Benjamin Franklin

by Walter Isaacson

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024
Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

What are the big ideas? 1. Franklin's approach to moral and religious beliefs: The book reveals that Franklin's moral and religious views were more a calculation of

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Franklin's approach to moral and religious beliefs: The book reveals that Franklin's moral and religious views were more a calculation of what credos would be useful for people to believe, rather than an expression of sincere inner convictions. This insight sheds light on the practical side of Franklin's philosophy and how it influenced his actions in creating a social order that promoted the common good.
  2. The power of civic virtues: The book highlights how Franklin's civic virtues, such as honesty, industry, frugality, temperance, cleanliness, chastity, and obedience to law, helped create a social order that promoted the common good. This learning is distinctively presented in this book through the examples of Franklin's community improvement associations and other public endeavors, which provide practical insights into how these virtues were applied in historical context.
  3. The value of religious tolerance: The book underscores the importance of religious tolerance as one of Franklin's greatest contributions to the Enlightenment. This insight is presented through the concept of good-natured religious tolerance and its indispensable role in creating a more harmonious society.
  4. The practicality of Franklin's greatness: The book reveals that Franklin's greatness sprang more from his practicality than from profundity or poetry, demonstrating that even ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions to their communities and the world.
  5. Franklin's impact on social order: Through the examples of Franklin's community improvement associations and other public endeavors, the book shows how one person's actions can influence the creation of a social order that promotes the common good. This learning offers practical insights into the power of individual action in shaping society and highlights the importance of personal responsibility for creating positive change.


CHAPTER ONE: Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America


  • Benjamin Franklin was a multilayered figure, whose character can be seen from different perspectives, including his own as a young man and an older observer, and through the memories of his wife.
  • Franklin was a contemporary and relatable founding father, who had a chattiness and clever irony that makes him stand out from the others.
  • Franklin was America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, who proved lightning was electricity and invented bifocal glasses, among other things.
  • Franklin consciously tried to create a new American archetype by crafting his own persona and image, which was rooted in reality as a member of the middle class.
  • Franklin had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that a new nation would draw its strength from what he called “the middling people.”
  • The changing assessments of Franklin over time reflect and refract the nation’s changing values, making him a particularly resonant figure in twenty-first-century America.
  • The lessons from Franklin’s life are complex, and both his fans and foes often mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions.
  • Engaging with Franklin allows us to grapple with fundamental issues such as how to live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and spiritually meaningful.


“Franklin’s most important vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class.”

“Through his self-improvement tips for cultivating personal virtues and his civic-improvement schemes for furthering the common good, he helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens”

“And we would relate to the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, the pursuit of reputation, wealth, earthly virtues, and spiritual values.2”

CHAPTER TWO: Pilgrim’s Progress: Boston, 1706–1723


  • Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706 (Old Style: January 6, 1705).
  • Franklin was the tenth of seventeen children in a large and poor family.
  • Franklin's father was a soap and candle maker, while his mother was a domestic servant.
  • Franklin received a very limited education as a result of his family's poverty.
  • Franklin's family were strict Puritans who believed in the importance of hard work and thrift.
  • Franklin's older brother James taught him to read and write and later apprenticed him in his printing shop.
  • Franklin escaped from James's apprenticeship by running away to New York City in 1723, when he was just 17 years old.
  • In New York, Franklin worked as an apprentice in several printing shops and became involved in the city's vibrant literary scene.
  • After several years in New York, Franklin moved to Philadelphia where he established himself as a successful printer, writer, and publisher.
  • Franklin became one of the most important figures of the American Revolution, serving as an ambassador to France and helping to draft the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
  • Franklin died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790 (Old Style: April 17, 1790).


“For some people, the most important formative element is place. To appreciate Harry Truman, for example, you must understand the Missouri frontier of the nineteenth century; likewise, you must delve into the Hill Country of Texas to fathom Lyndon Johnson.3 But Benjamin Franklin was not so rooted. His heritage was that of a people without place—the youngest sons of middle-class artisans—most of whom made their careers in towns different from those of their fathers. He is thus best understood as a product of lineage rather than of land.”

