This week, we celebrate Founding Father Benjamin Franklin’s 316th birthday. Franklin, perhaps America’s most beloved Renaissance man, was born on January 17, 1706 in the British-controlled Boston, Massachusetts. He later moved to Philadelphia where he cemented his legacy as a legend in American civics.
Ben Franklin is widely known as a talented politician, scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, diplomat and satirist. He helped craft the Declaration of Independence, discovered lightning as a form of electricity, invented bifocals, started his own print shop, served as governor of Pennsylvania and secured French support for the American Revolution.
Among all of these accomplishments and so many more, Franklin’s remarkable work in the field of philanthropy also deserves recognition. Here are six fun facts about Franklin’s philanthropic contributions that continue to help us build strong communities, create pathways to opportunity and teach America’s founding values today, centuries after his passing.
- Franklin created the first lending library: Franklin conceived the idea for a public lending library while conducting a meeting of the Junto Club, a social group consisting of “avid readers and intellectuals” who gathered on Friday nights to discuss issues of the day. Franklin noticed group members often would refer to books during discussions and he decided it would be beneficial to the club to gather these books in a common library for lending and borrowing. Franklin later decided to expand on the concept and create a public library to benefit ordinary citizens. The Library Company launched by Franklin in 1731 was the first public lending library in the U.S. and is still in operation today as an American history research library.
- Franklin founded the first volunteer fire brigade: In 1736, Franklin co-founded the first all-volunteer community fire brigade in the colonies, known as the Union Fire Company or the Bucket Brigade. Like other fire companies of the era, Union Fire was established first and foremost to protect the property of its members. However, the company added community protection to its Articles of Agreement:
“… as this association is intended for a general benefit, we do further agree, that whenever a FIRE breaks out in any part of the city, though none of our houses, goods or effects may be in apparent danger, we will nevertheless repair thither with our buckets and bags … and give our utmost assistance to such of our fellow-citizens as may stand in need of it, in the same manner as if they belonged to this company.”
- Franklin co-founded one of the nation’s first hospitals: In 1751, Dr. Thomas Bond approached his good friend Ben Franklin with a proposal to build a hospital in Pennsylvania “for the reception and cure of poor sick persons.” Franklin enthusiastically embraced the idea and became one of the hospital’s strongest supporters. He petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly, raised the necessary funds, and a year later, Pennsylvania Hospital opened its doors. Pennsylvania Hospital housed the nation’s first surgical amphitheater and medical library. It is still in operation today in the heart of Philadelphia.
- Franklin pioneered matching grants: When Franklin petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to create Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751, the idea was met with resistance from rural members who argued the hospital would only be of use to the city of Philadelphia, not to rural communities. To demonstrate demand for the project, Franklin proposed a novel idea. He would raise the initial investment of 2,000 British pounds from citizens of the state and the Assembly would match them. The Assembly readily agreed to the plan thinking it had little chance of success. However, Franklin made good on his promise and a bill creating Pennsylvania Hospital was signed on May 11, 1751. “I do not remember any of my political maneuvers, the success of which gave me at the time more pleasure,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography.
- Franklin founded the nation’s first university: In 1749, Franklin authored his famous essay “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth,” where he outlined his vision for an institution of higher learning. At the time, colleges primarily focused on training Christian men for service in the ministry. Franklin’s proposed academy, however, would be nonsectarian and practical. Students would learn important skills necessary for success in business and government as well as other important subjects such as such as natural history, geology, geography and modern languages. Franklin earned the support of 24 trustees to build an institution based on his ideas. In 1751, the Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania “opened its doors to children of the gentry and working class alike.” This Academy would ultimately become the University of Pennsylvania, which claims to be the first university in the U.S.
- Franklin donated millions to support education – in 1990: Franklin’s final bequest was his most consequential, at least in terms of the size of the donation. Upon his death in 1790, Franklin left 1,000 pounds sterling to his native Boston and another 1,000 pounds to his adopted Philadelphia. However, neither donation could be spent right away. Franklin mandated the funds remain in a trust to gather interest for 200 years. At the end of the first century, some of the funds could be expended primarily to fund loans for young entrepreneurs. At the end of the second century, the funds must be spent down. In 1990, Philadelphia spent its approximately $2 million on scholarships for local high school students and a grant to the Franklin Institute, a science museum. Boston, meanwhile, elected to spend its remaining $5 million to support the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, a college of engineering and industrial technologies.
Ben Franklin once wrote, “It is prodigious the quantity of good that may be done by one man, if he will make a business of it.” Franklin placed service at the center of his life: service to the cause of liberty, service to his country, service to his neighbors, service to the citizenry, even service to future people he would never meet. This is why he is both remembered and revered over two hundred years after he departed the Earth.
To learn more about Ben Franklin’s philanthropy, please visit Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Hall of Fame.”