by Gerald Boerner


JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 As we approach the celebration of the 4th of July American Independence Day festivities, we believe that this is a good time to reflect on how and why we became a new nation over two hundred years ago. To a great extent, it had to do with the abuses of the British colonial system AND the presence at that point in time of great men of vision — the Founding Fathers.

Last year we posted an extensive series on the American Revolution. We will draw upon some of those posts again this year, but with more emphasis on the specific roles selected Founding Fathers played in the quest for independence. Today we will examine the contributions of that American “Renaissance Man” who was a scientist, scholar, printer, diplomat, and general “grandfather” type, Benjamin Franklin.

We hope that you will follow us through this exploration and come out with a renewed respect for our great struggle in those years in the 18th century. GLB

[ This is Part 7 of 10. ]

[ 3675 Words ]


“The Founding Fathers would be sorry to see that America had become so divided and factionalized.”
— Michael Beschloss

“The founding fathers were not only brilliant, they were system builders and systematic thinkers. They came up with comprehensive plans and visions.”
— Ron Chernow

“The myth that the founding of American Republic was based on the philosophy of John Locke could only have been maintained, because the history of Leibniz’s influence was suppressed.”
— Robert Trout

“The Pledge of Allegiance reflects the truth that faith in God has played a significant role in America since the days of the founding of our country.”
— Randy Neugebauer

“The vision that the founding fathers had of rule of law and equality before the law and no one above the law, that is a very viable vision, but instead of that, we have quasi mob rule.”
— James Bovard


America’s Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin, the American “Renaissance Man”

I want to start looking at some of the Founding Fathers of the American Revolutionary War. We will continue with that great orator of the colonies — Benjamin Franklin. When the new country needed a representative to the French Court at Versailles, it fell to the scientist, author, inventor, printer, and general lovable grandfather, Benjamin Franklin. He was an effective diplomat and was the only American to sign all four freedom documents — Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Paris, Treaty of Alliance with France, and the United States Constitution. GLB

(The following Benjamin Franklin: Thinking About the American Revolution to this blog on Friday, July 3, 2009)

Benjamin Franklin:
Thinking About the American Revolution

Copyright©2009 Gerald L. Boerner
All Rights Reserved

“I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.”
— Benjamin Franklin in a Letter to his parents (c. 1728) as quoted in: An American Life (2003) by Walter Isaacson

image28 Benjamin Franklin, one of our greatest and most beloved founding fathers, was a true renaissance man. He was a printer who used the power of the press to speak not only to the intellectual community of the time, but he published articles that spoke to the common man. He was a scientist and inventor of great note, having contributed to the knowledge of electricity, optics (bifocal glasses), and ocean currents (especially the gulf stream). He was a public servant who served as postmaster general, librarian, member of several legislative groups, and a governor of Pennsylvania. He was an educator who held a variety of honorary degrees from famous universities in both this country and Europe; he also helped found several colleges in the colonies. And, above all, he was a diplomat who represented the American colonies and a fledgling American nation in the courts of England and France. In his eighty-four years, he accomplished feats worthy of several lifetimes.

“Much less it is advisable for a Person to go thither [to America], who has no other Quality to recommend him but his Birth. In Europe it has indeed its Value; but it is a Commodity that cannot be carried to a worse Market than that of America, where people do not inquire concerning a Stranger, What is he? But, What can he do?”
— Benjamin Franklin, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America

This self-educated, energetic man practiced his Puritan beliefs to the benefit of all men. He spoke to the inequalities of the times in his series of “Silence Dogood” letters published in the New England Current. He provided folk wisdom to the common man through his “Poor Richard’s Almanack” that was published by The Philadelphia Gazette. Above all, he represented a level of understanding and support for these American colonies during a time of great threats and potential successes. He encouraged public and social service to his fellow colonists.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
— Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

Let’s take a closer look at this man of great faith in his fellow man and in the cause of freedom…

Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)

“I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.”
— Benjamin Franklin in a letter to his parents, c1728, as quoted in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003) by Walter Isaacson

Declaration of IndependenceHe viewed himself as a printer from his first apprenticeship in Boston to his death in Philadelphia. But the effects of his writings and his publication of news for the masses probably did as much for the people of the colonies as any other of his many accomplishments as a diplomat and a scientist. He was self-educated (finishing only a few years of school), but he established the first public library in Pennsylvania. He facilitated the spread of information and communication infrastructure by founding the colonial postal service; this reliable service enabled the news and information about the events within colonial American to spread throughout the thirteen colonies. And, believe it or not, it occurred in a time that didn’t know how to ‘tweet’! In fact, the success of the colonists’ uprising and the coordination of the activities of the hated British troops and the British Parliament would have been nearly impossible without the postal service.

