Ben Franklin is not only a forefather of our nation, but also a printing icon for us. We love him, our first press is named after him, and we’re proud to pass on this tradition of the “black arts”
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706. He was the tenth son of soap and candle maker, Josiah Franklin. Young Benjamin loved to read and at an early age apprenticed to his brother James, who was a printer. After helping James compose pamphlets and set type which was grueling work, 12-year-old Benjamin would sell their products in the streets.
When Benjamin was 15 his brother started The New England Courant the first “newspaper” in Boston. James’s paper carried articles, opinion pieces written by James’s friends, advertisements, and news of ship schedules. Benjamin wanted to write for the paper too, but he knew that James would never let him. So, Ben began writing letters at night and signing them with the name of a fictional widow, Silence Dogood. Ben would sneak the letters under the print shop door at night so no one knew who was writing the pieces. They were a smash hit, after 16 letters, Ben confessed that he had been writing the letters all along.
Ben ran away to New York and ultimately ended up in London, England finding work as an apprentice printer after a fall out with James in 1723. In 1726 Ben returned to Philadelphia and set himself up in the printing business. Ben’s work ethic combined with his exception skills as a printer won him government contracts for government jobs, quickly leading to a thriving business. It was also the year he developed a plan of thirteen virtues to cultivate his character and continued the practice for the rest of his life. Franklin didn’t try to work on them all at once. Instead, he would work on one and only one each week “leaving all others to their ordinary chance”. While Franklin didn’t live completely by his virtues and by his own admission, he fell short of them many times, he believed the attempt made him a better man. His autobiography lists his thirteen virtues as:
- “TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
- “SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
- “ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
- “RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
- “FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
- “INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
- “SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
- “JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
- “MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
- “CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.”
- “TRANQUILITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
- “CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
- “HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
Ben bought the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729, which he printed and also contributed pieces to under aliases. Franklin launched the Library Company in 1731, the nation’s first subscription library. In 1733 he started publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac. Franklin published his almanac under the guise of a man named Richard Saunders, a poor man who needed money to take care of his nagging wife. Many of the famous phrases associated with Franklin, such as, “A penny saved is a penny earned” come from Poor Richard. In 1736, he organized Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company, the first in the city. His famous saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” was actually fire-fighting advice. He helped to start the American Philosophical Society in 1743, the first learned society in America, an achievement to be followed by the organization of the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751.
By 1749 he retired from business and started concentrating on science, experiments, and inventions. Among Franklin’s inventions are swim fins, the glass armonica (a musical instrument), the Franklin stove, and bifocals. In the early 1750′s he turned to the study of electricity. His observations, including his kite experiment which verified the nature of electricity and lightning brought Franklin international fame.
Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress and worked on a committee of five that helped to draft the Declaration of Independence. Though much of the writing is Thomas Jefferson’s, much of the contribution is Franklin’s. In 1776 Franklin signed the Declaration, and afterward sailed to France as an ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI. In part via Franklin’s popularity, the government of France signed a Treaty of Alliance with the Americans in 1778. Franklin also helped secure loans and persuade the French they were doing the right thing. Franklin was on hand to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783, after the Americans had won the Revolution.
Now a man in his late seventies, Franklin returned to America. He became President of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania. He served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and signed the Constitution. One of his last public acts was writing an anti-slavery treatise in 1789. Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84.