Benjamin Franklin: The Fabulous Philadelphian

By David Tarity



The present city of Philadelphia has numerous reasons to celebrate one of its favorite sons. Benjamin Franklin, the inspirational colonial guru, played an instrumental role in delivering Philadelphia from a small town to the most thriving and developing city of his time. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how Franklin rose from the shadows of obscurity to become colonial Philadelphia's most prominent figure and illustrate how the city still honors him almost two hundred and thirty years after his death.

Born on January 17, 1706, in the Puritan city of Boston, young Benjamin learned early in life how to succeed. He was born into poverty as one of seventeen children.(1) Franklin states, "it was indeed a lowly dwelling we were brought up in."(2)  His father, Josiah Franklin, had seven children by his first wife Ann Child before she died in childbirth; and ten by his second wife, Abiah Folger, Benjamin's mother.(3) Unlike most of his siblings, Benjamin was enrolled in public school. Franklin states, "my elder brothers were all put to apprentices to different trades. I was put to grammar school at eight years of age, my father intending to devote me as the tithe of his sons to the service of the church."(4) He excelled quickly in the course of a year, being accelerated to match his level of comprehension however, the financial burden caused his father to remove him from the classroom at the age of ten to assist in the family candle-making business.(5)

Although he was deprived of formal schooling and thrust into the real world at an early age, Benjamin Franklin never lost his fascination with education. He dedicated his free time to expanding his mind and vocabulary by reading books. Franklin later wrote, "From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books."(6) In 1718, Josiah had Benjamin sign his indentures to work for his brother James until he was twenty-one years old. Despite the intolerable situation of being a servant to his older brother, Benjamin acquired valuable skills as a printer, which would later bring him fame in Philadelphia. Franklin desperately sought to escape Boston and the overbearing nature of his older brother, James. That escape materialized as he traveled to New York and then to his final destination of Philadelphia in October 1723.(7)

Around the arrival time of Franklin, the area known as Philadelphia was experiencing a transition form a village to a town. Philadelphia, then still a British colony, suffered an economic collapse in the early 1720's due to the bursting of the South Sea Bubble.(8) Most of the population lived in houses on Walnut Street between Second and Front Streets.(9) Franklin stated, "Bills on their Doors, to be let; and many likewise in Chestnut Street, and other Streets; which made me think the Inhabitants of the City were one after another deserting it."(10) During the transition years of the early 1700's, Philadelphia was primarily driven by a shipping, mercantile, and farming economy with wheat, flower, and bread as the leading exports.(11) Young Benjamin Franklin was also one of many people migrating to Philadelphia either from other colonies or Europe. One author states, "Incessant wars, taxes, religious persecution, rack rents, crop failure, and famine brought thousands of people from central Europe…"(12)  Thus, Franklin settled in place destined for dynamic shifts in both geography and ethic populations.

Once fed and rested after the journey, Franklin's immediate concern was to find employment and a place to lodge. On the second day in town, he acquired a position as a printing assistant and found shelter with the Reed family. Ironically, Benjamin would later marry Deborah Reed, the daughter of the gentleman extending his home. Franklin recalled, "In Philadelphia, I began now to have some acquaintances among the young people of the town, that were lovers of reading with whom I spent my evenings very pleasantly and gaining money by my industry and frugality…".(13)   He managed to find his niche in a town of roughly 10,000 citizens without knowing a single person upon arrival.

