The Power of Ben Franklin’s Pen

Benjamin Franklin created a civic society in Philadelphia

The Founding Father loathed aristocratic pretensions and worked hard to create a civic society in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin almost single-handedly leveled the playing field for the city’s “middling” inhabitants and as a result, created a roadmap for the average citizen to advance and be successful in business. Through institutions such as the American Philosophical Society and publications, Franklin encouraged access to information and freedom of ideas for all that helped to define a new nation.

The Way to Wealth, the most widely reprinted of all of Benjamin Franklin's works, can be found at the Independence Visitor Center, along with other Philadelphia history items. Photo by R. Bloom for PHLCVB.

• In 1731, Franklin and members of the Junto (a society he created to debate moral, political and philosophical questions) organized a lending library – The Library Company of Philadelphia – which enabled subscribers to have access to many more books than they otherwise would have and helped to improve the general conversation among Americans, including common tradesmen and farmers. Today, the Library Company houses over a half million rare books, manuscripts, prints and photographs relating to early American history. Its research facilities, exhibitions and public programs are open to the public free of charge.

• Poor Richard’s Almanack, first published by Franklin under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders on December 19, 1732, became the most useful almanac in colonial America. The publication contained valuable and interesting information such as a calendar, weather predictions, sayings, poems, recipes, advice and proverbs. Some well-known proverbs made famous by the Almanack include “God helps those who help themselves” and “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” “Literature for the masses,” the Almanack was designed for common people who could not afford books to learn and be inspired. Poor Richard’s Almanack was so popular that Napoleon had it translated into Italian and it was also translated into French. Several editions of the Poor Richard’s Almanack can be seen in the Americana collection at the Rosenbach.

•In 1749, after publishing the essay Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth, Franklin organized a group to open a school that would educate not only the aristocracy but also the working class. The Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania would eventually become the University of Pennsylvania, America’s first university. By 1765, Penn’s medical school was the first and only school of medicine in the thirteen American colonies.

• In 1758, Franklin published The Way to Wealth, a collection of Poor Richard’s advice on succeeding in business and in public life. The publication eventually became the most widely reprinted of all his works and was translated into many languages.

• Encouraged by a friend who praised his “frugality, diligence, and temperance,” Franklin began writing his memoirs in 1771. By detailing his Autobiography, Franklin would demonstrate that he was not ashamed of his humble beginnings and would “prove how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness.” The “middling” Americans – tradesmen, artisans, farmers, printers – found in Franklin’s popular writings a relatable hero and an inspirational story to emulate.

Benjamin Franklin’s ideas were innovative and even considered radical for his time. His influence eventually expanded beyond Philadelphia into many other cities, towns and villages. His example was followed and libraries and schools were created and almanacs and other publications were printed for all to access. Franklin became the working person’s symbol and as a result – a great equalizer.

 

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