Ben Franklin's Birthday: A Crucial Lesson from 'The First American'

The self-made Atlases of the world keep the wheels of civilization turning, with many of our Founding Fathers among them. As a self-made rapper might say, "It's all about the Benjamins."

Born in 1706, the fifteenth child of a Boston candle maker, Benjamin Franklin was our country’s first international celebrity, lauded throughout Europe as the quintessential American. Reportedly, everyone in his era “had an engraving of M. Franklin over the mantelpiece.” A best seller in the 19th century, his Autobiography was as exciting to children then as an adventure movie is to today’s youth — and more enlightening.
January 17, his birthday, is a fitting time to ask: Why was Franklin the American icon? What can we learn from his character and achievements?
Let’s examine his Autobiography for answers.
He said that, as a child, a proverb from King Solomon profoundly influenced his life: Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, he shall stand before kings. “I from thence considered industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction.”
Franklin demonstrated his inexhaustible industry early. “I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.” With merely two years of formal schooling, he didn’t wait for someone to hand him student loans and a college education, but educated himself.
At age 12 he was indentured to his brother, a printer. He made the best of his servitude: “I now had access to better books.” Highly respectful of other people’s property, he borrowed books “which I was careful to return soon and clean. Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning lest it should be missed or wanted.”
At 17, Ben escaped from beatings by his brother and fear of conflict with Boston authorities over his already controversial writings. Alone and poor, he traveled down the coast seeking printing work. He endured a near-shipwreck and a 50-mile walk in torrential storms. Bedraggled and hungry, he arrived in Philadelphia, startling young Deborah Read, who stared askance at his “most awkward, ridiculous appearance.” Deborah later became his wife!
Instead of waiting for help from others, young Ben took initiative. He found work, survived mainly on bread and water, and lodged himself humbly, using his meager money to buy more books. While still a teenager, Ben became so well-read that prominent people, including the governors of two colonies, sought his conversation.
Although misled by a supposed backer and relieved of hard-earned money loaned to unreliable friends, Ben never gave up. He established himself as a printer and publisher, creating the widely read Pennsylvania Gazette, then Poor Richard’s Almanack. By putting enterprising young men into the printing business in other colonies, he created a form of franchising.

Years of toil and frugality paid off. Franklin finally accumulated enough wealth to retire early and explore other interests. His scientific and political feats are legendary. Sometimes called the greatest experimentalist of the 18th century, he turned his scientific research into useful inventions — the lightning rod, Franklin stove, and bifocals are just a few.

Known as “The First American” for his campaign to unify the colonies, he was the only person to have signed all four documents pivotal to our founding: the Declaration of Independence; the Treaty of Alliance, Amity, and Commerce with France; the Treaty of Peace between England, France, and the United States; and the Constitution.
His feats in civil society are equally remarkable. Instead of petitioning the government to solve social problems, Franklin took a do-it-yourself approach. His vast list of accomplishments includes starting the first lending library in North America, establishing an academy that became the University of Pennsylvania, organizing the Philadelphia fire department, and devising a lottery to raise money for the Pennsylvania militia.
Once a slave owner, Franklin formed an abolitionist society also tasked with aiding freed blacks in becoming self-sufficient, productive citizens.
Through Franklin’s example, privately solving civil problems became the norm for 19th century America. Private people funded universities, hospitals, museums, and other institutions.
Unfortunately, Franklin also unwittingly opened the door to the welfare state. Despite tremendous success raising private money for worthy causes, he engineered government funding for Pennsylvania Hospital. This kind of precedent has resulted in a deluge of public handouts for special groups promoting museums, shelters, sports arenas, and countless other projects.
(Contrast that to James Madison’s principled defense of property rights, insisting that government has no power to spend taxpayers’ money on objects of benevolence.)
Nevertheless, Franklin defined the American Dream, the uniquely American way of life — free, self-reliant, creative, and productive. He was the archetypical self-made man, in the first country where the self-made man could thrive — America.
Franklin’s pamphlet, “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America,” (1784) illustrates how his own values of self-reliance and industry also shaped the new nation.

In giving advice to potential immigrants, Franklin explained that there were no lucrative public offices in America, “the usual effects of which are dependence and servility, unbecoming freemen.” Such offices lead to “faction, contention, corruption, and disorder among the people.” In Franklin’s America, government played a minimal role in life. A man seeking to live off public salary, Franklin said, “will be despised and disregarded.”
In America, “every one will enjoy securely the profits of his industry.” And “if he does not bring a fortune with him, he must work and be industrious to live.” Franklin contrasted hard-working Americans with the indolent European nobility. He proudly repeated an American saying of the time, “God Almighty is himself a mechanic!” In short, “America is the land of labor, and by no means” a place “where the fowls fly about ready roasted, crying, Come eat me!”

Today, statists push freemen towards “dependence and servility” by denigrating the wealth they produce as “unfair,” by stifling their free enterprise, by confiscating the fruits of their labor, by luring them with government handouts, and by encouraging public employment.

The self-made man is the highest achievement of the individual. America, the first country founded to protect the individual’s life and property, was the highest achievement of government. This is the lesson we must take from Franklin’s life and vigorously protect once again.

**This article initially appeared in the Daily Caller

Gen LaGreca is author of
Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today. Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States.

*All Franklin quotations are taken from his Autobiography and pamphlet, “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America.” A recent Liberty Fund colloquium on Benjamin Franklin organized by Jerry Weinberger, professor of political science at Michigan State University, spawned the idea for this article.

5 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
Fascinating and inspiring. You've given me information about Franklin that I did not know, and a 'spin' on him and his life which is original. And it's very well written as well. Well done! And thank you both.
"...the highest achievement of government" would have been "to protect the individual's life and property" IF it did that. America became a beacon of freedom and the most prosperous region in the world because of a culture of individuality and self reliance, not because of our government. Our high standard of living came in spite of our government or because of a lack of government. For example, the most notable activity of government came with the election of a tyrant who manufactured an internal conflict which killed more Americans than any war before or since, and removed an important check on federal power by destroying state sovereignty. Freedom has suffered a steady decline as government has grown, especially as it expanded into the private school industry creating "good citizens" and extolling the virtue living off public salary with being President as an ultimate achievement. Franklin would be appalled.
Years after Franklin's death, Thomas Jefferson in supporting the appointment of an elderly man to a position of responsibility remarked that, "at a far greater age, Dr. Franklin was the ornament of human nature."

Engravings of Franklin sold in France declared, "He seized the lightning from the sky, and the scepters from tyrants."
Superb, Inspiring, Detailed Article!

Each time I've read an essay by the team of Enright and LaGreca, it has been powerful, well-written, and effective.

If you have an active mind, there is never enough time to read everything you want to. For that reason, I very much appreciate the clarity and economy of their writing style: In this case, impressively packing so much information about Franklin and his accomplishments into barely over a thousand words.

Bottom line: I've long had on a back burner the plan to read "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin". Marsha and Gen have made it jump **way, way up** on my quite lengthy "to be read" list.

M&G have the potential to be widely published. Writing this effectively is unfortunately rare.
This is a much needed colum, tremendous. David Barton of Wall Builders also wrote a similar colum on Benj. But this one leads to the much more needed colum by Dr. Williams in "The Free Mason" concerning the thoughts of Mr. Madison and friends
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.