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Benjamin Franklin, Re-Inventor

30 Sep 2016, Posted by Founding Franklin in The Franklin You Thought You Knew
Bill Robling as Ben Franklin

Among his many accomplishments, Benjamin Franklin is probably best known to the average person as an inventor.  Although he spent less of his time at this particular activity than at anything else, and never profited a cent from what we call his inventions ( and what he called his improvements), the image persists.  Most of the inventions were simply a result of dissatisfaction with the way something worked, a function of a curious and practical mind.

When I look at the incredible span of Ben Franklin’s life, I see him, more than anything else, constantly re-inventing himself.  This boy, born to a family of seventeen children, his father a tradesman, began to re-invent himself at the age of twelve.  At ten, he had been taken from school and made the assistant to his father in a chandler shop, making candles and soap.  This lowly occupation would not satisfy Franklin for more than two years.  At twelve he began to aspire to a higher, more skilled trade.  He was indentured to his brother as an apprentice printer, owing nine years’ service to brother James.  His first re-invention.

This stop on the Franklin express was to last only a little over four years, before Benjamin began to envision himself as not only a voracious reader and accomplished printer, but as a writer.  While still a sixteen-year-old adolescent, Benjamin Franklin began to write anonymous letters to the editor of the New England Courant, his brother’s newspaper.  These Silence Dogood letters, in which he successfully passed himself off as a widow in her forties, took Boston by storm.  When James found out that little brother Ben was writing these letters, trouble ensued, as the younger Franklin had been strictly forbidden to write for the Courant.  This conflict, along with typical adolescent pride, led Benjamin Franklin to abscond himself from Boston and his legal indenture, and land in Philadelphia.  The bond-servant had just re-invented himself as a freeman.

Franklin, conveniently omitting his indentured status, showed his printing skills to a local printer, and was hired.  He would, within a few years, own his own printing office, and publish his own newspaper.  Re-invented again, this time as a businessman.  When he formed the Junto, a club of self-improving young tradesmen, and began to advocate civic improvements, Benjamin Franklin had re-invented himself as a civic leader.  When he was elected to the City Common Council, later an Alderman and then Clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he was re-invented as a politician.  

It would not be long before Franklin was the most successful printer in Philadelphia.  Within a few years, he had been appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia.  When he was later appointed Deputy Postmaster for the North American Colonies, Benjamin Franklin had achieved his next dream.  He was now re-invented as a British official.  With this position, and with the benefit of the franking privilege, which allowed him to mail his newspaper anywhere in the colonies free of charge, he was now a major player on the American scene.  But if Boston couldn’t hold him, it soon became apparent that neither could America.

At the age of forty-two, having made a sizeable fortune in printing and publishing, Franklin decided that there was more to be done.  He had become fascinated by the study of electricity.  He took in a partner to manage the printing business, maintaining a fifty-percent interest in the proceeds, and began a series of experiments that would make him the most famous American in Europe.  Benjamin Franklin took electricity from parlor game to physics.  His publication of his observations brought him the following:  the Copley medal from the Royal Society in London ( somewhat equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Physics ); induction into that elite Society; and advanced degrees awarded from six colleges, two of them doctoral degrees.  Not bad for a second-grade dropout.  Re-invented as Dr. Franklin, prestigious scientist.

This notoriety on the European continent led to the next re-invention of Benjamin Franklin.  He was sent to London by the Assembly of Philadelphia to negotiate improved treatment by the British government, and was subsequently engaged by three more colonies as their agent.  There, Franklin did a stylistic re-invention.  He became the gentleman, posing for portraits in a white wig, surrounded by the accoutrements of science and scholarly pursuit.   Welcome, Benjamin Franklin, diplomat.  Later, he would be back in politics, in the Second Continental Congress, signing the document that severed his seventy-year allegiance to the British Empire.  Soon after, he embarked on the most important mission of his diplomatic career, the mission to France, to create a Franco-American alliance.  He had been a British North American, but now he had dropped that qualifying adjective, and became simply an American.  Gone were the fine clothes and the wig.  For Paris, He dressed in a plain brown, linen suit, often wearing the fur hat that he had acquired in Canada. Re-invented again.  Look at the Martin portrait done in London, the see the DuPlessis portraits in Paris.  Benjamin Franklin would go on to be President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, and to help to write and to sign the Constitution of the United States.  Oh, and one last re-invention:  this man who had at one time held slaves, became the President of an anti-slavery society.  A re-invented abolitionist.

And so, when you hear someone say, “ Benjamin Franklin was an inventor”, you can say:  “ Of course you mean, re-inventor.

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