“Industry and frugality,” he wrote in describing the theme of Poor Richard’s almanacs, are “the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue.”

“Fish and guests stink after three days.”

“George Brownell. Franklin excelled in writing but failed math, a scholastic deficit he never fully remedied and that, combined with his lack of academic training in the field, would eventually condemn him to be merely the most ingenious scientist of his era rather than transcending into the pantheon of truly profound theorists such as Newton.”

“progress, the concept that individuals, and humanity in general, move forward and improve based on a steady increase of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity.”

“History is a tale, Franklin came to believe, not of immutable forces but of human endeavors.”

“Socrates’ method of building an argument through gentle queries, he “dropped my abrupt contradiction” style of argument and “put on the humbler enquirer” of the Socratic method. By asking what seemed to be innocent questions, Franklin would draw people into making concessions that would gradually prove whatever point he was trying to assert.”

“The most dangerous hypocrite in a Commonwealth is one who leaves the gospel for the sake of the law. A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under color of law.”40”

CHAPTER THREE: Journeyman: Philadelphia and London, 1723–1726


  • Keys to success include hard work, frugality, and self-discipline.
  • Franklin's scientific curiosity is evident in his experimentation on crabs and observations of dolphins and flying fish on his voyage home.
  • The Art of Swimming, written in 1696 by a Frenchman named Melchisedec Thevenot, helped to popularize the breaststroke.
  • The Enlightenment credo that there is a sociable affinity based on the natural instinct of benevolence among fellow humans is evident in Franklin's writing.
  • Man is a sociable being and solitude is an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind, but would be insupportable as a constant state.
  • Seeing the American shore was the greatest happiness Franklin experienced in his life.


“poet convinced both of his own talent and of the need to be self-indulgent in order to be a great artist.”

“As they were making their way out, they went through a narrow passage and Mather suddenly warned, “Stoop! Stoop!” Franklin, not understanding the exhortation, bumped his head on a low beam. As was his wont, Mather turned it into a homily: “Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high. Stoop, young man, stoop—as you go through this world—and you’ll miss many hard thumps.” As Franklin later recalled to Mather’s son, “This advice, thus beat into my head, has frequently been of use to me, and I often think of it when I see pride mortified and misfortunes brought upon people by carrying their heads too high.”

“he was practical about what he wanted in a wife. Deborah was rather plain, but she offered the prospect of comfort and domesticity.”

“For Franklin, it was an insight into human foibles rather than evil. “He wished to please everybody,” Franklin later said of Keith, “and having little to give, he gave expectations.”

“he was more comfortable exploring practical thoughts and real-life situations than metaphysical abstractions or deductive proofs. The”

“While gambling at checkers with some shipmates, he formulated an “infallible rule,” which was that “if two persons equal in judgment play for a considerable sum, he that loves money most shall lose; his anxiety for the success of the game confounds him.” The rule, he decided, applied to other battles; a person who is too fearful will end up performing defensively and thus fail to seize offensive advantages.”

CHAPTER FOUR: Printer: Philadelphia, 1726–1732


  • The first American bestseller was a collection of proverbs and aphorisms that Franklin stole from other sources.
  • The almanac was a popular format in colonial America, and Franklin used it to poke fun at himself, his competitors, and the pretensions of the elite.
  • Franklin’s witty sayings were among the first to be widely repeated in American culture, and they are still quoted today.
  • Franklin’s clever use of irony and satire was one of his greatest talents as a writer and communicator.
  • The almanac made Franklin wealthy and established him as a popular figure in Philadelphia society.
  • Franklin used the almanac to promote his newspaper, his printing business, and his reputation as a writer and humorist.
  • Poor Richard Saunders became a beloved character in American folklore, with his wit and wisdom inspiring generations of readers.
  • Franklin’s almanac remains one of the most enduring examples of his ability to entertain and educate at the same time.
  • The almanac also shows how Franklin used humor to make serious points about the importance of hard work, honesty, and integrity.
  • The almanac is a testament to Franklin’s genius as a writer, editor, and publisher, as well as his ability to create memorable characters and stories that resonate with readers long after they are published.


