Monday, June 6, 2011

Ben Franklin: Colonial America's Mr. Fix-it!

FAIR WARNING: I'm covering a TON of info on this particular post, but its all pretty interesting stuff if you're a history junkie!! 

"Hooked on Phonix" worked for him! Without Ben Franklin, I wonder where Larry The Cable Guy would be today - Ben seemed to live his life by "Get 'Er Done!!". Reading all his accomplishments in Ben Franklin: The Autobiography (which he wrote at the age of 79), I couldn't help but picture a guy wandering around just looking for stuff to fix! Even if the matter wasn't in his area of expertise, he would still say "But I have an idea though.." and then it was like a Guiness commercial - "Brilliant!"

Though not college-educated, Franklin's enthusiasm for books and knowledge led him to receive not one but two honorary Master of Arts degrees - one from Yale and the other from Cambridge. Franklin's success in life seemed to stem primarily from his self-education through relentless reading and his lifelong dedication to letter writing and concise communication skills. Franklin was big on "get it in writing" partnerships - he always wrote up contracts explicitly outlining what was expected of each person involved.  He also started a Junto (sort of a cross between a book club, a think tank and a men's social club) - a select group of men would exchange books (books then were pretty expensive so this was a good alternative for the bookworms), discuss philosophical ideas, random thoughts, or bounce ideas off each other for societal improvements. Franklin even went to the trouble to learn French, Spanish, Italian and Latin just so he could have a wider choice of reading material! This desire for education and self-improvement was in large part due to his father, who also greatly valued education, though a working-class man himself.

"From my infancy, I was passionately fond of reading, and all the money that came into my hands
 was laid out in the purchasing of books."
~Ben Franklin {hey honey, sound like anyone you know? ; -) }

Franklin's family hailed primarily from England (Northampton and London specifically) and later Boston, MA. His father married twice and had 17 children between the two marriages, 7 with the first wife, 10 with the second! A tallow maker, Ben's father, Josiah Franklin, emigrated to America with his first wife, then later married Ben's mother, Abiah, after his first wife's death. Ben was born in 1706, the youngest boy of all the children and the third youngest altogether. In this book, Ben noted that he was the youngest son of the youngest son dating back 5 generations! Josiah believed all his sons should pursue education and a trade, and believed Ben would be most suitable for the church (wanting at least one son to be a man of the cloth). Ben described this as his father "tithing" him to the church  :-P. Though brought up in a religious home, Ben as an adult came to accept several different religious doctrines, not necessarily living by one in particular. This is how he explained it (something I compeletely related to myself):

"I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; but though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me very unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of a Deity - that he made the world and governed it by his providence - that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good of man - that our souls are immortal - and that all crimes will be punished and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, though with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mixed with other articles, which without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, served principally to  divide us and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induced me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our  province increased in people, and new places of worship were continually wanted and generally erected by voluntary contribution, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused. Though I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety and of its utility when rightly conducted... "

Well said, Ben! Ben was also an avid practioner of altruism - perhaps one of the first to instigate the "Pay It Forward" philosophy For example, when his friend Benjamin Webb was in dire straits and in need of money, Franklin gave Webb the needed money, saying "I'm not giving this to you, it's a loan, one you can pay back to me by helping out someone in a similar problem when your own prospects improve".

The church turned out not to be his calling though, so he was moved into an apprenticeship with his older brother, James, a printer. James created the 2nd oldest newspaper in America, The New England Courant (the Boston News Letter being #1)

 Once out of his parents' house, as a young man Ben did the usual "try everything once" routine that you still see in newly liberated adults today - for example, briefly claiming a vegetarian lifestyle (something he gave up after going fishing one day and catching a fish that had another fish inside of it - he declared "Well if you eat each other, I don't see why we cannot eat you."). Ben took what he learned under his brother's tutelage and set up shop as an independent printer in London, working in well-known printing districts of the day such as Bartholomew's Close and Paternoster Row. In 1732, he started writing Poor Richard's Almanac under the pseudonym "Richard Saunders", a publication that ran for 25 years. Its intent was primarily to educate working middle-class or poor who did not have access to books (either due to funds or unavailable resources). The Almanac provided entertaining and even humorous education through stories, interesting news pieces, proverbs, excerpts from books, philosophical essays or moral-based fables. Just the printing of this publication netted Franklin an estimated 10,000 pounds a year - using a historical currency converter, it's estimated this would be about 1.4 million dollars in US dollars today!

