Benjamin Franklin was a man who wore many hats and contributed to the science of electricity and invention. For historians, he is a complex character who rose from obscure poverty to be among the great thinkers of the founding of a new nation. An artisan, he was a self-made man with little formal education and rose from poverty to wealth. Ordinary citizens identified with him because he was more in tune with common society than the other founding gentlemen, like Washington and Jefferson.
George Washington was but a noble British officer, made a Republican by circumstances.
At the same time, he was a worldly, cosmopolitan European who mingled easily with lords and aristocrats in Britain and Europe as easily as the folks at the neighborhood pub. He spent the last 33 years of his life in Britain and France and people wondered if would ever return to the nation he had helped establish.
In the beginning of the falling out between the British Empire and the American colonies, no one could have predicted he would become one of the leaders of the American Revolution. Indeed, the revolution, started with a document entitled the Declaration of Independence, with apprehension from much of the leadership and representatives of the colonies. In 1760, Benjamin Franklin was dedicated to the British Empire as a whole. Those that remained loyal to the monarchy of England, England itself were called Tories (loyalists). One would have thought before that declaration that Franklin was a dedicated Tory.
Another difference about Franklin was that, like the last civilian governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, he had a deep empathy against religious zealots. In 1754, Franklin and Hutchinson they had worked on the Albany Plan of Union which would promote intercolonial cooperation and aid in imperial defense of England. Both were believers that a few reasonable men should be running state affairs, and regarded the general public with amusement and disgust if they rioted.
Many are unaware that Franklin was not a young man and was 70 years old in 1776, the oldest of the revolutionary leadership. He was born of a different generation than his partners. He had already become famous from his publishing, discoveries and inventions and was a member of the Royal Society receiving honorary degrees from universities in the colonies and Britain, which included the prestigious St .Andrews and Oxford. Men of science and philosophers in Europe, consulted him over a myriad of subjects. As Gordon Wood wrote, too many take for granted Franklin's patriotism in the Revolution. He was a man of calculated restraint when it came to making decisions. What made him decide to join the Republican revolutionists?
Franklin wrote an Autobiography that scholars interpret and reinterpret, but cannot agree as to why he wrote it. It is a transition of an awkward teenage printer who arrived in Philadelphia to the man he had come to be known to the world. In his writings, he always inserted his wit and humor, constantly portraying his self-awareness and his many interests. He wrote under different persona: Silence Dogood, Alice Addertongue, Cecilia Shortface, Anthony Afterwit, and, of course, the almanac maker – Poor Richard. All of his varied personae has made scholars to believe that -
... no other 18th century writer has so many different personae or as many different voices as Franklin. No wonder we have difficulty figuring out who this remarkable man is.[The Canon of Benjamin Franklin: New Attributions and Reconsiderations, J.A.Leo Lemay, University of Delaware Press, 1986; p. 135]
Writing as Poor Richard, he stated:
We shall resolve to be what we would seem. … Let all Men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly: Men freely ford that see the shallows.
Franklin was the extreme opposite of John Adams, keeping his intentions and feelings to himself. Poor Richard wrote:
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
D.H. Lawrence noted in the 1920s for his vicious attacks (and thus literary enemies) against all of the Founders, did not spare Franklin. He became more than a man, but a symbol and too many “historians” have attempted to destroy the character of the Founders, rather than weed through the legends that have come to surround them.
Franklin's life story from poverty to wealth is a remarkable story in itself, but in the history of the United States not unique for the “promised land” where immigrants disembarked with only change in their pocket had seen success through opportunity because of their vision and intellect.
If one reads the Franklin Autobiography, one can see that he made it through the hierarchy of society with help of influential men.
Franklin's brother-in-law was a ship captain who sailed a commercial sloop between Massachusetts and Delaware and learned that Franklin was in Phil, working in a printshop, and wrote to Ben to persuade the young runaway to return to Boston. The brother-in-law showed Franklin's letter of reply to William Keith, governor of Pennsylvania, who was amazed at the well-written letter by a 17-year-old and invited Franklin for a drink in a local tavern, where he offered him the opportunity to become an independent printer if his father would supply the capital.
In 1774, returned from Boston, where Benjamin had failed to get money from his father, he stopped in New York with a trunkful of books he had brought from Boston. Noticed by the colonial New York governor, William Burnet, who asked to meet the man with so many books to talk about authors and books.
