Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 17 January 1706, one of 10 children born to Josiah Franklin with his second wife, Abiah Folger. He attended Boston Latin School briefly, but went to work for his father very young, at age 12 being apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. In 1721, James founded The New-England Courant, an independent newspaper. When told he couldn’t write letters for publication in the paper, Franklin adopted the pseudonym of Mrs. Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow, whose letters were published. When his brother was jailed for a few weeks, he took over the newspaper and had Mrs. Dogood (quoting Cato’s Letters) proclaim: ‘Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.’
Aged still only 17, he absconded from his apprenticeship, running away to Philadelphia where he worked in printing shops. He caught the attention of the Pennsylvania Governor Sir William Keith who offered to help him set up a new newspaper if he went to London to acquire the necessary printing equipment. But, having made the journey, he soon found Keith had failed to deliver any letters of credit or introductions. He found employment with a printer, and enjoyed much of what London had to offer. Eventually, with the promise of a clerkship from the merchant Thomas Denham, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726. Aged 21, he launched Junto, a discussion group whose members sought ways to help improve their community - the idea was, in part, based on his experience of English coffee houses. One of the group’s early ventures was to set up a subscription library, which, in time, became the Library Company of Philadelphia.
On Denham’s death, Franklin formed a partnership with a friend, in 1728, setting up a new printing house. Within a couple of years, though, he had borrowed money to buy his partner out, and to become sole proprietor. One of the company’s first successes was to win an order to print all of Pennsylvania’s paper currency, a business it would soon secure in other colonies too. The company invested in further profitable ventures, including the Pennsylvania Gazette, published by Franklin from 1729 and generally acknowledged as among the best of the colonial newspapers, and Poor Richard’s Almanack, printed annually from 1732 to 1757. Franklin’s business ventures spread, as he developed franchises and partnerships with other printers in the Carolinas, New York and the British West Indies.
In 1730, Franklin entered into a common-law marriage with Deborah Read. He had known her since she was 15 and he 17, and, before leaving for London, had promised to marry her. However, while in London, she married a man who had then fled the country, leaving her unable to remarry. Franklin brought with him to the union an illegitimate son, and he had a further two children with Deborah, though one of them died in childhood. By the late 1940s, Franklin was a very wealthy man, and decided to retire from any direct involvement in business and to become a Gentleman, occupying himself with various cultural pursuits, not least science experiments. He is credited with a number of innovations in the field of electricity, such as the Franklin stove and the lightning rod, as well as demonstrating that lightning and electricity are identical.
In 1753, Franklin moved directly into public service as deputy postmaster for the Colonies, a position he held for over 20 years. However, from 1757 until 1774, he lived in London (apart from a two year return to Philadelphia in 1762-1764) where he acted as the colonial representative for Pennsylvania in a dispute over lands held by the Penn family. Deborah having remained in America, he and William resided with a widow, Margaret Stevenson, near Charing Cross, and mixed in elevated social circles. Very much a royalist (he managed to get his son William appointed royal governor of New Jersey), he was at pains to bridge the growing divide between Britain and her colonies, and is said to have written over 100 newspaper articles between 1765 and 1775 trying to explain each side to the other.
On his return to America, the War of Independence had already broken out. In 1776, he helped to draft, and was then a signatory to, the Declaration of Independence. William, however, remained loyal to Britain, causing a rift that lasted for the rest of Franklin’s life. Later that year, Franklin and two others were appointed to represent America in France. He negotiated the Franco-American Alliance which provided for military cooperation between the two countries against Britain, and he ensured significant French subsidies to America. In 1783, as American ambassador to France, Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the American War of Independence. Having been very loved, and very happy in France, he returned, once again, to America in 1785, but received only a lukewarm welcome. He died in 1790.
