What do we know about Benjamin Franklin

Highlights:

  1. Titles: printer, scientist, inventor, writer, diplomat, business strategist and political thinker. He was one of the founding father.
  2. Tasks: several inventions and discoveries related to electricity, bifocal glasses, burning stoves, charts of gulf stream, common cold. He started many civic improvement schemes, he liked organising things. He established University of Pennsylvania. He united the colonies under a federal government.
  3. Characteristic traits: Pragmatic independence (aversion to arbitrary power), ingenuity, frugality, industry, temperance, civic-minded
  4. “He carefully crafted his persona, portrayed it in public, polished it for posterity.”. He cared a lot about appearances, he nurtured his reputation as a matter of both pride and utility. It even came down to what he wore, for example he dressed a certain way when he went to France in his 70s to appeal to their imagination and it worked. He was indeed America’s first great image-maker and public relations master.
  5. He was careful that he made less enemies, and although he didn’t exactly espouse modesty he tried to display a self-depreciating humour, unpretentious demeanour, and unaggressive style in conversation.
  6. He clearly had a variety of interests such as science, diplomacy, government, journalism and he approached them from a practical  rather than theoretical angle. His passing familiarity with an array of crafts made him an accomplished tinkerer, which served him in good stead as a tinkerer. It is amazing how he was able to do such work that made him the most famous scientist of his time even without any formal training. I mean science! Its not politics that anyone can do. Its said that he would start something purely based on intellectual curiosity but the seek a practical application for it.
  7. He was a consummate networker and used his social life to further his business life. He wanted to be rich and believed industry, frugality and doing good will get him there.
  8. He was a deist. He believed too much religion is worst than no religion at all. He believed service to mankind is the greatest service to God and that man can achieve salvation by good deeds. He was secular.
  9. He came up with this “infallible rule”: If two persons, equal in judgement play for a considerable sum, he that loves money most shall lose; his anxiety for the success of the game confounds him”. He also came up with this: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
  10. He came up with rules of conversation and debate. He would never directly counter a point. Instead he would first mark his agreement with some points before coming to the points of contention and even then he would only ask tangential questions to lead the opposition in his direction. He would indulge people’s vanity.
  11. The thirteen virtues he espoused for in his moral perfection project were: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility. He eventually dropped “order” saying he was so busy and had such a good memory that he didn’t have to be too orderly. He also later said that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated. About humility he said “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it”. The underlying guiding principle of his life can be summarised in one sentence, which is “doing well be by doing good”
  12. He did not create for-profit companies but made a lot of do-good associations like lending library, fire brigade, night watchmen corp, hospital, college. This was kind of an American thing, forming associations.
  13. One recurring theme in this book it how Franklin was able to weave together his financial interests with his civic desires and personal enthusiasm. It somehow just always happened.
  14. Being an enlightenment thinker, he loved order and precise procedures. He had displayed this penchant by outlining, in the most minute detail imaginable, the Junto protocol, constitution for University of Pennsylvania etc. He had an eye for detail like no other. For example once in the assembly, he passed a bill for cleaning and uplifting of streets which included putting a lamp in front of every house. Well, he designed the even the lamps himself. He did not like the globe once that were imported from UK because they had no vent to allow air in which meant smoke would collect and darken the glass over time. Designed the now famous rectangular pane lamps that would remain clean and bright. He said “Human felicity is produced…by little advantage that occur every day”.
  15. He was always onto something. Writing, experimenting, learning. Throughout my reading I felt he did so many things like he had more time than everyone else. I also like the fact that in 1700s no one was just one thing. Everyone had two-three things they would add like painter, writer, amateur mathematician what not.