Pennsylvanians were quick to see Franklin's genius. Thomas Denham, William Allen, Andrew Hamilton, and others supported him by lending money, inviting him to their homes, introducing him to others, and developed a social circle that benefited the young Benjamin. He recalled later:
...these friends were … of great use to me as I occasionally was to some of them.
As time passed, he became more than just a wealthy printer and delved into partnerships and shares in several printing businesses in the colonies. He established about 18 paper mills during the course of his business ventures; and it is estimated he was the largest paper dealer in the colonies and probably Europe. He owned rental property in Philadelphia and several coastal towns. He was a creditor, more like a banker, with a great deal of currency loaned out, loans from two shillings to 200 pounds. Throughout his life he was involved in land speculation.
In 1748, at the age of 42, Franklin believed he had gained enough wealth and decided to retire from active business. He could then be a gentleman of leisure who no longer had to work for a living. It was a major event and he took it serious enough to have a portrait painted by Robert Feke. He moved to a more spacious residence and bought several slaves and left his printing office and shop on Market Street, where his new partner, David Hall, moved in to run the firm. Most artisans worked where they lived.
Franklin was now a gentleman and decided to write and engage in Philosophical Studies and Amusements. He became a member of the Philadelphia City Council in 1748, being brought into government and was appointed a justice of the peace in 1749. In 1751 he became a city alderman and was elected from Philadelphia to be one of the 26 in the Pennsylvania Assembly that was primarily Quakers. He had grown to be interested in politics and government, and saw public service as his obligation as a gentleman. He probably got along with the Quakers so well because of his family background was religious, indeed, his father envisioned him to be a minister of the Calvinist denomination. However, Franklin would come to despise religious zealots, who had no room in their life for the wonders of science and discovery; partly, his change in views upon religion was because of his discovery of life among the "lower" class, even prostitutes when he made his first trip to England. But Franklin was not an atheist or could be considered apathetic to the ideas and doctrine of religions.
In 1749, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, an encouragement for education and advancement of young men. Between the 1750s and early 1760s, one would never imagine that Franklin would become a revolutionary patriot. He was frustrated with the “petty disputes” between the colonial assemblies and colonial governors. In 1757, he went to England as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly in order to persuade the Crown to remove the Penn family as proprietors of Pennsylvania and make Pennsylvania a royal province. Rumors were that he intended to become the first royal governor of Pennsylvania.
Franklin's good sense and confidence amazed high level individuals in the British government, amazing his English friends. In Franklin's Philadelphia home, he proudly displayed a picture of the chief minister to King George III, Lord Bute, and bragged of being acquainted to him. He stated that no one brought up in England could ever be happy in America. He claimed that America was corrupt and not England. Franklin had become absorbed into the English society and mentioned frequently of staying in England. But he had to return in 1762 because he had obligations in his post office business; but vowed to return to England.
As you can see, in the early 1760s, Franklin was a loyalist, a royal supporter – a Tory.
In 1764, Franklin was back in England, just in time for the Christmas fanfare, where his involvement in the Stamp Act the following year revealed how much he misunderstood popular government and the weakness of elite politics. He, of course, opposed the act, which was to tax several items beyond stamps – newspapers, licenses, indentures, and playing cards. But when Franklin saw that it was to be passed, he went along with it. He believed that the empire needed the funding. In Philadelphia, he procured for his friend, John Hughes, the stamp agency in Philadelphia. It almost ruined Franklin and nearly cost Hughes' life.
Franklin was appalled at the mobs that prevented the enforcement of the Stamp Act – he had become out of touch with fellow colonists. The only thing that saved Franklin's Tory reputation was his four-hour testimony before Parliament denouncing the act in 1766. He was beginning to doubt and resent British politics and began to feel like a colonist once again.
The English thought he was too colonial and Americans thought him too English. He was, at first, caught in the middle and even tried to calm both sides discounting plots and conspiracies from both sides.
When in 1771, Franklin lost his chance at land scheme for settling the trans-Appalachian West of North America, the head of that department, Lord Hillsborough, blocked the idea. Hillsborough even coldly refused to accept Franklin's credentials as agent for the Massachusetts Assembly – which stunned Franklin. It was after this failure and insult by the English Ministry, that Franklin began to reconsider his position in life. It was during this time he went on a series of journeys around the British Isles, visiting a friend at his country house that he began to write his Autobiography.
