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Published: June 25, 2011

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

American- born statesman, author, scientist, political and cultural leader, educator and one of the most important influences on education in American history. One of the most versatile leaders in an era teeming with versatile leaders, Franklin was the earliest symbol of the quintessential American—the self-made man. He was self-made in every sense. Except for a year at Boston Latin when he was eight and a year of private tutoring in writing and arithmetic, he was totally self-educated and pursued his quest for knowledge throughout his life. The youngest son of a Boston candlemaker, he began a series of unsuccessful apprenticeships at the age of 10, first in his father’s shop, and the following year, at his cousin Samuel’s cutlery shop. His last apprenticeship—at his brother James’s print shop—proved far more successful. Indeed, he thrived learning the printing trade, devouring books and eventually writing regularly for his brother’s newspaper, the New- England Courant.
Eager for independence, he broke his indenture in 1723 and ran off to Philadelphia for several months and then to London, England, where he worked as a printer for nearly two years. He returned to Philadelphia, and three years later, he and a partner organized their own print shop and bought The Pennsylvania Gazette, which Franklin published until 1750. In 1730, he bought out his partner and expanded his publishing ventures. He built what for his day was a huge enterprise, publishing many of the classics of the day, along with his own books, including the famed Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he published annually for 25 years, beginning in December 1732.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

Benjamin Franklin (Library of Congress)

Although his wealth permitted him to participate in public affairs as early as 1736, by 1748 he was able to retire from business and devote the rest of his life to public service, writing scientific experimentation and a variety of intellectual projects including education. Poor Richard’s Almanack was the first of his educational projects. “I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “and it accordingly came to be in such demand that I reaped considerable profit from it, vending annually near ten thousand. And observing that it was generally read, scarce any neighbourhood in the province being without it, I considered it a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarce any other books. I therefore filled all the little spaces that occurred between the remarkable days in the calendar, with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality, as the means of procuring wealth. . . .”
The “proverbial sentences” were drawn from what Franklin considered the world’s great books and literature, rephrased in Franklin’s own easy-to-understand Americanisms, which themselves became standard proverbs. His proverbs aimed at teaching industry, frugality and prudence in the conduct of life and man’s potential for success through hard work and the application of one’s skills to a useful trade or profession. Obsessed with the idea that self-education through reading and practical experience was the key to success, he advocated reading and an endless search for knowledge. “The doors of wisdom are never shut,” he wrote.
To that end, he organized the “junto” in 1727, a group of friends and, later, selected members, who for 40 years shared ideas and literally educated each other. His Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge Among the British Plantations in America, published in 1743, led to the founding of the AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, a still-functioning organization for “ingenious and curious men” to exchange ideas and information. In 1731, he carried the junto’s activities a step further with a proposal “to render the benefit from books more common by commencing a public subscription library.” His Library Company of Philadelphia became the first subscription library in the colonies. Initially stocked with books contributed by junto members, the library solicited subscribers, who contributed 40 shillings for the initial purchase of books and 10 shillings a year for subsequent purchases. Although stocked with classics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Plutarch’s Lives, the library was largely a practical library with atlases, histories and handbooks on everything from husbandry to mechanics. It contained not a single book on theology, which was the primary course of study at most colleges of the day.
In 1743, Franklin also began devising a plan for educating the common man. Published in 1749 and entitled Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, it raised the hackles of the educational establishment, which had hitherto reserved formal academic and college education for the sons of the elite. Franklin’s Proposals called for establishing a residential school taught by “a man of good understanding, learned in languages and the sciences, and especially versed in English.” He proposed a curriculum that would include “everything that is useful, and everything that is ornamental: but art is long, and their time is short. It is therefore proposed that they learn those things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental, regard being had to the several professions for which they are intended.”
He then detailed the specific subjects to be taught: handwriting, drawing, arithmetic, accounts, geometry and astronomy; English grammar; the writing of essays and letters; rhetoric, history, geography and ethics; natural history and gardening; the history of commerce and principles of mechanics. Instruction was to include “visits to neighbouring farms and opportunities for natural observations, experiments with scientific apparatus and physical exercise.”
With the support of friends, Franklin raised enough funds to open and support the Public Academy in the City of Pennsylvania, with Franklin as president, or chairman, of the board of trustees. In 1751, he added more details to his original proposal in a new work, Idea of the English School, which called for a curriculum lasting six years. Its goal, he said, was not to produce scholars, poets or scientists, but “youth . . . fitted for learning any business, calling or profession, except such wherein languages are required.” His students, he said, would be qualified “to pass through and execute the several offices of civil life, with advantage and reputation to themselves and country.” In effect, it was the first proposal for the modern liberal arts education and, more important, it was the first call in the New World for universal, publicly supported education.
FRANKLIN’S ACADEMY, as it was called, opened its doors and began classes in 1751, after it obtained a charter as the Academy and Charitable School in the City of Philadelphia. Four years later, it expanded its curriculum and obtained a new charter as the College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania, or, more simply, the COLLEGE OF PHILADELPHIA, whose name was changed in 1791 to the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin never ceased his personal crusade to educate himself, continuing his voracious reading throughout his life and adding to his education by maintaining a voluminous correspondence with the world’s great thinkers on an enormously wide range of topics—on slavery with Anthony Benezet, orthography with Noah Webster, electricity with Peter Collinson, the English language with David Hume, constitutionalism with the duc de La Rochefoucauld d’Enville, and printing and publishing with William Strahan. To add to his knowledge he conducted endless experiments, out of which came the 1746 discovery of the Leyden jar, a type of electrical condenser, and the proof that lightning was an electric phenomenon. Though entirely self-educated, he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale and William and Mary Colleges, the first three colleges established in the New World, and from the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh.
In the midst of all these activities, Franklin was a tireless public servant, serving, at various times, as deputy postmaster general to the colonies; colonial agent for Pennsylvania in London; delegate to the Continental Congress and signatory of the Declaration of Independence; as the diplomat who assured the new republic of victory in the Revolutionary War by obtaining recognition (and tacit military support) of France, England’s most powerful enemy; and as the delegate who negotiated peace with Great Britain. He was appointed the first postmaster general by the Continental Congress and established the U.S. postal service. He was also a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress, which drew up the Constitution.
Along with THOMAS JEFFERSON, JAMES MADISON, BENJAMIN RUSH and several other delegates, Franklin called for guaranteeing every American the right to free education and establishing a national system of public schools. The proposal was defeated by the opposition of industrialists, who relied on children as their cheapest form of labor, by parents, who relied on their children either to work the fields or bring in extra income working in nearby factories, and by southerners, who feared that the education of slaves would incite rebellion and could lead to their manumission (see CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES). Franklin nevertheless signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. He died three years later, at the age of 84, honored by his countrymen and universally acclaimed as one of the most learned and civilized men of his times.