During his lifetime Benjamin Franklin became the most feared enemy of the British Empire. He fought. He conspired. He recruited. He displayed the same quality of courage as that which is needed today in our fight to rescue the American Republic.
In this concluding installment of our series on Franklin, we ask two questions. First,—Why did Franklin do what he did? And second,—Why did he succeed?
Throughout human history most revolutions have failed, and of those apparently successful, many resulted in less than desirable outcomes. Yet Benjamin Franklin steered the most important revolution in history to victory. And this was not simply a political or military victory. A new nation was created,—a Republic—and one based on the principles that Franklin had devoted his life to.
Here we shall look at Franklin, himself, and at a small representation of biographical evidence, to arrive at some conclusions as to how and why he succeeded. In doing this we may find lessons and insights as to how each of us must respond to the crisis and challenge of today.
Learning to Laugh at Our Follies
In many of his writings Benjamin Franklin attacked the policies and principles of the British Empire. However, he also had a second target. Beginning with the Silence Dogood letters in 1722, written when he was only 16 years old, Franklin began a life-long enterprise of poking fun at the foibles and moral weaknesses of his fellow colonists. In the 14 Silence Dogood installments, Franklin takes on the never-publicly-discussed seedy underside of life in Boston. Drunkenness, hypocrisy and prostitution become the subjects, not of moral lecture, but embarrassing mirth. Franklin exposes not simply scandalous behavior, but more importantly, the contradictions and obfuscations with which his fellow colonists dealt with such behavior. He gets people to laugh at themselves and their own flaws.
Franklin would continue to use humor as a weapon throughout his life. He invented The Busy-Body in 1729, Anthony Afterwit in 1732, Alice Addertongue, also in 1732, A Scolding Wife in 1733, and his greatest creation, the hen-pecked husband and amateur astrologer Poor Richard, in 1732. Poor Richard, a character modeled explicitly on Jonathan Swift’s Isaac Bickerstaff, would become Franklin’s alter ego, and continue in existence for 26 years, until 1758.
Franklin began every annual edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack with a lengthy Preface, “written by” Poor Richard himself. These are truly remarkable. In the Preface to the 1749 Almanack, for example, Franklin intermixes moral maxims, puns and practical economic advice, with lessons about history, astronomical observations, the speed of sound and the practicality of developing a silk industry in Pennsylvania. Annual sales of the Almanack reached 10,000 per year, and Franklin’s sharp good-natured wit had a lot to do with that success.
For Franklin, printing was first and foremost a business, the way he earned his income. But it was also something more. In 1729 Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Gazette. In 1732 he founded the South-Carolina Gazette. In 1742 he provided financing and equipment for James Parker to establish the New York Gazette and Weekly Post-Boy. Then in 1755 he set-up the Connecticut Gazette. He even established a newspaper in Antigua. In addition, he encouraged, and even aided, a number of others to set up newspapers in most of the rest of the colonies.
What Franklin sought to establish was a network of printers and publishers to provide the population with a steady stream of news and discussion. When he started, in 1729, there were only four newspapers in the 13 colonies, two in Boston and one each in New York and Philadelphia. By 1776 there were 37 newspapers in the colonies. At that time 80 percent of the male colonists were literate, and this approached 100 percent in the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies. At least 50 percent of the female colonists were literate, again with a higher percentage in the North,—a combined literacy rate that far exceeded what existed in Europe at that time. These newspapers would play an indispensable role in educating the people and keeping them informed on the crucial issues of the day. Later, this network,—and its printing capabilities—would prove indispensable in the work of the Committees of Correspondence and the Sons of Liberty.
In 1731 Franklin published, in the Pennsylvania Gazette, a remarkable essay, written by him, titled “Apology for Printers.” Several weeks earlier he had published an advertisement which made fun of the Church of England, and he was now under attack, with some even demanding that the Gazette be shut down. In the “Apology,” Franklin is inflexible in his stance,—although, as always, laced with humor—that a free press is an inviolable institution in a free society. He ends by saying, “I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters.”
To ‘Do Good’
On November 20, 1728, less than one year before the launching of the Gazette, Franklin wrote an essay titled, “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion.” This work,—a statement of principles but also a devotional book intended for his personal use—was not published until long after his death.
Setting up a newspaper seems like a “practical” thing to do, but it is worth reflecting that Franklin’s “Articles of Belief,” immediately preceded the establishment of the Gazette. It reflects his moral outlook and his most deeply held beliefs at the precise moment he launches his public career. The “Articles” are deeply passionate and provide great insight as to why Franklin did what he did.
