Benjamin Franklin: From Printer's Apprentice to Founding Father

Benjamin Franklin: From Printer’s Apprentice to Founding Father

Shannon Callahan

13 Jun 2022
Joseph Siffrein Duplessis - Benjamin Franklin, 1778.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was one of the United States’ Founding Fathers, and is considered one of the central figures of early American history. The tenth of 17 children, Franklin had limited formal education and began a printer’s apprenticeship with his oldest brother at the age of 12.

In addition to helping to draft the Declaration of Independence and being a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was a printer, publisher, author, inventor and diplomat. Throughout his life, Franklin used prose to influence those around him and was formative in helping to create the foundations of the United States.

So, who exactly was Benjamin Franklin, and how did he become a Founding Father of the United States?

Franklin’s first love was writing

Franklin originally enjoyed writing poetry, and built upon his reading and writing knowledge during a printing apprenticeship. However, he soon began writing prose and developed a sophisticated command of written language.

Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on a printing press. Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting by the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1914.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1722, Franklin wrote a series of 14 satirical and witty essays under the pseudonym ‘Silence Dogood’, which he submitted to his brother’s newspaper, The Courant. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. From 1733 to 1758, Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack under the pseudonym Richard Saunders. The Almanack contained famous phrases such as “early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”.

Franklin travelled between Philadelphia and London for years

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Franklin didn’t enjoy the city. He left to find work elsewhere, stopping in New York City before heading to Philadelphia, where he gained employment as a printer. He had hoped to start his own business, and the Governor of Pennsylvania, William Keith, suggested that he go to London and make connections before opening his own print shop in the States. However, Franklin left Philadelphia for London without receiving the letters of recommendation Keith had promised.

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Franklin quickly found employment in London and enjoyed socializing in the city. In 1726, he was offered a clerkship in Philadelphia that promised to earn him high commissions, so he returned home again. 

Franklin retired aged 42

By 1748, Franklin had earned enough money to retire from active business. He continued to be a silent partner in his printing firm, Franklin and Hall, but now focused his time on ‘philosophical students and amusements’. Included in his ‘amusements’ was research into science and electricity, which he published papers on in 1751 to international acclaim.

In 1752, Franklin stood in a thunderstorm with a key attached to a kite to investigate the source of lightning and better understand electricity. He also created the distinction between insulators and conductors, amongst other discoveries. He is also credited with inventing bifocals, the Franklin stove and the glass armonica.

He was a public servant for the city of Philadelphia

In addition to scientific pursuits, Franklin also took to public service in his retirement. He served as a member of the Philadelphia City Council in 1748 and then deputy postmaster general for all of the colonies in 1753. He also spent 18 years in London as an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly.

In 1751, Franklin co-founded Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, one of the first hospitals in the United States (depicted in this engaving by William Strickland, 1755).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

His printing business became increasingly successful throughout the 1730s, and he launched a lending library, the first volunteer fire company, the American Philosophical Society, a hospital and a college that went on to become the University of Pennsylvania.

Franklin was a Founding Father of the United States

The Stamp Act of 1765 required all printed materials in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. This frustrated those living in the colonies since they were being taxed without representation. Franklin was living in London at the time the act was passed and testified against it. The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766; however, it had stirred anti-British sentiments that further stoked the flames of the American Revolution.

On his return to Philadelphia in May 1775, Franklin was selected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and helped draft the document that declared the Americas free from British rule. He was then sent to France where he successfully enlisted the government’s help with the Revolutionary War, which proved critical to getting soldiers, supplies and money to the colonies throughout the conflict.

This Join, or Die by Franklin urged the colonies to join the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War). It later served as a symbol of colonial freedom during the American Revolution.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Franklin remained in France for several years and later negotiated the Treaty of Paris to end the war. After the war ended, he served as a delegate at the Constitutional Convention.

He is the only Founding Father to have signed all four documents that are considered key to the establishment of the United States in the Revolutionary period: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris and the US Constitution.

His motion to approve the US Constitution was critical to its passing

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, there were fierce debates about what should be included in the document that would establish a new county. Though Franklin himself did not approve of everything in the Constitution, he wrote a speech to encourage all of the delegates to ratify it.

The oldest delegate at the convention, Franklin was unable to deliver the speech himself, but his message was nonetheless delivered effectively. After the document was voted on and ratified, Franklin was asked what kind of government the US would have, to which he supposedly replied, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

He continued in service to his community after his death

Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, a year after the US Constitution was ratified, at the age of 84. His funeral was attended by at least 20,000 people, and he was buried in Philadelphia’s Christ Church. In his will, he left a combined total of $4,000 to his hometown of Boston and his adopted home of Philadelphia.

Franklin on the Series 2009 hundred dollar bill.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

These gifts were under strict instruction not to be drawn out for 100 years and could not be distributed for 200 years. When the time had passed, the cities decided to use the money in various ways, including giving personal loans to citizens and opening museums in his honour. This last gesture shows how invested Franklin was in the United States and its success for centuries to come.

Shannon Callahan

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