Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the greatest polymath of American history. He was known by turns as a scientist and satirist, an inventor and entrepreneur, a printer and politician. Within his lifetime, Franklin won international admiration for his discoveries relating to electricity and other scientific experiments. He was a skilled diplomat and distinguished public servant, an intimate of many of the 18th century’s most significant political and intellectual leaders. He was a profligate inventor, who devised the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, bifocals, and the glass armonica—an instrument for which Mozart, Handel, and Beethoven all composed works. And not least among his many accomplishments, Franklin is often considered the father of American civil society.
Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, the youngest of 10 children. His father, a soap- and candle-maker, wanted Franklin to attend college but was only able to afford two years of formal education. At the age of 15, Benjamin was apprenticed to his brother James, a newspaperman. The brothers often clashed, and after two years Benjamin broke his apprenticeship and left New England, moving first to Philadelphia and then to London. In 1726, he returned to the City of Brotherly Love and soon began publishing the city’s leading newspaper and the popular annual Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Franklin also started methodically acquiring property. His investments in real estate in Philadelphia, plus holdings as far afield as Boston, Ohio, Georgia, and Nova Scotia, made him one of the colonies’ wealthiest men. By some estimates, indeed, Franklin became one of the wealthiest men in American history.
Franklin "was behind virtually every scheme that made Philadelphia an attractive place to live" in his day.
Franklin retired from active business at the age of 42, and devoted himself to public service. He rose rapidly through a series of appointments: councilman, justice of the peace, assemblyman, and deputy-postmaster general for North America. During this same period, Franklin was studying and writing about the properties of electricity, for which he was awarded honorary doctorates from St. Andrews and Oxford. He eventually returned to London, where he worked at the highest levels of government, eager to advance the interests of the British Empire.
As relations with the North American colonies deteriorated, Franklin tried to ameliorate tensions, becoming an ardent patriot only after being attacked before the king’s Privy Council in 1774. He returned to Philadelphia, where he helped draft and then signed the Declaration of Independence. The Continental Congress appointed him Ambassador to the Royal Court at Versailles, where he achieved what may be the most remarkable success in the history of American diplomacy: winning French support for the independence of the United States. At the conclusion of hostilities, he helped negotiate the peace treaty with Britain, returned to the United States, and represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention. He died in 1790, one of the most accomplished men of the 18th century.
Throughout his life, but most notably while living in Philadelphia, Franklin led a number of private, voluntary initiatives to enhance civil society. “It is prodigious the quantity of good that may be done by one man, if he will make a business of it,” he once observed. Historian Edmund Morgan suggested he “was behind virtually every scheme that made [Philadelphia] an attractive place to live.”
The city was in many respects an ideal laboratory for Franklin’s experiments in civil society. For most of his life, Pennsylvania lacked capable governing institutions. The province was essentially a feudal possession of the long-absent Penn family. Philadelphia nevertheless flourished—by 1750, it was a major center of transatlantic commerce and ranked among the largest cities in the British Empire—and the surplus wealth made private philanthropic initiatives possible. Civic life was further bolstered by the Quakers’ strong communitarian ethic.
In 1727, Franklin organized a group of 12 artisans—including a glazier, a shoemaker, a printer, a cabinetmaker, two surveyors, and several clerks—who began to meet for the purpose of mutual betterment. Calling themselves the Junto Club, the young men met on Friday evenings to share dinner and engage in edifying conversation. “The rules that I drew up,” Franklin noted in his Autobiography, “required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.” A recurring topic of conversation involved opportunities for civic improvement.
One of the Junto’s first such projects was the creation of a public subscription library. Members of the group shared books among themselves, and soon decided to coordinate their efforts and share it with the public. In 1731, they incorporated the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first such library in British North America. Franklin initially found it difficult to arouse public interest in the project. The problem, he realized, was “the impropriety of presenting one’s self as the proposer of any useful project.” He resolved to “put myself as much as I could out of sight” and thereafter adopted the lifelong habit of presenting his ideas as a “scheme of a number of friends.”
