The President Who Was Never President

Watched by his nervous son William, Benjamin Franklin flies a kite in a thunderstorm
Watched by his nervous son William, Benjamin Franklin flies a kite in a thunderstorm

by Ray Setterfield

January 17, 1706Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a drafter and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born on this day.

A personification of the “American Dream” he received very little formal education but went on to achieve high office and to receive honorary degrees in the US from Harvard, Yale, and the College of William and Mary, and in the UK from Oxford and the University of St. Andrews.

His family had little money when Franklin was a child but as a printer, publisher, writer, scientist and inventor he would amass great wealth.

He was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a candle and soap maker. Josiah was born in England, as were four of Benjamin’s grandparents. Josiah had 17 children with two wives. Benjamin, the eighth child of his second marriage, was Josiah’s fifteenth child, and his tenth and final son.

Josiah’s work could not produce enough money to support a large family and so he could afford to send Benjamin to school for only two years. It meant that the boy’s formal education ended when he was ten years old.

He did not graduate from school, but became a voracious reader and virtually educated himself, so successfully that later he could speak four languages: English, French, Spanish and Italian. He could also read and write Latin. 

By the age of 12, he had been indentured as an apprentice at a printing shop owned by his brother, James. When he was 16 and James had founded a weekly newspaper called the New England Courant, Benjamin secretly submitted letters as “Silence Dogood,” a fictitious widow who offered opinions on everything from fashion and marriage to women’s rights and religion. 

“Mrs Dogood” received several marriage proposals before Benjamin confessed that he was her creator, much to his brother’s rage. After a furious row Benjamin was to leave Boston and move to Pennsylvania, pausing for an 18-month trip to the UK when he worked as a typesetter in London. He returned to the US in 1726, making Philadelphia his home for the rest of his life.

There, he became both wealthy and well respected through his business activities and his writings – which included the enormously popular “Poor Richard’s Almanack”. His interest in journalism also led him to buy the Pennsylvania Gazette, which he edited and which became one of America’s major newspapers.

He became a city councilman in 1748, a Justice of the Peace in 1750 and a member of the Philadelphia Assembly in 1751.

Franklin was involved in many public projects, including founding the American Philosophical Society, a subscription library and, in 1751, an academy which later became the University of Pennsylvania.

When he was not writing or engaged in community work he was carrying out research leading to his many inventions. These included bifocal spectacles, a heat-efficient stove, fins for swimming and a musical instrument called a glass armonica.

But probably his most acclaimed invention was the lightning rod. Buildings had often been destroyed by fires started by lightning strikes but when Franklin’s rod was installed on a roof it attracted lightning, redirecting it down the side of the building and safely to the ground.

While researching this invention Franklin carried out a famous – and highly dangerous – experiment: he flew a kite during a thunderstorm with a key attached to the string to attract lightning. He wanted to prove that lightning was a form of electricity.

Franklin’s inventions were practical and designed to make everyday life easier but he never patented any, considering them as gifts to the public. He wrote in his autobiography: “As we enjoy the advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

From 1757 to 1774, Franklin lived mainly in London where he was the colonial representative for Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Then, back in the US, as a member of the Philadelphia Assembly he attended the Second Continental Congress. In 1776 he was chosen as one of the Committee of Five, whose members wrote the Declaration of Independence.

It was a milestone year for him because it was then that he was appointed US Ambassador to France, which led to several happy years mixing in Paris with intellectuals as well as politicians. He was greatly liked and respected there, and when he died France observed a national day of mourning.

Franklin’s final public accolade came in 1785 when, at the age of 79, he was elected President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, an office similar today to that of governor.

His term of office was to be short, however, because in 1790 he died of a respiratory disease. He was 84.

On the website, dedicated to his life and times, he is described thus: “Benjamin Franklin was one of those rare people who had a curious mind, many talents and the ambition to accomplish much during his life.

“As one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he had the respect of the most powerful people in the country. As an inventor, he created a number of everyday items that people still rely upon more than two centuries later. As a scientist, his discoveries changed the world.

“Although he was never elected to a federal office, historians regard him as the president who was never president and the most influential of the Founding Fathers.

“With a legacy that includes the establishment of a new nation, universities, the postal system and public libraries, Benjamin Franklin’s influence on history is enormous. His likeness graces US coin, currency and bonds, and his inquisitive spirit still stands as an example to scholars, scientists and politicians in the modern era.”

Published: November 7, 2021
Updated: November 11, 2021

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