Benjamin Franklin: What to Remember About America’s Favorite Polymath

Few Americans rival the influence and legacy left by the great Benjamin Franklin. The mark of his long list of civic, scientific and philosophical achievements is still very apparent in U.S. culture today.

Many documentaries, texts and art have attempted to demonstrate and honor Benjamin Franklin’s life and work. This overview of the great American polymath is also a cursory guide to the best of these attempts.


Early Life

Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Josiah, was a candle and soap maker who worked hard to ensure that each of his sons learned a trade. According to the Franklin Institute (FI), Franklin was not much interested in his father’s line of work, but fell quickly in love with the printing business.

At the early age of 12, Franklin was out of school and working as an apprentice in his brother’s printing business. To disguise his young age he wrote under the alias Silence Dogood and was published by slipping his stories under his brother’s door unnoticed.

Franklin’s autobiography features personal narratives and early journals that show off his unique writing style and voice at play.


Political Theories and Impact

Franklin is widely regarded as one of the most important political contributors to American history. He is the only statesman to have signed all four of the critical documents that led to the creation of the U.S.: The Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778, the Treaty of Paris establishing peace with Britain in 1783 and The Constitution in 1787. More information is offered from the Benjamin Franklin House (BFH).

Franklin’s importance as a statesman was critical to the U.S. during the fragile years before the signing of the constitution. In 1776 he traveled to France, and successfully convinced the French to support the American cause.

After his death in 1790, Franklin was honored by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the National Assembly of France. Both organization declared themselves to be in an official state of mourning over his loss.

Franklin was unafraid to advocate for causes that were controversial during his time. He is also a man of many contradictions. According to the Library of Congress, Franklin was a slaveowner who also supported anti-slavery ideas and advocated to free blacks and to help facilitate a pathway to citizenship. He was also one of the first Americans to support education for everyone, including women and blacks, and was also the first to create a public library, according to the IEEE Global History Network.

Franklin was also a man obsessed with civic and administrative progress. He helped set up the postal system in Philadelphia, and set-up the Union Fire Company in 1736. In 1752, he was the first to set up a fire insurance company. He valued government efforts to keep peace and safety and even organized a Night Watch and Militia to help do this in Philadelphia.


Scientific Contributions and Inventions

Franklin had an insatiable appetite for scientific experimentation and exploration. He was also questioning the natural world and was determined to find answers. Franklin is perhaps best known for his electricity experiments. His infamous kite story is a well-chronicled fable, but his contributions to weather studies are even more important.

Franklin was one of the first to observe that storms move in an opposite direction from the direction of the wind. He first started gathering observations about storm direction after a storm fouled his plan to watch a lunar eclipse in Philadelphia. When he found out the storm was visible in Boston he got to work. While studying this pattern Franklin accurately theorized about the existence of high and low pressure systems.

Franklin often traveled to Europe via the Atlantic Ocean and used his time on the ship to become one of the first people to chart the Gulf Stream. He plotted the warm ocean current running off the coast across the Atlantic by plotting the ocean temperature at various depths.

PBS describes Franklin as a practical inventor who often sought to solve everyday problems with his designs. Some of his inventions include:

  • Swim fins
  • A ship anchor
  • A library chair with an attached fan that could be turned into ladder steps
  • A long tool with a grasping claw to reach books on tall shelves
  • The Franklin Stove, an energy efficient alternative to traditional fireplaces designed to use less wood and deliver more heat. The iron furnace didn’t work very well, but his design was later improved upon and named the Franklin stove.
  • His lightning rod was designed to protect buildings from lightning strikes. The rod attracted lightning and safely conducted it to the ground.
  • An odometer to track his postal routes


Philosophy and Academic Life

Project MUSE describes Franklin’s philosophy as a belief in good leadership studied through reflections on human nature, the heart and mind.

During his lifetime, Franklin received various academic degrees from Yale, Harvard and Oxford in England.

Among Franklin’s most important influences were the religious teachings of the Boston Puritans and the Philadelphia Quaker’s. He believed in work ethics and strong virtues such as diligence, economy and frugality through these denominations.

His pseudonym “Silence Dogood”, and the reflections he published under that name were inspired by the Reverend Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius and his Essays to Do Good. He placed a strong emphasis on the importance of self-improvement and often promoted these ideas in his writings and work.

A list of other important people in Franklin’s life included:

  • Pierre Augustin Caron Beaumarchais: the author of The Barber of Seville.
  • Francois-Marie-Arouet Voltaire: A writer and member of the same Masonic Lodge as Franklin
  • Founding fathers of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson – who was president during the Louisiana Purchase which included present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Oklahoma, amongst many other US states and two Canadian provinces – John Jay and James Madison
  • Philosopher David Hume, who influenced Franklin’s own philosophies

Use this guide a jumping off point to further explore the thoughts and works of Benjamin Franklin. As a cursory overview this information should be used to whet your appetite for a stronger understanding of the legacy and influence of this great man.