“The ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation, to the prejudice and oppression of another, is certainly the most erroneous and mistaken policy. An equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges, and advantages, is what every part is entitled to, and ought to enjoy.” — Benjamin Franklin, Emblematical Representations — 1774
American colonial history represents a striking event in world history-the transatlantic migration of millions of people, from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, to the first permanent British settlement in America in 1607, to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
English Puritans arriving in Massachusetts comprised the first of four great migrations to America. After the English Civil War a generation later, Royalist Cavaliers, Anglican Royalists, and sympathizers of the Crown fled Puritan-dominated England and settled in the Virginia area. The third transatlantic migration occurred between 1675 and 1725, when Quakers from the northern midlands of England arrived in the Delaware River Valley. The fourth of the great migrations was comprised of Scots-Irish who settled in the broad expanse of land from western Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley.
The Puritans are especially noteworthy among these early immigrants to America. The Mayflower Compact, John Winthrop's sermon, "A Modell of Christian Charity," and Winthrop's speech to the Massachusetts General Court of July 3, 1645 — three Puritan documents-highlight their understanding of the purpose of civil society and the function of government as being wedded to the advancement and glory of God and the "better ordering and preservation" of each individual. These documents establish the early importance placed on the rule of law, the role of a covenant or compact to establish a "civil body politic," and the essentialness of ongoing deliberation for self-government.
These documents also layout noteworthy differences between the Puritans and the Founders. They declare the primary importance of community at the expense of individual rights, the foundation of any claim to individual liberties to be responsibilities, and the perpetual subjugation of "true liberty" to authority exercised rightly. But an important debate arose from this understanding of society and government, concerning the relationship between the authority of magistrates and the liberty of the people, which debate has remained an essential aspect of American self-government.
As these four migrations began to establish themselves as political powers within Colonial America two began gaining more influence — the descendants of the Puritans in Massachusetts and the descendants of the Royalist Cavaliers in Virginia. Each had a separate relationship with the mother country and the king. The Puritans had become a more mercantile society clustering to cities like Boston and Philadelphia while the Royalist gravitated to farming with cotton and tobacco being mainstay crops and a plantation system that required slavery. Our Founders would come from both camps.
One of the leading lights to emanate from the Puritan heritage was Benjamin Franklin. The son of a candle maker who came to the colonies in the late 1600s, young Benjamin Franklin had little formal schooling, and despised the idea of following in his father's trade. He was apprenticed to his brother's newspaper, the New England Courant, during which time he embarked on a rigorous self-education, reading widely in history, philosophy and such popular writing as that of Addison and Steele. By the age of 16 he was writing essays for the Courant under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood." After leaving his hometown of Boston for Philadelphia, Franklin continued his self-education while working in a printer's shop, and, after taking a two year journey to England, he settled down to run his own paper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. While Franklin was establishing himself as a printer and writer, he also found time for public projects, such as the founding of the "Junto," a group of mostly young tradesmen who were, like Franklin, establishing themselves in business and the community. Through the work of the Junto and the questions it dealt with, Franklin lead important projects in the community such as the creation of the first library, and the formation of the first fire company in Philadelphia. The Junto also took up questions of scientific inquiry into the natural world. Franklin's experiments and discoveries in electricity are well known, but, among many other things, he also advised Robert Fulton on the creation of the steam engine, and hypothesized that the common cold was not caused by cold temperatures, but, rather what he called "contagion."
The life and civic activities of Benjamin Franklin were in a real sense a kind of experiment: an experiment in human and political equality. Britain and the rest of Europe were aristocratic states and societies, and it was assumed that men and women of birth were superior to those of humbler origin. American society was without the aristocratic social structure with its explicit and implicit prejudices. Thus Franklin, the son of a candle maker, could become the most distinguished man in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War based solely upon his genius and hard work. The growth of early America's civil society was proof of the principle of equality held by Franklin and others. Colonists began to understand that in building up their local institutions, they must do things for themselves, all the while meeting with opposition in colonial assemblies, and often being overruled by an incompetent and arbitrary royal governor. Indeed, it was the repeated quarrels between the people of the Colony of Pennsylvania and the Royal Proprietor, Thomas Penn, son of the great William Penn, which took Franklin to London as the colony's agent. While there he became the de facto agent for all the colonies and tried again and again to show the Board of Trade and Parliament how ill-advised their policies were, particularly the Stamp Act. But the philosophical currents of the day - those of the Enlightenment — were on the side of Franklin and the colonists, who soon would be known as revolutionaries.