“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
— Benjamin Franklin

While Franklin was a common man, coming from a Puritan family with a father who was a candle maker, he arose to assume the role of chief diplomat to the courts of St. James (England) and King Louie XVI (France). No doubt, his accomplishments as an inventor and a scientist gave him special standing in these positions, he accomplished much due to his understanding of the common man and the need to become independent of the tyranny of the British Parliament. His battlefield was diplomatic service in Europe, not on the fields of New York or Virginia. His weapons were a quick, discerning mind, not a saber or gun. Early in the colonists’ struggle with the British, he was able to eloquently argue with the Parliament to get the hated “Stamp Act” repealed. During our country’s time of need, he was able to obtain a treaty with France to provide military and naval assistance. Finally, he was able to negotiate the “Treaty of Paris” to end the American Revolution. Any one of these tasks would be a lifetime achievement for most other diplomats!

“To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions.”
— Benjamin Franklin

“Trickery and treachery are the practices of fools that have not the wits enough to be honest.”
— Benjamin Franklin

Finally, he was one of the great practical thinkers of colonial America. He was a delegate to the 2nd Continental Congress in 1776, where he was one of the five delegates charged with creating the Declaration of Independence. He is remembered with his words to the signers of this Declaration with the words: “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” Upon returning to America after his duties in France, he occupied a position second only to George Washington due to his diplomatic successes. In 1787, he was a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention where the new Constitution for this new country was drafted. We are grateful for his service to his country.

Amongst the founding fathers, Franklin was the only one who signed the four documents to create this great country of ours. These included the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Treaty of Alliance with France, and the United States Constitution. This amazing man was a public servant, not a politician. He was not interested in acquiring or asserting power. For this we are indeed grateful.

“Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.”
— Benjamin Franklin

Will there ever be a man of the stature of Benjamin Franklin? Probably not. He was a man of his times and when much was asked, much was given. He devoted his life to this new country and for that we can only say: Thank You!


Adding Perspective on Benjamin Franklin

image28 Benjamin Franklin was foundational in defining the American ethos as a marriage of the practical and democratic values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment. In the words of historian Henry Steele Commager, "In Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat." To Walter Isaacson, this makes Franklin, "the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become."

Franklin, always proud of his working class roots, became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies. He became wealthy publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack and The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin was interested in science and technology, and gained international renown for his famous experiments in electricity. He played a major role in establishing the University of Pennsylvania and was elected the first president of the American Philosophical Society. Franklin became a national hero in America when he spearheaded the effort to have Parliament repeal the unpopular Stamp Act. An accomplished diplomat, he was widely admired among the French as American minister to Paris and was a major figure in the development of positive Franco-American relations. From 1775 to 1776, Franklin was the Postmaster General under the Continental Congress and from 1785 to 1788, the governor of Pennsylvania (officially, President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania). Toward the end of his life, he became one of the most prominent abolitionists.

His colorful life and legacy of scientific and political achievement, and status as one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers, have seen Franklin honored on coinage and money; warships; the names of many towns, counties, educational institutions, namesakes, and companies; and more than two centuries after his death, countless cultural references.

Virtue, religion, and personal beliefs

Houdon_-_Benjamin_Franklin_(1778) A bust of Franklin by
Jean-Antoine Houdon

Like the other advocates of republicanism, Franklin emphasized that the new republic could survive only if the people were virtuous. All his life he explored the role of civic and personal virtue, as expressed in Poor Richard’s aphorisms. Franklin felt that organized religion was necessary to keep men good to their fellow men, but rarely attended religious services himself. When Franklin met Voltaire in Paris and asked this great apostle of the Enlightenment to bless his grandson, Voltaire said in English, “God and Liberty,” and added, “this is the only appropriate benediction for the grandson of Monsieur Franklin.”

Franklin’s parents were both pious Puritans. The family attended the old South Church, the most liberal Puritan congregation in Boston, where Benjamin Franklin was baptized in 1706.

