He was a printer, a writer, a statesman, a revolutionary, a soldier, a scientist, an inventor, a businessman, a politician, a satirist, an observer, a diplomat, a thinker and a doer. Benjamin Franklin was all of these things, and more, but he was also a celebrity. In his day, he was indeed the most famous American in the world.
As a young man living in colonial America, he didn’t set out to become famous. He did seek riches though. Franklin spent long hours and years studying and pursuing his craft as a printer and entrepreneur. Through printing, Franklin became wealthy. He published and owned several newspapers as well as the popular “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” He also wrote the majority of items that appeared in his newspapers and almanacs. Yet, he often wrote pieces under other names. One of his earliest published works was a series of articles in which a teen-aged Franklin pretended to be an earthy widow. Later, in the almanacs, Franklin claimed they were written by Poor Richard. As Richard, Franklin wrote that people were daft to think Franklin wrote the pieces when it was Poor Richard who penned the series of sayings, stories and weather charts.
Yet, Franklin’s celebrity could not be contained. While he often attempted to divert attention from himself, Franklin attracted attention in everything he did. He was not a public speaker, yet, his pen was one of the age’s most eloquent and prolific. He invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, and numerous other items, and he did not seek patents, claiming the plans for his inventions should be given freely since they were for the good of mankind.
Having become wealthy from the printing business, a middle-aged Franklin retired from their daily operations to explore scientific research. He charted the Gulf stream. He studied America’s population growth. He prescribed fresh air for avoiding colds and flus. He experimented with electricity.
It was Franklin’s work in electricity and his famed flying of the kite in a lightning storm that thrust Franklin onto the world stage. His experiments in the conductivity of electricity — the idea that lightning could be diverted from church steeples and other buildings through a lightning rod — awarded him honors and recognition in America and Europe.
Throughout his life, Franklin was also involved in public works. He formed intellectual societies. He developed the colonial postal service. He established a fire department in Philadelphia. He instituted the concept of a public library. In his travels and through his writings, he became deeply involved in colonial American politics and the colonies’ relationship with England. He traveled to England to represent Pennsylvania and eventually represented several colonies and, finally, he became a spokesman for Americans’ dissatisfaction with no representation in Britain’s Parliament. It took years to convince Franklin that America should break with England, but when he realized there was no other course, Franklin wholeheartedly joined the move for independence.
Returning to America, he sat on the commission to create a Declaration of Independence and he comforted Jefferson when Congress made numerous changes to the document. But Franklin did not stay in America long. Soon, Congress assigned the aging Franklin to travel as an American representative to France, where he was to seek funds for the war with England.
In France, Franklin was a true celebrity. Dressed in his humble clothes, the French pressed Franklin’s likeness on almost everything. He was honored at parties. All of Paris knew of Franklin and sought his company. Franklin was successful in obtaining the money to fund America’s war for independence and negotiating the peace.
Following the war, Franklin participated in the Constitutional Convention and died during the early years of the nation.
But his impact on America and its reputation in the world was immense.
Historian H.W. Brands, who refers to Franklin as “The First American,” writes “Franklin’s story is the story of a man — an exceedingly gifted man and a most engaging one. It is also the story of the birth of America — an America this man discovered in himself, then helped to create in the world at large.”
So, yes, Franklin was a celebrity. Unlike many modern celebrities though, Franklin was famous for actually doing something — in his case, for doing many things.
Historian Edmund S. Morgan writes, “We know what many of his contemporaries came to recognize, that (Franklin) did as much as any man ever has to shape the world he and they lived in.”