Science in Christian Perspective





Franklin, Deist

Raymond J. Seeger
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, MD 20816:9L

From: PSCF 41 (March 1989): 35-36.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) has been called the first American. He was certainly the outstanding American scientist of the eighteenth century, a New World physicist.picture

He was the fifteenth of seventeen children born in Boston to Josiah Franklin, an emigrant from Banbury, and Abiah Folger, an emigrant from Norwich. Intended initially for the Church, he was sent at eight to a grammar school (later the Boston Latin School), where he became the head of his class. He learned to read and enjoyed doing so the rest of his life; hence his many literary citations. Owing, however, to the cost, after one year he was sent to George Brownell's school for writing and arithmetic. He failed arithmetic, but mastered it later; nevertheless, it persisted as a weakness throughout his life. At ten he became a school dropout as he had to assist his father, who was a soap boiler and tallow chandler. The remainder of his excellent education was self-taught.

Two years later Benjamin was indentured to his brother James, a printer. Ever after he regarded himself primarily as a printer. At eighty-two he began his Will, "I, Benjamin Franklin, printer"-noting only later his having been an ambassador. Despite the call of the siren sea (he was an adept swimmer) he devoted his private studies to journalism. He strove to imitate the clear, smooth short style of Joseph Addison in the "Spectator." At sixteen, his fourteen "Silence Dogood" letters were published in the New England Courant; these, some say, established the American style of literature. At seventeen he ran away from Boston. Today his statue stands in front of the old Boston City Hall, now a bank.

Franklin found employment as a journeyman with a printer, Samuel Keimer, in Philadelphia, a city of 10,000 then the second largest in the British Empire. He lived in the home of John Read on Market St. At nineteen he was sent on a mission to London by the Governor, William Keith, who left him stranded there without funds. He found employment as a printer, but did manage to meet some prominent scientists such as Henry Pemberton and Hans Sloane (to whom he sold a rare asbestos purse). He was able to return to Philadelphia the next year and renew his printing work, while assisting also in a store to pay for his return trip. About this time he outlined a life plan based upon frugality, industry, and truthfulness. He organized the Junto (a "Leather Apron Club"), which met every Friday at a tavern to discuss humane and practical questions.

At twenty-two he opened his own printing shop, which prospered for twenty years. The following year he purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette (later known as the Saturday Evening Post). At twenty-four, he became Public Printer for the Pennsylvania Assembly-followed later by those in Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. In that same year he married the faithful, stay-at-home Deborah Read. Two years later their son Francis was born, only to die at four. (Meanwhile, Franklin had had an illegitimate son, William Temple.) At twenty-five he organized a subscription Library Co. (When he died, his private library of 4,000 volumes was the largest in the country.) In 1732 he published the first "Poor Richard: an Almanack" (for 1773)-the one in 1748 sold 10,000 copies.

At twenty-seven, Franklin became Clerk of the Assembly. He organized the Union Fire Co. (nineteen years later he formed the first American Fire Insurance Co.). After four years he was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia. At thirty-two he had a daughter, Sarah (she married Richard Bache). In 1743 he proposed a Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, which was formed the next year as the American Philosophical Society with Franklin as its Secretary. The year before he retired from printing at forty-two, he organized an Association for Pennsylvania Defense. He was elected a member of the Philadelphia Common Council. In 1749 he was elected President of the Trustees of the Academy of Philadelphia, which he had proposed (it became the University of Pennsylvania). At forty-five he was a Philadelphia member of the Assembly and also an Alderman. Two years later he was made Deputy Postmaster General. At the Albany Congress the following year he proposed a plan for uniting the colonies. The next year he became President of the Managers of the Pennsylvania Hospital. He assisted Gen. Braddock with transportation problems, and later himself organized the Philadelphia Militia.

As a public man, at fifty-one he was a natural agent for the Assembly to send to London, presumably for six months, actually for six years-largely at his own expense. William Temple, who accompanied him, had an illegitimate son, but managed to marry a London beauty in 1761, the year of the coronation of George 111. (The son later became Governor of New Jersey, but was reprimanded for disloyalty in his father's will.) At fifty-six, Franklin returned to Philadelphia (he built a new house). Two years later he was elected Speaker of the Assembly-only to lose out in his bid for re-election as a member. Accordingly, the Assembly sent him back to England as its agent-later the agent also for Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. At sixty-three, he was made President of the American Philosophical Society, renewed each year thereafter until his death. Two years later he wrote Part I of his "Autobiography" (Part II twelve years later, Part III seventeen years later-incomplete). Unfortunately, George III had no interest in trade or science-hence not at all in Franklin. At sixty-eight, having sent copies of some state letters to Boston, he was arraigned before the Privy Council with regard to a Boston petition, which was rejected. Franklin was dismissed as Deputy Postmaster General and sent away in disgrace. After his wife died, at sixty-nine he returned home.

