedly in favour of a declaration of independence, and was appointed president of the convention assembled for the purpose of establishing a new government for the state of Pennsylvania. When it was determined by congress to open a public negociation with Francej Dr. Franklin was fixed upon to go to that country; and he brought about the treaty of alliance offensive and defensive, which produced an immediate war between England and France. Dr. Franklin was one of the commissioners, who, on ths part of the United States, signed the provisional articles of peace in 1782, and the definitive treaty in the following year. Before he left Europe, he, concluded a treaty with Sweden and Prussia. Having seen the accomplishment of his wishes in the independence of his country, he requested to be recalled, and after repeated solicitations Mr. Jefferson was appointed in his stead. On the arrival of his successor, he repaired to Havre de Grace, and crossing the English channel, landed at Newport, in the Isle of Wight, from whence, after a favourable passage, he arrived safe at Philadelphia in Sept. 1785. Here he was received amidst the acclamations of a vast and almost innumerable multitude, who had flocked from all parts to see him, and who conducted him in triumph to his own house, where in a few days he was visited by the members of congress, and the principal inhabitants of Philadelphia. He was afterwards twice chosen president of the assembly of Philadelphia; but in 1788 the increasing infirmities of his | age obliged him to ask and obtain permission to retire and spend the remainder of his lite in tranquillity; and on the37th of April, 1790, he died at the great age of eightyfour years and three months. He left behind him one son, a zealous loyalist, and a daughter married to a merchant in Philadelphia. Dr. Franklin was author of many tracts on electricity, and other branches of natural philosophy, as well as on political and miscellaneous subjects. Many of his papers are inserted in the Philosophical Transactions of London: and his essays have been frequently reprinted in this country as well as in America, and have, in common with his other works, been translated into several modern languages. A complete edition of all these was printed in London in 18Q3, in 3 vols. 8vo, with “Memoirs of his early life, written by himself,” to which the preceding article is in a considerable degree indebted. Some of his political writings are said to be still withheld on political grounds, but it is difficult to suppose that they can now be of much importance,;.s they relate to a contest which no longer agitates the minds of the public.

As a philosopher the distinguishing characteristics of Franklin’s mind, as they have been appreciated by a very judicious writer, seem to have been a clearness of apprehension, and a steady undeviating common sense. We do not rind him taking unrestrained excursions into the more difficult labyrinths of philosophical inquiry, or indulging in conjecture and hypothesis. He is in the constant habit of referring to acknowledged facts and observations, and suggests the trials by which his speculative opinions may be put to the teat. He does not seek for extraordinary occasions of trying his philosophical acumen, nor sjts down with the preconceived intention of constructing a philosophical system. It is in the course of his familiar correspondence that he proposes his new explanations of phenomena, and brings into notice his new discoveries. A question put by a friend, or an accidental occurrence of the day, generally form the ground-work of these speculations. They are taken up by the author as the ordinary topics of friendly intercourse; they appear to cost him no Jahour; and are discussed without any parade. If an ingenious solution of a phenomenon is suggested, it is introduced with as much simplicity as if it were the most natural and obvious explanation that could be offered; and the author seems to value himself so little upon it, that the reader is in danger of estimating it below its real | importance: If a mere hypothesis be proposed, the author himself is the first to point out its insufficiency, and abandons it with more facility than he had constructed it. Even the letters on electricity, which are by far the most finished of Franklin’s performances, are distinctly characterized by all these peculiarities. They are at first suggested by the accidental present of an electrical tube from a correspondent in London; Franklin and his friends are insensibly engaged in a course of electrical experiments; the results are from time to time communicated to the London correspondent; several important discoveries are made; and at length there arises a finished and ingenious theory of electricity. On this account the writings of Franklin possess a peculiar charm. They excite a favourable disposition and a friendly interest in the reader. The author never betrays any exertion, nor displays an. unwarrantable partiality for his own speculations; he assumes no superiority over his readers, nor seeks to elevate the importance of his conceptions, by the adventitious aid of declamation, or rhetorical flourishes. He exhibits no false zeal, no enthusiasm, but calmly and modestly seeks after truth; and if he fails to find it, has no desire to impose a counterfeit in its stead. He makes a familiar amusement of philosophical speculation; and while the reader thinks he has before him an ordinary and unstudied Jetter to a friend, he is insensibly engaged in deep disqu*­sitions of science, and made acquainted with the ingenious solutions of difficult phenomena. Of Franklin’s more private and personal character, we have few particulars; but it is to be regretted that in his religious principles he was early, and all his life, one of the class of free-thinkers. 1


Life prefixed to his Works.—Hutton’s Dictionary, &c.