The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

  • Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin: America's printer, statesman, scientist, world traveler and F&M College benefactor  

Benjamin Franklin was born Jan. 17, 1706, in Boston, Mass., the youngest son among 15 children born to Josiah Franklin. Josiah originally planned for Benjamin to be "the tithe of his sons" and to dedicate his life to the ministry. He sent Ben, at the age of 8, to George Brownell's English school, which he attended from 1715 to 1716. But Josiah changed his mind about the ministry and put his young son to work; that single year of schooling was the only formal education Benjamin Franklin ever received.

Ben worked for his father, a candle and soap maker. Ben's older brother James was a printer, and in 1717 Josiah agreed to send Ben to apprentice in the printing shop. Ben had already developed a love of reading and poetry, and at the age of 12 he signed a nine-year indenture.

In 1721, James Franklin started a newspaper, the New England Courant. Ben continued working in the print shop, setting type while secretly writing for the paper under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood"; he was only 16.

After a few years in the printing shop, tensions developed between the brothers. Ben wrote later in his autobiography that, "perhaps I was too saucy and provoking." He went to New York and then Philadelphia, where he found work with the printer Samuel Keimer, publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette. But Franklin wanted to run his own press and, with a partner, eventually bought the Pennsylvania Gazette from Keimer.

The Pennsylvania Gazette first gained real fame for its editorial analysis of a salary controversy between Governor William Burnet and the Massachusetts assembly. This story -- with assistance from Franklin's friend Andrew Hamilton, who had recently been elected speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly -- led to the Gazette being named the province's official printer.  

In 1730, as his printing business grew, Franklin married Deborah Read, his childhood sweetheart. They established a home in Philadelphia and had two children, Francis and Sara (Francis died at four years old). They also raised Franklin's illegitimate son, William.

The Pennsylvania Gazette continued to gain readership and Franklin formed a partnership with Thomas Whitemarsh to begin printing in South Carolina. Such partnerships were new to the colonies, as businesses were traditionally family-owned and local. After this first agreement, Franklin went on to establish several more printing partnerships.

While managing his printing business and living in Philadelphia, Franklin also taught himself to read, write and translate German, French, Spanish, Italian and Latin. He began writing and printing Poor Richard's Almanack (sic), under the pseudonym Richard Saunders. It was an instant success, proving more entertaining and engaging than previous almanacs and selling nearly 10,000 copies each year.

Franklin retired from printing and began a new life focused on scientific research and civil affairs. After reading about German studies on electricity, he and colleagues Ebenezer Kinnersley, Philip Syng and Thomas Hopkinson began testing the Leyden Jar (an early capacitor), and experimented with it for more than two years. These experiments led the men to discover that the German theorists were wrong; there were not two kinds of electricity, as previously believed, but merely two poles for which Franklin used the terms "plus" and "minus" ("positive" and "negative" today).

Through these experiments, Franklin developed his theory about lightning. He presented to the scientific community his concept -- that lightning was naturally electrical. In June 1752, as dark clouds formed above, he set out to fly a kite to prove his concept. Franklin knew that hemp string would conduct electricity, and he ran it to the Leyden Jar. He insulated himself by holding a silk ribbon to the string; as the strands on the hemp string stood on end, he knew he had succeeded.

Several years before the now-famous kite experiment, Franklin had been appointed both to the Common Council of Philadelphia and as a justice of the peace for Philadelphia. From the moment he accepted these positions, Franklin passionately supported the unification of the colonies. Believing the American colonies to be grossly mistreated by England, Franklin wrote his famous editorial, "Join or Die," in 1754. Not only did this include the first political cartoon to appear in a newspaper, but its segmented snake also became the first symbol to emerge of the unified American colonies.

As tensions with England increased, Franklin traveled as an emissary to London to petition the king about Pennsylvania property taxes. Franklin wrote and published American propaganda in England, informing British citizens of the colonies' economic importance. At this time in England, the Stamp Act was being discussed. The American colonies strongly opposed the act, and although Franklin proposed several alternatives, the English Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765; this initiated the collapse of British colonial rule in America.