St, Bartholomew's Close, Smithfield, London by John Wykeham Archer

St. Paul's Cathedral with Paternoster Row in foreground.
This was taken during WW2, the night Paternoster Row was destroyed in a bombing
How eerie is this photo!!

With his newly self made status, Ben married Deborah Read Franklin, a woman he first met at age 15 (the first time she saw him, he was walking past her front door stuffing his face with bread rolls - apparently it made quite the impression!). Deborah and Ben went on to have a son, Francis Folger, who unfortunately died of smallpox in 1736 at the age of four, after Ben refused to have his children inoculated. That same year, Ben took a job as a clerk with the PA General Assembly, where he printed laws, vote sheets and even money.  In 1737, while working as the General Assembly clerk, Ben also became the PA Postmaster (he saw the job as an economical way to send off his newspapers and business related correspondence - clever!). He was later made Postmaster General (in 1753, when his boss died) - jointly with William Hunter. The same year he became Postmaster General, the Royal Society of London awarded Ben with the Sir Godfrey Copley Medal for his work/studies with electricity.

The "electricity" clip from one of my favorite childhood cartoons,
the Disney classic Ben and Me
(about a mouse who claimed to be behind all of Ben Franklin's big inventions - a really cute movie!)

In 1743, they had their daughter Sarah, (Ben called her Sally) who as a grown woman became Ben's caretaker in his last years. Deborah and Ben also raised William, Ben's illegitimate son (mother unknown). Once grown, William tried to run off and become a privateer but Ben blocked that almost-adventure, so William ended up becoming his father's stand-in/associate on many of Ben's business matters. William took over as clerk with the General Assembly when his father was promoted to full-fledged voting member.

Franklin's Arrival In Philadelphia by N.C. Wyeth
(depicting the first time Deborah Read sees him)

Sarah (Sally) Franklin

Deborah Read Franklin in later years

William Franklin

In 1744, a war broke out between France, Great Britain and Spain. Franklin figured with America being a nation still under British rule, it was only a matter of time before the fighting came over our way, so  he helped put together militia, drafting a bill for "voluntary militia" for defense of the country, even serving as a soldier himself. Franklin was put in command of troops with his son, by then an experienced army officer, serving as his aide-de-camp. Franklin bravely put his troops up at Gnadenhutten, a formerly abandoned post (you can read why below:

Monument at Gnadenhutten

Because of the war, Ben also proposed that all the colonies be put under one government, mainly to make it easier to defend everyone (strength in numbers). Committees were formed, with one representative from each colony, to come up with a general plan for government. Ben's plan ended up being the one agreed upon (no surprise) - the plan being that general government actions would be carried out by a "president-general appointed and supported by the Crown" (England) with colony representatives to be chosen to make up a general council to serve under the president-general. Similar to the setup we have today, right? Well, it's not the one that originally got accepted. Franklin presented the plan to the General Assembly but they turned it down. Instead they chose to have individual government colonies that would have periodic meetings, put troops together, build forts, that sort of thing ... with the idea that England would front us the money. The Assembly decided that we would pay back England by taxing the crap out of America citizens! Understandably, Ben was pretty bummed! He pointed out that his plan would neither have required citizens to be taxed nor need us to rely so heavily on England's support. Maybe things aren't so different now, huh? Still got guys in office making blatant errors :-P

 (*SidenoteSadly, this war put a big rift between Ben and his son - Ben was all for American Independence, while his son remained a fierce loyalist to the Crown. In later years, the rift was never entirely repaired. In a strange twist, even after our country's independence was won, William went on to travel the country with other Loyalist soldiers  and supporters while Ben eventually went to England, never returning to America.)

Ben also played a part in the French-Indian War: He believed in helping with the war effort so much that he coerced people into donating horses, wagons, and needed supplies by printing in his newspaper that donations were appreciated but anyone found not contributing to the war effort may be deemed a traitor to the Crown!! Pretty ballsy but it got the job done!

Franklin also anticipated the now infamous defeat of General Edward Braddock. Franklin said Braddock was "a good general but for his ego". Braddock intended to attack Fort Duquesne, but somehow his secretary's papers outlining Braddock's plans fell into enemy hands. Word got to the Indians in the area. Just 9 miles shy of the fort, in the area that is present-day Pittsburgh, less than 400 Native Americans ambushed Braddock and his men. Braddock was killed, along with 714 out of 1100 men. Out of 86 officers, 63 were killed or seriously wounded.  All of this happened before war was even officially declared on American soil!

