Benjamin Franklin, the oldest Founding Father, having just passed his 299th birthday, who claimed to "love Company, Chat, a Laugh, a Glass and even a Song," is also one of America's most important and influential Founders.
He may be best known for taming lightning and governments, but what made his storied contributions to mankind possible were his hard work and skill as a businessman. Franklin was a self-made man in the real sense that he rose from obscurity to prominence. Born the youngest son of a Boston tallowmaker, he was apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer. Chafing under James's harsh control, at age 17 he ran away nearly penniless to Philadelphia. There Franklin thrived as a printer, editor, and merchant, launching several newspapers and penning the famous aphorisms of Poor Richard's Almanac.
He retired comfortably at 42 to devote himself to his interests in science, invention, and public service: experimenting with electricity, crafting bifocals and the Franklin stove, and founding the first public library, volunteer fire brigade, and other civic endeavors. A loyal British subject, Franklin was slow to enlist in the Revolutionary cause, but by 1776, he had committed himself fully to American independence. Internationally renowned, he served abroad ably as a diplomat, returning home to lend his reputation and political acumen to the crafting of the new U.S. Constitution. He died shortly afterwards, in 1790, at age 84.
While serving as an ambassador in Paris during the American Revolution, Franklin made a point of wearing the simple dress and hairdo of the American "natural," much to the delight of French intellectuals and politicians. In 1779, he wrote to his daughter that her father's face had become as well known in France as the man in the moon, so common were the medallions, pictures, and prints of it sold to an admiring public.
But Franklin was also self-made in the sense that he fashioned himself into an American icon to be loved (or loathed) by generations to come. He painted the icon in his posthumous Autobiography, which became one of the most read books in America. In it we see Franklin's rise from poverty and anonymity to money and fame. But it's also a story of moral as well as material redemption. Franklin describes himself as a precocious genius whose reading of modern books caused him to fall from his father's morality and religion; he became a hot-headed smart aleck and an all-too-freethinking delinquent.
After reflecting on the harms he inflicted on, and suffered from, those close to him, Franklin gave himself a spiritual second chance, came back to God, and departed on his famous project to achieve moral perfection. His aim was to get control of himself in order to serve God by serving his fellow human beings. This was his object lesson for all Americans. Franklin depicts himself in the Autobiography as a morally committed political man (his feats of natural science are almost invisible), who rationally and pragmatically balances all sides of every issue, never loses his cool, and cares always for the common good.
"If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it.”