Benjamin Franklin: The Enlightenment Personified


Anyone serious about getting the most out of life could be served by the example of Benjamin Franklin.

I’m not just talking about following maxims such as “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” The mouthpieces of Franklin’s wisdom, such as Poor Richard, were hilarious and sometimes brilliant. But the man himself was Promethean.

Yes, you could look to gurus such as Russell Conwell, Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Stephen Covey, or Tim Ferriss for advice on how to flourish in life; they offer sound and valuable ideas. Or you could go to the root of the whole principle of rigorous, self-conscious self-improvement. Franklin’s life was the model. He was an innovative entrepreneur who built a network of printers throughout the colonies; spearheaded numerous cooperative enterprises, including a university, a philosophical society, a hospital, a fire company, and a volunteer militia; and though he wasn’t a mathematical theoretician, Franklin was a world-class scientist and inventor. He was also indispensable to the American Revolution. As historian Gordon Wood wrote, “He was the greatest diplomat America has ever had.”1 When he met his French literary counterpart, Voltaire, people cheered that Solon, the celebrated Athenian lawgiver, had embraced Sophocles, the renowned Athenian playwright. And Franklin did more than help create America. He cast the mold for an American ideal: that a free man may rise as high as his ambition will take him, and that his mind and effort are what matter, not his position at birth.

In sum, Benjamin Franklin personified the Enlightenment. If you’re not familiar with Franklin’s life and accomplishments, then you’re missing out on one of the most inspiring and instructive stories in world history.

‘Industry Need Not Wish.’2

Benjamin Franklin—who became the world’s most famous scientist during his life—had only two years of schooling. He was a genius no doubt. More important, he was ambitious.

Books were his first love. By the age of twelve, he had read every book in his house, then got a friend who worked at a bookshop to let him sample the merchandise. “Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night,” Franklin recalled in his tremendous Autobiography, “when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning lest it should be missed or wanted.”3 Among others, Franklin read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Daniel Defoe’s An Essay Upon Projects, and Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good. He imbibed their exhortations to morality and industry but not their religiosity. . . .

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Endnotes

1. Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 196.

2. Benjamin Franklin, Writings (New York: Library Company of America, 1987), 1213.

3. Franklin, Writings, 1318.

4. Franklin, Writings, 1320.

5. Franklin aimed to emulate the straightforward, impactful style of the British essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who wrote and published The Spectator.

6. Franklin, Writings, 1319–20.

7. Franklin, Writings, 1320–21.

8. Franklin, Writings, 8.

9. Franklin, Writings, 1318.

10. Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 61.

11. The competing paper was the American Weekly Mercury, which was owned by Andrew Bradford.

12. Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York: Bramhall House, 1987), 94.

13. Franklin, Writings, 1185.

14. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 98.

15. Franklin, Writings, 1187.

16. Franklin, Writings, 1249.

17. Franklin, Writings, 1362.

18. Franklin, Writings, 1362.

19. Franklin, Writings, 1372.

20. A 1682 decree granted Pennsylvania to William Penn. Penn set out to create a colony devoted to religious freedom, and indeed Pennsylvania thrived by attracting thousands of immigrants from all religions and sects. However, his heirs lived in England and did little to help advance or protect the colony.

21. Franklin, Writings, 1411.

22. Thomas Penn to Richard Peters, August 31, 1748. See “Plain Truth, 17 November 1747,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0091.

23. Thomas Penn to Richard Peters, August 31, 1748.

24. Franklin, Writings, 1431.

25. Franklin, Writings, 1213.

26. In his Autobiography, Franklin claimed, “My father, burdened with a numerous family, was unable without inconvenience to support the expense of a college education.” However, as Walter Isaacson points out in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, “This economic explanation is unsatisfying. The family was well-off enough, and there were fewer Franklin children being supported at home . . . than had been the case for many years. There was no tuition at the Latin School, and as the top of his class [Franklin] would easily have won a scholarship to Harvard.” See Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 18.

27. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 19.

28. Franklin, Writings, 1179–80.

29. Franklin, Writings, 1179–80; 1382–83.

30. Franklin, Writings, 1359; 846.

31. Franklin, Writings, 1359.

32. Franklin, Writings, 1359–60.

33. Franklin, Writings, 1384–85.

34. Franklin, Writings, 1392.

35. Franklin, Writings, 1308.

36. Franklin, Writings, 1475.

37. Modern-day fans of Franklin who are interested in taking on his moral project can download a mobile application titled “Ben’s Virtues” to track their progress in a way that, other than being digital, mirrors Franklin’s method.