“My mind, having been much more improved by reading than Keimer’s, I suppose it was for that reason my conversation seemed more valued. They had me to their houses, introduced me to their friends, and showed me much civility.”

“Franklin was worried that his fondness for conversation and eagerness to impress made him prone to “prattling, punning and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company.” Knowledge, he realized, “was obtained rather by the use of the ear than of the tongue.” So in the Junto, he began to work on his use of silence and gentle dialogue.”

“The other sins on his list were, in order: seeming uninterested, speaking too much about your own life, prying for personal secrets (“an unpardonable rudeness”), telling long and pointless stories (“old folks are most subject to this error, which is one chief reason their company is so often shunned”), contradicting or disputing someone directly, ridiculing or railing against things except in small witty doses (“it’s like salt, a little of which in some cases gives relish, but if thrown on by handfuls spoils all”), and spreading scandal (though he would later write lighthearted defenses of gossip).”

“When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him.”

“In addition to such topics of debate, Franklin laid out a guide for the type of conversational contributions each member could usefully make. There were twenty-four in all, and because their practicality is so revealing of Franklin’s purposeful approach, they are worth excerpting at length:”

“The riches of a country are to be valued by the quantity of labor its inhabitants are able to purchase, and not by the quantity of silver and gold they possess.” The”

“Whoever accustoms himself to pass over in silence the faults of his neighbors shall meet with much better quarter from the world when he happens to fall into a mistake himself.”14”

“At stake was the virtue of free expression, and Franklin summed up the Enlightenment position in a sentence that is now framed on newsroom walls: “Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.”

“Franklin ended his “Apology for Printers” with a fable about a father and son traveling with a donkey. When the father rode and made his son walk, they were criticized by those they met; likewise, they were criticized when the son rode and made the father walk, or when they both rode the donkey, or when neither did. So finally, they decided to throw the donkey off a bridge. The moral, according to Franklin, was that it is foolish to try to avoid all criticism. Despite his “despair of pleasing everybody,” Franklin concluded, “I shall not burn my press or melt my letters.”16”

“Instead, Franklin found “a good and faithful helpmate” who was frugal and practical and devoid of pretensions, traits that he later noted were far more valuable to a rising tradesman.”

“Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; (i.e., waste nothing). Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”

“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

“Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults ”

“There was never a good knife made of bad steel ”

CHAPTER FIVE: Public Citizen: Philadelphia, 1731–1748


  • Franklin’s experience as a printer, writer, and publisher in the 1730s had convinced him of the power of print and its ability to spread ideas.
  • He had also come to appreciate the importance of self-improvement, both for himself and for others, and had sought to promote it through the Junto, library, and philosophical society.
  • In addition, he had developed a populist appreciation for the potential of ordinary people when they worked together in collective action, as seen in his efforts with the militia association.
  • All these experiences shaped his thinking about science, politics, and society that would inform his contributions to the Enlightenment and American Revolution over the next three decades.


“In doing so, he learned one of his pragmatic lessons about jealousy and modesty: he found that people were reluctant to support a “proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation.”

“proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation.” So he put himself “as much as I could out of sight” and gave credit for the idea to his friends. This method worked so well that “I ever after practiced it on such occasions.” People will eventually give you the credit, he noted, if you don’t try to claim it at the time. “The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.”

CHAPTER SIX: Scientist and Inventor: Philadelphia, 1744–1751


  • The scientific method is a process for discovering how things in the universe work. It is grounded in observation, experimentation, and self-correction.
  • Scientific knowledge is tentative and subject to change. New evidence can lead to new insights and conclusions that overturn earlier assumptions.
  • Science is a collaborative effort, with individuals building upon the work of others. This requires openness, transparency, and sharing of ideas and results.
  • Scientific knowledge has practical applications that can improve human lives. Franklin’s discovery of the electrical nature of lightning led to the invention of the lightning rod, which protects buildings from fires caused by lightning strikes.
  • Science can be used to address public policy issues. Franklin applied his scientific approach to politics, seeking practical solutions to problems through experimentation and adaptation.


