Benjamin Franklin

Reference: Biography by Walter Isaacson


Benjamin Franklin is one of the most celebrated founding fathers of America. His life is an inspiring tale of public service, scientific work, and personal philosophy. He was a free-thinking individual, undogmatic and flexible in his ideas and willing to change, extroverted, charitable, an idealist but in a practical way, very social and interested in building close friendships, philanderer to a fault, and curious in a child-like way about life and its possibilities. His life and writing have been studied, analyzed, and dissected practically by every generation of scholars and thinkers after his death. There are fans and also ardent critics. The critics mainly criticize his lack of romanticism, lack of passionate involvement, lack of theoretical understanding in his scientific work, excessive focus on practical matters and on making money, and his tendency to play it safe. I think there is probably some truth in this criticism, but, one must try to understand the circumstances, the times in which he lived to appreciate his ideas, philosophy, and achievements. And finally what matters more than what people expect is the person's own judgment of his life – whether it was a happy and successful one.


After reading the book by Isaacson, one comes away feeling almost envious for the rich and fulfilling life Franklin lived. He seems to have done the things he wanted to, pursued his passions without inhibition, made numerous friends and very few enemies, and contributed to his times in the most satisfying manner. Thomas Jefferson termed him the greatest man of the time.


In Isaacson's words throughout his life Franklin was as attached to life as anyone and yet he was as detached emotionally as a bystander – he cruised through his life as a free traveler, pausing wherever he wished, moving on whenever he liked, always active and engaged. He traveled to England and France – countries he loved – and spent many years of his life there away from his family, enjoying nevertheless the company of his women friends. He had ideas that were radical for his times and to which he held firm but was not confrontational in his approach. He preferred the Socratic method of friendly persuasion with open interaction. He was a prolific writer and was helped by his primary profession as a printer/publisher of his own periodicals. Besides he wrote hundreds of long letters to his friends and colleagues. He held laziness – lack of action – to be one of the worst vices of men, although, in France where industriousness was seen as "vulgar", he readily surrendered to a life of leisure and pleasure. Franklin always thought of himself as one of the "middling" people (the emerging middle class) despite the fame and celebrity status he acquired for himself.


I think Franklin's life and ideas are an essential study for anyone who is interested in public service, journalism, political affairs, diplomacy, leadership, etc.


Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, at the age of 84 and just a year after the first president – his friend George Washington – had been inaugurated to the office. Here are some of the most prominent facets of his personality.



Franklin discovered his talent at writing very early and he developed and nurtured this gift meticulously. He wasn’t much of an orator although he does have several famous oratory performances to his credit. He chose printing as his profession, which, in those days, also went with publishing, and so, Franklin had the means to write and publish all on his own. He was a prolific writer and wrote several books, hundreds of articles and editorials, and hundreds of copious letters. He was endowed with a rich mind which constantly furnished him with ideas – philosophical, socio-political, scientific, etc. – which kept his writing hand busy throughout his life. He had a wry sense of humor and used it well in his writing as well as oral communication. During July of 1776 when Congress made the declaration of independence John Adams made the observation that "They ought to hang together to face the British wrath." Upon this, Franklin said, "If we don't hang together in this, we will surely hang separately!"


Franklin had a big hand in the formal – and now world-famous – documentation that emerged out of American independence although he did not write any of them directly.


Somewhat like Leonardo Da Vinci, Franklin maintained a detailed journal of his ideas – especially related to science. During his last transatlantic voyage of 2 months from France to America he produced a 40-page compendium of his ideas about navigation, ocean currents, and all sorts of curiosities.



Although he did not get formal education, nor was he particularly good at math, Franklin had a lifelong scientific curiosity about various phenomena and made his best contribution to the field of electricity. He conducted elaborate experiments with the nature of electric charge and fabricated early versions of now-common components such as capacitors and batteries. He correctly made the connection between the tiny sparks of his home experiments with the lightning bolts, which led to his most famous invention of capturing lightning bolts with pointed metal rods. What was till then the inescapable and deadly wrath of heavenly gods suddenly became a tamable force of nature and this discovery made Franklin a household name all over the world.


Franklin was not a theoretician, nor did he think understanding the 'why' question was important. He felt science was about knowing the laws of nature and applying them to practical use. Nevertheless, he did, albeit indirectly, make some important contribution to our theoretical understanding of electricity – for instance the unity of all electrical charges as a "single electric fluid of balanced positive and negative charges".


Besides electricity, Franklin studied various other phenomena such as oil's calming effect on turbulent water, the idea of bifocal lenses, effects of the gulf-stream on transatlantic passage, and so on.



Throughout his life Benjamin Franklin enjoyed several close and long-lasting friendships with women most of whom were younger than him. When he worked on creating a practical moral code for men he included "chastity" as one of the commandments; but, then he allowed reasonable amount of "venery" for the pacification of men's considerable sexual appetite, thus indirectly admitting possessing such an appetite himself. This appetite resulted, for Franklin, in a few "intrigues" with lowly women (and even an illegitimate son), but, more importantly, in several flirtatious relationships. He found female company enjoyable and had no difficulty making friendships with them using his fame, versatility and communication skills. He also engaged in extensive letter-writing some of which survives today and testifies to these close relationships.