38. Franklin, Writings, 748–49.

39. Franklin, Writings, 748–49.

40. Franklin, Writings, 1140.

41. Franklin, Writings, 1382.

42. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 748.

43. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 79.

44. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 79.

45. Franklin, Writings, 1017.

46. Franklin, Writings, 1200.

47. “A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge, 14 May 1743,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-02-02-0092.

48. “From Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, 28 March 1747,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0055.

49. This deal was to last for eighteen years.

50. H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 191.

51. “From Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, 25 May 1747,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0059.

52. I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin’s Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 40.

53. “From Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, 25 May 1747.”

54. “From Benjamin Franklin to John Lining, 18 March 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-05-02-0149.

55. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 159–60.

56. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 171.

57. Franklin, Writings, 1017.

58. Franklin, Writings, 1492.

59. Franklin, Writings, 1201.

60. Franklin, Writings, 1405.

61. Franklin, Writings, 1318.

62. Franklin, Writings, 1321.

63. Franklin, Writings, 1322.

64. Franklin, Writings, 8.

65. “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-13-02-0035.

66. “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766.”

67. “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766.”

68. Franklin, Writings, 615.

69. Franklin, Writings, 1241.

70. The recipient in Britain was Undersecretary Thomas Whately.

71. “Thomas Hutchinson to ——, 20 January 1769,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-20-02-0282-0007.

72. Historians still have not identified who divulged these letters to Franklin.

73. “From Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Cushing, 2 December 1772,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-19-02-0267.

74. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 143–44.

75. Franklin, Writings, 689–97.

76. Franklin, Writings, 698–99.

77. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 147.

78. Lord Chatham.

79. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 150.

80. “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-13-02-0035.

81. “From John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 8 August 1807,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5203.

82. “John Adams to Abigail Adams, 23 July 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0164.

83. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 310.

84. “From Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin, [21 June 1776?],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0168.

85. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 312.

86. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 313.

87. Franklin, Writings, 1259.

88. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 169–71.

89. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 184.

90. “From Benjamin Franklin to Vergennes, 17 December 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-38-02-0345.

91. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 200.

92. Franklin, Writings, 1241.

93. Franklin, Writings, 1421.

94. “Constitution of Pennsylvania, September 28, 1776,” available via Yale Law School’s Avalon Project, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pa08.asp (accessed April 20, 2018).

95. Franklin, Writings, 547.

96. Franklin, Writings, 1254.

97. Franklin, Writings, 1475.

98. Franklin, Writings, 1134–36.

99. Franklin, Writings, 1139–41.

100. Brands, First American, 691.

101. Richard R. Beeman, “Perspectives on the Constitution: A Republic, If You Can Keep It,” National Constitution Center, https://constitutioncenter.org/learn/educational-resources/historical-documents/perspectives-on-the-constitution-a-republic-if-you-can-keep-it (accessed April 24, 2018).

102. Franklin, Writings, 1190.

103. Franklin, Writings, 371.

104. From Benjamin Franklin to John Waring, 17 December 1763,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-10-02-0214.

105. Franklin, Writings, 677–78.

106. Franklin, Writings, 1154–55.

107. Wood, Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 228.

108. Howard Gillman et al., “Supplementary Material,” American Constitutionalism Volume I: Structures of Government, global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/fdscontent/uscompanion/us/static/companion.websites/gillman/instructor/Chapter_4/quaker_petition_on_slavery.pdf (accessed April 7, 2018).

109. Gillman et al., “Supplementary Material.”

110. Franklin, Writings, 1157–60.

111. Franklin’s first published writings have been lost to history. However, we know that he published two “broadside ballads,” the first being “The Lighthouse Tragedy” in 1718. The second was “On the Taking of Teach or Blackbeard the Pirate.” Although Franklin’s older brother James, to whom he was indentured, was not interested in publishing his brother’s work in his paper, he did help Franklin publish these, and Franklin sold them in town in Boston.

112. Franklin, Writings, 1204.

113. Franklin, Writings, 91.

114. Brands, First American, 712.

115. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 474.

116. “Benjamin Franklin’s Legacy,” http://www.bfit.edu/about-us/benjamin-franklins-living-legacy (accessed April 20, 2018).

117. “Editorial Note: Death of Franklin,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-19-02-0005-0001.

118. Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, 780–81.

119. “Enclosure II: The President of the National Assembly of France to ‘The President of Congress’, [20 June 1790],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-19-02-0005-0007.


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