Franklin was elected Postmaster General by the Second Continental Congress; he was made a Pennsylvania Delegate to it. The year following he was a member of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and then a Pennsylvania Delegate to the Constitutional Convention. At seventy two, he was one of three Commissioners sent to Paris and became Plenipotentiary Minister to the French Court the following year. At seventy-nine he returned and was elected a member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Council, then President for three years. The next year he enlarged his house. He organized a Society for Political Enquiries, of which he became President. He was also made President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. (In his will, he freed his personal slave.) He was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Federal Constitution Convention, where he introduced the Great Compromise regarding representation. He gave the closing address. He died April 17, 1790, and was buried in Christ Church graveyard in Philadelphia. There was a cortege of 20,000 for this colonial patriot and American sage.

Throughout his life Franklin was prone to self-examination, resulting in integrity. He exercised methodical discipline and reasonable order. Exhibiting common sense, he was shrewd and pragmatic. He was sincere and honest, he showed personal benevolence. His goal was human freedom and dignity. He was amiable rather than aggressive, hesitant to offer an opinion that might offend. He had good humor and a ready wit. He made lasting friends of all ages. He was at home chatting before his fireplace or joking at the club. He enjoyed life, good food, rum, and Madeira; he did not smoke, chew, or use snuff. He was generally temperate, although while young he was addicted to low women and when old he was till quite fond of the fair sex. In his will he left two extant, philanthropic trusts: one to Boston and one to Philadelphia.

Franklin was an ingenious natural philosopher. He had a genuine curiosity about natural phenomena: the dew on the outside of a tankard, the quieting of disturbed water with oil, the heat absorbed by cloths of different colors. On his ocean voyages he noted atmospheric phenomena and was the first to measure the temperature of the Gulf Stream. In Maryland he rode after a whirlwind. He observed that the path of a northeast storm did not have the direction of the wind.

Although an amateur gifted in providing only qualitative explanations, he was truly a physicist owing largely to his investigations of electrostatics. He did not begin experimenting until his retirement approached. Within four years from his start, at forty-one he published his "Experiments and Observations." He had learned how to electrify an electrical conductor permanently. He proposed a single electric fluid whose excess signified a positively charged body; its deficiency, a negatively charged one-an implication of conservation of electric charge. He was thus able to explain the behavior of the charged Leyden jar and to predict the discharge of a metallic point. He proposed an experiment to show that awful lightning was basically a large electric spark-verified first in Paris and shortly after in a modified way with his own kite experiment in Philadelphia. He was made Fellow of the Royal Society of London, several times a member of its council, the first foreigner to receive its coveted Copley medal. He was made a Corresponding Member of the French royal Acad6mie des Sciences-the next American was Louis Agassiz a century later. He received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, Oxford, and St. Andrew's.

Franklin was a gadgeteer. Musically inclined (he played harp, guitar, and violin) he made a so-called "armonica" with rotating glass hemispheres of different diameters that sounded when touched. He made a flexible catheter for his ill brother, a mahogany chair with a ladder beneath its cowhide seat, a long arm to grasp books from a high shelf, and bifocal spectacles (Paris 1784)-not to mention his cast-iron stove, the Pennsylvania fireplace.

Franklin's religious ideas did not vary much from the "Articles of Belief and Religion" he formulated at twenty-two to the explanatory letter he wrote at eighty-four to the request from Ezra Stiles, Congregational clergyman, President of Yale. He was essentially a Deist-believing not in a disinterested God or a materially interested God or a God morally concerned about the present, but rather in an eternal God of reason, Creator of the Universe. God, of course, was governor of the world; He guides (steers) it. To do so, communication is requisite; i.e., prayers. Hence on 28 June 1787 Franklin moved that the Convention begin each day with prayer-not passed owing to the disbelief of three or four members. Franklin noted that the building of the Tower of Babel had failed because of the lack of God's help, which is requisite for men to cooperate-he cited Psalms 127: 1.

Franklin was not narrow in his religious outlook. When the evangelist George Whitefield visited Philadelphia in 1739 for the Great Awakening, the local clergy kept their church doors closed. The next year Franklin assisted in the erection of a new building accessible to a speaker of any religious persuasion. He himself contributed to the support of the Presbyterian Church and to Christ Church for a pew; the latter was attended by Deborah. In 1750, he assisted Sir Francis Dashwood prepare an abridgement of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In his letter to Stiles, he agreed that Jesus Christ had the best systems of morals and religion, but was inclined to accept the doubts of the Dissenters as to His divinity. He believed in an afterlife, but, in general, he had no interest in speculative philosophy, including theology.