Benjamin Franklin was an American polymath who was active as a writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher, and political philosopher. Among the leading intellectuals of his time, Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a drafter and signer of the United States Declaration of Independence, and the first United States Postmaster General.
Benjamin Franklin Timeline
BirthBoston, MA, USA
Franklin was born on Milk Street in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1706, and baptized at Old South Meeting House. As a child growing up along the Charles River, Franklin recalled that he was "generally the leader among the boys."
Apprentice FranklinBoston, MA, USA
At 12, Franklin became an apprentice to his brother James, a printer, who taught him the printing trade. Blackbeard the Pirate is captured; Franklin writes a ballad on the occasion.
Silence DogoodBoston, MA, USA
When Benjamin was 15, James founded The New-England Courant, which was one of the first American newspapers. When denied the chance to write a letter to the paper for publication, Franklin adopted the pseudonym of "Silence Dogood", a middle-aged widow. Mrs. Dogood's letters were published and became a subject of conversation around town. Neither James nor the Courant's readers were aware of the ruse, and James was unhappy with Benjamin when he discovered the popular correspondent was his younger brother. Franklin was an advocate of free speech from an early age. When his brother was jailed for three weeks in 1722 for publishing material unflattering to the governor, young Franklin took over the newspaper and had Mrs. Dogood (quoting Cato's Letters) proclaim, "Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech." Franklin left his apprenticeship without his brother's permission, and in so doing became a fugitive.
PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia, PA, USA
At age 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, seeking a new start in a new city. When he first arrived, he worked in several printer shops around town, but he was not satisfied by the immediate prospects. After a few months, while working in a printing house, Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith convinced him to go to London, ostensibly to acquire the equipment necessary for establishing another newspaper in Philadelphia.
Deborah ReadPhiladelphia, PA, USA
At age 17, Franklin proposed to 15-year-old Deborah Read while a boarder in the Read home. At that time, Deborah's mother was wary of allowing her young daughter to marry Franklin, who was on his way to London at Governor Keith's request, and also because of his financial instability. Her own husband had recently died, and she declined Franklin's request to marry her daughter.
Keith's letters of credit for him never materialized and Franklin was stranded in London. Franklin remained in London where he worked for Samuel Palmer as a typesetter in a printer's shop in what is now the Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great in the Smithfield area of London.
While Franklin was in London, Deborah married a man named John Rodgers. This proved to be a regrettable decision. Rodgers shortly avoided his debts and prosecution by fleeing to Barbados with her dowry, leaving her behind. Rodgers's fate was unknown, and because of bigamy laws, Deborah was not free to remarry.
Bookeeper FranklinPhiladelphia, PA, USA
Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1726 with the help of Thomas Denham, a merchant who employed him as a clerk, shopkeeper, and bookkeeper in his business.
JuntoBoston, MA, USA
In 1727, at age 21, Franklin formed the Junto, a group of "like minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community." The Junto was a discussion group for issues of the day; it subsequently gave rise to many organizations in Philadelphia. The Junto was modeled after English coffeehouses that Franklin knew well and which had become the center of the spread of Enlightenment ideas in Britain.
Reading was a great pastime of the Junto, but books were rare and expensive. Franklin conceived the idea of a subscription library, which would pool the funds of the members to buy books for all to read. This was the birth of the Library Company of Philadelphia: its charter was composed by him in 1731. In 1732, he hired the first American librarian, Louis Timothee. The Library Company is now a great scholarly and research library.
Publisher FranklinPhiladelphia, PA, USA
Upon Denham's death, Franklin returned to his former trade. In 1728, he set up a printing house in partnership with Hugh Meredith; the following year he became the publisher of a newspaper called The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette gave Franklin a forum for agitation about a variety of local reforms and initiatives through printed essays and observations. Over time, his commentary, and his adroit cultivation of a positive image as an industrious and intellectual young man, earned him a great deal of social respect. But even after he achieved fame as a scientist and statesman, he habitually signed his letters with the unpretentious 'B. Franklin, Printer.'