He was married to Deborah, a "robust, frugal, and industrious" woman – his own definition of an ideal wife – and his other relationships had no effect on his marriage which lasted until Deborah died. His affection for his wife was dutiful and out of fondness; it betrayed no element of romantic fervor or intellectual connection. Franklin lived away from his wife for extended periods, such as when he was in England and France, which clearly helped his cause with his other women.


In his friendships with younger women, Franklin walked the tightrope of adventure and propriety. He was "tempted and hopeful as a man, but was respectful as a friend" in the words of one of his biographers. He made bold overtures and wrote flirtatious letters – sometimes openly suggestive of physical intimacy, but he always seemed aware of and respected the limitations of how far the relationship could go. Even when in his seventies, his libido in his words "was as strong as a young man's" and he had a string of affairs with French women during his 7 years of diplomatic mission to France. In a hilarious example of his celebrity status both among men and women, a husband of a woman with whom Franklin had a flirtatious relationship, wrote to Franklin saying "I hear that you have been kissing my wife", and followed it up by adding, "Maybe you will honor me by letting me kiss you as well!"


No matter how his relationships turned out – due to various factors and constraints – Franklin kept in touch with all his women and cared for them and guided them until the end of his life.


Social animal:

Franklin was always surrounded by people – some related, most not. He loved social gatherings, parties, and club activities. He was curiously able to charm one and all – ordinary people, scientists, diplomats, royalty (such as the King and Queen of France), patriots (such as Jefferson), even youngsters. Wherever he lived, he liked to assemble around him a family – whether real or imagined it did not matter – of people who adored him and took care of him. A big motivation of his social life was for constructive purposes – to do good things for the society – such the "Freemasons" or the "Leather Apron Club".



Once again, Franklin was no arm-chair philosopher – he had no use for idle theories of the universe or religious axioms. He was most interested in creating code of conduct for men which would help them live rich and meaningful lives. He was turned off by most religious doctrines for this reason, since they stressed the wish and grace of God more than actions of men. Although he never openly professed atheism, he was not in love with any of the contemporary church denominations. Franklin wrote up a lot of his ideas about moral conduct and even tried to come up with a kind of "list of commandments". But, he would soon realize the futility of his attempts.


Socio-political activist:

Franklin's most important guiding principle in all his numerous socio-political endeavors and organizational activities was to help his fellow men and women. A man can live a useful, virtuous, worthy, morally correct, or spiritually meaningful life, he said. But, for himself, he clearly felt that charity – being helpful to society – was the best legacy. He was always full of ideas about how men could come together to get important things done. He was good at organizing and motivating people and creating solid processes and charters for these organizations. He even once organized a temporary defensive force – a kind of militia – to defend Pennsylvania from attacks of Indians. He helped found the University of Pennsylvania with his usual penchant for attention to the utmost detail such as its mission, charter, learning objectives, and even methods of teaching. Franklin waged his activist battles mainly through the written word as his weapon – which was natural since he was a printer/publisher by profession. He also wrote hundreds of letters to officials, colleagues and friends to express his ideas and opinions. In his last year of life, he started to openly oppose the system of slavery.


American patriot:

Franklin was a true-blue American at heart and constantly worked in the interests of the American colonies. Franklin's political ideology evolved over time: for the longest time he remained pro-British by envisaging an equitable King's empire ruling the happy subjects of the American colonies. Even when people clamoring against England grew in numbers back home during the Stamp Act days, Franklin, who was stationed in England at the time, continued to work towards an amicable solution. But once he saw the bullheadedness of British politicians and realized the impracticality of an equitable empire and also came in contact with other pro-independence leaders such as Thomas Jefferson he switched to the radical position of demanding complete independence. After returning to America subsequent to his failed diplomatic mission to England, he became a staunch adversary of British rule and refused to give in to later conciliatory gestures from Britain. He spent between 1776 and 1785 in France where he was instrumental in ensuring French support – in principle as well as in military terms – to American Independence. It was his deft diplomacy with Britain and France during this time that brought about the end of the war and acceptance by all of America as a free and independent republic.


Perhaps his crowning achievement was his contribution to the formulation of the American Constitution. The summer of 1787 was a most turbulent time for the American leaders and delegates from the 13 states when they got together in an especially hot Philadelphia trying to determine how America ought to be governed. The effort was the most daunting one since opinions were diverse, opposing and passionate about such issues as distribution of power between the center and the states, powers of the president, modes of representation, and so on. Franklin was the oldest and also the most respected at this gathering, and he used his political wisdom, great communication skills, and focus on results to help these demi-gods to conclude the marathon summit with an astonishing document which has since withstood the test of a couple of centuries. Franklin was, at this tumultuous gathering, the voice of calm reason, of compromise, and of a sense of destiny. As it happened, Franklin was the only one of his times to have signed the 4 most important documents: the declaration of independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace agreement with Britain, and the American Constitution.



Author: Abhay B. Joshi (

Last updated: 8 December 2019