Like other leaders of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lived in a time of tumultuous changes. Born into a traditional Puritan society, he grew up with the morals and ideas of America's first European settlers. In the early eighteenth century, America was still a collection of scarcely populated colonies, its people spread out over a vast area with only a few ramshackle cities. The colonies had distinctly different identities: Massachusetts was orderly and Puritan, Pennsylvania was Quaker, New York was largely Dutch, Virginia was aristocratic. The colonies had little in common aside from their ties to Britain. In 1706, the year of Franklin's birth, few would have predicted that by 1790, the year of Franklin's death, the American colonies would be independent from Britain and united as a single, massive country.
Though America's eventual independence was not inevitable, in retrospect it is not surprising. America was growing rapidly, and with more people, agriculture and trade burgeoned. By 1706, the colonies were already an integral part of the British economy; by the 1750s they were Britain's most important possession by far. Yet Britain never seemed capable of keeping the colonists happy. Americans constantly complained of delays and inefficiencies resulting from a government located an ocean away. They resented British restrictions on trade and felt that the British government did not do enough to keep the frontier safe. Most of all, Americans hated paying taxes–and especially hated paying taxes they had no hand in creating.
In political and economic terms, America was outgrowing its status as a colony. Its intellectual climate was changing dramatically as well, as new ideas of equality, liberty, and the perfectibility of human nature circulated among intellectuals and the common people alike. Old beliefs seemed less certain and new dreams seemed suddenly possible. Most of all, the vibrant growth of the colonies made it seem as though anyone–with enough work and dedication–could prosper.
Franklin lived this dream. Born into a large, poor family, and mostly self- educated, he went on to be a master politician, inventor, scientist, military leader, and diplomat–to name just a few of his arenas. In all of these roles Franklin had accomplishments that literally changed the world. Well before his death, he was one of the most famous men in the world–famous for embodying the very essence of Americanness. His wit, humble appearance, liberal ideals, and plainspoken style made distinguished him from other, more aristocratic leaders of his age. His particular mixture of idealism and pragmatism, ambition and morality, optimism and energy make him seem, in retrospect, like the quintessential American. Franklin was perhaps the original self- made man.
This image of Franklin as the first American is part of what makes him so fascinating. The image is especially fascinating because Franklin influenced so many aspects of American life in his long career, and because Franklin himself created this image. Not only was he a leader in public and intellectual life, he was the first and best public relations man, spin doctor, and self-help guru. He worked nonstop to create his image, never letting anyone see the "real" Franklin. Historians have since tried and generally failed to pin him down. Every modern American public figure, from the President to Hollywood movie stars, creates and manages a public image. Franklin was the first and best at this game. His Autobiography is still considered by many to be the best book to read for advice on how to win friends and influence people.
Franklin's carefully constructed image, along with his incredibly energetic mind and broad interests, makes it difficult for us to feel we really know him. He keeps a certain distance from us, just as he kept from his contemporaries. No biography of him is ever complete–he will keep historians busy for centuries to come. Franklin once wrote, in the voice of his humble character Poor Richard: "If you would not be forgotten / As soon as you are dead and rotten / Either write things worth reading / Or do things worth the writing." Franklin did both, with an energy and a passion that few have matched and perhaps none have surpassed.