By Travis Copeland
If there ever was a renaissance man, it was Benjamin Franklin.
A polymath in every regard, Franklin’s knowledge and intellect were widely known during the eighteenth century in both the British North American colonies and Europe. He was easily the most famous American in Europe, especially after taking up residence in Paris as the fledgling nation’s ambassador in the 1770s and 1780s. Franklin was known for his inventions and discoveries as well as his involvement with politics during the Revolutionary Era. He remains one of the most recognizable figures in American letters or history; his autobiography is standard reading in upper school curriculum throughout the United States.
The oldest founding father, Franklin was born in 1706 in Boston. After attending a few years of school and apprenticing under his older brother, Franklin fled to Philadelphia at the age of 17. Having learned printing from his brother, he worked in several newspapers and spent time in London before establishing a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, in 1728. Franklin’s voice for liberty and free speech grew, as did his prominence. He felt that a newspaper should be a voice for liberty, critical of tyranny, and engaged with all manner of wisdom; “if all printers were determined” (wrote Franklin in 1730) “not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.” This enduring voice of reason would secure him a place among the recognizable voices in the 1770s calling for independence from Great Britain.
During this time, Franklin also joined the Freemasons, and began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack, which contained proverbs, wisdom, and scientific essays. Franklin’s intellectual inquiry and newspaper publishing consumed his Philadelphia life. The most notable event during these long years was flying his famous kite in the midst of a thunderstorm. Scientific inquiry prompted Franklin to take on the dangerous task: he let the kite fly in a storm so that the metal rod on the kite would strike, thus proving that lightning was indeed electricity. This courageous act earned him fame from Britain to Russia. Subsequently, he used this experiment to invent the lighting rod, which was attached to roof tops to protect buildings from lightning strikes and consequent fires. Franklin’s complex intellect and diverse interests led him to engage with various subjects such as ocean currents and winds, disease, population growth, light, and mechanics. The Franklin that eighteenth century America knew was a scientist through and through.
However as the political winds shifted against Great Britain he quickly became a Revolutionary scientist. His first colonial-wide foreign into politics came at a meeting of colonial authorities in Albany, New York in 1754. The French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years War in Europe) was taking hold of the continent. Franklin proposed a loose unification of the colonies under the Albany Plan of Union. Although the proposal failed, the possibility of a unified front came for the first time to the forefront for the colonies. Such a monumental shift toward self-governance also distinguished Franklin as deeply colonial and in favor of self-rule. Franklin’s faithfulness to the cause of liberty thus reached back from the Revolution into the 1750s, something few founding fathers could equal.
Franklin’s call for self-government continued as tensions with Britain increased through the 1760s and into the 1770s. Elected to the Second Continental Congress, Franklin was placed on the committee to help a young Virginian named Thomas Jefferson write, draft, and edit a declaration of independence. While Jefferson penned the document, Franklin and three others were tasked with editing the monumental declaration. Liberty ran to his core; Franklin wrote years later on the subject of independence to his friend David Hartley asserting, “God grant, that not only the love of liberty, but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man, may pervade all the nations of the earth.” American independence, for Franklin, was a beacon of liberty for the whole world. He was then sent to proclaim that liberty and insist upon aid from France. Serving as ambassador for much of the war, Franklin both earned a reputation for womanizing and continued to grow in fame while in France. He finally helped to convince King Louis XVI to aid in American independence in 1778. With the Peace of Paris signed in 1783, giving the colonies their liberties, Franklin returned to North America.
Now that the American colonies were free to govern themselves, a host of problems accompanied this newfound freedom: the inability to tax, raise troops collectively to fight, or trade. Trouble after trouble arose, leading to a call by James Madison among others to modify the existing government structure; the result would be a new constitution. Franklin, at age 81, would again contribute to the intellectual tapestry of the United States.
As delegates convened in Philadelphia in May 1787 to write a new Constitution, Franklin, despite age and infirmity, was sure to be present for the proceedings. The famous Revolutionary was brought into the meeting hall on a chair, because he was unable to walk in under his own power. His presiding presence, although he spoke minimally, interjected a calm credibility into the strenuous debates through the sweltering months. Franklin’s most famous involvement was the comments he made at the signing of the Constitution:
While the last members were signing it, Doctor Franklin, looking towards the President’s Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. “I have,” said he, “often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
Benjamin Franklin had helped the young republic’s sun of liberty rise. Even more, he saw it come high noon, when the Constitution was ratified by the required nine states in 1789. While George Washington took the helm of the new Federal system, Franklin’s sun was setting. He died in 1790, at the age of 84. Even after his death, Benjamin Franklin’s legacy has endured throughout the decades. His multitude of interests and personal complexity made him both an American icon and figure of intrigue. He stands as a great scientist, politician, and Revolutionary, and his pursuit of learning is a model for a life of learning.
Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this piece, check out some of our other content here at the Journal, like this author profile of St. Anselm of Canterbury, this “Great Conversation” post about the idea of tyranny, or this student essay on the character of Mark Antony in Shakespeare. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, where CLT founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss issues of education, policy, and culture.