FreemasonryPhiladelphia, PA, USA
Franklin was initiated into the local Masonic lodge. He became a grand master in 1734, indicating his rapid rise to prominence in Pennsylvania. The same year, he edited and published the first Masonic book in the Americas, a reprint of James Anderson's Constitutions of the Free-Masons. He was the secretary of St. John's Lodge in Philadelphia from 1735 to 1738. Franklin remained a Freemason for the rest of his life.
First WifePhiladelphia, PA, USA
Franklin established a common-law marriage with Deborah Read on September 1, 1730. They took in his recently acknowledged illegitimate young son and raised him in their household. They had two children together. Their son, Francis Folger Franklin, was born in October 1732 and died of smallpox in 1736. Their daughter, Sarah "Sally" Franklin, was born in 1743 and eventually married Richard Bache.
Author FranklinPhiladelphia, PA, USA
In 1733, Franklin began to publish the noted Poor Richard's Almanack (with content both original and borrowed) under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, on which much of his popular reputation is based. He frequently wrote under pseudonyms. He had developed a distinct, signature style that was plain, pragmatic and had a sly, soft but self-deprecating tone with declarative sentences. Although it was no secret that he was the author, his Richard Saunders character repeatedly denied it. "Poor Richard's Proverbs", adages from this almanac, such as "A penny saved is twopence dear" (often misquoted as "A penny saved is a penny earned") and "Fish and visitors stink in three days", remain common quotations in the modern world. Wisdom in folk society meant the ability to provide an apt adage for any occasion, and his readers became well prepared. He sold about ten thousand copies per year—it became an institution. In 1741, Franklin began publishing The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle for all the British Plantations in America. He used the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales as the cover illustration.
Union Fire CompanyPhiladelphia, PA, USA
Franklin created the Union Fire Company, one of the first volunteer firefighting companies in America.
Postmaster FranklinPhiladelphia, PA, USA
Well known as a printer and publisher, Franklin was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, holding the office until 1753, when he and publisher William Hunter were named deputy postmasters–general of British North America, the first to hold the office.
Franklin stovePhiladelphia, PA, USA
The Franklin stove is a metal-lined fireplace named after Benjamin Franklin, who invented it in 1742. It had a hollow baffle near the rear (to transfer more heat from the fire to a room's air) and relied on an "inverted siphon" to draw the fire's hot fumes around the baffle. It was intended to produce more heat and less smoke than an ordinary open fireplace, but it achieved few sales until it was improved by David Rittenhouse. It is also known as a "circulating stove" or the "Pennsylvania fireplace".
Kite ExperimentPhiladelphia, PA, USA
Franklin published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a storm. On May 10, 1752, Thomas-François Dalibard of France conducted Franklin's experiment using a 40-foot-tall (12 m) iron rod instead of a kite, and he extracted electrical sparks from a cloud. On June 15, 1752, Franklin may possibly have conducted his well-known kite experiment in Philadelphia, successfully extracting sparks from a cloud. He described the experiment in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, on October 19, 1752, without mentioning that he himself had performed it. This account was read to the Royal Society on December 21 and printed as such in the Philosophical Transactions. Joseph Priestley published an account with additional details in his 1767 History and Present Status of Electricity. Franklin was careful to stand on an insulator, keeping dry under a roof to avoid the danger of electric shock. Others, such as Georg Wilhelm Richmann in Russia, were indeed electrocuted in performing lightning experiments during the months immediately following his experiment.
Franklin's electrical experiments led to his invention of the lightning rod. He said that conductors with a sharp rather than a smooth point could discharge silently and at a far greater distance. He surmised that this could help protect buildings from lightning by attaching "upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground; ... Would not these pointed Rods probably draw the Electrical Fire silently out of a Cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible Mischief!" Following a series of experiments on Franklin's own house, lightning rods were installed on the Academy of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) in 1752.
