Library Articles

Born: Jan.17 [Jan. 6, Old Style], 1706, Boston
Died: April 17, 1790, Philadelphia


Benjamin Franklin (Pseudonym RICHARD SAUNDERS) was an American printer and publisher, author, inventor and scientist, and diplomat.

Franklin, next to George Washington possibly the most famous 18th-century American, by 1757 had made a small fortune, established the Poor Richard of his almanacs (written under his pseudonym) as an oracle on how to get ahead in the world, and become widely known in European scientific circles for his reports of electrical experiments and theories. What is more, he was then just at the beginning of a long career as a politician, in the course of which he would be chief spokesman for the British colonies in their debates with the king's ministers about self-government and would have a hand in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the securing of financial and military aid from France during the American Revolution, the negotiation of the treaty by which Great Britain recognized its former 13 colonies as a sovereign nation, and the framing of the Constitution, which for more than two centuries has been the fundamental law of the United States of America.

And as impressive as Franklin's public service was, it was perhaps less remarkable than his contributions to the comfort and safety of daily life. He invented a stove, still being manufactured, to give more warmth than open fireplaces; the lightning rod and bifocal eyeglasses also were his ideas. Grasping the fact that by united effort a community may have amenities which only the wealthy few can get for themselves, he helped establish institutions people now take for granted: a fire company, a library, an insurance company, an academy, and a hospital. In some cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.

One might expect universal admiration for a man of such breadth and apparent altruism. Yet Franklin was disliked by some of his contemporaries and has ever since occasionally been attacked as a materialist or a hypocrite. D.H. Lawrence, the English novelist, regarded him as the embodiment of the worst traits of the American character. Max Weber, the German sociologist, made him the exemplar of the "Protestant ethic," a state of mind that contributed much, Weber thought, to the less admirable aspects of modern capitalism. Those who admire Franklin believe that his detractors have mistakenly identified him with Poor Richard, a persona of his own creation, or that they have relied too largely upon the incomplete self-portrait of his posthumously published Autobiography.