During this period, Lord Hillsborough was fired from the ministry and Lord Dartmouth was appointed to replace him, a friend of Franklin who invited him to his Irish estate. This provided some optimism for Franklin in that he might be able to better persuade imperial politicians. Franklin stopped writing his Autobiography, which would not be completed until 1784 while in France negotiating the treaty that established American independence.
Dartmouth, with Franklin's help, sent several letters in an attempt to straighten things out between England and America, but it just caused further damage. Not being a shrewd politician, the British ministry held Franklin responsible for the imperial crisis and was attacked before the Privy Council in 1774 by the solicitor as being a thief and less than a gentleman. This, of course, severed any bond Franklin had with the Imperial British. 
Two days later, Franklin was fired as deputy postmaster and he finally came to realize that the empire and his involvement had come to an end.
So, in March of 1775, Franklin sailed back to America, now a passionate American colonial patriot – even surprising John Adams, who had always been a passionate patriot, hating the English imperial aristocracy. Some of Franklin's passion may have been calculated in order to convince his countrymen that he had seen the true nature of the imperial government and society of England. Franklin had been loyal and had been personally humiliated, more so than any other Founder. Yet, his colleagues were surprised when Franklin showed no mercy during the peace talks and he never forgave his son, William, for remaining loyal to the British Crown – disowning him.
In 1776, Franklin was set to begin the history of what was to become the United States republic. He was sent to Paris by the Continental Congress as its diplomatic agent, the first diplomat of what would become the United States. He spent eight years in France, and it was the French who molded the image of Franklin that we have read about in history books.
Initially, France was unwilling to recognize the new nation, not anxious to war with Britain – yet. In addition, France saw no opportunity for a beneficial offer that supported interests of France, except severing itself from the British umbilical cord.
Franklin was 75 years old in 1776 and he suffered from several ailments. He was not liked by his fellow commissioners and Americans were suspicious of him back in the colonies. He had spent 20 years living in London, and his son William, former royal governor of New Jersey, was a Loyalist under arrest by the revolutionists. Still, it has been written that Franklin was the greatest ambassador the United States ever had by convincing Louis XVI to back the Republic while at war, and procured several loans from a French government who was experiencing financial difficulties, mostly from corruption of the imperial system. It was Franklin's reputation as a scientist and philosopher, a native genius of the backwoods of America. The French aristocracy liked his primitive nature, his innocence and his sense of liberty – Franklin was a literal representative of America. Strangely, French aristocrats, like La Rochefoucauld, became passionate about the principles of the Declaration of Independence; even though it abolished the noble privileges they had obtained by position and fortune. Sadly, La Rochefoucauld would later be stoned to death by a revolutionary mob.
Franklin was not into the powder wig fad. He dressed in a simple brown and white linen suit and wore a fur cap and never was seen with a sword, even at Versailles, where protocol required it for gentlemen. The French court and nobility loved the image. They even had the idea that Franklin was a Quaker, because he was from Pennsylvania. Voltaire and Montaigne viewed him as a fellow philosopher, based upon his Poor Richard literature. It was the French who invented the Benjamin Franklin of American legend; and being so successful in France, it was probably the happiest years of Franklin's life. In 1784 he resumed his Autobiography and completed it.
When the peace treaty was signed in France, Franklin was called back to America, where he knew he would die, despite wanting to stay in France the rest of his life.
When he returned in 1785, he had become a national hero for his deeds in the founding of a nation, despite not leading the revolution like Washington, Jefferson and Adams.
When Franklin died in 1790, a public eulogy was given by William Smith, Benjamin's enemy. He had been assigned the task. Washington's eulogy was provided a hundred fold; however, it was the French that provided the appropriate honor to the memory of Franklin.
Franklin's public image had changed when his Autobiography was published in 1794 and in the next thirty years, that publication spread across the country, edition after edition.
Like a poet, his real fame did not come until after his death.
Parson Weems wrote in 1817 a biography of which he said about Benjamin Franklin:
O you time-wasting, brain-starving young men, who can never be at ease unless you have a cigar or a plug of tobacco in your mouths, go on with your puffing and champing – go on with your filthy smoking, and your still more filthy spitting, keeping the cleanly housewives in constant terror for their nicely waxed floors, and their shining carpets – go on I say; but remember, it was not in this way that our little Ben became the GREAT DR. FRANKLIN.