Franklin continued to write propaganda and protest against the Stamp Act while in England. He predicted the onset of war but advised that the colonies hold off as long as possible. While on his return voyage to America, the Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought, and upon his return he was appointed to the Second Continental Congress. He became one of Congress' most vocal and active leaders, drafting the Articles of Confederation and later serving on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence.

After the American Revolution began, Franklin visited France to request aid from the French foreign minister. In 1778, he signed an alliance for mutual defense with France, which changed the tide of the war. With Great Britain's resolve weakening, Franklin, along with two other congressional members, John Jay and John Adams, negotiated and signed the Treaty of Paris in September 1783. Recognized by Great Britain on May 12, 1784, the treaty brought the American War of Independence to an end.

Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1785. Although he served on the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and worked toward the ratification of the U.S. Constitution well into his 80s, he spent his final years focused on experiments and "philosophical amusements." In 1790, at the age of 84, Benjamin Franklin died in his Philadelphia home. His death elicited sadness and respect in Europe and America, where both the French Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives voted to wear mourning attire for several days.   

Three years before his death, a small college in Lancaster, Pa., was founded. Franklin College received its charter on March 10, 1787, beginning the journey as a secular institution focused on higher education for both English and non-English speakers. Benjamin Franklin made one of the largest donations to the new school (200 pounds), and news of the school's formation filled the pages of his Pennsylvania Gazette. Although Franklin did not live to see the merging of Franklin College and Marshall College in 1853, his intellectual legacy of inquiry and innovation, and his commitment to lifelong learning, live on in the College's mission today. 

Find Ben in the Archives

For more information about Benjamin Franklin, visit the F&M Archives and Special Collections located in the Martin Library of the Sciences. The archives house numerous artifacts relating to Franklin, including original prints from Franklin and Hall Press, a Nov. 20, 1766, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, a fourth edition copy of Experiments and Observations on Electricity by Benjamin Franklin, a signed document from Benjamin Franklin as President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, and several books from Franklin's personal library.

Pictured right: One of F&M Archive's original documents from 1787 (Treasurer Mr. Frederick Kuhl's Account of Franklin College in the borough of Lancaster, List of Paid Subscribers). This shows Benjamin Franklin's original contribution to Franklin College. 

"The following gentlemen have paid their subscription toward Franklin College in Lancaster. His Excellency Benj. Franklin Esq. [uire] Cash paper £200."


  • Treasurer Mr. Frederick Kuhl's Account of Franklin College in the borough of Lancaster, List of Paid Subscribers. "The following gentlemen have paid their subscription toward Franklin College in Lancaster. His Excellency Benj. Franklin Esq. [uire] Cash paper £200." Treasurer Mr. Frederick Kuhl's Account of Franklin College in the borough of Lancaster, List of Paid Subscribers. "The following gentlemen have paid their subscription toward Franklin College in Lancaster. His Excellency Benj. Franklin Esq. [uire] Cash paper £200." Image Credit: F&M Archives

Did You Know?

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  • As a young adult, Benjamin became a vegetarian to save money (mostly for books).
  • Benjamin Franklin was the only man to sign three important documents of the young United States: The Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. Constitution.
  • Franklin received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and the College of William & Mary.
  • Benjamin Franklin offered to pay for all the tea dumped in the Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party if that would delay the onset of war a little longer.
  • At the age of 70, Franklin was the oldest signer of the Declaration of Independence. Most signers, like Adams, Jefferson and Washington, were in their 40s.
  • Franklin wrote the first argument against slavery addressed to the American Congress. Congress ignored it, saying Franklin had no authority to interfere in the internal affairs of the states. 

Ben's Birthday Challenge 2016: You Did It!

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Congratulations! The Ben Franklin Birthday Challenge was a success!

On Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, we asked Franklin & Marshall College's alumni, parents and friends to help us celebrate Benjamin Franklin's 310th birthday by joining us for a challenge: If 310 people donated that day, a generous alumnus would make a gift of $31,000.

We're happy to say that the F&M community not only delivered, it exceeded expectations, with 485 alumni, parents and friends making gifts totaling more than $46,000 in support of the Franklin & Marshall Fund. What a wonderful way to celebrate one of the College's first benefactors! We did Ben proud. Thank you so much for all of your support!