Ben Franklin was a man of prolific talent. Beyond his inventions and scientific inquiry he sought to be an active member of his community and involved in shaping the future of his home. Starting in his youth with his persona Silence Dogood he commented and reflected upon life in the American colonies and the changes they were undergoing due to successful commerce and a growing autonomy.
Leader and Diplomat
During the French and Indian War, Ben was part of the Albany Congress.
The colonies were at the forefront of facing down the French interests in North America, tasked with coming up with the funding and quartering for their own militias and the British army.
This congress was called to discuss the defense of the colonies from the French and French-allied tribes.
Ben proposed the Albany Plan of Union which laid out a system of singular government that would oversee the coordination of the separate colonies.
Ben proposed that through this Plan of Union, the colonies would be able to present a united front and work for the advantage of all of them, not singular colonies getting in each other’s way.
At the time, the plan was rejected by the colonial assemblies and the British crown.
Despite the setback, the document drafted by Ben in the 1754 at the Albany Congress would find itself being echoed in the Articles of Confederation after American Independence.
The road to American independence had its roots laid in that Albany Congress of which Ben was a part. Seeds of dissent were sowed during that conflict where the British military exerted its power and, in the aftermath, the British Crown began its unilateral taxation of the colonies. During the French and Indian War, and through to the 1770s, Ben spent time in London on a diplomatic missions.
Messenger to England
His first mission began in 1775, when he was sent by the Pennsylvania Assembly to contest the influence of the Penn family on the colony. Pennsylvania was a chartered colony, meaning that the proprietors had more direct control than a Royal colony.
As descendants of the founder, William Penn, the Penn family still had a great deal of clout in Pennsylvania politics. They often overturned legislation they did not like coming from the assembly. They also were exempted from paying taxes to support the colony. For five years, Ben toiled at Whitehall to no avail, returning to Pennsylvania to found an “anti-proprietary” political party. He became Speaker of the Pennsylvania House in May 1764.
He pushed for a change to royal government, but lost his seat by October, due to concerns that Pennsylvania would lose many of its religious and political freedoms. His political party sent him back to England to try again.
It was while he was in England this second time that things changed drastically in the political relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies. In 1765, the infamous Stamp Act made its debut. Ben had opposed the Act, but was unable to stop it. Upon its passing, Ben made an unfortunate political gaffe by recommending a friend to the post of stamp distributor. This outraged his fellow Pennsylvanians so much that they threatened to destroy his house in Philadelphia. Ben immediately became interested in the extent of his fellow colonists dislike of the Stamp Act and took it upon himself to become the spokesman for the colonies to the British government. His testimony helped get the act repealed.
No Taxation without Representation
Furthermore, he began writing essays on behalf of the colonies. Many other colonies made him their agent to the Crown.
From his house in central London, Ben began to get involved in radical politics as a Whig. He became friends with men in power through his connections at his social club. In 1756, he joined the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce which met in Convent Garden coffee shops. Through this group he continued to discuss science and grew his circle of influential friends. Interesting friends and accomplishments abounding, Ben continued his experiments, inventions, and political maneuvering.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin
He began to travel using London as a base. He traveled to Scotland 1759 and gained another honorary doctorate in law from the University of St. Andrews. It was with this first honorary degree that he began being called Doctor Franklin. By 1762, Ben had been awarded with an honorary doctorate from Oxford University for his scientific accomplishments.
While touring in Ireland he was the first American to be invited to sit with the Irish Parliament. Ireland was under the same rules and regulations as the American colonies and the widespread poverty he saw made Ben worry for his own people.
He wondered if America could suffer in similar ways should the British continue their exploitation. The search for information that could help his fellow Americans was something Ben would continue to pursue as he traveled throughout Europe as well. His reputation as a scientist opened many doors and provided many ears to listen to his political thoughts in regards to America and its future.
The Pen is mightier than the sword
By 1773, Ben had published one of his most famous satirical essays, “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One”. In this essay, he has a veiled warning, should an empire not treat those at its edges with respect, they may lose their loyalty entirely. He says, “…a great empire, like a great Cake, is most easily diminished at the Edges.”
He doesn’t hold back on a cutting indictment of colonial governors that have more interest in position and wealth than governing. Alongside this essay, Ben had acquired the personal letters of the governor of Massachusetts which encouraged the Crown to be more fierce in their attempts to control fringe elements in Boston.
He leaked them to the Boston Gazette, causing a wave of protests against the governor and the British in the colony.
The unwelcome guest
From that time forward, the British government became more wary of Ben, since he had proven himself a troublemaker.
When he was humiliated in the Privy Council in January of 1774, the British had lost any loyalty Ben felt for them. He was an American rebel from that day on.
He returned to Philadelphia on May 5, 1775. The Battle of Lexington and Concord had been fought and won showing that a group of colonials could have a chance. Ben was elected to be a Pennsylvania delegate at the Continental Congress and was appointed to the committee that was responsible for the Declaration of Independence. He was not present for all of the meetings of the draft, but he claimed to have made some “small but important” changes.
Ben continued to be at the forefront of the American diplomatic presence during the Revolutionary War. He was named a commissioner to France in December 1776. Before his arrival, the American party was not making much headway with getting a clear sense of ally ship with the French. However, when Ben arrived in France he was an instant celebrity.
Forging a deciding alliance
His reputation as a scientist and his “discovery” of electricity got him many invites to high-ranking French households. He threw himself into the French social scene, also being active as a Freemason and advocating for religious tolerance. He created a persona of rustic genius which charmed people in power. By 1778, he, along with the rest of the American delegation, had managed to secure a military alliance with Great Britain’s oldest enemy.
After the War for Independence was won, Ben Franklin was still not finished in his role as Founding Father even though he was seventy-nine years old when he returned to the United States in 1785. He became an abolitionist and became a part of the Philadelphia Convention which produced the United States Constitution.
Ben would be the only Founding Father to have signed all four major documents that led to the birth of the United States of America – the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance, the Treaty of Paris, and the United States Constitution.
Ben Franklin lived his ideals throughout his entire life, writing about them and sharing many of them in his autobiography that he wrote between 1771 and 1788. Through this and his other writings it is easy to make a portrait of a man who was always curious, always thinking, and always working to achieve his goals. Throughout his life he made great strides for his country and changed the course of the world forever.