“The new Pennsylvania Fireplaces, as he called them, were initially somewhat popular, at £5 apiece, and papers around the colonies were filled with testimonials. “They ought to be called, both in justice and gratitude, Mr. Franklin’s stoves,” declared one letter writer in the Boston Evening Post. “I believe all who have experienced the comfort and benefit of them will join with me that the author of this happy invention merits a statue.” The governor of Pennsylvania was among the enthusiastic, and he offered Franklin what could have been a lucrative patent. “But I declined it,” Franklin noted in his autobiography. “As we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.” It was a noble and sincere sentiment.”

“In fact, these terms devised by Franklin are the ones we still use today, along with other neologisms that he coined to describe his findings: battery, charged, neutral, condense, and conductor.”

CHAPTER SEVEN: Politician: Philadelphia, 1749–1756


  • Franklin’s popularity had grown to the point that he was seen as a potential threat to the Proprietors, who were determined to undermine him.
  • The frontier militia was the most successful of several attempts by Franklin to create an effective defense force.
  • Franklin’s ability to remain on good terms with political adversaries was eroding, and he was increasingly willing to stand up for his principles.
  • Franklin’s brief tenure as a military officer satisfied his vanity and allowed him to spend time in the countryside with his son.
  • Franklin’s final break with the Proprietors was inevitable, and he eagerly accepted the Assembly’s offer to represent it in London.
  • Despite his skepticism about the value of political power, Franklin realized that he could use his influence to defend Pennsylvania’s interests.
  • Franklin would never again be so successful in forging compromises and avoiding confrontations, but he would remain committed to the cause of the Assembly and the colonists until his death.


“David Brooks, “Our Founding Yuppie,” Weekly Standard, Oct. 23, 2000, 31. The word “meritocracy” is an argument-starter, and I have employed it sparingly in this book. It is often used loosely to denote a vision of social mobility based on merit and diligence, like Franklin’s. The word was coined by British social thinker Michael Young (later to become, somewhat ironically, Lord Young of Darlington) in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy (New York: Viking Press) as a dismissive term to satirize a society that misguidedly created a new elite class based on the “narrow band of values” of IQ and educational credentials. The Harvard philosopher John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 106, used it more broadly to mean a “social order [that] follows the principle of careers open to talents.” The best description of the idea is in Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), a history of educational aptitude tests and their effect on American society. In Franklin’s time, Enlightenment thinkers (such as Jefferson in his proposals for creating the University of Virginia) advocated replacing the hereditary aristocracy with a “natural aristocracy,” whose members would be plucked from the masses at an early age based on “virtues and talents” and groomed for leadership. Franklin’s idea was more expansive. He believed in encouraging and providing opportunities for all people to succeed as best they could based on their diligence, hard work, virtue, and talent. As we shall see, his proposals for what became the University of Pennsylvania (in contrast to Jefferson’s for the University of Virginia) were aimed not at filtering a new elite but at encouraging and enriching all “aspiring” young men. Franklin was propounding a more egalitarian and democratic approach than Jefferson by proposing a system that would, as Rawls (p. 107) would later prescribe, assure that “resources for education are not to be allotted solely or necessarily mainly according to their return as estimated in productive trained abilities, but also according to their worth in enriching the personal and social life of citizens.” (Translation: He cared not simply about making society as a whole more productive, but also about making each individual more enriched.)”

