Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts. His many accomplishments as printer, scientist, and statesman are particularly remarkable when considered in the context of colonial North America. An adopted son of Philadelphia, he imbued a spirit of pragmatic innovation, apparent in all his intellectual, social, and scientific pursuits. He dedicated himself to the improvement of everyday life for the widest number of people and, in so doing, made an indelible mark on the emerging nation.
The fifteenth of seventeen children, Franklin had little formal education, but he was an avid reader and writer. At age seventeen Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, where on the day of his arrival he met his future wife, Deborah Read. With his printing and writing skills Franklin quickly found employment and was able to set up his own printing shop.
By the 1740s, Franklin had become enamored by science. His innovations included the Pennsylvania Fireplace (Franklin Stove), bifocal glasses, and even the exotic glass Armonica. Mid-eighteenth century scientists and inventors considered electricity Franklin’s most remarkable area of investigation. In his famous 1752 experiment using a kite and key during a thunderstorm, Franklin proved his hypothesis that lightning bolts are actually powerful electrical currents. This discovery led to his invention of the lightning rod.
In 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly and in 1753 he became deputy British postmaster of North America. As colonial relations with Great Britain grew strained, Franklin represented first the province of Pennsylvania, and eventually all of the colonies, as a diplomat in London after 1757. By the time he returned to Philadelphia, the American Revolution had all but begun.
Along with his contemporaries, including George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, Franklin rejected the European model of aristocratic rule. As part of an emerging political structure, these men crafted a system based instead on representative government. Franklin served as a member of the Second Continental Congress, where he helped to draft and later signed the Declaration of Independence, before departing for Paris late in 1776. He played a vital diplomatic role in securing a formal alliance with France and later in negotiating the peace treaty with Britain. After serving as U.S. ambassador, he returned to Philadelphia in 1785 and was elected president of Pennsylvania. Franklin also attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention, where he became that document’s oldest signer.
A former slaveholder, Franklin came to fully understand the evils of slavery later in life. Abolition became his last great cause. At age eighty-one Franklin was elected president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and in 1790, shortly before his death, he petitioned Congress on behalf of the group to bring an end to slavery. The proposal was debated but not acted upon.
Franklin died quietly at home on April 17, 1790, leaving the world better than he found it.