Excerpts from the “Articles”:
It is that particular wise and good God, who is the Author and Owner of our System, that I propose for the Object of my Praise and Adoration...
I conceive for many Reasons that he is a good Being, and as I should be happy to have so wise, good and powerful a Being my Friend, let me consider in what Manner I shall make myself most acceptable to him.
Let me then not fail to praise my God continually, for it is his Due, and it is all I can return for his many Favours and great Goodness to me; and let me resolve to be virtuous, that I may be happy, that I may please Him, who is delighted to see me happy. Amen.
I believe he is pleased and delights in the Happiness of those he has created; and since without Virtue Man can have no Happiness in this World, I firmly believe he delights to see me Virtuous, because he is pleas’d when he sees me Happy.
I love him therefore for his Goodness and I adore him for his Wisdom.
By thy Wisdom hast thou formed all Things, Thou hast created Man, bestowing Life and Reason, and plac’d him in Dignity superior to thy other earthly Creatures.
Praised be thy Name for ever.
By thy Power hast thou made the glorious Sun, with his attending Worlds; from the Energy of thy mighty Will they first received [their prodigious] Motion, and by thy Wisdom hast thou prescribed the wondrous Laws by which they move.
Praised be thy Name for ever.
Thy Wisdom, thy Power, and thy Goodness are every where clearly seen; in the Air and in the Water, in the Heavens and on the Earth; Thou providest for the various winged Fowl, and the innumerable Inhabitants of the Water; Thou givest Cold and Heat, Rain and Sunshine in their Season, and to the Fruits of the Earth Increase.
Praised be thy Name for ever.
Thou abhorrest in thy Creatures Treachery and Deceit, Malice, Revenge, [intemperance] and every other hurtful Vice; but Thou art a Lover of Justice and Sincerity, of Friendship, Benevolence and every Virtue. Thou art my Friend, my Father, and my Benefactor.
Praised be thy Name for ever. Amen.
For the Common Benefits of Air and Light, for useful Fire and delicious Water, Good God, I Thank thee.
For Knowledge and Literature and every useful Art; for my Friends and their Prosperity, and for the fewness of my Enemies, Good God, I Thank thee.
For all thy innumerable Benefits; For Life and Reason, and the Use of Speech, for Health and Joy and every Pleasant Hour, my Good God, I thank thee.
Two years after founding the Gazette Franklin began his next great project, the creation of the Philadelphia Library Company, the first public library in the colonies. Franklin recruited 50 subscribers to provide the funding, and working closely with James Logan, 375 books were secured for the library’s collection. Books could be borrowed by the general public as well as subscribers. At that time there was a great scarcity of books in the colonies and those available for purchase were very expensive. Franklin ensured that the greatest and most useful books on science, history and geography were made available to every member of the colony.
Preparing Citizens to Defend Freedom
Creating citizens; uplifting his fellow human beings—scientifically, intellectually, morally;—this continued as Franklin’s overriding concern, for a span of decades in Philadelphia. On May 9, 1731, while engaged in the project to create the Library Company, Franklin authored a work, “Observations on my Reading History in Library.” That work, a short reflection on war and politics, contains a section which is revelatory as to Franklin’s life intention. He writes:
That fewer still in public Affairs act with a View to the Good of Mankind.
There seems to me at present to be great Occasion for raising an united Party for Virtue, by forming the Virtuous and good Men of all Nations into a regular Body, to be govern’d by suitable good and wise Rules, which good and wise Men may probably be more unanimous in their Obedience to, than common People are to common Laws.
I at present think, that whoever attempts this aright, and is well qualified, cannot fail of pleasing God, and of meeting with Success.
In May 1743 Franklin authored and published “A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge Among the British Plantations in America.” Therein, he proposes the creation of The American Philosophical Society. On August 24, 1749 Franklin authored “On the Need for an Academy,” his argument for establishing a college in Philadelphia. This was accompanied by another piece, “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania,” printed in the Gazette. He says:
The History of Commerce, of the Invention of Arts, Rise of Manufactures, Progress of Trade, Change of its Seats, with the Reasons, Causes, &c. may also be made entertaining to Youth, and will be useful to all. And this, with the Accounts in other History of the prodigious Force and Effect of Engines and Machines used in War, will naturally introduce a Desire to be instructed in Mechanicks, and to be inform’d of the Principles of that Art by which weak Men perform such Wonders, Labour is sav’d, Manufactures expedited, &c. &c. This will be the Time to show them Prints of ancient and modern Machines, to explain them, to let them be copied, and to give Lectures in Mechanical Philosophy.