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

CHAPTER EIGHT: Troubled Waters: London, 1757–1762


  • Franklin’s arrival in London in 1757 was a momentous occasion, one that he would never forget. He had long dreamed of visiting England, but his hopes of doing so had been repeatedly dashed by the outbreak of the Seven Years' War.
  • The war did not end until 1763, but Franklin's years in England were a time of great personal and intellectual growth. He made many new friends, including David Hume, Joseph Priestley, and Benjamin West, and he became a literary celebrity.
  • Franklin's first major project in London was a series of experiments with lightning that culminated in his famous kite experiment of 1752. His discoveries transformed him from a mere inventor into a world-renowned scientist.
  • Franklin's fame brought him many opportunities to expand his scientific interests, including an invitation from King Louis XV to perform experiments at the Palace of Versailles in 1758.
  • Franklin also played an important role in the development of international communications when he served as president of the Royal Society from 1757 to 1763. In this capacity, he oversaw the creation of a system for transmitting messages between London and Paris via ships sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Although Franklin was deeply involved in scientific research during his years in England, he never lost sight of American affairs, especially the growing tensions between Britain and her colonies over issues of taxation and self-government.
  • Franklin's interest in these matters led him to write a pamphlet titled "The Interest of Great Britain Considered with Regard to Her Colonies" (1760), which argued that Britain should retain control of Canada after the war with France ended because it would benefit the British Empire and help protect its American colonies from constant harassment by the French and their Indian allies.
  • The pamphlet also contained an important argument about the relationship between Britain and her colonies, one that foreshadowed Franklin's later disillusionment with imperial politics: he warned that continued attempts to exploit America as merely a market for British goods would lead to colonial resistance and possibly independence.
  • In 1762, five years after his arrival in London, Franklin decided it was time to return home to America with his son William, who had just been appointed governor of New Jersey. But Franklin's hope that he could settle down with his family on his Pennsylvania estate proved unfounded; instead, he would be drawn back into colonial affairs only two years later when he was called upon to help draft the Declaration of Independence.


“For the fashionable gentlemen of the aristocracy, elegant eating and gambling clubs, such as White’s and later Brookes’s and Boodle’s, were starting to spring up in St. James’s. For the burgeoning new class of writers, journalists, professionals, and intellectuals whose company Franklin preferred, there were the coffeehouses.”

“He also speculated, correctly, that summer breezes do not by themselves cool people; instead, the cooling effect comes from the increased evaporation of human perspiration caused by the breeze.”

“His usual pragmatic instincts fell prey to sentiments he had once tried to train himself to avoid, such as bitterness, wounded pride, emotionalism, and political fervor.”

“Franklin and Hume also shared an interest in language. When Hume berated him for coining new words, Franklin agreed to quit using the terms “colonize” and “unshakeable.” But he lamented that “I cannot but wish the usage of our tongue permitted making new words when we want them.” For example, Franklin argued, the word “inaccessible” was not nearly as good as coining a new word such as “uncomeatable.” Hume’s response to this suggestion is unknown, but it did nothing to diminish his ardent admiration for his new friend. “America has sent us many good things, gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, indigo,” he wrote back. “But you are the first philosopher, and indeed the first great man of letters, for whom we are beholden to her.”

“But the decision was made a bit easier because he assumed that he would soon be back. “The attraction of reason is at present for the other side of the water, but that of inclination will be for this side,” he wrote Strahan. “You know which usually prevails.” Indeed, his inclination to be in England would prevail again within two years. He was, however, too optimistic about both his personal and public life when he added, “I shall probably make but this one vibration and settle here forever. Nothing will prevent it if I can, as I hope I can, prevail with Mrs. F. to accompany me.”40”

CHAPTER NINE: Home Leave: Philadelphia, 1763–1764


  • The Paxton Boys, a group of frontiersmen, massacred a group of peaceful Indians and their families in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
  • Benjamin Franklin, a local printer and publisher, wrote a pamphlet called "A Narrative of the Late Massacres in Lancaster County" in response to the massacre, which detailed the horrific acts committed against the Indians and called for justice.
  • The pamphlet was among the most emotional pieces Franklin ever wrote and reflected his underlying prejudice against the German settlers as well as his lifelong distaste for Presbyterian-Calvinist dogma.
  • The pamphlet damaged Franklin politically, as it reflected his underlying prejudice against the German settlers and showed little sympathy for the grievances of the frontiersmen.
  • The Paxton Boys were eventually pardoned by the governor, which angered Franklin and led him to denounce the governor as a corrupt and ineffective leader.
  • The incident highlighted the tensions between the frontiersmen and the settled population, as well as the ongoing conflict between Franklin and the Proprietary government.