Encyclopædia Britannica gives this assessment of the man: ‘Franklin was not only the most famous American in the 18th century but also one of the most famous figures in the Western world of the 18th century; indeed, he is one of the most celebrated and influential Americans who has ever lived. Although one is apt to think of Franklin exclusively as an inventor, as an early version of Thomas Edison, which he was, his 18th-century fame came not simply from his many inventions but, more important, from his fundamental contributions to the science of electricity. If there had been a Nobel Prize for Physics in the 18th century, Franklin would have been a contender. Enhancing his fame was the fact that he was an American, a simple man from an obscure background who emerged from the wilds of America to dazzle the entire intellectual world. Most Europeans in the 18th century thought of America as a primitive, undeveloped place full of forests and savages and scarcely capable of producing enlightened thinkers. Yet Franklin’s electrical discoveries in the mid-18th century had surpassed the achievements of the most sophisticated scientists of Europe. Franklin became a living example of the natural untutored genius of the New World that was free from the encumbrances of a decadent and tired Old World - an image that he later parlayed into French support for the American Revolution.’ Further biographical information is readily available at Wikipedia, the BBC, US History, PBS, or Franklin’s own autobiography.
Franklin wrote many texts through his life, not least his autobiography which has been published and republished often. One version, readily available at Internet Archive, is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin - the Unmutilitated and Correct Version Compiled and Edited with Notes by John Bigelow published by G. P. Putnam’s & Sons in 1916. This edition includes one of the rather few Franklin diaries - the Benjamin Franklin Journal of a voyage from England to Philadelphia 1726. The same text can be sourced elsewhere online, at American History, and the Online Library of Liberty (where it can be found in the first of 12 volumes of The Works of Benjamin Franklin).
Here are several extracts from that diary.
22 July 1726
‘Yesterday in the afternoon we left London, and came to an anchor off Gravesend about eleven at night. I lay ashore all night, and this morning took a walk up to the Windmill Hill, from whence I had an agreeable prospect of the country for above twenty miles round, and two or three reaches of the river, with ships and boats sailing both up and down, and Tilbury Fort on the other side, which commands the river and passage to London. This Gravesend is a cursed biting place; the chief dependence of the people being the advantage they make of imposing upon strangers. If you buy anything of them, and give half what they ask, you pay twice as much as the thing is worth. Thank God, we shall leave it tomorrow.’
23 July 1726
‘This day we weighed anchor and fell down with the tide, there being little or no wind. In the afternoon we had a fresh gale, that brought us down to Margate, where we shall lie at anchor this night. Most of the passengers are very sick. Saw several porpoises, &c.’
24 July 1726
‘This morning we weighed anchor, and coming to the Downs, we set our pilot ashore at Deal, and passed through. And now, whilst I write this, sitting upon the quarterdeck, I have methinks one of the pleasantest scenes in the world before me. Tis a fine, clear day, and we are going away before the wind with an easy, pleasant gale. We have near fifteen sail of ships in sight, and I may say in company. On the left hand appears the coast of France at a distance, and on the right is the town and castle of Dover, with the green hills and chalky cliffs of England, to which we must now bid farewell. Albion, farewell!’
27 July 1726
‘This morning, the wind blowing very hard at West, we stood in for the land, in order to make some harbour. About noon we took on board a pilot out of a fishing shallop, who brought the ship into Spithead off Portsmouth. The captain, Mr. Denham, and myself went on shore, and, during the little time we stayed, I made some observations on the place.
Portsmouth has a fine harbour. The entrance is so narrow that you may throw a stone from Fort to Fort; yet it is near ten fathom deep, and bold close to; but within there is room enough for five hundred, or, for aught l know, a thousand sail of ships. The town is strongly fortified, being encompassed with a high wall and a deep and broad ditch, and two gates, that are entered over drawbridges; besides several forts, batteries of large cannon, and other outworks, the names of which I know not, nor had I time to take so strict a view as to be able to describe them. In war time, the town has a garrison of 10,000 men; but at present ’tis only manned by about 100 Invalids. Notwithstanding the English have so many fleets of men-of-war at sea at this time, I counted in this harbour above thirty sail of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Rates, that lay by unrigged, but easily fitted out upon occasion, all their masts and rigging lying marked and numbered in storehouses at hand. The King’s yards and docks employ abundance of men, who, even in peace time, are constantly building and refitting men-of-war for the King’s Service.