Postmaster GeneralPennsylvania, USA
Franklin and publisher William Hunter were named deputy postmasters–general of British North America, the first to hold the office. (Joint appointments were standard at the time, for political reasons.) He was responsible for the British colonies from Pennsylvania north and east, as far as the island of Newfoundland. A post office for local and outgoing mail had been established in Halifax, Nova Scotia, by local stationer Benjamin Leigh, on April 23, 1754, but service was irregular. Franklin opened the first post office to offer regular, monthly mail in Halifax on December 9, 1755. Meantime, Hunter became postal administrator in Williamsburg, Virginia, and oversaw areas south of Annapolis, Maryland. Franklin reorganized the service's accounting system and improved speed of delivery between Philadelphia, New York and Boston. By 1761, efficiencies led to the first profits for the colonial post office.
At the time of the American founding, there were about half a million slaves in the United States, mostly in the five southernmost states, where they made up 40% of the population. Many of the leading American founders – most notably Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison – owned slaves, but many others did not. Benjamin Franklin thought that slavery was "an atrocious debasement of human nature" and "a source of serious evils." He and Benjamin Rush founded the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery in 1774. In 1790, Quakers from New York and Pennsylvania presented their petition for abolition to Congress. Their argument against slavery was backed by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society.
In his later years, as Congress was forced to deal with the issue of slavery, Franklin wrote several essays that stressed the importance of the abolition of slavery and of the integration of African Americans into American society. These writings included:
- An Address to the Public (1789)
- A Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks (1789)
- Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade (1790)
Declaration of IndependencePhiladelphia, PA, USA
By the time Franklin arrived in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, after his second mission to Great Britain, the American Revolution had begun—with skirmishes breaking out between colonials and British at Lexington and Concord. The New England militia had forced the main British army to remain inside Boston. The Pennsylvania Assembly unanimously chose Franklin as their delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In June 1776, he was appointed a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Although he was temporarily disabled by gout and unable to attend most meetings of the committee, he made several "small but important" changes to the draft sent to him by Thomas Jefferson.
At the signing, he is quoted as having replied to a comment by John Hancock that they must all hang together: "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Ambassador to FranceParis, France
In December 1776, Franklin was dispatched to France as commissioner for the United States. He took with him as secretary his 16-year-old grandson, William Temple Franklin. They lived in a home in the Parisian suburb of Passy, donated by Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, who supported the United States. Franklin remained in France until 1785. He conducted the affairs of his country toward the French nation with great success, which included securing a critical military alliance in 1778 and signing the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
French allianceParis, France
The Franco-American alliance was the 1778 alliance between the Kingdom of France and the United States during the American Revolutionary War. Formalized in the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, it was a military pact in which the French provided many supplies for the Americans. The Netherlands and Spain later joined as allies of France; Britain had no European allies. The French alliance was possible once the Americans captured a British invasion army at Saratoga in October 1777, demonstrating the viability of the American cause.
Treaty of ParisParis, France
The Treaty of Paris, signed in Paris by representatives of King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the United States of America on September 3, 1783, officially ended the American Revolutionary War and overall state of conflict between the two countries. The treaty set the boundaries between the British Empire in North America and the United States of America, on lines "exceedingly generous" to the latter. Details included fishing rights and restoration of property and prisoners of war. This treaty and the separate peace treaties between Great Britain and the nations that supported the American cause—France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic—are known collectively as the Peace of Paris. Only Article 1 of the treaty, which acknowledges the United States' existence as a free, sovereign, and independent state, remains in force.
Return to AmericaPhiladelphia, PA, USA
When he returned home in 1785, Franklin occupied a position second only to that of George Washington as the champion of American independence. He returned from France with an unexplained shortage of 100,000 pounds in Congressional funds. In response to a question from a member of Congress about this, Franklin, quoting the Bible, quipped, "Muzzle not the ox that treadeth out his master's grain." The missing funds were never again mentioned in Congress. Le Ray honored him with a commissioned portrait painted by Joseph Duplessis, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. After his return, Franklin became an abolitionist and freed his two slaves. He eventually became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Signing of the United States ConstitutionPhiladelphia, PA, USA
The Signing of the United States Constitution occurred on September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, representing 12 states (all but Rhode Island, which declined to send delegates), endorsed the Constitution created during the four-month-long convention.
