Franklin was a statesman, diplomat, writer, scientist and inventor, one of the most versatile and talented men in colonial America and a leading figure in the American struggle for independence.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on 17 January 1706. He attended school only briefly, and then helped his father, who was a candle and soap maker. He was apprenticed to his brother, a printer, and began writing anonymously for his brother’s newspaper. Franklin and his brother quarrelled, and in 1723 Franklin ran away to Philadelphia. After 18 months in London, Franklin settled in Philadelphia, establishing himself as a printer. He bought the ‘Pennsylvania Gazette’, which he edited and which became one of the American colonies’ major newspapers. He also wrote and published ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack’, an astronomy journal.
By 1748, Franklin had made enough money to retire from business and concentrate on science and inventing. His inventions included the Franklin stove and the lightning rod. He demonstrated that lightning and electricity are identical with his famous kite experiment. Franklin also became more active in politics. He was clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly (1736-1751), a member of the Assembly (1750-1764), and deputy postmaster for the Colonies (1753-1774), reorganising the postal service to make it efficient and profitable.
Franklin was also involved in many public projects, including founding the American Philosophical Society, a subscription library and, in 1751, an academy which later became the University of Pennsylvania.
From 1757 to 1774, Franklin lived mainly in London where he was the colonial representative for Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. His attempts to reconcile the British government with the colonies proved fruitless. On his return to America, the war of independence had already broken out and he threw himself into the struggle. In 1776, he helped to draft, and was then a signatory to, the Declaration of Independence. His illegitimate son William, royal governor of New Jersey between 1762 and 1776, 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. Franklin negotiated the Franco-American Alliance which provided for military cooperation between the two countries against Britain and 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. He was extremely popular and well known in France, but in 1785 returned to America. He continued to be deeply involved in politics, helping to draft the Constitution.
Franklin died in Philadelphia on 17 April 1790.