Gosport lies opposite to Portsmouth, and is near as big, if not bigger; but, except the fort at the mouth of the harbour, and a small outwork before the main street of the town, it is only defended by a mud wall, which surrounds it, and a trench or dry ditch of about ten feet depth and breadth. Portsmouth is a place of very little trade in peace time; it depending chiefly on fitting out men-of-war. Spithead is the place where the Fleet commonly anchor, and is a very good riding-place. The people of Portsmouth tell strange stories of the severity of one Gibson, who was governor of this place in the Queen’s time, to his soldiers, and show you a miserable dungeon by the town gate, which they call Johnny Gibson’s Hole, where, for trifling misdemeanors, he used to confine his soldiers till they were almost starved to death. It is a common maxim, that, without severe discipline, ’tis impossible to govern the licentious rabble of soldiery. I own, indeed, that if a commander finds he has not those qualities in him that will make him beloved by his people, he ought, by all means, to make use of such methods as will make them fear him, since one or the other (or both) is absolutely necessary; but Alexander and Caesar, those renowned generals, received more faithful service, and performed greater actions, by means of the love their soldiers bore them, than they could possibly have done, if, instead of being beloved and respected, they had been hated and feared by those they commanded.’
4 October 1726
‘Last night we struck a dolphin and this morning we found a flying-fish dead under the windlass. He is about the bigness of a small mackerel, a sharp head, a small mouth, and a tail forked somewhat like a dolphin, but the lowest branch much larger and longer than the other, and tinged with yellow. His back and sided of a darkish blue, his belly white, and his skin very thick. His wings are of a finny substance, about a span long, reaching, when close to his body from an inch below his gills to an inch above his tail. When they fly it is straight forward, (for they cannot readily turn,) a yard or two above the water; and perhaps fifty yards in the furthest before they dip into the water again, for they cannot support themselves in the air any longer than while their wings continue wet. These flying-fish are the common prey of the dolphin, who is their mortal enemy. When he pursues them, they rise and fly; and he keeps close under them till they drop, and then snaps them up immediately. They generally fly in flocks, four or five, or perhaps a dozen together and a dolphin is seldom caught without one or more in his belly. We put this flying-fish upon the hook, in hopes of catching one, but in a few minutes they got it off without hooking themselves; and they will not meddle with any other bait.’
5 October 1726
‘This morning we saw a heron, who had lodged aboard last night. It is a long-legged, long-necked bird, having, as they say, but one gut. They live upon fish, and will swallow a living eel thrice, sometimes, before it will remain in their body. The wind is west again. The ship’s crew was brought to a short allowance of water.’
6 October 1726
‘This morning abundance of grass, rock-weed, &c., passed by us; evident tokens that land is not far off. We hooked a dolphin this morning, made us a good breakfast. A sail passed by us about twelve o’clock, and nobody saw her till she was too far astern to be spoken with. It is very near calm; we saw another sail ahead this afternoon; but, night coming on, we could not speak with her, though we very much desired it; she stood to the northward, and it is possible might have informed us how far we are from land. Our artists on board are much at a loss. We hoisted our jack to her, but she took no notice of it.
7 October 1726
‘Last night, about nine o’clock sprung up a fine gale at northeast, which run us in our course at the rate of seven miles an hour all night. We were in hopes of seeing land this morning, but cannot. The water, which we thought was changed, is now as blue as the sky; so that, unless at that time we were running over some unknown shoal, our eyes strangely deceived us. All the reckonings have been out these several days; though the captain says it is his opinion we are yet a hundred leagues from land; for my part I know not what to think of it; we have run all this day at a great rate, and now night is come on we have no soundings. Sure the American continent is not all sunk under water since we left it.’
8 October 1726
‘The fair wind continues still; we ran all night in our course, sounding every four hours, but can find no ground yet, nor is the water changed by all this day’s run. This afternoon we saw an Irish Lord and a bird which flying looked like a yellow duck. These, they say, are not seen far from the coast. Other signs of lands have we none. Abundance of large porpoises ran by us this afternoon, and we were followed by a shoal of small ones, leaping out of the water as they approached. Towards evening we spied a sail ahead, and spoke with her just before dark. She was bound from New York for Jamaica and left Sandy Hook yesterday about noon, from which they reckon themselves forty-five leagues distant. By this we compute that we are not above thirty leagues from our Capes, and hope to see land to-morrow.’
