Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was an American scientist and politician, famous for discovering the electrical nature of lightning and inventing the lightning rod. He was also instrumental in the birth of the United States. Inventors of various devices, Benjamin Franklin remains in the collective memory as being one of the founding fathers of the United States and for having contributed to the drafting of the American Constitution. But we know a little less about his ancillary activities such as journalism, writing, and his mad passion for humor. Thus, he can convey his ideas through surprising letters and newspaper articles, full of curious advice, always in a pleasant tone.
Benjamin Franklin, printer and inventor
The last of a modest family of seventeen children, Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706. He learned printing from his older brother at the age of ten and gradually discovers that natural writing is the best way to get your ideas across and that by using humor, everything is better accepted.
In 1729, he bought the "Pennsylvania Gazette", which would become the most widely read and profitable newspaper in colonial America. Eager to pass on his knowledge, he will publish a mixture of serious articles concerning scientific notions, alongside advice for remaining economical, but also on how to behave in society in order to "shine there in order to eclipse the brilliance of neighbors so that it doesn't tarnish ours...but over time, we become a detestable companion, by bringing everything back to ourselves, by interrupting the speaker, most shy people will let us talk, so we will shine without fear of a rival" .
In 1732 he published the first edition of the "Almanachs du Bonhomme Richard" full of domestic advice, scientific information, proverbs and maxims, and sold 10,000 copies. Defender of the public interest, but often using pseudonyms, he takes the example of “the creation of a sundial so that everyone can know the time without seeing the dial, by using powder cannons. This sundial is very expensive compared to the advantages obtained, it is the same for public projects, requiring a large investment for little profit”.
He is passionate about science, especially electrical phenomena. In 1752, using a kite, Franklin demonstrated that lightning is electricity. He is also the inventor of the lightning rod.
His articles of society
Once his fortune had been acquired, he sold his printing and stationery to one of his employees to devote himself to research and politics, but did not lose his humor and his imagination. He then had time to create schools, libraries, even a fire company. He invents the glass harmonica, the Franklin stove, the lightning conductor, embarks on work on electricity, is admitted to the Royal Society of London and the Academy of Sciences in Paris.
Considering that conversation is an essential mode of spreading culture, in 1750 he founded a club where members discussed philosophical subjects, and Benjamin allowed himself to philosophize on wine , from where he will write the song "les Premiers hommes":
The First Men were all perfectly sober
They had no wine, weren't brewing in October;
All wicked, bilious, bad shots preparing,
No bon vivants, without good pick-me-ups.
It was that old and honest Noah who first planted vines,
And, drinking his wine, preserved his morals;
He rightly condemned the drinkers of water;
Knowing that all mankind would soon perish.
From this episode, clearly we learn
That water is good neither for the body nor for the mind;
That in drunkenness there is virtue and safety,
Anything that drinks water deserves to be drowned.
Also, for our sake, let's raise our glass.
Benjamin Franklin can no longer bear to see England deport criminals to the American colonies, especially since the colonial assemblies want to pass a law "to prevent and discourage the transport of convicts and thugs from Great Britain preventing the development and satisfactory settlement of the Colonies”. He wrote a letter to be published in 1751 taking as an example the rattlesnakes that we are entitled to exterminate, but whose death could be transformed into deportation...they would be transported to England, left on the places where the English walk and in all the gardens of Members of Parliament!
During his trip to London in 1757, he wrote articles, then essays such as "the way to opulence":advice for achieving prosperity, which will be translated into English, French, German, Polish, Russian, Catalan…
The political career of Benjamin Franklin
Elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1747, Franklin had many measures passed for the public good:the construction of colleges and hospitals, the creation of a militia and a fire brigade, etc. He was chosen to defend the interests of Pennsylvania in London in 1757 (the United States was then an English colony), and succeeded in revoking the Stamp Act, which prohibited the colonies from deciding themselves to their taxes (1763).
Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1775 and was elected to Congress from Pennsylvania. He aided General George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and he was one of the five drafters of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776). He is then tasked with asking for help from France. In 1778, he concluded a treaty of friendship between France and the United States and obtained the sending of an army, a fleet and significant financial aid. Franklin was then appointed Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States in France.
His fame in France
For a long time he had hoped that England would be conciliatory with the American colonies. But faced with the lack of goodwill of the English, he took up the defense of the Insurgents and it was at the age of 70 that Benjamin Franklin arrived in France, in order to negotiate the treaty of alliance for the independence of the United States. The ocean crossing happens quickly, despite the storm that makes her wig fly away. Having little hair and eczema on his head, he wears a trapper's hat that will now be all the rage in Paris.
Received in all Parisian salons, elected Grand Master at the Lodge of the Nine Sisters, women will quickly go crazy of him, despite his big belly, his low eyesight, his gout attacks. His cane is copied, we do our hair “Franklin-style”, the bifocal glasses he has just invented will enjoy great success. His portrait is on all the chimneys of the houses, but also on rings, bracelets, snuffboxes. Painters and sculptors constantly ask him to pose, but after a while, he refuses any proposal...being subject to endless torticollis!
For the signing of the treaty of alliance, he must present himself to the king. How to do without a wig? Finding none that fit, he opted for a light gray hat, a dark brown suit and silver-buckled shoes. He is admired, courtiers saying "he is dressed as a Quaker".
Benjamin Franklin, a man full of fantasy
Already young, he had fun "to show that I was not proud, I sometimes crossed the streets with a wheelbarrow to bring home the paper that I 'bought in stores'…
A great lover of humor, he proposed to the Royal Academy of Brussels in 1781, a research subject in the field of physical sciences having a real utility "to discover some healthy and pleasant medicine which, mixed with our foods and our sauces, could render the emissions of winds from our bodies, not only harmless, but pleasant and fragrant”. In his letter, he tries to convince the jury by explaining that the inventor will be rewarded with eternal glory, compared to other unimportant discoveries which have made men of science famous, "man will be much happier free of his belly and pleasing the sense of smell of all those around him rather than observing the light separated into rays of seven colors through Newton's prism!
In 1785, he addressed a letter to those responsible for education through his story of "the Left Hand", where an elder sister received all the necessary education , while the second child is always neglected, even reprimanded for lack of ease and delicacy! What will happen to the family with these unequal treatments, if the older sister has some indispositions? There is a need to equally share the care of children!
He had an extraordinary love life. Claiming that marriage "is a union for lasting happiness, the couple being equipped to succeed together in the world", he nevertheless explains that one can take a mistress, but rather of mature age! These have enriched conversation; after having been beautiful, they become good, rendering 1000 services; no longer having problems with children; moreover, they are discreet in their affair to avoid suspicion.
His ultimate passion was for the widow of Helvétius, nicknamed "Our Lady of Auteuil", former close friend of Turgot, who reigned over eighteen Angora cats and ten dogs, settling on the armchairs in his living room. Benjamin Franklin, who has become a widower, is 80 years old when he proposes marriage to her. Turgot advises her friend against it “it will be as you wish, but if you make this decision, your whole living room will go away”… so she refuses. He may console himself with a bottle of Burgundy, his cellar being supplied by the brother-in-law of the Chevalier d'Eon!
In 1781, he signed the preliminaries of the peace treaty with England. He returned to America in 1785. He was elected delegate to the Convention which was responsible for drafting the Constitution of the United States (1787). He retired from public life in 1788. On his death in 1790, he had such a press that the French National Assembly declared three days of national mourning.
- Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, by Walter Isaacson. alisio, 2017.
- Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin. Libris, 2020.
- Benjamin Franklin:The Founding Father of the United States, by Cédric Leloup. 50 Minutes, 2016.