Frame of Franklin house
Visitors walk through a steel frame depicting Benjamin Franklin's house in Philadelphia.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." — Benjamin Franklin

January 17 marks the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most important figure in American revolutionary history. Ben Franklin may have been America’s first "Renaissance man." He was an entrepreneur, scientist, inventor, author, statesman-diplomat, political philosopher and philanthropist — what one biographer described as a "harmonious human multitude." He also may very well be the grandfather of America’s tradition of giving and a variety of its civil institutions. Americans should pause this month and consider the value that just one person can bring to nations and neighborhoods.

Ben Franklin was one of 17 children fathered by tallow-chandler Josiah Franklin. At the age of 12, Franklin was apprenticed to his printer brother. With only two years of formal schooling, Franklin began educating himself. He mastered writing and — at age 16 — began submitting now famous letters under the pseudonym Silence Dogood to his brother’s Boston newspaper, the New England Courant. That he valued independence at such an early age is evident from one of his secret submissions, which was highlighted in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Issacson’s insightful biography:

I am . . . a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power. I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country; and the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly.

And boil it would, but not for decades. America’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was still more than 50 years away. Franklin would eventually flee his apprenticeship for work in England and return two years later to make a life in Philadelphia. By the age of 24, Franklin owned his own print shop and enjoyed a reputation as an intelligent and hardworking citizen.

Franklin thrived as a businessman and as the publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which contained witticisms that remain part of American culture today: "God helps them that help themselves" and "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise" are just two. The Almanac, first published in 1733, helped make Franklin a wealthy man.

Franklin’s projects during the 1730s were not limited to those of a commercial nature. Franklin created a private lending library financed by subscriptions; invented America’s first volunteer fire department; and, as Isaacson points out, he would later create a college, hospital and militia.

In 1835, the famous French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville would write of such efforts in the general sense:

Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations … At the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.

Franklin was in great part responsible for driving these private civil institutions as a way to improve public life. Franklin also invented "matching grants," now a staple of charitable fundraising efforts around the world.

During his lifetime Franklin would invent the lightning rod, bifocals, swim fins, a highly efficient stove, medical catheter and a musical instrument known as the "glass armonica," on which Mozart and Beethoven would later compose music. He would also discover a basic principle of refrigeration and chart the flow of the Gulf Stream.

Franklin was 45 when he conducted his famous kite experiment involving lightning. By any measure, he had already lived a rich, full life. But Franklin’s contributions to America were far from over. He was about to step onto the world’s historical stage as a lead actor in the American Revolution. Indeed, Franklin is the only founder to sign all three of the documents that created the United States: The Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris and the U.S. Constitution. His diplomatic work in France was essential to acquiring the assistance colonists needed to defeat the British.

Franklin is sometimes referred to as "The First American" because his personas embodied characteristics that would come to define the new nation’s people: industriousness, inventiveness, love of liberty and a charitable nature. There is much to admire about this ruggedly independent character from American history, and the occasion of his 300th birthday is a good time to reflect on his multiple contributions to the civic good.

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Michael D. LaFaive is director of fiscal policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.