General Braddock

Wounding of General Braddock by Robert Griffing


So what all did Ben accomplish? Here are just a few of the bright ideas we can thank him for:
  • Bifocals
  • Development of the first public library system in America
  • Developed clinics for the poor
  • Suggested building of lighthouses in America after being on an English ship that nearly crashed on rocks - only thing that saved ship was lighthouse beacon right at crucial moment
  • The Armonica (ever see someone "play" drinking glass rims? This was Franklin's invention to recreate that sound...didn't catch on as he hoped though, but there are still aficionados and armonica musicians to this day.)

  • Contributed to the development of a non-denominational meeting house/church where preachers of any faith could give sermons and people could be exposed to any and all faiths. As Franklin put it, "If the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammadism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service."
  • Established print houses in Carolina (North and South were not defined in his day) which he then basically franchised, providing more jobs and comfort to numerous families.
  • 1742: developed the fuel-efficient Franklin stove (he called it the Pennsylvania Fireplace) as well as what might be the longest pamphlet title EVER: 
    • "An Account Of The New Invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces, Wherein Their Construction And Manner Of Operation Are Particularly Explained, Their Advantages Above Every Other Method Of Warming Rooms Demonstrated, And All Objections That Have Been Raised Against The Use Of Them Answered and Obviated, Etc" (that "etc." is actually part of the title - how the hell did that all fit on a pamphlet cover??
      • Sidenote: Franklin declined offer from then PA Governor Thomas to have stove patented, stating "that as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously."  meaning that he didn't invent things for the money. Unfortunately, other people ended up claiming the patent and getting rich off his design. There was even an ironworker in London who took Franklin's design, tweaked it a bit and, in Franklin's opinion, completely ruined the efficiency of the stove, but the ironworker still made a fortune off of it. Franklin never contested any one else's claims for patents on his design not only because he wasn't in it for the money, but also because he loathed conflict. 
Philadelphia Fireplace
  • Wrote fire prevention pamphlets, developed disaster preparedness kits, and established the Union Fire Company of Pennsylvania, where he also served as a firefighter. Firefighters who skipped monthly meetings were required to pay a fine, those fines went toward purchasing new trucks and equipment. At the time of writing his memoirs, Franklin stated that the Fire Co. had already been in existence for about 50 years at that point and since its creation, had only lost 1-2 houses (total) to fire. There are fire companies now that can't claim that kind of record - and these guys were running around on horse drawn carts with leather water buckets!
Ben Franklin the firefighter

City of Philadelphia improvements;

  • Franklin proposed tax regulations/adjustments based on income - making taxes proportional to a person's property value. If people did not want to participate in community watch groups, they were required to pay a fine to the local constable. The constable was then suppose to hire someone to patrol the property of the person that paid the fine but there were a number of incidents where constables were either keeping the money for themselves, not hiring anyone and letting property go unprotected, or they were hiring drunks they found for next to nothing and pocketing the rest of the money. 
  • Franklin printed a paper on the benefits of city cleanliness and beautification, convinced city to pave one street as a sort of "trial run". He was even able to convince residents to chip in for wages for a street sweeper. The proposal was such a success that Franklin wrote a bill for the paving and lighting of all of Philly. He presented it to the PA General Assembly and the bill was passed in 1757, just after Franklin left for a trip to Europe. His proposal made 18th century Philly cleaner and safer!
  • Street lights: Franklin proposed that instead of the popular globe style European street lamps, that flat paned glass lamps be installed instead. He pointed out that the candles inside the flat paned glass would burn cleaner, smoke up the glass less, and it was easier to replace one pane of glass instead of a whole globe (if they were broken or cracked somehow).
The popular European globe style street lamp

Franklin proposed they be replaced with these flat pane glass lamps
(a  proposal that was accepted  and instituted)

It seems as if Franklin was able to accomplish most anything just by writing a good letter or talking sensibly, a skill that feels as if it has sorely gone by the wayside nowadays. But Franklin makes a good point:

Well, if you've made it to the end of this post, kudos! And thank you! In closing, here's a happy bit of food for thought from today's guest of honor:

"Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day. "