By Den Ardinger 32° KCCH

Benjamin Franklin, known worldwide even today for his many talents and contributions, was born on Milk Street in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706.  He was the son of Josiah Franklin, a candle maker, and Abiah Folger.  He was one of seventeen children by his father’s two wives.  His long list of achievements began at a young age and his legacy lives down through the centuries surpassed by few others.  He has rightfully been called “the most accomplished man of his age.”

Franklin began with little formal education.  He had only two years at Boston Latin School and left at the age of ten.  His real learning came from his life-long curiosity and love for reading books.  At the age of 12 he became an apprentice to his brother, Robert, who was a printer and taught him the printing trade.  For the rest of his life he considered himself a printer first.  At the age of 15, his brother started one of America’s first newspapers, The New-England Courant.  In it, Benjamin wrote articles under the secret name of “Silence Dogood”.

At 17, he left his brother’s apprenticeship without permission and went to Philadelphia.  Within months, the governor, Sir William Keith, sold him on the idea to go to London to seek equipment to set up another newspaper in Philadelphia but the plan did not succeed.  Returning to Philadelphia, he established a group of like-minded men at the age of 21 to discuss issues of the day.  Reading was a priority of the group and Franklin quickly set up a common library where they could all read and share ideas from each other’s books.  From this came the Library Company of Philadelphia and he hired the country’s first librarian.

In 1730 or 31, Franklin was initiated into the local Masonic Lodge.  In 1732 he was appointed Junior Warden of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania and by 1734 he was the Grand Master.  He then printed the first Masonic book in America which was a reprint of James Anderson’s The Constitutions of the Free-Masons.  He served Freemasonry in many capacities including being secretary of St. John’s Lodge in Philadelphia from 1735 to 1738.  He remained a Freemason for the rest of his life and served in many high offices including in those in France.

Franklin had a common law marriage to Deborah Read and they had two children; Francis, born in 1732, and Sarah, born in 1743.  He also raised an illegitimate son, William.

Franklin’s organizing ability shaped his life, his community, and his country.  In 1736 he created the Union Fire Company, one of the first volunteer fire companies in America.  He printed New Jersey’s paper currency and included anti-counterfeiting techniques that he invented.  He founded the American Philosophical Society in 1743 to discuss scientific ideas and in 1751 he established Pennsylvania Hospital, the first in the colonies.  He was postmaster of Philadelphia from 1737 to 1753 and set up regular service.

From the 1750s to the 1770s he was back and forth to London including having official duties from the Penn family to the Crown.  Maintaining his interest in Freemasonry, he was elected a Provincial Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England in 1760.  He was Speaker of the House in Pennsylvania in 1764.   

He travelled widely in Europe and spread the American cause as the Revolution drew near.  The Pennsylvania Assembly unanimously made him their delegate to the Second Continental Congress where he was one of five on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  As the war started, he was appointed the Ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785 and was highly responsible for bringing France into the fight on the side of the Colonies.

While in France, he remained active in Freemasonry.  In 1777 he joined the “Loge des Neuf Soeurs” and assisted in Voltaire’s initiation.  He was Venerable d’Honneur from 1779 to 1781 and in 1782 joined the Respectable Lodge de Saint Jean de Jerusalem.  In 1783 he was elected an honorary member of Lodge des Bons Amis in Rouen.

When he returned to the United States in 1785, he was widely acclaimed and was held in esteem second only to George Washington.  Although he was never President, he is recognized as having the influence of the office in many circles.

Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia at the age of 84 on April 17, 1790.  Twenty thousand people attended his funeral and services were held for him across the country.  When he was 22, he wrote that his epitaph should read:

“The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms.  But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.”

Brother Franklin’s legacy today includes his image being on the $100 bill, on coins and on many postage stamps.  There are towns, counties, buildings and corporations named after him and his name is almost universally recognized around the world. 

Picture of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin West c1816 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)