In a strange turn of events, a letter to his uncle stumbled into the hands of the governor of Pennsylvania. Governor Keith, astonished by the style and grammar of the letter, suggested that Franklin open his own printing business, which would reap the lucrative benefits of printing official governmental documents. Franklin, unaided by his skeptical father, set sail for England in hopes of making the proper business contacts and purchasing equipment. Unable to achieve his goals and yearning for the colonies, Franklin returned home to Philadelphia to find an alarming surprise.(14)

Deborah Reed, the woman Benjamin pledged to marry, wedded a man named John Rodgers for fear that Franklin would never return from England. Benjamin, still very much in love with Deborah, had to overcome some obstacles before fulfilling his promise. It was suspected that Rodgers had a wife in England as he left Deborah in America. According to the law, if Rodgers returned after Franklin and Reed had been married, the new couple would be guilty of bigamy and imprisoned for life.(15) Regarding this situation, Franklin states, "we ventured however, over all these difficulties, and I took her to wife September 1, 1730."(16) Around this time, he also fathered an illegitimate son, named William. The mother of the child is still unknown but Benjamin and Deborah later had two children of their own, Francis and Sarah.(17) Rodgers never returned and the Franklin family lived a happy marriage.

In 1726, Franklin and a coworker from the first printing shop he worked at in Philadelphia decided to venture into a partnership by establishing their own business. The partner, Hugh Meredith, used his father's capital to cover the expected finances of their business endeavor. Benjamin was determined to make the printing business his means of financial security. One wealthy Philadelphian commented of Franklin, "The industry of that Franklin is superior to anything I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from the club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed."(18)

Around the same time, Franklin founded a club named the Junto to satisfy his unyielding desire for knowledge. The Junto was an informal gathering of close friends who met Friday evenings to discuss a variety of topics ranging from politics to religion. Franklin suggests it "was the best school of philosophy, morality, and politics that then existed in the province…"(19) This club, coupled with his continuous reading, allowed Benjamin to think, speak, and write exceptionally well. He professes, "reading was the only amusement I allowed myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolicks of any kind and my industry in my business continued as indefatigable as it was necessary."(20)

With the success of his printing business, Franklin like many entrepreneurs sought to expand his expertise. In 1729, he founded a newspaper named The Pennsylvania Gazette.(21) Franklin's almanac, under the name of Richard Saunders, was first published in 1732. He would continue this publication for about 25 years, commonly called Poor Richards Almanac.(22) The citizens of Philadelphia read his almanac almost religiously, as it contained weather reports, food recipes, quotes, and predictions in each edition.

Franklin's wealth, coupled with his reputation, skyrocketed at an early age. As a measure of his success, Franklin retired from his printing business in 1748. Once in the limelight of Philadelphia, he turned his focus upon developing the city via politics and science.(23) When Franklin first arrived in Philadelphia in 1723, the Quakers dominated the political ruling class. This trend continued until the middle of the 18th century when, because of immigration, the Quakers became the minority.(24)  Exhibiting his sense of duty, "he was a politician and diplomat, and none more skilled; but not from choice; for the most part he accepted as a duty the offices that were thrust upon him."(25) He deployed his civic duty serving as post-master, founding the Union Fire Company, organizing a militia, and raising funds for paved streets to name a few.(26) In 1743, he had already invented a heat-efficient stove, called the Franklin stove, to help warm houses efficiently. Franklin refused to take out a patent on his invention and decided to donate it as an invention to aid society. Franklin's other inventions include swim fins, a musical instrument known as the glass armonica, and bifocal glasses.(27)

The society of Philadelphia had also dramatically changed as Franklin entered into retirement. In 1751, the colony of Pennsylvania celebrated its' fiftieth anniversary under the Constitution of Pennsylvania.(28)  The new State House, which housed the Liberty Bell, followed by other "high-rise" buildings such as the Christ Church steeple gave Philadelphia its first skyline. Other "high-rise" buildings would follow such as the Christ Church steeple giving Philadelphia the image characteristic of a city.(29) Most of Philadelphia's streets were laid with brick or flagstone sidewalks and some had cobblestone in front of businesses.(30) The shipping industry also flourished during this time period. The number of seagoing vessels clearing the Port o f Philadelphia increased form 85 in 1723 to about 403 in 1749. These ships carried cargo that would fill many of the city's businesses. The waterfront along the Delaware River boasted blacksmith shops, foundries, tanneries, distilleries, breweries, and fulling mills. A sudden increase in the number of taverns and the ensuing crimes that typically follow also characterized Philadelphia during this time.(31)