With the whole should be constantly inculcated and cultivated, that Benignity of Mind, which shows itself in searching for and seizing every Opportunity to serve and to oblige; and is the Foundation of what is called Good Breeding; highly useful to the Possessor, and most agreeable to all.
The Idea of what is true Merit, should also be often presented to Youth, explain’d and impress’d on their Minds, as consisting in an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family; which Ability is (with the Blessing of God) to be acquir’d or greatly encreas’d by true Learning; and should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning.
That none of Franklin’s efforts were intended as simply intellectual or academic initiatives is shown in a piece he wrote in 1747, titled “Plain Truth: or, Serious Considerations On the Present State of the City of Philadelphia, and Province of Pennsylvania.”
This work was published during the armed conflict known as King George’s War (called the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe). It is a Call to Arms, wherein Franklin calls upon the “the middling People, the Farmers, Shopkeepers and Tradesmen of this City and Country” to stand and fight for their freedom. He portrays the crisis:
It seems as if Heaven, justly displead’d at our growing Wickedness, and determin’d to punish this once favour’d Land, had suffered our Chiefs to engage in these foolish and mischievous Contentions, for little Posts and paltry Distinctions, that our Hands might be bound up, our Understandings darkned and misled, and every Means of our Security neglected. It seems as if our greatest Men, our Cives nobilissimi of both Parties, had sworn the Ruin of the Country, and invited the French, our most inveterate Enemy, to destroy it.
He asks: “Where then shall we seek for Succour and Protection?” And he answers his own question by stating that the citizens of Pennsylvania have within themselves the moral strength and the means to defend their lives and liberty. He even provides statistics for the number of able-bodied adult citizens, the number of rifles and the amounts of ammunition and gunpowder.
We close with a vignette within a vignette, one which reflects Benjamin’s Franklin optimism as to the human condition.
In 1783, while serving as U.S. Ambassador to France, Franklin was able to observe the first experiments in human flight. On June 5, 1783 the world’s first hot-air balloon, invented by the brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, was launched into flight above Lyons. This unmanned attempt was followed on September 19 with a second flight, this time carrying a cargo which included a sheep, a duck and a rooster.
The first free flight with human passengers took place, in Paris, on November 21. In a flight which traveled five miles over the French countryside, the passengers, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis François d’Arlandes, became humanity’s first aero-nauts.
At the same time, others in France were experimenting with the use of hydrogen as a means of lifting the balloons into flight. On August 27, 1783 the world’s first hydrogen balloon, invented by Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers, was launched at the Place des Victoires in Paris, and then on December 1, only ten days after the first manned hot-air balloon flight, a hydrogen balloon was launched at the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, carrying a human crew. This flight ascended to an altitude of more than 3,000 meters and traveled over 27 miles.
Franklin attended almost all of these balloon launches, and he sent detailed reports, including of the construction and materials used in making the balloons, in a series of three letters to Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London. But Franklin was no mere observer of the events. He supplied a good chunk of the financing to Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers for the construction of their hydrogen balloon. He was also in communication with the Montgolfier brothers, and they called upon Franklin at his home in Passy the very evening following the first manned flight.
Franklin called these balloon flights “Aerostatic Experiments.” In one of his letters to Joseph Banks, he says:
“This Experience is by no means a trifling one. It may be attended with important Consequences that no one can foresee. We should not suffer Pride to prevent our progress in Science. Beings of a Rank and Nature far superior to ours have not disdained to amuse themselves with making and launching Balloons, otherwise we should never have enjoyed the Light of those glorious objects that rule our Day & Night, nor have had the Pleasure of riding round the Sun ourselves upon the Balloon we now inhabit.”
“I am sorry this Experiment is totally neglected in England.... It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new Experiment which apparently increases the Power of Man over Matter, till we can see to what Use that Power may be applied. When we have learnt to manage it, we may hope some time or other to find Uses for it, as Men have done for Magnetism and Electricity of which the first Experiments were mere Matters of Amusement.”
In 1777 Franklin had stated, “Freedom can be achieved by virtue alone. Virtue is possible only through reason.” We should all take these words to heart. Throughout his life Franklin was motivated by a love of truth, a dedication to fostering the creative potential which resides within every human being. He understood that these emotions provide the basis for Freedom, for a successful revolution in human affairs.
- Part I: A Vignette Concerning Benjamin Franklin
- Part II: 1774: Franklin in the Cockpit—Face to Face Against Empire
- Part III: Leadership at a Time of Crisis
- Part IV: Independence
- Part V: Franklin’s Deplorables
- Part VI: Franklin in Paris: December, 1776—July, 1785 The Power of Patriotism
- Part VII: A Nation Built on Discovery
- Part VIII: “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident. . . .”
- Part IX: Lightning