Monday, November 30, 2009
As I was pondering who should be my "very important person" for this week, my mind kept going back to Benjamin Franklin. As I studied about him, I realized more fully that this "ordinary" American accomplished many extra-ordinary things. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) "was a jack-of-all-trades and master of many. No other American, except possibly Thomas Jefferson, has done so many things so well. During his long and useful life, Franklin concerned himself with such different matters as statesmanship and soap-making, book-printing and cabbage-growing, and the rise of tides and the fall of empires. He also invented an efficient heating stove and proved that lightning is electricity. As a statesman, Franklin stood in the front rank of the people who built the United States. He was the only person who signed all four of these key documents in American history: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, and the Constitution of the United States. Franklin's services as a diplomat in France helped greatly in winning the Revolutionary War. Many historians consider him the ablest and most successful diplomat that America has ever sent abroad" (James H. Hutson, World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, pp 486-487). Franklin was born January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, the fifteenth child and last son in a family of seventeen children. His parents loved God and worked hard, but they could not afford to send Franklin to school for any longer than two years. Franklin was married, and the couple had three children, two boys and one girl. One son, William, became governor of New Jersey. Franklin educated himself by reading every book he could find. He also developed his own writing style as well as "taught himself the basic principles of algebra and geometry, navigation, grammar, logic, and the natural and physical sciences. He studied and partially mastered French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin…. Franklin made himself one of the best-educated persons of his time" (p 487). Franklin started working for his father making soap and candles at age 10 when he dropped out of school. At age 12 he worked as an apprentice for his brother's printing shop. At 17 he ran away from his brother's shop and went to Philadelphia where he worked for various printers. He was sent to London, England, to buy printing presses. At age 22 he was part owner of a print shop and was the sole owner two years later. His printing business prospered from the start. He was credited as being the first editor to publish a newspaper cartoon in America and illustrate a news story with a map. He was even more successful with his Poor Richard's Almanac than with his newspaper. Some of his sayings in the Almanac were: "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise;" "God helps those that help themselves," and "Little strokes fell great oaks." He never sought public office but was interested in public affairs. He was clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1736, postmaster in Philadelphia in 1737, and deputy post master general for all the colonies in 1753. Franklin was one of the first people in the world to study electricity. In 1752 he proved that lightning is electricity Philadelphia by flying a homemade kite in a thunderstorm in Philadelphia. Lightning struck a wire on the kite and traveled down the string to a key, where it caused a spark. He later tamed lightning by inventing the lightning rod. This invention benefited his family when lightning struck his own home without causing damage. Franklin also studied the movement of the gulf stream in the Atlantic Ocean, charting its course and recording its temperature, speed and depth. He favored daylight-saving time in summer and thought it silly for people to be sleeping in daylight and then using candlelight to do work. He invented the Franklin stove which gave off more warmth with less fuel than other stoves. He invented bifocal eyeglasses. He discovered that ventilated rooms caused less disease. He showed Americans how to add lime to their soil to decrease the acidity of it. He refused to patent any of his inventions or to use them for profit because he desired his work to be helpful to everyone. In 1754 during the war between the British and the French, Franklin thought that the colonies should unite against the French and Indians. He printed the famous "Join or Die" cartoon in his newspaper, showing a snake cut into pieces representing the colonies. His Plan of Union to bring the thirteen colonies under a single government was approved at the Albany Congress in New York but never ratified by the colonies. Some of the ideas from Franklin's plan were later included in the United States Constitution. Franklin continued to be active in public service. He went to London in 1757 to speak for Pennsylvania in a tax dispute and spent most of the next fifteen years in Great Britain as an unofficial ambassador and spokesman for the Americans. At the end of the French and Indian War, France agreed to give Great Britain either Canada or Guadeloupe Island in the West Indies. Franklin is credited with influencing the British decision to choose Canada by his comments about what could be accomplished Canada as compared to the West Indies. Franklin is also credited with helping to get the Stamp Act repealed by his knowledge of taxation problems. He offered to give his entire fortune to pay for the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party if the British government would agree to repeal its unfair tax. England ignored his proposal, and Franklin soon sailed back to America, with the understanding that there was no chance for the colonies to remain part of Great Britain. Franklin helped to write the Declaration of Independence and was one of the signers. According to tradition, John Hancock said during the signing ceremony, "We must be unanimous; … we must all hang together." Franklin agreed by saying, "Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." In 1776 at age 70 Franklin began the most important task of his life when he went to France to represent the United States in obtaining an alliance with France for assistance in the Revolutionary War. France eventually agreed to help the colonies and was instrumental in the victory, particularly the last battles. At 81 Franklin was the oldest delegate attending the Constitutional Convention. His age and illness kept him from taking an active part in the work, but his wisdom kept the convention from breaking up in failure. He helped to settle a big dispute between the large and small states by supporting the Great Compromise, which resulted in a two-house Congress. When the Constitution was completed, he appealed to the delegates for unanimous support of it. Franklin died at age 84 on April 17, 1790. About 20,000 people attended his funeral. "Franklin's name would almost certainly be on any list of the half-dozen greatest Americans. His face has appeared on postage stamps, and on the coins and paper money of the United States. Two Presidents of the United States proudly bore his name: Franklin Pierce and Franklin D. Roosevelt" (p 492). Franklin's name appears on many buildings, roads, companies, etc. This is especially true in Philadelphia where the city's most famous citizen is revered: Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Franklin Institute, Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, and the athletic field at the University of Pennsylvania.