As a scientist, Franklin won international fame for his accomplishments in electricity. In 1752, Ben, accompanied by his son William, performed his renowned kite experiment. Franklin received honorary degrees for his personal achievements from Harvard, Yale, and William & Mary.(32) He did not limit himself to just the study of electricity. Thomas Flemming in his book regarding Franklin states, "Electricity was by no means the only science that absorbed Franklin's mind. He was also intensely interested in meteorology."(33)

In 1757, Franklin traveled to England representing Pennsylvania in its fight with the descendants of the Penn family regarding colonial authority. He remained in England, separated from his wife and family until 1775. During his stay, he served as a colonial representative of Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.(34)  

As a result of his fame and service to the public, Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress and worked on a committee of five that helped to draft the Declaration of Independence. Although Thomas Jefferson is credited for writing the Declaration of Independence, Franklin's thoughts and wisdom contributed to the final draft. After signing the Declaration in 1776, Franklin then sailed to France as an ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI.(35) Franklin's relationship with the government of France cultivate an agreement, known as the Treaty of Alliance, between France and the United States of America in 1778. He also served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and later signed the frame of government know as the United States Constitution.(36)

Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84. An estimated 20,000-mourning people attended his funeral to pay their respects to this legendary American icon. As one author states,

Reared in Boston, a citizen of Philadelphia, residing for sixteen years in London and nine in Paris, he was equally at home in three countries, knew Europe better than any other American, America better than any European, England better than any Frenchmen, France better than any Englishmen, and was acquainted personally or through correspondence with more men of eminence in letters, science, and politics than any other man of his time.(37)

Franklin led a remarkable life, accomplished numerous feats, and served as one of this country's founding fathers. His legacy continues to live on not only in Philadelphia, but also throughout the world.

 

Site # 1: The Benjamin Franklin Bridge

Benjamin Franklin certainly left an impression upon the city of Philadelphia. Numerous landmarks and attractions bear his name as a tribute. Schools, libraries, and offices, which he founded continue to operate today. Other sites bear his name such as The Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

This bridge connects Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey. The construction was a joint venture between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey beginning in 1919, and finally completed in 1926. Paul Philippe Cret designed the vibrant blue bridge. Until 1956, the bridge was commonly known as the Delaware River Bridge. An interesting characteristic of this bridge is the computer driven lighting system that dazzles at night. In the words of Mark Biddle, while traffic passes over, "The cables resemble piano keys, and as strong beams of light briefly alight on each cable in a cascading crescendo, the bridge dances rhapsodic."(38)

At the base of the bridge in Olde City, two historic churches currently remain, St. Augustine and St.George's. From this area, the bridge stretches out 9,650 feet across the Delaware River. This heavily traveled connection is also 128 feet wide with a roadway of 57 feet. The clearance, which passing ships must take notice, is 135 feet from the water. On January 17, 1956, the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Franklin's birth, the commissioners of the Delaware Port Authority, in order to honor the city's hero, named it the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.(39)

 

Site # 2: Benjamin Franklin Parkway


Another Philadelphia transportation structure dedicated to Benjamin Franklin resides on the Schuylkill River side of Philadelphia and was completed in 1918. While neither the Parkway nor the plethora of attractions surrounding were present during Franklin's lifetime, both pay tribute to him through their beauty and splendor to all motorist and pedestrians. Of course, the site is the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Paul Cret and Jacques Greber designed the parkway extending from City Hall, through Logan Circle, to Fairmount Park. The site is owned by the Fairmount Park Commission City of Philadelphia and was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1985. The Parkway was visible by 1919, yet few of the current buildings and sculptures that line the street were present. Some of the notable sites along Philadelphia's premier roadway include: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, Saint Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, and various sculptures. The Parkway is not only used for automobiles; parades and bicycle races are common occurrences along the paved surface. One author suggests that the Parkway, "Was an architect's and a planner's dream, something breathtakingly bold for the staid old city. Then it became a cultural mecca, a center for museums and educational institutions."(40)

Moreover, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway remains an inspiring and majestic place to visit within the city limits.