In December 1736, Franklin conceived and founded the Union Fire Company, the first volunteer fire brigade in Pennsylvania. All of the company’s 30 charter members pledged to protect one another’s homes against fire. Each member agreed to keep at the ready two leather buckets (to carry water) and four heavy cloth bags (to rescue endangered property). Failure to maintain the required equipment resulted in a fine—five shillings per infraction—and the fire company met eight times annually to review its procedures. In 1751, Franklin convened representatives from the other volunteer fire companies that had sprung up across the city and organized the Philadelphia Contributorship Fire Insurance Company.
Franklin also played a critical role in the movement to bring higher education to Philadelphia. Around 1743, he began circulating his proposal for the Academy of Philadelphia. Unlike other colonial colleges, which preferred the sons of leading families, Franklin’s college would be open to all deserving young men. It also differed from other schools in that it lacked a denominational affiliation. Franklin was elected president of the nascent institution, and saw it through to its opening day. The Academy of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania, opened its doors in January 1750. Within two years, it had 300 students.
Once the academy was underway, Franklin turned his attention to founding a charitable hospital. “In 1751,” he recalled in the Autobiography, “Dr. Thomas Bond, a particular friend of mine, conceived the idea of establishing a hospital in Philadelphia, for the reception and care of poor, sick persons, whether the inhabitants of the province or strangers—a very beneficient design, which has been ascribed to me but was originally his.” When it began admitting patients in 1756, this organization became the nation’s first hospital, a philanthropic enterprise that served all comers, regardless of their ability to pay.
In addition to the many institutions he founded, Franklin supported scores of others, as well. Franklin’s name, notes one of the editors of his collected writings, appears “at the head of many a subscription list, whether for the College of Philadelphia, to support the botanizing of John Bartram, or to construct a synagogue for Mikveh Israel Congregation. (He was often the most generous contributor as well.)” Although not himself a churchgoer, he funded any denomination that sought his aid. And even late in life, he was an inveterate joiner. Only a few years before his death, Franklin became the president of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.
“Liberality is not giving much,” Poor Richard wrote in 1748, “but in giving wisely.” Franklin was a tireless improver, and his inventiveness made lasting contributions to American philanthropy. For example, Franklin led the first effort in British North America to offer tax relief in exchange for charitable activity. Encouraged by the success of the Union Fire Company, and eager to see the model replicated throughout Philadelphia, Franklin persuaded municipal authorities to offer a property tax abatement in exchange for participation in a volunteer fire company.
Franklin likewise pioneered the concept of the matching grant. While raising funds for the Pennsylvania Hospital, Franklin approached the colonial legislature to propose that once the hospital had raised £2,000 in private contributions, the colonial government should contribute another £2,000 to the effort. “Every man’s donation would be doubled,” Franklin later wrote. “The subscriptions accordingly soon exceeded the requisite sum.”
Perhaps Franklin’s best-remembered charitable donation was his final bequest. Franklin left £1,000 to his native Boston and another £1,000 to his adopted Philadelphia. Both bequests were held in trust, to gather interest for 200 years. At the end of the first century, each city had the right to withdraw capital from the trust; by the close of the second, each was required to spend it down. In 1990, the trusts were required to sunset. Philadelphia elected to spend its remaining $2 million on scholarships for local high-school students. The $5 million in Franklin’s Boston trust was used to establish a trade school: the Franklin Institute of Boston.
In the first pages of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber describes Franklin’s essay “Advice to a Young Tradesman” as an expression of the capitalist ethos in “almost classical purity.” Weber, however, was a careful reader, and he recognized that Franklin did not always adhere to the unrelenting profit-maximizing ethic he seemed to champion. The example of Benjamin Franklin suggests a symbiosis between a profit-maximizing imperative and a wide range of not-for-profit activity, as well as an affinity between enlightened self-interest and charitable activity.
- Whitfield Bell, “B. Franklin on Philanthropy” (American Philosophical Society, 2006)
- Edmund Morgan, Benjamin Franklin (Yale University Press, 2002)
- Gordon Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Penguin Books, 2005)
- The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, franklinpapers.org/franklin