“Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than marble.” So begins the introduction to Franklin on the dust jacket of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin. In another excellent modern biography of Franklin, the title says it all: The First American.
Perhaps the most interesting and complex of all the Founders, Benjamin Franklin defies categorization. Inventor, businessman, journalist, diplomat, writer, humorist, raconteur, political theorist, statesman, Patriot—he peers at us through his “new-fangled spectacles” as if he knows a joke we haven’t heard, or that he is keeping a secret that will confound our enemies or entertain the ladies of a Paris salon. No one else could have contributed to independence in the way that Franklin did, and he lived twice as long as the mortality demographics of his day said he should.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the seventeen children of Josiah Franklin of Boston. The family could not afford schooling but Ben proved to be an autodidact who read every book and remembered what he read. At the age of fifteen he founded the first independent newspaper in New England. Franklin rebelled against the devout Puritan upbringing that came with pious parents and the Old South Meeting House. At seventeen he fled the printing apprenticeship of his brother and showed up in Philadelphia with a loaf of bread under his arm and a few cents in his pocket. Within a few short years, Franklin founded several newspapers, became a Grand Master Mason, published Poor Richard’s Almanac, conducted numerous scientific experiments, and mastered the game of chess.
Franklin was sent to London as an agent for the colony to address issues concerning the Penn family and while there for five years developed his political radicalism as well as establish personal relationships with other scientists and politicians. He opposed the Stamp Tax before the House of Commons, which contributed to its repeal. His advocacy of the American cause resulted in his forced return to Pennsylvania. He organized a network of informants, recruited a colonial militia, and was chosen as a representative to the Second Continental Congress. He was on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and a signee of the document.
Congress sent Franklin as ambassador to France from 1776-1785, where he ingratiated himself into French high society and maneuvered with success to get financial and military aid to the American cause during the War for Independence. He returned to the United States to great acclaim, and was accorded respect and honor beyond all but George Washington. He was the only signer of the greatest four documents of the Founding generation—The Declaration, Articles of Confederation, Constitution and Treaty of Paris ending the war.
Franklin had a profound belief in God and Providence and was a champion of religious liberty and public virtue. Franklin associated primarily with the Unitarian Church, however, and has never been considered a Christian in terms of evangelical biblical doctrine.
Benjamin Franklin could never have been brought to trial since it would have been impossible to find a jury for this peerless Founding Father.