08 December 2009

Ben Franklin - Publisher

"If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." Having followed his own words of wisdom, Benjamin Franklin made an everlasting mark on America.

At around twelve years of age Franklin was persuaded to become a printing apprentice of his brother James until the age of twenty-one. While working as an apprentice Franklin was eager to have some of his writing published in his brother's newspaper, and knowing that his brother would not publish anything of his, Franklin wrote anonymous letters and delivered them to the printing house at night. Many of his letters were printed before he finally revealed that he had been submitting the anonymous letters.

Later on, differences arose between Benjamin and his brother James that caused Ben to run away to New York and then Philadelphia in search of a printing job. After a little searching, and a little help from another printer's father, Franklin found work at Keimer's printing house. Through his acquaintances Franklin managed to get support from the governor, but not his father, to set up a printing shop; all this and he wasn't even twenty-one years of age! However, when he went to London to pick up printing supplies he discovered that the governor whom he thought supported him had lied to him about setting up a printing shop. Having found this out, he searched for and found work at a famous printing house in London. Franklin stayed in London for eighteen months before heading back to Pennsylvania.

Shortly after his return, Franklin once again found work at Keimer's printing house. Shortly after that, Franklin and a fellow employee planned to open up their own printing shop in Philadelphia. Once they received the proper equipment from London they set up shop in a house near the market. Thus began an enterprise that Franklin was very fond and proud of and ultimately made him very well known throughout the colonies. Without Franklin's hard work and sincere dedication, his business would not have flourished like it did. Franklin's dedication was best summed up by an acquaintance of his, Dr. Baird: "For the industry of that Franklin is superior to any thing I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed."

Throughout the rest of his life Franklin contributed much to society. Among his many contributions were a public subscription library, numerous published works including his newspapers, pamphlets, and Poor Richard's Almanac, the American Philosophical Society, his help drafting the Declaration of Independence, and the list goes on.  Few publishers since have had such an influence on so many people.  He was so beloved, even in his own time, that over 20,000 mourners attended his funeral.

* Image Copyright 1996-2009 Archiving Early America®.

“Benjamin Franklin: A Documentary History.” Web. 8 Dec 2009.

Farand, Max. The Autobiography of Bejamin Franklin, A Restoration of a Fair Copy. 1949. Print.

27 October 2009

The American Promethius

In 1778 the French Statesman Turgot wrote an epigram for inscription on a bust of Franklin: “Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis” or “He snatched the lightning from the sky and the sceptre from tyrants.” Turgot thus likened Franklin to Promethius, who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to man. As the “American Promethius” Franklin enlisted the forces of nature in the service of mankind.

As the story goes, during a thunderstorm in 1752 Franklin flew the most famous kite in history. Sparks jumped from a key tied to the bottom of the kite string to the knuckles of his hand. He had verified his theory. But like most things in Ben Franklin's life, this was not without controversy.

The controversy stems from whether at the time of his experiment he knew of the earlier French results. Curiously it wasn't until 1788 that Franklin himself first wrote that he had performed the kite experiment, and then only a brief sentence was devoted to the subject. Nevertheless in October 1753 Franklin described the kite experiment in detail and stated that it had succeeded in Philadelphia, but not that he himself had performed it. The classic account of Franklin's kite flight was written by Joseph Priestly in his History and Present State of Electricity published 15 years after the flight.

Either way, Franklin still was a pioneer of observational science and inventor of the lightning rod that is still used to this day to protect wooden structures from lightning.

Farand, Max. The Autobiography of Bejamin Franklin, A Restoration of a Fair Copy. 1949.
Priestley, Joseph. The History and Present State of Electricity. 3rd ed. London, England, 1775.
“Lightning rod - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” 20 Oct 2009 .

18 September 2009

The Benjamin Franklin Papers

Benjamin Franklin was an avid writer under both his own name and a few nom de plumes.  The records of his writings span from the famous "Silence Dogood" letters in 1722 to his "Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade" in 1790.  These papers include letters (both to, from and about him), essays and literary works.  While many of the papers deal with the minutia of his business affairs, some strike to the heart.  Taking on such heady subject matter for the era as Community, the extension of 'natural' liberty and abolition of slavery.  Unlike history books, these are documents written by a person living through these sweeping changes while they happened.  In reading these papers, Ben Franklin was far from impartial.  All his writings are persuasive, as he was very opinionated and passionate.

One of the most interesting contrasts are his thoughts on Slavery.  In 1772, when Ben Franklin was forty-two years old, he bought a few slaves, and was given one as a payment of debt.  Prior to this he had defended the Colonies use of them, as can be witnessed in his "A Conversation on Slavery" as printed in The Public Advertiser, January 30, 1770.  In this he compares the colonies use of slaves to the English working poor ('Your working Poor are not indeed absolutely Slaves; but there seems something a little like Slavery'), the Scottish coal miners ('All the Wretches that dig Coal for you, in those dark Caverns under Ground, unblessed by Sunshine, are absolute Slaves by your Law, and their Children after them') and the English sailors that are forced into service ('The Sailor is often forced into Service, torn from all his natural Connections').  His point in this conversation is more to point out the British brutality than justify slavery, but it does both.  His publications, including the Pennsylvania Gazette even printed runaway slave and slave sale notices.

But as early as 1775 you begin to see a change as he exchanges many letters with David Hartley about the need for Abolition and a weening of the Colonies from it's 'vice of slavery'.  In 1778 he successfully passed a bill through the Virginia legislature for the banning of future slave importation to Virginia.  He also authored a 1784 proposal to the Continental Congress that would’ve abolished slavery in the Northwestern Territory that failed to pass by a single vote.  In 1789 he was elected the president of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.  Franklin formulated a gradual abolition plan that featured an end to the slave trade, the prohibition of slavery in all the western territories and the establishment of a fixed date after which all newly born children of slaves would be emancipated.  Unfortunately he was never able to get this accepted.

Despite all this, unlike Washington and other founding fathers, he did not free his slaves.  Perhaps it is due to his financial situation in the 1780s or he just could not overcome the 'vice' himself.  Either way, it should not detract from his great accomplishments, nor his desire to improve our society.

“The Papers of Benjamin Franklin.” 12 Sep 2009 <http://www.franklinpapers.org/franklin/>.

“Franklin's Autobiography: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin of 81.” 14 Sep 2009 <http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/autobiography/index.htm>.

“Franklin Petitions for Abolition of Slavery.” 18 Sep 2009 <http://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/franklin/>.