This period called the Enlightenment, of which Franklin was the great embodiment in America, served as the important foundation for the American Revolution. The Enlightenment was a period of education for the American colonies, and, like young Franklin's education, it was largely self-imposed and therefore all the more valued by those undertook it. There is much scholarly argument surrounding the Enlightenment, a disputed term not only today, but in its own time. Was it a consistent body of thought? Was it holy irreligious or antireligious? Was the Enlightenment a uniform movement of thought or were there separate "Enlightenments" plural? It is important to remember that the Enlightenment is also called the neoclassical period, meaning that key figures of the period, particularly Americans during the Revolution, did not consider themselves to be inventing something new. Rather, they were rediscovering things that had always been true, though mankind had not always been able or eager to know them. The foundation of the American Enlightenment was science, a term which in the 18th Century still meant "knowledge" or inquiry generally. On the foundation of scientific inquiry, the American Enlightenment had four "pillars": religious liberty, political liberty, economic liberty and moral responsibility. This moral, political, and economic science that constituted the American Enlightenment aimed at supporting one chief end, what the founders understood as human happiness. And the nation they were forming would an example of a free, responsible self-governing people living and working in civil society under the rule of law in order to achieve their individual and collective happiness.
Franklin had a problem with European aristocrats controlling the dialog of our civil society. These aristocrats and elites were not from the people, they were from an inbred society of men who gained their elevated positions not through merit or accomplishments, but through accident of birth. Yet they were the ones who were suggesting laws and regulations to the King of England for the governance of his colonies. Franklin wanted a group, or as he called it a club, of local tradesmen — men with a stake in the community and civil society, who would explore and discuss issue of the day. He called this club the Junto.
The Junto was a club for mutual improvement established in 1727 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. Also known as the Leather Apron Club, its purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy, and to exchange knowledge of business affairs. Franklin organized a group of friends to provide a structured form of mutual improvement. The group, initially composed of twelve members, called itself the Junto. The members of the Junto were drawn from diverse occupations and backgrounds, but they all shared a spirit of inquiry and a desire to improve themselves, their community, and to help others. Among the original members were printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a clerk, and a bartender. Although most of the members were older than Franklin, he was clearly their leader.
Franklin describes the formation and purpose of the Junto in his autobiography:
“I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year,  I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.
Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”
Franklin wrote his autobiography largely to teach his son William (1731–1813) and other young men how to become successful. What better example of success than his own life?
Franklin was devoted to knowledge and through this devotion established the firs lending library in colonies. Here is an excerpt from his autobiography stating how he wanted to make books more available to his fellow citizens:
“At the time I established myself in Pennsylvania there was not a good bookseller’s shop in any of the colonies to the southward of Boston. In New York and Philadelphia the printers were indeed stationers; they sold only paper, etc., almanacs, ballads, and a few common school-books. Those who loved reading were obliged to send for their books from England; the members of the Junto had each a few. We had left the ale-house, where we first met, and hired a room to hold our club in. I proposed that we should all of us bring our books to that room, where they would not only be ready to consult in our conferences, but become a common benefit, each of us being at liberty to borrow such as he wished to read at home. This was accordingly done, and for some time contented us.
Finding the advantage of this little collection, I proposed to render the benefit from books more common by commencing a public subscription library. I drew a sketch of the plan and rules that would be necessary, and got a skillful conveyancer, Mr. Charles Brockden, to put the whole in form of articles of agreement, to be subscribed, by which each subscriber engaged to pay a certain sum down for the first purchase of books, and an annual contribution for increasing them. So few were the readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the majority of us so poor, that I was not able, with great industry, to find more than fifty persons, mostly young tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose forty shillings each, and ten shillings per annum. On this little fund we began. The books were imported; the library was opened one day in the week for lending to the subscribers, on their promissory notes to pay double the value if not duly returned. The institution soon manifested its utility; was imitated by other towns, and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observed by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries.”
