In the meantime, he had set up in the printing business for himself but, in so doing, had to carry a heavy debt. He worked early and late to pay it off, sometimes making his own ink and casting his own type. He would also, at times, go with a wheelbarrow to bring to the printing office the paper he needed. His wife assisted him by selling stationery in his shop and the family lived very simply.
On observing how hard Franklin worked, people said, “There is a man who will surely succeed. Let us help him.” During these early struggling years, Franklin was cheerful and light-hearted and diligently continued his reading habits, constantly trying to improve himself. He also adopted rules of conduct, some of which, in substance, were: Be temperate; speak honestly; be orderly about your work; do not waste anything; never be idle; when you decide to do anything, do it with a brave heart.
Some of the wisest things Franklin ever said appeared in his Almanac, which he called Poor Richard’s Almanac. Beginning when he was 26 years-old, he published it yearly for 25 years, building up a very large circulation. It contained many homely maxims, which are as good today as they were in Franklin’s time. Here are a few of them:
- “God helps them that help themselves.”
- “Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
- “There are no gains without pains.”
- “One today is worth two tomorrows.”
- “Little strokes fell great oaks.”
- “Keep thy shop, and thy shop will keep thee.”
Benjamin Franklin always had a deep interest in the public welfare. He started a subscription library in Philadelphia and established an academy, which finally grew into the University of Pennsylvania. Having a decidedly practical turn of mind, he had great influence in organizing a better police force and a better fire department. He invented the Franklin stove, which soon became popular because it was so much better than the open fireplace. But, the most wonderful thing he ever did was proving that lightning was the same thing as electricity.
Before he made this discovery, men of science had learned how to store up electricity in what is called a Leyden jar. But, Franklin wished to find out something about the lightning which flashed across the clouds during a thunderstorm. Therefore, making a kite out of silk and fastening to it a small iron rod, he attached to the kite and to the iron rod a string made of hemp.
One day when a thundercloud was coming up he went out with his little son and took his stand under a shelter in the open field. At one end of the hempen string was fastened an iron key, and to this was tied a silken string, which Franklin held in his hand. As electricity will not run through silk, by using this silken string he protected himself against the electric current.
When the kite rose high into the air, Franklin watched intently to see what might follow. After a while the fibers of the hempen string began to move, and then, putting his knuckles near the key, Franklin drew forth sparks of electricity. He was delighted, for he had proved that the lightning in the clouds was the same thing as the electricity that men of science could make with machines. It was a great discovery and made Benjamin Franklin famous. From some of the leading universities of Europe he received the title of Doctor, and he was now recognized as one of the great men of the world.
Franklin rendered his country with numerous distinguished public services, so many, they cannot all be mentioned here. More than 20 years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, he perceived that the principal source of weakness among the colonies was their lack of union. With this great weakness in mind, Franklin proposed, in 1754, at a time when the French were threatening to cut off the English from the Ohio Valley, his famous “Plan of Union.” Although it failed, it prepared the colonies for union in the struggle against King George and the English Parliament.
Ten years after proposing the “Plan of Union” Franklin was sent to England, at the time of the agitation over the Stamp Act, to make a strenuous effort to prevent its passage. He was unsuccessful in accomplishing his mission, but later did much toward securing the repeal of the Stamp Act.
Returning from England two weeks after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, he immediately took a prominent part in the Revolution. He was one of the five appointed as a committee to write the Declaration of Independence, and during their discussion, he allegedly said, ” Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
After the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, he was sent to France to secure aid for the American cause. The French people gave him a cordial reception. There were feasts and parades in his honor, crowds followed him on the streets, and his pictures were displayed everywhere. The simplicity and directness of this white-haired man of seventy years charmed the French people, and won for him a warm place in their hearts. On one of the great occasions a very beautiful woman was appointed to place a crown of laurel upon his white locks, and to give the old man two kisses on his cheeks. All this was a sincere expression of admiration and esteem. He did very much to secure from France the aid which that country gave to us. He indeed rendered to his country services: whose value may well be compared with those of George Washington.
Franklin left France in 1785, after having ably represented his country for ten years. All France was sorry to have him leave. Since it was hard for him to endure the motion of a carriage, the King sent one of the Queen’s litters in which he was carried to the coast. He also bore with him a portrait of the King of France “framed in a double circle of four hundred and eight diamonds.”
Although in his last years he had to endure much idleness and pain, he was uniformly patient and cheerful, loving life to the end. He died on April 17, 1790, at the age of 84, one of the greatest of American statesmen and heroes.
As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. He invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, a carriage odometer, and the glass ‘armonica’. He formed both the first public lending library in America and the first fire department in Pennsylvania. Though he was world-famous at the time of his death as a scientist and a diplomat, he named himself in his will as simply “Benjamin Franklin, Printer.”
About the Article: This article was, for the most part, written by Wilbur F. Gordy and and included in a chapter of his book American Leaders and Heroes, published in 1903 by Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York. However, the original content has been heavily edited and additional information added.