Skip over navigation

Benjamin Franklin

Doing Good

A Philadelphia Printer

A Scientist and Leader

Summary

Now a successful printer, Franklin broadened his interests. The first of these interests was Deborah. After Franklin left for England in 1724 and failed to return, Deborah had married a man named John Rogers. Rogers soon abandoned her, however. When Franklin returned, he and Deborah resumed their courtship. They finally entered a common-law marriage on September 1, 1730. They could not be married in the church because Deborah was technically still married to John Rogers, whose whereabouts were unknown. Rogers never turned up again, and Deborah remained Franklin's wife until her death in 1774. The couple raised Franklin's illegitimate son, William (who had been born sometime during 1728 or 1729) and soon had two children of their own.

Franklin was busy. In 1731 he joined the Freemasons and was soon elected their leader. In the same year he wrote the founding agreement for the Library Company of Philadelphia, which became America's first public library. He served as president, librarian, and then secretary of the library, making sure it grew and succeeded. In 1734 he organized the Union Fire Company, America's first fire department. He also urged the city of Philadelphia to hire night watchmen and developed a method of printing money that made it more difficult to counterfeit. In 1736 he was elected clerk of the Pennsylvania assembly; in 1737 he was appointed Postmaster General of Philadelphia.

Franklin's work as a writer also picked up steam. In 1731 he published Poor Richard's Almanack, writing most of it himself. It soon became the most popular almanac in America, selling over 10,000 copies annually. All across the colonies, people read and repeated the famous sayings of Poor Richard, the almanac's simple-minded, homespun fictional narrator. While Poor Richard succeeded spectacularly, Franklin's repeated attempts to establish a German language newspaper failed, as did his plans for a magazine.

While trying better society, Franklin also tried to better himself. As he would later describe in his Autobiography, he listed thirteen useful "virtues" such as Temperance and Charity and spent a week concentrating on each. He recognized that he would never be perfect, but concluded, "I was by the Endeavour made a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been." He recommended the technique to others, earning the dubious distinction of being America's first self-help guru.

Commentary

By the 1730s, Franklin was an important social figure and a prosperous businessman. He was, by every measure of his era, a success. He had worked single-mindedly on achieving this success for most of his youth, and must have been very satisfied to achieve it. He could have sat back and enjoyed his success, but instead he threw himself into just about every imaginable scheme to improve the world. Why?

Franklin wanted to be a respected and influential member of society. He seems never to have sought money for its own sake. Rather, money was a means of achieving things that would benefit society and bring honor to him. His interests were very broad. In the fall of 1727 Franklin founded a discussion and self-improvement group known as the "Junto," a loose collection of thinkers and leaders that discussed everything from morals to science to agriculture. They shared a belief that individuals working as a group could improve the world for everyone. They formed a core group of reformers, with Franklin in the lead. The library, the fire company, and the night watch all represented a fulfillment of their ideals.

Though Franklin was sometimes idealistic, he never lost his connection to the "common man." He had grown up in a relatively poor family and understood the attitudes and values of most working people. He always argued for his progressive ideas in commonsensical, down-to-earth language. More importantly, Franklin was funny. His popular Poor Richard almanacs were full of jokes and sarcasm that even the lowest members of society could relate to and understand. Franklin was irreverent and intellectual at the same time. He could be sarcastic or serious, crass or refined, in whatever combination he thought was appropriate for achieving his ends. Franklin could appeal to everyone because he knew how to control his image. Modern scholars, who must rely mainly Franklin's own writings to understand him, often think of him as a chameleon who changed his skin to fit the surroundings. As a result, many historians have tried to unmask the "real" Franklin. Some have argued that Franklin's good works were really just ploys to increase his power and influence, and that his success in business was the result of ruthlessness and even dishonesty. Ultimately, we must individually decide for ourselves whether Franklin deserves as much praise as his contemporaries gave him. It is clear, though, that he worked very hard to accomplish things that would benefit both himself and his society.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us