Life story:

  • Ok so his dad, with his wife and three children, migrated from UK to America in 1680s and set up a soap and candle making factory. He migrated to find work and practice his religious freedom.
  • Benjamin was born in 1706 at his father’s 11th something child from his 2nd wife.
  • “He was a leader among boys” in his childhood
  • He learnt the virtue of frugality and industry early on. He believed in human labor and an individual’s capacity to further human progress.
  • He excelled in writing but failed at math in school
  • He dropped out of school in two years, at the age of 9, and started working with his father in his soap factory. He soon joined his brother who had learnt printing from England to start a printing company.
  • His brother after some contractual work started the first independent news paper in the colonies, “The New England Courant”.
  • Print trade was natural calling for Benjamin as he loved books.
  • He started writing essays under a pen name Mrs Dogood, and became very popular. He had to diligently work at improving his writing by devising careful self-improvement and assessment routine which involved analysing and re-creating essays by famous writers of the time.
  • At 17, he ran away from his brother’s newspaper seeking independence. He went to New York and then to Philadelphia.
  • In Philly he started working at a print shop again, this time with someone called Keimer. He made friends there, gained appreciation for his work, his wit etc.
  • The then governor of Philly lured him into the prospect of opening his own print shop. He offered Benjamin to travel to London to buy machinery and fonts and he, the governor, would pay for everything. Benjamin went to London where he realised that the governor would pay no money. So he found a job at a big print shop in London, Samuel Palmer. He worked there for a year then switched to an even bigger printing house, John Watts’s.
  • After about a year or two of working there, when he was 20, one of his fellow traveller to London offered to sponsor his trip back to Philly if he agreed to join him in his general store as a clerk. Benjamin liked the idea as it would give him an opportunity to establish himself as a merchant, a profession more exalted than that of a printer.
  • On his way back he made four resolutions about his life: to be frugal, to always speak the truth, to apply himself industriously while being patient and to not speak ill of any man. He also started experimenting with other science like calculating his distance from London based on timing of lunar eclipse etc.
  • He comes back to Philly and starts a general store. His business partner died and he had to move back with Keimer in his print shop as manager. He created a type (the first one in America) known as Franklin Gothic.
  • He got an assignment to print paper currency for New Jersey where he made some contacts. He soon got together with another person in the Keimer shop and started his own printing shop. He soon became known for his hard work, by working and appearing to work hard. He would be everything from printer, publisher, writer, newspaperman, postmaster. He bought the company from his partner and became the sole owner.He saw this as his calling, both nobel and fun.
  • He created Junto, a club of 20 something middle class workers. He prescribed the rules of conversation, how should one debate. He would also float topic for conversation every week. Apart from the topics he would float there were some fixed topics (some 20 items) on which they would discuss. He was very purposeful.
  • At 23, he would start his own paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He became more popular and became the official printer of the Pennsylvania Assembly, thus making more political contacts. He sold his newspaper by whatever means like sex stories, sex advice columns etc but the had certain principles like exercising restraint when some article would incite a community or individual.
  • He then marries or enters in some sort of a communion with his girlfriend. He was sexist but better one of the lot in his time.
  • It was during this time, from 23-26, that he started his moral perfection project.
  • He started an annual almanac call “Poor Richard”. In this he wrote funny stories with some moral or self help lesson. This became very successful throughout America and made him very rich. He started this when he was 26 and continued this till he was 51.
  • He continues and thrives in his business through his 30s. His print shop is now a media conglomerate. He had a printing press, publishing house, newspaper, an almanac series, and partial control of the postal system. Money flowed in. With all this he has also started many do-good associations like lending library, fire brigade, night watchmen corp, hospital, college.
  • He retires extremely rich at 42 (in 1748), with a great pension deal from the guy he sold his business. He said he retired for leisure to read, study, make experiments, and converse with worthy men. He left his print shop because he was, in fact, eager to focus his undiminished ambition on other pursuits that beckoned: first science, the politics, then diplomacy and statecraft.
  • Now, he had a lot of interest in science which might be because he was raised in the time of enlightenment era and he didn’t take science for granted. Even though he had no scientific training, he was celebrated as the most famous scientist alive. His work on electricity unleashed a revolution comparable to those wrought by Newton and indeed made him famous throughout the world. The significance of his findings about lightning was important from scientific as well as philosophical pov which made him a hero in America and Europe.