 

Site # 3: University of Pennsylvania

One site in which Franklin exerted a direct influence on was the creation of the present day University of Pennsylvania. Acknowledging the benefits of other academic institutions such as Harvard and William & Mary, Franklin envisioned a similar place in his own city. He published an anonymous pamphlet to arouse interest and raise money for the founding. He also gathered friends and associates to aid him in the quest for establishing a college. Franklin's associates "included ten patriots who would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence and seven signers of the Constitution."(41) Franklin's dream became a reality as the Academy of Philadelphia opened its doors in 1751 on Fourth Street near Arch. The Academy boasted the country's first medical school in 1765 and would later become known as the University of Pennsylvania. (42)

The university relocated to Ninth and Chestnut Streets in 1829 before settling at the present day location in west Philadelphia starting in 1892. Today, the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, houses the nations premier business school, the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce. Benjamin Franklin is well represented on this campus. Three fabulous sculptures of Franklin reside within the campus boundaries. John Boyle in 1899, R. Tait McKenzie in 1904, and George Luneen in 1987 all donated different pieces of art honoring the man who adored education and founded the university.(43)

 

Site # 4: Pennsylvania Hospital

An innovative entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin, also founded the oldest medical institution, the Pennsylvania Hospital. Franklin, like many other ventures he participated in, raised money to help found the hospital in 1751. Samuel Rhodes was the primary architect of the hospital. The hospital has remained at it's original location at Eighth and Ninth Streets on the north side of Pine Street.(44) Franklin served on the hospital's original Board of Managers as its first secretary and second president.(45)

The basement was used for housing the insane members of society and it should be noted that Pennsylvania Hospital was one of the first institutions to adopt a philosophy of the humane treatment of the mentally ill. The hospital cofounder, Dr. Thomas Bond, became the first physician to successfully perform a lithotomy in the British colonies in November of 1756.(46)

In contemporary times, nursing uniforms and other memorabilia from the early days of operation are displayed within the confines of the building. The grounds also contain the body of Mary Girard. Mary, the wife of the wealthy Stephen Girard, was committed to the hospital as mentally disturbed in 1790.(47) The hospital continues in operation at the present time, an achievement that would make the founder proud.

Site # 5: Franklin Institute

Since it's founding in 1825, parents and children have enjoyed the exotic and unique exhibits of the Franklin Institute. The science museum was first located where the present Atwater Kent Museum stands today. Regarding the museum, an author states, "In 1825 the institute offered prizes for the best specimens in eighty-two branches of manufactures."(48) Established by Samuel Vaughan Merrick and William H. Keating in honor of Benjamin Franklin, the museum moved to the present day building on north Twentieth Street shortly after the cornerstone was laid in 1932. Both the Fels Planetarium and the Science Museum opened after the completion of the building.(49)

Qualities such as hands-on exhibits, sound-activated demonstrations, and light shows all contribute to the awe and wonder sparked within visitors. Tourist can find a variety of activities to satisfy their curiosity in astronomy, physics, biology, oceanography, and aviation. The philosophy of the Franklin Institute is one, which would undoubtedly please Benjamin himself. An inscription by Thomas Huxley on the basin of the museum reads, "Sit down before a fact as a child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever nature leads, or you will learn nothing."(50) Visitors to the institute often leave with the desire to return in hopes of learning more and pondering over those things, which remain undiscovered.

