The Life of Benjamin Franklin - Vol. 3

The Life of Benjamin Franklin - Vol. 3

The Life of Benjamin Franklin - Vol. 3

The Life of Benjamin Franklin - Vol. 3


Described by Carl Van Doren as "a harmonious human multitude," Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American of his time, of perhaps any time. His life and careers were so varied and successful that he remains, even today, the epitome of the self-made man. Born into a humble tradesman's family, this adaptable genius rose to become an architect of the world's first democracy, a leading light in Enlightenment science, and a major creator of what has come to be known as the American character. Journalist, musician, politician, scientist, humorist, inventor, civic leader, printer, writer, publisher, businessman, founding father, and philosopher, Franklin is a touchstone for America's egalitarianism.

The first volume traces young Franklin's life to his marriage in 1730. It traces the New England religious, political, and cultural contexts, exploring previously unknown influences on his philosophy and writing, and attributing new writings to him. After his move to Philadelphia, made famous in his Autobiography, Franklin became the Water American in London in 1725, where he was welcomed into that city's circle of freethinkers. Upon his return to the colonies, the sociable Franklin created a group of young friends, the Junto, devoted to self-improvement and philanthropy. He also started his own press and began to edit and publish the Pennsylvania Gazette, which became the most popular American paper of its day and the first to consistently feature American news.


At the beginning of 1748, Franklin was known in Pennsylvania as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and in the Middle Colonies as the printer and editor of Poor Richard’s Almanac and the Pennsylvania Gazette (the best colonial newspaper). By the middle of 1757, however, he had become famous in Pennsylvania as a public-spirited citizen and a soldier; well-known throughout America as a writer, politician, and the most important theorist of the American empire; and renowned in the western world as a natural philosopher. This volume tells the story of that transformation.

In late 1747, Britain’s war with Spain and France had been under way since 1741 and 1744, respectively. French and Spanish ships were raiding up and down the colonies’ Atlantic coast and even in the Delaware Bay. With an organized force of fewer than several hundred, enemy troops could have plundered the entire city of Philadelphia. the Pennsylvania Assembly, dominated by the Quaker Party, refused to provide defense. Franklin proposed a volunteer militia, aroused the public, and raised more than ten thousand volunteer troops in Pennsylvania. He organized a successful lottery that raised funds to buy cannon and build fortifications to defend Philadelphia. When peace was proclaimed in August 1748, he was the most popular person in Pennsylvania.

During the same period, Franklin devoted whatever time he could spare to electricity. News concerning its inexplicable marvels had appeared in popular magazines in 1745. in 1746 European electrical experimenters created the Leyden jar, an early capacitor. It could build up and store an electric charge that would be released when the inside and outside of the bottle were connected. Its effects were astonishing. Two hundred Swiss guards, with hands joined, would all be shocked and jump instantaneously upon receiving the electric charge. No one understood how the Leyden jar worked. Franklin offered the first good explanation, based partly on the atomic theories of the Greeks. He theorized that electricity was not created; rather, it separated existing elements into positive and negative charges. He also suggested that atmospheric electricity existed; hypothesized that lightning was an electrical discharge; and experimented to test the hypothesis. During the first several years of his electric experiments, English electricians ridiculed him. Then, following Franklin’s directions, the French tested and proved correct his theories that clouds could contain electric charges and that lightning was electrical in nature. He quickly became the best-known living natural philosopher, and the Royal Society of London awarded him its Copley medal in 1753—the most prestigious existing scientific award, comparable to today’s Nobel Prize.

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