  • In 1948, he proposed starting a school. It was a revolutionary proposal as the colleges at the time were focused on glorifying and learning for the sake of it. He wanted education to be more practical. He raised donations (2000 pounds), became the president, wrote the constitution, became the president and started University of Pennsylvania (not the original name, this still exists) in January 1951.
  • Franklin’s career in politics started in 1951 when one of the members in the Pennsylvania assembly, where he was serving as a clerk since 1936, died, and he was elected in this person’s position.
  • He organised many more things once in assembly. More importantly though he vouched for the unification of the colonies against the french. He created the whole federal system in which this unified colony would work but it didn’t get adopted.
  • At the age of 51, in 1957, he was sent to England. A stay that would last for 15 years (on and off). He was given some sort of official position but the main objective was to reduce his influence in the Pennsylvania politics while he saw this as an opportunity to further his agenda of uniting the colonies. Besides, he had gotten frustrated with the local politics and wanted to move anyway.
  • While in London, he fought for Americans to have equal rights as any British citizen, though he was a loyalist (till 1764) and did not want independence. He did not get much success there but his reputation as a scientists took him to the highest intellectual circles in Europe. He loved it.
  • He came back from UK once, after five years. He was not much active in the politics then, he was still a member of the assembly though. He took a road trip through all the colonies in America. There was a war brewing and his trips to the colonies put him in a special position. He was 57.
  • He again tried to persuade people in the assembly and the Pennsylvania colony for something like a complete statehood where they have all the rights available to any British citizen. This time he succeeded and was asked to present the petition signed by everyone to the King’s ministers in UK. He as happy to travel again, in 1765. He was seen at the time in America as a “tribune of the people” and defender of their rights.
  • By 1768, after the struggles to get something like an “equal status” for Americans, he started to think of something more aggressive, though not complete independence. There was a brewing dislike for the empire among the American colonies because of their unfair taxation policy. But he was also torn by his desire to become a minister in British government. He still felt the best way our was for the two parts of the empire to stay united. He pursued his interest in becoming a minister but was rejected for being “too American”. This was a turning point for him.
  • By 1770, the tension had risen and people were starting to contemplate a rupture of the empire. Franklin called for a boycott of all British manufactured goods.His position now was that the American colonies should remain loyal to the king but no longer subservient to the Parliament.
  • He tried different things till 1775 to make it happen. But he couldn’t. Also during this time he had made many enemies in Britain because of his political position and was shunned. Meanwhile his popularity in America was rising as someone who is fighting for their cause. So he decided to return to America, after 10 years, in 1775.
  • On his return America was in the beginning of a revolution. He was selected a member of the Congress the day after his arrival. At 70, he was the oldest among the 63 members. The country was divided at the time, whether to go for complete independence or independence just from the British Parliament and not the King. It was quite a thing to “come out” as a separatist. Franklin was also torn but in July 1775, he came out publicly in favour of independence.
  • Franklin now started the work of uniting the colonies, something he has been advocating for long. Now more important that ever, he felt if the colonies have to be independent of the empire, they have to be less independent of each other. He did this by proposing a constitution for “The United Colonies of North America”. Apart from this he took on many tasks. He became the postmaster general and was responsible to figure out how to replace the British postal system. He was put in charge of establishing a system of paper currency, one of  his long standing passions. And many other things. He was the part of the committee what wrote the declaration of independence, although the declaration was written only by Jefferson and Franklin acted as the editor. He also took a trip to France to raise funds and supplies for the war. When he travelled, in 1776, he was the world’s most famous American. His fame was so great that people lined up on streets in Paris to get a glimpse of him. He lived a lavish life in France.
  • After a year of political manoeuvre  he was able to get a treaty from France about their support. It was a huge deal.
  • Ok a lot of skipping after this. He was in France upto 1785, so in these 10 years he did a lot of things. He returned to America in 1785 to a grand reception. He spent the last five years of his life at home in leisure. He was involved in the constitution committee as well. He died in 1790.

Ok that’s it. Patience over. He was so many things and did so much, fucking amazing way to live.

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What do we know about Benjamin Franklin

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