The language of the concluding endorsement, conceived by Gouverneur Morris and presented to the convention by Benjamin Franklin, was made intentionally ambiguous in hopes of winning over the votes of dissenting delegates. Jonathan Dayton, age 26, was the youngest to sign the Constitution, while Benjamin Franklin, age 81, was the oldest.
DeathPhiladelphia, PA, USA
Franklin suffered from obesity throughout his middle-aged and later years, which resulted in multiple health problems, particularly gout, which worsened as he aged. Benjamin Franklin died from pleuritic attack at his home in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790. He was aged 84 at the time of his death. His last words were reportedly, "a dying man can do nothing easy", to his daughter after she suggested that he change position in bed and lie on his side so he could breathe more easily.
Approximately 20,000 people attended his funeral. He was interred in Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia. Upon learning of his death, the Constitutional Assembly in Revolutionary France entered into a state of mourning for a period of three days, and memorial services were conducted in honor of Franklin throughout the country.
Get our spam-free newsletter.
- Notifications on new HistoryMaps
- Find out which HistoryMaps are updated
- Find out which HistoryMaps are coming out next
- Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, & Early Writings (J.A. Leo Lemay, ed.) (Library of America, 1987 one-volume, 2005 two-volume) ISBN 978-1-931082-22-8
- Autobiography, Poor Richard, & Later Writings (J.A. Leo Lemay, ed.) (Library of America, 1987 one-volume, 2005 two-volume) ISBN 978-1-883011-53-6
- Franklin, B.; Majault, M.J.; Le Roy, J.B.; Sallin, C.L.; Bailly, J.-S.; d'Arcet, J.; de Bory, G.; Guillotin, J.-I.; Lavoisier, A. (2002). "Report of The Commissioners charged by the King with the Examination of Animal Magnetism". International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. 50 (4): 332–363. doi:10.1080/00207140208410109. PMID 12362951. S2CID 36506710.
- The Papers of Benjamin Franklin online, Sponsored by The American Philosophical Society and Yale University
- Benjamin Franklin Reader edited by Walter Isaacson (2003)
- Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography edited by J.A. Leo Lemay and P.M. Zall, (Norton Critical Editions, 1986); 390 pp. text, contemporary documents and 20th century analysis
- Houston, Alan, ed. Franklin: The Autobiography and other Writings on Politics, Economics, and Virtue. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 371 pp.
- Ketcham, Ralph, ed. The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin. (1965, reprinted 2003). 459 pp.
- Lass, Hilda, ed. The Fabulous American: A Benjamin Franklin Almanac. (1964). 222 pp.
- Leonard Labaree, and others., eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 39 vols. to date (1959–2008), definitive edition, through 1783. This massive collection of BF's writings, and letters to him, is available in large academic libraries. It is most useful for detailed research on specific topics. The complete text of all the documents are online and searchable; The Index is also online at the Wayback Machine (archived September 28, 2010).
- The Way to Wealth. Applewood Books; 1986. ISBN 0-918222-88-5
- Poor Richard's Almanack. Peter Pauper Press; 1983. ISBN 0-88088-918-7
- Poor Richard Improved by Benjamin Franklin (1751)
- Writings (Franklin)|Writings. ISBN 0-940450-29-1
- "On Marriage."
- "Satires and Bagatelles."
- "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain."
- "Fart Proudly: Writings of Benjamin Franklin You Never Read in School." Carl Japikse, Ed. Frog Ltd.; Reprint ed. 2003. ISBN 1-58394-079-0
- "Heroes of America Benjamin Franklin."
- "Experiments and Observations on Electricity." (1751)