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.
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
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.
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
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
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.