9 October 1726
‘We have had the wind fair all the morning; at twelve o’clock we sounded, perceiving the water visibly changed, and struck ground at twenty-five fathoms, to our universal joy. After dinner one of our mess went up aloft to look out, and presently pronounced the long wished-for sound, LAND! LAND! In less than an hour we could decry it from the deck, appearing like tufts of trees. I could not discern it so soon as the rest; my eyes were dimmed with the suffusion of two small drops of joy. By three o’clock we were run in within two leagues of the land, and spied a small sail standing along shore. We would gladly have spoken with her, for our captain was unacquainted with the Coast, and knew not what land it was that we saw. We made all the sail we could to speak with her. We made a signal of distress; but all would not do, the ill-natured dog would not come near us. Then we stood off again till morning, not caring to venture too near.’
10 October 1726
‘This morning we stood in again for land; and we that had been here before all agreed that it was Cape Henlopen; about noon we were come very near, and to our great joy saw the pilot-boat come off to us, which was exceeding welcome. He brought on board about a peck of apples with him; they seemed the most delicious I ever tasted in my life; the salt provisions we had been used to gave them a relish. We had extraordinary fair wind all the afternoon, and ran above a hundred miles up the Delaware before ten at night. The country appears very pleasant to the eye, being covered with woods, except here and there a house and plantation. We cast anchor when the tide turned, about two miles below Newcastle, and there lay till the morning tide.’
11 October 1726
‘This morning we weighed anchor with a gentle breeze, and passed by Newcastle, whence they hailed us and bade us welcome. It is extreme find weather. The sun enlivens our stiff limbs with his glorious rays of warmth and brightness. The sky looks gay, with here and there a silver cloud. The fresh breezes from the woods refresh us; the immediate prospect of liberty, after so long and irksome confinement, ravishes us. In short, all things conspire to make this the most joyful day I ever knew. As we passed by Chester, some of the company went on shore, impatient once more to tread on terra firma, and designing for Philadelphia by land. Four of us remained on board, not caring for the fatigue of travel when we knew the voyage had much weakened us. About eight at night, the wind failing us, we cast anchor at Redbank six miles from Philadelphia, and thought we must be obliged to lie on board that night; but, some young Philadelphians happening to be out upon their pleasure in a boat, they came on board, and offered to take us up with them; we accepted of their kind proposal, and about ten o’clock landed at Philadelphia, heartily congratulating each upon our having happily completed so tedious and dangerous a voyage. Thank God!’
Much later in his life Franklin also kept a diary very occasionally, and fragments can be found in, for example, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin (Volume 1 published in 1818). Here are a couple of extracts from that volume.
26 June 1784
‘Mr. Waltersdorff called on me, and acquainted me with a duel that had been fought yesterday morning, between a French officer, and a Swedish gentleman of that king’s suite, in which the latter was killed on the spot, and the other dangerously wounded: that the king does not resent it, as he thinks his subject was in the wrong.
He asked me if I had seen the king of Sweden? I had not yet had that honor. He said his behavior here was not liked: that he took little notice of his own ambassador, who, being acquainted with the usages of this court, was capable of advising him, but was not consulted. That he was always talking of himself, and vainly boasting of his revolution, though it was known to have been the work of M. de Vergennies. That they began to be tired of him here, and wished him gone; but he proposed staying till the 12th July. That he had now laid aside his project of invading Norway, as he found Denmark had made preparations to receive him. That he pretended the Danes had designed to invade Sweden, though it was a known fact that the Danes had made no military preparations, even for deface, till six months after his began. I asked if it was clear that he had had an intention to invade Norway? He said that the marching and disposition of his troops, and the fortifications he had erected, indicated it very plainly. He added, that Sweden was at present greatly distressed for provisions; that many people had actually died of hunger! That it was reported the king came here to borrow money, and to offer to sell Gottenburg to France; a thing not very probable.’
15 July 1704
‘The Duke de Chartres’s balloon went off this morning from St. Cloud, himself and three others in the gallery. It was foggy, and they were soon out of sight. But the machine being disordered, so that the trap or valve could not be opened to let out the expanding air, and fearing that the balloon would burst, they cut a hole in it which ripped larger, and they fell rapidly, but received no harm. They had been a vast height, met with a doud of snow, and a tornado which frightened them.’