CHAPTER TEN: Agent Provocateur: London, 1765–1770


  • Franklin’s views about the rights of the colonies evolved in the 1760s.
  • He initially tried to balance his loyalty to Britain with his sympathy for colonial rights, but this became increasingly difficult as Parliament passed laws that appeared to be punitive toward the colonies.
  • He supported the repeal of the Townshend duties and was disappointed when Parliament only removed most of them, leaving a duty on tea.
  • He became more radicalized as the 1760s progressed, eventually supporting a boycott of British goods and a refusal to pay taxes.
  • He hoped that America could remain loyal to the king while rejecting Parliament’s authority, but he eventually came to realize that this would not be possible.

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Rebel: London, 1771–1775


  • The American Revolution was not inevitable.
  • The First Continental Congress, held in 1774, did not declare independence but did call for a boycott of British goods if Parliament did not repeal its coercive acts.
  • The British government, led by Lord North, refused to consider the Continental Congress as a legitimate negotiating partner.
  • Benjamin Franklin, as the leading American agent in London, attempted to persuade British officials to negotiate a settlement that would preserve American rights within the British Empire.
  • Franklin’s efforts were unsuccessful because of the intransigence of both the North ministry and some of the colonial agents in London.
  • The failure of these negotiations contributed to the outbreak of war in April 1775.
  • Franklin’s efforts to serve as an intermediary between Britain and America were part of a broader pattern of secret diplomacy and back-channel talks that continued until war broke out.
  • Franklin’s participation in these discussions allowed him to see firsthand the strength of anti-American sentiment in Britain and to understand the depth of American resistance to British rule.
  • Franklin’s reputation as a man of integrity and knowledge made him an attractive interlocutor for both British officials and members of the Whig opposition who were seeking ways to avoid conflict with America.
  • Franklin’s experience in Britain during this critical period helped prepare him for his eventual role as a member of the Continental Congress and as one of America’s leading diplomats during the Revolutionary War.


“Franklin asserted his conservatism more forcefully. Most notable was an anonymous piece entitled “On the Laboring Poor,” which he signed “Medius,”

“Those who met with greater economic success in life were responsible to help those in genuine need; but those who from lack of virtue failed to pull their own weight could expect no help from society.”

CHAPTER TWELVE: Independence: Philadelphia, 1775–1776


  • Franklin’s love for France, and the French people, was a central fact of his life. He had visited twice before, and he was eager to return.
  • The American Revolution was not only a political but also a cultural event, one that changed the way Americans thought about themselves and their nation.
  • France's decision to support the American Revolution was one of the most significant events in modern world history.
  • The French Revolution was not only a domestic event but also an international one, with profound consequences for Europe and America.
  • The interplay between the American and French Revolutions shaped the modern world in ways that can still be felt today.
  • Franklin's role as an agent of enlightenment in France during his second mission was a key part of his legacy as a philosopher and public figure.
  • Franklin's personal qualities, including his love of exploration, his curiosity, his wit, and his ability to communicate with people from all walks of life, were essential to his success as a diplomat and writer.
  • The relationship between Franklin and Thomas Jefferson deepened during this trip, as the two men came to understand and appreciate each other more fully than ever before.
  • Franklin's last great adventure underscores the importance of personal relationships in shaping history: Franklin's love for France and its people; Jefferson's desire to learn from him; Temple's need for a father; Benny's love for adventure; and Elizabeth's longing to see her husband again.


“As Franklin repeatedly stressed in his letters to his son, America should not replicate the rigid ruling hierarchies of the Old World, the aristocratic structures and feudal social orders based on birth rather than merit. Instead, its strength would be its creation of a proud middling people, a class of frugal and industrious shopkeepers and tradesmen who were assertive of their rights and proud of their status.”

