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Page 12345

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Benjamin Franklin

[Picture of Benjamin Franklin]

In America, Franklin wrote, "no man continues long a laborer for others, but gets a plantation of his own; no man continues long a journeymen to a trade, but sets himself up for himself." And "set himself up for himself" was exactly what Franklin had done on arriving in Philadelphia. Franklin entered the printing business as a journeyman, and soon owned his own shop, entering the ranks of the property-proud artisans. When he made up his will at the end of his life, he listed his occupation as "printer."

This was a feature of American life that impressed European visitors: the dignity of labor, the pride American craftsmen took in their work. And the esteem they enjoyed in their communities. We see this in John Singleton's Copley's portrait of the Boston silversmith and revolutionary, Paul Revere.

Revere is plainly dressed, in his shirtsleeves, and is holding one of his creations, an exquisite silver teapot. Three engraving tools lie on the table. They tell us that this is a man who works with his hands, and draws satisfaction from that, as we can see from Revere's stoically proud countenance, his chin held in thought.

[Picture of cover of 'Poor Richard's Almanack']

Like Paul Revere, Franklin moved from running a shop to engagement in public affairs. He launched the Pennsylvania Gazette, which became the most successful newspaper in the colonies. And for twenty-five years he published his Poor Richard's Almanack, the most widely read book, next to the Bible, in colonial America. In his Almanack, Franklin dispensed humorous advice on how to get rich, later collecting the best of Poor Richard under the title "The Way to Wealth."

This became a how-to-do guide for the ambitious. Franklin's Puritan father had preached to him the gospel of getting to heaven. The son preached the gospel of getting ahead. "The sleeping fox catches no poultry." "There is no gain without pain." And this is my favorite one. "It costs more to maintain one vice than to raise two children." For this, Franklin's been sometimes called sarcastically, "The Father of all the Yankees."

But behind the Yankee was the Puritan. Growing up in Boston, Franklin skipped church to practice his writing. Calvin's idea of predestination clashed with his self-improving bent. But he did internalize Puritanism's social values: its moral earnestness, its emphasis on hard work and diligence, its self-scrutinizing cast of mind.

What he could not accept was John Winthrop's idea of a fixed human hierarchy, the idea that God had ordained that some should be rich and others poor, and that all should be satisfied with their station in life. Franklin believed that it was impossible to keep self-reliant people down in expanding America. Or as Crevecouer wrote: "As soon as a European arrives in America, he begins to throw off his former servitude and starts acting independently." As one historian has written, "This was a society unlike any in the world, in which people placed a greater value on their status as independent individuals, beholden to no man."

In Philadelphia, Franklin was an advanced agent of an ideological revolution that had begun in his home city of Boston. This was a movement against government controls on money-making and toward greater individual freedom. Colonists still lived in a mercantile world, in which British government controlled most of their trade. But they were beginning to fashion a new idea of economic behavior.

Modern historians call this privatism: the belief that there should be little or no control on the search for wealth; and that if each person fairly pursues his self-interest, the community as a whole will benefit. Franklin believed in this because he saw it working in Philadelphia.

Artisans owned their own one-man shops and controlled the conditions of their work. They also watched over each other's property, and didn't charge ridiculously high prices for their scarce products, fearing other artisans, whose products they needed, would retaliate. That's the kind of self-interest Franklin applauded. These conditions produced urban order as well as prosperity, an order maintained in the absence of a police force and with comparatively little government.

This didn't mean that one had no obligations to the community. Without much government, citizens had to give more of themselves to the community. And Franklin did. He became, in his own words, a "doer of good."

First he organized a club for "mutual improvement." Then he led other members of the club in a flurry of civic activity. He established America's first circulating library, a fire insurance organization, a night watch, a city hospital, a city college, (the future University of Pennsylvania), and the American Philosophical Society, which still meets in Independence Hall.

"Nothing but money is sweeter than honey." Franklin wrote that. But for him, money was merely a means to an end. At age 42, he retired from business, a rich man, to devote himself to public causes and scientific experiments.

The most famous of these experiments was with electricity. Franklin suspected that lightning was actually electricity. To test his hypothesis, he flew a kite into a thunderstorm and the electricity surged down the string and leaped from a key into his hand, and later, into a collecting device.

When Franklin published his findings, they created a sensation. He became known as "The Newton of Electricity." But the pure scientist was also an inventor of useful things, among them: bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, the copying press, and a device, believe it or not, for electrocuting turkeys.

For the rest of his life, Franklin combined science with politics. As a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, he argued that open opportunity could only be preserved by territorial expansion. With the colonies filling up with people, that meant expansion into France's fur empire, west of the Appalachians.


The French and Indian War

To directly challenge the French, King George gave a huge grant of land in French-claimed territory in the upper Ohio Valley to a company called the Ohio Company, made up of Virginia and London land speculators. To prevent English encroachment, the French built a series of forts from Canada to the forks of the Ohio, near present-day Pittsburgh. There, at Fort Duquesne, they routed a Virginia militia force, led by young George Washington.

[Picture of George Washington with the Virginia Militia]

Washington had been sent to protect Virginia's claims to the Forks of the Ohio. It was the beginning of what would become a global war, the Seven Years War, or as it's more commonly called, The French and Indian War. In American, this was he fifth and final war of what was an epic struggle with France for North America.

The British tried to strike the first blow, sending an expedition to Fort Duquesne under General Edward Braddock. But Braddock led his forces into an ambush and they were slaughtered. The war continued to go badly for the British-American forces. But a new prime minister, William Pitt, threw more money and men into the American theater and turned the tide. The culminating stroke came in 1759 with James Wolf's dramatic victory over the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, in front of Quebec, a battle in which both generals were slain.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France lost its entire North American empire. The war left the colonists in a jubilant mood. The Catholic menace was gone at last, and they were now free, they thought, to begin planting a Protestant empire of liberty in the West. Washington and his friends could now look forward to increasing their fortunes through land speculation in the Trans-Appalachian country.

But the war left a disquieting legacy. Arrogant British officers had treated their own men with shocking brutality and demanded deference and blind obedience from American militiamen. This reinforced the feelings of many American volunteers that they were a distinct people, morally superior to the aristocratic British.

Even so, as colonists celebrated the great victory over France, with church bells ringing and toasts raised to the king, no one could have foreseen the approaching break with England. And almost no one desired it. Americans like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were immensely proud to be part of the world's mightiest empire.



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