Franklin rejected much of his Puritan ideas regarding belief in salvation, hell, Jesus Christ’s divinity, and indeed most religious dogma. He retained a strong faith in a God as the wellspring of morality and goodness in man, and as a Providential actor in history responsible for American independence. Ben Franklin’s father, a poor chandler, owned a copy of a book, "Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good," by the Puritan preacher and family friend Cotton Mather, which Franklin often cited as a key influence on his life. Franklin’s first pen name, Silence Dogood, paid homage both to the book and to a famous sermon by Mather.” The book preached the importance of forming voluntary associations to benefit society. Franklin learned about forming do-good associations from Cotton Mather, but his organizational skills made him the most influential force in making voluntarism an enduring part of the American ethos.

It was Ben Franklin who during a critical impasse during the Constitutional Convention, 28 June 1787, attempted to introduce the practice of daily common prayer at the Convention, with these words:

… In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. … And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance. "I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that "except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: …I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.

However, the motion met with resistance and was never brought to a vote.

Franklin was an enthusiastic supporter of one of the evangelical minister George Whitefield during the First Great Awakening. Franklin did not subscribe to Whitefield’s theology, but he admired Whitefield for exhorting people to worship God through good works. Franklin published all of Whitefield’s sermons and journals, thereby boosting the Great Awakening.

When he stopped attending church, Franklin wrote in his autobiography:

…Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that He made the world, and governed it by His providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter.

Franklin retained a lifelong commitment to the Puritan virtues and political values he had grown up with, and through his civic work and publishing, he succeeded in passing these values into the American culture permanently. He had a “passion for virtue.” These Puritan values included his devotion to egalitarianism, education, industry, thrift, honesty, temperance, charity and community spirit.

The classical authors read in the Enlightenment period taught an abstract ideal of republican government based on hierarchical social orders of king, aristrocracy and commoners. It was widely believed that English liberties relied on their balance of power, but also hierarchal deference to the privileged class. “Puritanism … and the epidemic evangelism of the mid-eighteenth century, had created challenges to the traditional notions of social stratification” by preaching that the Bible taught all men are equal, that the true value of a man lies in his moral behavior, not his class, and that all men can be saved. Franklin, steeped in Puritanism and an enthusiastic supporter of the evangelical movement, rejected the salvation dogma, but embraced the radical notion of egalitarian democracy.

At one point, he wrote to Thomas Paine, criticizing his manuscript, The Age of Reason:

For without the Belief of a Providence that takes Cognizance of, guards and guides and may favour particular Persons, there is no Motive to Worship a Deity, to fear its Displeasure, or to pray for its Protection….think how great a Proportion of Mankind consists of weak and ignorant Men and Women, and of inexperienc’d and inconsiderate Youth of both Sexes, who have need of the Motives of Religion to restrain them from Vice, to support their Virtue, and retain them in the Practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great Point for its Security; And perhaps you are indebted to her originally that is to your Religious Education, for the Habits of Virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it.

According to David Morgan, Franklin was a proponent of religion in general. He prayed to "Powerful Goodness" and referred to God as "the infinite". John Adams noted that Franklin was a mirror in which people saw their own religion: "The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker." Whatever else Franklin was, concludes Morgan, "he was a true champion of generic religion." In a letter to Richard Price, Franklin stated that he believed that religion should support itself without help from the government, claiming; "When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

In 1790, just about a month before he died, Franklin wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, who had asked him his views on religion:

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble….

On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed a committee that included Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to design the Great Seal of the United States. Franklin’s proposal featured a design with the motto: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." His design portrayed a scene from the Book of Exodus, with Moses, the Israelites, the pillar of fire, and George III depicted as Pharaoh.

Thirteen Virtues

Franklin sought to cultivate his character by a plan of thirteen virtues, which he developed at age 20 (in 1726) and continued to practice in some form for the rest of his life. His autobiography lists his thirteen virtues as:

    Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."
  2. "SILENCE.
    Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation."
  3. "ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time."
    Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve."
    Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."
    Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
    Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly."
  8. "JUSTICE.
    Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty."
    Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve."
    Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation."
    Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable."
  12. "CHASTITY.
    Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation."
  13. "HUMILITY.
    Imitate Jesus and Socrates."

Franklin didn’t try to work on them all at once. Instead, he would work on one and only one each week "leaving all others to their ordinary chance". While Franklin didn’t live completely by his virtues and by his own admission, he fell short of them many times, he believed the attempt made him a better man contributing greatly to his success and happiness, which is why in his autobiography, he devoted more pages to this plan than to any other single point; in his autobiography Franklin wrote, "I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit."


Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: American Revolution…

Wikipedia: Benjamin Franklin…

Brainy Quote: Founding Quotes…