Benjamin Franklin was one of America’s most famous writers, statesmen, politicians, humorists, and inventors. Witty, trenchant, brilliant, and practical, Franklin was a true rags-to-riches success story. Much of his life is known from his most beloved and important work, his Autobiography, a classic of the genre and undoubtedly a text that occupies a central place in American letters.
Franklin was born in 1709 in Boston to Josiah and Abiah Franklin. He was given a bit of schooling but was then sent to several trades. He apprenticed with his brother James at a printing shop and displayed an aptitude for it. The remarkably ambitious and articulate young Franklin wrote several pieces under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood” his brother’s paper, gaining a reputation for incisiveness intelligence and insight.
He objected to his brother’s cruel treatment as a master and ran away to Philadelphia, where he also worked in printing. Connections with influential men led him to London, then back to Philadelphia where he eventually established his own print shop. In 1730 he married Deborah Read; they had two children, Francis and Sarah.
In Philadelphia Franklin quickly became a pillar of the intellectual and literary elite. He formed the Junto, a social group, and established the city’s first library, hospital, fire department, academy (which would become the University of Pennsylvania), and pan-religious public forum.
In the late 1720s and early 1730s he began to print (and write and edit) his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, as well as Poor Richard’s Almanac. The almanac was a popular genre at the time and Franklin’s was a bestseller. It promoted his cherished values of common sense and skepticism. These writing endeavors netted him a lot of money and he invested in real estate and other printing businesses.
He became a Deist and engaged in scientific pursuits, focusing on electricity, meteorology, hydrodynamics, and others; his experiment with the key and the kite to determine if lightning is a form of electricity is justifiably acclaimed. He received several honorary degrees, including ones from Harvard and Yale.
By the 1750s the growing tensions between the colonies and Great Britain began to occupy most of his time. He put forth the Albany Plan during the French and Indian War, advocating greater colonial unity, and served as the representative from Pennsylvania to the Crown in 1757. Writing and conversation with leading English and Scottish thinkers was a common activity of his, as was arguing in his paper for peace and reconciliation.
Over time Franklin’s sentiments began to shift from amity to breaking away from Britain. He was a delegate at the Second Continental Congress and helped Jefferson work on the Declaration of Independence. In 1776 he traveled to France as the Congress’s representative and became immensely popular amongst the French elite for his charm and wit. He helped sign the wartime alliance, and while there continued to work on the Autobiography, which he’d begun to write in 1771.
After the Revolutionary War Franklin settled in Philadelphia and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was on the supreme council of Pennsylvania, and accepted an appointment on the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He died of pleurisy on April 17th, 1790, indisputably one of the greatest men of his age.