The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
There’s one other aspect to Franklin’s life that’s worth mentioning in the context of the self-made man: he was a lifelong city resident. In addition to Boston and Philadelphia, he also spent a substantial amount of time in London and Paris, making him among the most urban and urbane citizens of a nation that not only had few cities of any substantial size, but which to a significant degree derived its identity as anti-urban (as Thomas Jefferson fondly hoped it would long remain). Before Franklin, the self-made man was a decisively pastoral construct. After him, all roads to self-making, even those traced through the woods of Walden, ran through urban thoroughfares and infrastructure.
It was Philadelphia, of course, that was the itinerant Franklin’s adoptive hometown – perhaps all true city boys hail from elsewhere – but he was born in a city, too. The Boston of his childhood was the largest city in the colonies at the time of his arrival in 1706. With approximately 7000 residents, it was hardly cosmopolitan by European standards, but even as an adolescent he was able to participate in the civic culture made possible by its sense of relative scale. Apprenticed to his brother James, who published the first independent newspaper in America, Franklin entered public life through a back door. Knowing James would not allow him to appear in print any other way, the sixteen year-old wrote a series of letters masquerading as a middle-aged widow by the name of Silence Dogood. (The moniker was a play on two works by the great Puritan minister Cotton Mather, whose promotion of smallpox prevention by the experimental method of inoculation was ridiculed by the Franklins.) A delighted James published fourteen of the letters before discovering they were written by his kid brother, one more source of friction in what was already a tense relationship. Franklin broke his apprenticeship by leaving town, gaining passage on a ship bound for Philadelphia by claiming he was fleeing pressure to marry a girl he had impregnated.
The Philadelphia in which Franklin arrived in 1723 was only four decades old but already on the way to becoming the second largest metropolis in the English-speaking world. Far more than Boston, Philadelphia was a site of critical mass for his protean talents, a place where (after a two-year detour to London) he turned thought into action. The list of his innovations is truly stunning: Franklin played a crucial role in establishing a lending library, fire department, hospital, university and other institutions in Philadelphia, many the first of their kind in North America. He was an important figure in organizing military defense in the colony of Pennsylvania, served as the first postmaster general of the colonies, and made a series of technological innovations that included a wood stove, bifocals, and the musical instrument known as the armonica. He also proved that lightning is electricity through an ingenious experiment that involved flying a kite. Decades before virtually anyone else took the idea seriously, Franklin argued for inter-colonial cooperation in America, correctly calculating that the population of the colonies would overtake that of Great Britain within a century.
All the while Franklin was doing good, he was also doing well. His various civic activities as well as the social club he founded (the so-called Junto) provided contacts that led to lucrative contracts. One major source of revenue in the printing business was government work; the fact that Franklin was a tireless advocate of paper currency was not totally unrelated to the fact there was money to be made in printing it. By the latter part of his business career he was franchising his operations, setting up printers in multiple locations and reaping the rewards of such investments.
In the two decades prior to the American Revolution, Franklin’s primary vocation was politics. Elected to the Pennsylvania assembly in 1751, he took the lead in challenging the Penn family’s conduct in managing the colony’s affairs (amid the complex countercurrents in imperial politics, he was among those pushing for more royal control of Pennsylvania, which supporters believed would be less onerous than its status as a proprietary colony of the Penns). He continued these efforts in his five-year stint as a colonial agent in London between 1757 and 1762, returning there late in the decade to resume his post as a lobbyist. One conspicuous absence in his life among his travels was his wife, Deborah – he met her the day he first arrived in Philadelphia – who preferred to stay home, and who died while Franklin was abroad. Their relationship nevertheless seems to have been companionate one (they had two children, one of whom survived to adulthood), as was Franklin’s relationship with the illegitimate William, whose career he promoted until their falling out in the mid-1770s.
For most of his life, Franklin was a patriotic Briton, whose sense of national pride was reinforced by the many friends he had in England and his strong identification with the country amid its multiple global conflicts with France. But as frictions intensified in the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1754-63), Franklin was increasingly aware of the degree to which Americans like himself were regarded as second-class citizens in the empire. Yet even when he disagreed with imperial policy, as he did with the imposition of the taxes collectively known as the Stamp Act in 1765, Franklin nevertheless supported the government and even recommended a friend take a job as a revenue collector. (Big mistake: the Stamp Act provoked widespread riots and endangered the life of anyone who tried to enforce it.) His alienation, which intensified in the early 1770s, reached a turning point when Franklin was given a series of letters by Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, who was secretly urging the British government to take a harder line with the colonists. Franklin turned the letters over to a New England newspaper, which published them. Amid the uproar that followed, Franklin admitted he was the source of the letter and subjected to a withering cross-examination in Parliament in early 1774. From that point on, the septuagenarian Franklin reinvented himself once again as an insurrectionist.
Franklin’s roles in the ensuing decade and a half – midwifing the Declaration of Independence; brokering a treaty with France; presiding over the Constitutional Convention, all performed with the avuncular panache that has made him a durable national icon – are well known. (Indeed, they obscure a career that would have been considered impressive had they never happened.) Though by this point Franklin hardly needed the publicity, it’s clear that the Revolution was the capstone of a career in which he repeatedly demonstrated the dazzling possibilities for upward mobility in America.