“the removal of all royal governments in the colonies. Patriotic”

“As Franklin recounted: He composed it in these words, “John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,” with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word “Hatter” tautologous, because followed by the words “makes hats,” which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word “makes” might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats . . . He struck it out. A third said he thought the words “for ready money” were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, “John Thompson sells hats.” “Sells hats!” says his next friend; “why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?” It was stricken out, and “hats” followed, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to “John Thompson,” with the figure of a hat subjoined.”37”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Courtier: Paris, 1776–1778


  • The American Revolution was the first successful revolt by a colonial society against its imperial master.
  • The American Revolution was not a single event, but rather a series of conflicts that took place over eight years, from 1775 to 1783.
  • The American Revolution was fought between the American colonies and Great Britain, with France joining the Americans in an alliance against Britain in 1778.
  • The American Revolution was caused by a number of factors, including the economic and political differences between the American colonies and Great Britain, the British government's attempts to assert greater control over the colonies, and the colonists' desire for self-government.
  • The American Revolution was fought using a variety of military strategies, including guerrilla warfare, conventional warfare, and naval warfare.
  • The American Revolution ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, which recognized the independence of the United States of America.
  • The American Revolution had a profound impact on both America and the world, setting a precedent for other colonial societies to follow in their struggles for independence and establishing the United States as a major world power.


“There was the mother who offered up three of her flock of sons, the Dutch surgeon who wanted to study bodies that had been blown apart, and the Benedictine monk who promised to pray for America if it would pay off his gambling debts.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Bon Vivant: Paris, 1778–1785


  • The importance of family and friendship. Franklin’s relationship with his daughter Sally and his grandchildren was a source of pride and joy, even if he had to offer some stern words from time to time. He also formed a deep bond with the Brillons, who became like a second family to him.
  • The power of art and music. Franklin’s appreciation for the arts was life-long, but it grew even stronger during his years in France. He saw painting and sculpture as ways to understand the world and to express his own creativity. Music was also a passion, and he played the armonica with his friends.
  • The value of hard work and diligence. Franklin believed that people should be rewarded for their efforts, whether it was spinning thread or studying Latin. He also knew that hard work is essential for success in any field, whether it be business or academics.
  • The importance of humor. Franklin liked to joke around with his friends and make light of situations. He believed that humor was a way to connect with people and make them feel at ease, even when dealing with serious matters.
  • The need for religious tolerance. Franklin believed that all religions were fundamentally the same and that people should not be judged based on their religious beliefs. He believed that the best service to God was doing good to men, regardless of what they believed about God.
  • The benefits of education. Franklin valued education as a way to improve one’s mind and character, as well as a means of social mobility. He believed that education could help people become better citizens and better members of their communities.
  • The importance of gratitude. Franklin often expressed his gratitude for the kindnesses shown to him by his friends, whether it was in person or through letters. He believed that expressing gratitude was a way to show respect for others and to strengthen relationships.


“Mr. Franklin kept a horn book always in his pocket in which he minuted all his invitations to dinner, and Mr. Lee said it was the only thing in which he was punctual ”

“As Claude-Anne Lopez notes, “In colonial America it was sinful to look idle, in France it was vulgar to look busy.”

“Another time, he was playing [chess] with his equal, the Duchess of Bourbon, who made a move that inadvertently exposed her king. Ignoring the rules of the game, he promptly captured it. "Ah," said the duchess, "we do not take Kings so." Replied Franklin in a famous quip: "We do in America.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Peacemaker: Paris, 1778–1785


  • Franklin’s early life in Boston was dominated by his father’s failure and his mother’s death, leaving him with a deep sense of abandonment.
  • His apprenticeship as a printer in Boston was a turning point that gave him confidence in his abilities and led to his lifelong love of the trade.
  • In 1744, Franklin, then 48, met and befriended Deborah Read, who would become his common-law wife and the mother of his two children.
  • Franklin’s work on electricity was groundbreaking, but he never received the recognition he deserved for it because he never patented his discoveries.
  • The American Revolution brought out the best in Franklin, as he used his intellect and diplomacy to help America gain its independence from Britain.
  • Franklin’s long-standing feud with his son William came to a head in 1775 when William betrayed the patriot cause and sided with the British during the American Revolution.
  • Franklin’s time in France during the 1780s was an emotional farewell tour, as he revisited old friends and made new ones while preparing to return home to America for good.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Sage: Philadelphia, 1785–1790


  • Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. He was the youngest son of a soap and candle maker. He had two brothers, Josiah and John, and one sister, Jane.
  • Franklin left Boston at the age of 17 to work as a printer in Philadelphia, where he would eventually start his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.
  • In 1730, Franklin invented the lightning rod after a series of fires in Philadelphia led him to explore how lightning worked.
  • Franklin was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1734, and he served as Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1735 to 1742.
  • Franklin was appointed Postmaster General of the Colonies by the British government in 1753, a position he held until 1774.
  • Franklin was an abolitionist and supported efforts to abolish slavery in America. He was president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery from 1785 until his death in 1790.
  • Franklin’s inventions and experiments have had a lasting impact on science and technology, including his work on electricity and his invention of bifocals.
  • Franklin’s contributions to American history are also significant; he played a crucial role in drafting both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
  • Franklin’s legacy as a scientist, inventor, statesman, and diplomat has made him an enduring figure in American history and culture.
  • Franklin died on April 17, 1790, at the age of 84, leaving behind a vast array of writings, discoveries, inventions, and achievements that continue to shape our world today.


“Most men, indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the Pope that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrine is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But, though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a little dispute with her sister said: “I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.”

“Franklin and his petition were roundly denounced by the defenders of slavery, most notably Congressman James Jackson of Georgia, who declared on the House floor that the Bible had sanctioned slavery and, without it, there would be no one to do the hard and hot work on plantations.”



  • William Franklin was disinherited by his father, Benjamin Franklin, due to his actions during the Revolutionary War.
  • William's son, Temple Franklin, inherited many of Benjamin Franklin's important papers and a share of his estate, but he did not publish them for fourteen years.
  • Sally and Richard Bache, Benjamin Franklin's daughter and son-in-law, inherited most of his property and followed his wishes by setting free his slave Bob.
  • Benjamin Bache, Benjamin Franklin's grandson, inherited his printing equipment and books and launched a crusading Jeffersonian newspaper. He died at age 29 due to yellow fever.
  • Polly Stevenson, Benjamin Franklin's close friend, was disenchanted with his family and all things American after his death.
  • Benjamin Franklin established a trust to provide loans to young married artificers in Boston and Philadelphia, which has had varying degrees of success over the years.
  • The diversity of the recipients of the Philadelphia fund in 2001 would have delighted Benjamin Franklin.
  • Some of Benjamin Franklin's legacy can be seen in the use of a $4,300 grant from him to build a battery-powered car that won the Tour de Sol's Power of Dreams award in 2001.



  • Franklin’s moral and religious views were largely a calculus of what credos would prove useful for people to believe, rather than an expression of sincere inner convictions.
  • The civic virtues Franklin both practiced and preached helped to create a social order that promoted the common good.
  • Franklin’s community improvement associations and other public endeavors helped to create a social order that promoted the common good.
  • The concept of good-natured religious tolerance was one of the greatest contributions to arise out of the Enlightenment, more indispensable than that of the most profound theologians of the era.
  • The civic virtues Franklin both practiced and preached helped to create a social order that promoted the common good.
  • Although a religious faith based on fervor can be inspiring, there is also something admirable about a religious outlook based on humility and openness.
  • Franklin’s community improvement associations and other public endeavors helped to create a social order that promoted the common good.
  • Few people have ever worked as hard, or done as much, to inculcate virtue and character in themselves and their communities.
  • The practicality of Franklin’s greatness sprang more from his practicality than from profundity or poetry.
  • Franklin’s community improvement associations and other public endeavors helped to create a social order that promoted the common good.


“Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make democracies.”


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