Franklin was a self-educated man. He had no formal education beyond a few basic years when living at home prior to his being apprenticed in indentured servitude to his older brother. When talking about his own education Franklin had this to say:
“This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolics of any kind; and my industry in my business continued as indefatigable as it was necessary. I was indebted for my printing-house; I had a young family coming on to be educated, and I had to contend with for business two printers, who were established in the place before me. My circumstances, however, grew daily easier. My original habits of frugality continuing, and my father having, among his instructions to me when a boy, frequently repeated a proverb of Solomon, “Do you see a man diligent in his calling? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.”1 I from thence considered industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction, which encouraged me, though I did not think that I should ever literally stand before kings, which, however, has since happened; for I have stood before five, and even had the honor of sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, to dinner.”
Franklin was not an atheist nor was he agnostic. He believed in a Deity who made the world and governed it. When it came to religion Franklin had this to say:
“I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, 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. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, though with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mixed with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, served principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induced me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increased in people, and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contribution, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.”
In speaking about morality Franklin stated:
“In the various enumerations of the moral virtues I met in my reading, I found the catalogue more or less numerous, as different writers included more or fewer ideas under the same name. Temperance, for example, was by some confined to eating and drinking, while by others it was extended to mean the moderating every other pleasure, appetite, inclination, or passion, bodily or mental, even to our avarice and ambition. I proposed to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annexed to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurred to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully expressed the extent I gave to its meaning.
- These names of virtues, with their precepts were:
- Temperance—Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence—Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order—Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution—Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality—Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e., waste nothing.
- Industry—Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity—Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice—Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation—Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness—Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility—Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- 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.
- Humility—Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone through the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view, as they stand above.”
Franklin had a firm belief in self-governance and that the main purpose of any government was to protect the rights of the civil society, through criminal and civil law, from those who would abridge those rights. He believed, like John Locke, that a man’s happiness was attained through his property — property he earned from his physical or mental efforts and was not due to any king or prince without his consent.
In 1776 when the Continental Congress was debating a break with the King of England they appointed a committee of five including Franklin along with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman to author a document that could be presented to the King. Adams was selected to chair the committee and he charged Jefferson with the task of witting the first draft while he and Franklin would edit Jefferson’s work. That document became our Declaration of Independence and stated:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It should be noted that the word “unalienable” was suggested by Franklin to replace Jefferson’s phase “God given.”
This has been called "one of the best-known sentences in the English language", containing "the most potent and consequential words in American history." The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive. This view was notably promoted by Abraham Lincoln, who considered the Declaration to be the foundation of his political philosophy, and argued that the Declaration is a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.
Franklin was also known for his many scientific discoveries and inventions. He was the first to use the terms negative and positive when referring to electricity and his famous experiment with the kite, string and key to observe the effects of lightening brought him international fame. He was compared to Isaac Newton. He gave advice to Robert Fulton for his invention of the steam engine. When his eyesight began to fail he invented the bifocal lens and invented a stove named after him — a stove he gave the patent rights away so other could make fortunes from its manufacture. He invented a musical instrument, the Glass Armonica, for which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and more than 100 other composers composed works for.
He published pamphlets on public and personal safety including one on how to prevent household fires. He established the first volunteer fire department in the colonies, something thousands of towns and small cites have across the United States today.
When the Revolutionary War began Franklin was assigned to Paris by the Continental Congress to raise money, obtain arms and ask for French naval support — something he did with great success.
He was present in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention and added his wisdom to the conclave. It was Franklin who uttered the famous quip when asked by a woman outside of the convention hall what kind of government we will have Franklin replied “Madam, a Republic if we can keep it.”
Franklin was truly a Renaissance man in America’s Age of Enlightenment. With all of his many accomplishments and inventions he should best be known for his contributions to our civil society and our system of self- government — something we have been losing for the past 100 years to the elites, bureaucratic aristocrats and masterminds. So the next time a $100 dollar bill crosses your hand take a few seconds to think of the sage of Philadelphia. If I were asked to describe Franklin in today’s political terms I would call him a Libertarian.