Site # 6: Franklin Court

Franklin Court is located on Market Street between Third and Fourth Streets in Philadelphia. The original house in which Benjamin Franklin had constructed was torn down in 1812. A steel white frame outlines the spot where Franklin once lived. An underground museum with interactive exhibits and demonstrations captivate all those who visit the famous site.(51)
The original house was made of brick, 34 square feet, three stories high, and constructed from 1763-1765. Each floor contained three rooms with the kitchen in the cellar and fireplaces on both sides of the house. Upon returning home after a long diplomatic mission in France, Franklin built an addition to the house on the west side of the house for more living space. While away in Europe, his wife had died and his children and grandchildren occupied the family dwelling. Visiting the site today, the original foundation can be viewed from the surface level as a concrete reminder of the place that was home to one of America's most celebrated heroes.(52)

Endnotes

1. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin FranklinB, ed. Leonard Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 51.
2. Ford, Paul, The Many-Sided Franklin, (Freeport: Books For Libraries Press, 1972), 2.

3 Autobiography, 51.

4 Autobiography, 52.

5 Autobiography, 53.

6 Autobiography, 57.

7Autobiography, 75.

8 Edwin B. Bronner, "Village into Town, 1701-1742," in Russell F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982), 36.

9 Village into Town, 36-37.

10 Quoted in Village into Town, 37.

11 Village into Town, 37.

12 Ibid.

13 Autobiography, 79.

14 Alexander Mittendorf, "Benjamin Franklin: An Enlightened American," n.d. http://library .advanced.org/22254/biophillate.htm(8 August 1999).

15Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 129.

16 Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 129.

17 Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 304-5.

18 Quoted in Mittendorf, http://library .advanced.org/22254/biophillate.htm(8 August 1999).

19 Quoted in Ford, 99.

20 Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 143.

21 Mittendorf, http://library .advanced.org/22254/biophillate.htm(8 August 1999).

22 Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 63.

23 Mittendorf, http://library .advanced.org/22254/biophillate.htm(8 August 1999).

24 Robert Middlekauff, Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 24.

25 Carl Becker, "Franklin's Character," in Brian Barbour, ed., Benjamin Franklin (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1979), 11.

26 Mittendorf, http://library .advanced.org/22254/biophillate.htm(8 August 1999).

27 Mark Biddle, "The Electric Franklin," n.d., http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/ (4 July 1994).

28 Theodore Thayer, "Town into City: 1746-1765," in Russell F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982), 68.

29 Town into City, 68.

30 Town into City, 69.

31 Town into City, 75-76.

32 Biddle, http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/ (4 July 1994).

33 Thomas Flemming, Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words (New York: Newsweek, 1972), 95.

34 Biddle, http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/ (4 July 1994).

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Becker, 11.

38 Biddle, http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/ (4 July 1994).

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41Ibid.

42Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Town into City, 82.

45 Biddle, http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/ (4 July 1994).

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Nicholas B. Wainwright, "The Age of Nicholas Biddle," in Russell F. Weigly, ed., Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982), 275.

49 Biddle, http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/ (4 July 1994).

50 Quoted in Biddle, http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/ (4 July 1994).

51 Frank Eidmann, "Independence National Historical Park," n.d. http://www.nps.gov/inde/franklin-court.html(18 November 1999)

52 Ibid.



Bibliography

Barbour, Brian M. Benjamin Franklin. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1979.

Biddle, Mark. "The Electric Franklin," n.d. http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/

(4 July 1994).

Ford, Paul Leicester. The Many-Sided Franklin. Freeport: Books For Libraries Press,

1972.

Eidmann, Frank. "Independence National Historical Park," n.d.

http://www.nps.gov/inde/franklin-court.html (18 November 1999).

Flemming, Thomas. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words. New York:

Newsweek, 1972.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Leonard W.

Labaree, Ralf L. Ketcham, Helene C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman. New

Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1996.

Mittendorf, Alexander. "Benjamin Franklin: An Enlightened American," n.d.

http://library.advanced.org/22254/bioboston.htm (8 August 1999).

Phillips, Russell. Benjamin Franklin: The First Civilized American. New York:

Brentano's Inc., 1926.

Weigley, Russell F., ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton &

Co., 1982.

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