Born Jan. 17, 1706, in Boston; died Apr. 17, 1790, in Philadelphia. American educator, statesman, and scientist.
The son of a craftsman of modest means, Franklin went to work at the age of ten, at first in his father’s shop and later in his older brother’s printing shop. In 1723 he moved to Philadelphia; the following year he went to London and remained there until 1726. In 1727 he founded his own printing business in Philadelphia. Devoting his free time to self-education, Franklin became one of the most educated men of his day. He published The Pennsylvania Gazette from 1729 to 1748 and Poor Richard’s Almanac from 1732 to 1758. In Philadelphia, Franklin founded the first circulating library in the English colonies (1731), the American Philosophical Society (1743), and the Academy for the Education of Youth (1751), which was the forerunner of the University of Pennsylvania. From 1737 to 1753 he was deputy postmaster of Pennsylvania, and from 1753 to 1774 deputy postmaster general for all the North American colonies. Franklin was one of the initiators of the first congress of colonial representatives (the Albany Congress, 1754), to which he proposed a plan for uniting the colonies. From 1757 to 1775 (except for 1762–65), he represented the colonies in London.
Shortly after the American Revolution began, Franklin returned to his homeland. He was chosen a member of the Second Continental Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. From 1776 to 1785, Franklin was an envoy in Paris, where he vigorously promoted the international interests of the USA. He was instrumental in concluding a treaty of alliance with France (1778) and the Peace Treaty of Versailles (1783), whereby Great Britain recognized the independence of the USA. In 1785, Franklin was chosen president of the executive council of Pennsylvania, and in 1787 he was a member of the Constitutional Convention that drew up the US Constitution.
The foundation of Franklin’s political views was the belief in man’s natural and inalienable right to life, liberty, and property. Believing that the consent of the people is the foundation of the state, he sanctioned the people’s right to rise up when the government violates this understanding. Franklin originally favored the independence of the colonies within the British Empire, but after the revolutionary movement developed, he favored the separation of the colonies from the mother country and the declaration of political independence. At the time of writing the Constitution, Franklin upheld the principle of the federation of all the states while retaining a broad range of states’ rights; he opposed an expanded executive power and favored general suffrage not restricted by property qualification. Franklin was strongly opposed to slavery.
In the area of political economy, Franklin was opposed to the prevailing mercantilist theory and advocated the economic view of the Physiocrats. A half century before A. Smith, he formulated the labor theory of value, becoming, in the words of K. Marx, “one of the first economists who . . . discerned the true nature of value” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 60, footnote).
In his philosophical views, Franklin was a deist. He contrasted the idea of natural religion, in which the role of god is reduced to the act of creating the world, to orthodox religious dogma; he regarded motion as an immanent property of matter. Franklin’s ethical views were based on the idea of the natural, utilitarian character of morality, which should be free from religious sanction.
As a scientist, Franklin’s attention was drawn to the most diverse phenomena of nature. He collected extensive data on gale winds (northeasters) and proposed a theory to explain their origin. Franklin was one of the first to study the velocity, dimensions, and course of the Gulf Stream, which he named. However, Franklin’s major field of study was physics. His letters to P. Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, who published them at his own expense,were of great help in disseminating throughout Europe Franklin’s ideas about various aspects of physics. Franklin measured the heat conductivity of various materials, studied the phenomena of liquid cooling during evaporation, and researched the movement of sound in water and air.
Franklin’s work with electricity from 1747 to 1753 was his most important scientific achievement. Franklin explained the principle of operation of the Leyden jar, establishing the decisive role played by the dielectric that separates the conducting plates. He introduced the accepted designation of electrically charged states as + (positive) and – (negative) and developed the unitary theory (“single fluid” theory) of electrical phenomena, which is based on an assumption of the existence of a single electrical substance, a deficiency or surplus of which determines the charge sign of a body. Franklin performed a great service in establishing the identity of atmospheric and static electricity and proving the electrical nature of lightning. After discovering that metal points connected with the ground reduce the electrical charges from charged bodies even without contact with them, Franklin proposed an efficient method of protection from lightning—the lightning rod.
Franklin was also responsible for a number of other technical inventions, including lamps for street lights, the economical Franklin stove, a special musical instrument, Franklin’s electrical machine, which revolves under the influence of electrostatic forces, and the use of an electric spark to ignite powder.
Franklin’s scientific achievements brought him widespread international recognition. He was elected an honorary member of a number of foreign academies and societies, including the Russian Academy of Sciences (1789).
The Writings, vols. 1–10. New York, 1905–07.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proizv. Moscow, 1956.
In Amerikanskie prosvetiteli, vol. 1. Moscow, 1968.
Opyty i nabliudeniia nad elektrichestvom. Moscow, 1956. (Translated from English.)
Radovskii, M. I. B. Franklin. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Gol’dberg, N. M. Svobodomyslie i ateizm v SShA (XVII–XIX vv.). Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Van Doren, C. Benjamin Franklin. New York, 1938.
Crane, V. W. Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People. Boston, 1954.