Four Great Americans  by James Baldwin

The Story of Benjamin Franklin

Part 4 of 4

XIII.—Franklin's Services to the Colonies

And so, as you have seen, Benjamin Franklin became in time one of the foremost men in our country.

In 1753, when he was forty-five years old, he was made deputy postmaster-general for America.

He was to have a salary of about $3,000 a year, and was to pay his own assistants.

People were astonished when he proposed to have the mail carried regularly once every week between New York and Boston.

Letters starting from Philadelphia on Monday morning would reach Boston the next Saturday night. This was thought to be a wonderful and almost impossible feat. But nowadays, letters leaving Philadelphia at midnight are read at the breakfast table in Boston the next morning.

At that time there were not seventy post-offices in the whole country. There are now more than seventy thousand.

Benjamin Franklin held the office of deputy postmaster-general for the American colonies for twenty-one years.

In 1754 there was a meeting of the leading men of all the colonies at Albany. There were fears of a war with the French and Indians of Canada, and the colonies had sent these men to plan some means of defence.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the men from Pennsylvania at this meeting.

He presented a plan for the union of the colonies, and it was adopted. But our English rulers said it was too democratic, and refused to let it go into operation.

This scheme of Franklin's set the people of the colonies to thinking. Why should the colonies not unite? Why should they not help one another, and thus form one great country?

And so, we may truthfully say that it was Benjamin Franklin who first put into men's minds the idea of the great Union which we now call the United States of America.

The people of the colonies were not happy under the rule of the English. One by one, laws were made which they looked upon as oppressive and burdensome. These laws were not intended to benefit the American people, but were designed to enrich the merchants and politicians of England.

In 1757 the people of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Georgia, decided to send some one to England to petition against these oppressions.

In all the colonies there was no man better fitted for this business than Benjamin Franklin. And so he was the man sent.

The fame of the great American had gone before him. Everybody seemed anxious to do him honor.

He met many of the leading men of the day, and he at last succeeded in gaining the object of his mission.

But such business moved slowly in those times. Five years passed before he was ready to return to America.

He reached Philadelphia in November, 1762, and the colonial assembly of Pennsylvania thanked him publicly for his great services.

But new troubles soon came up between the colonies and the government in England. Other laws were passed, more oppressive than before.

It was proposed to tax the colonies, and to force the colonists to buy stamped paper. This last act was called the Stamp Tax, and the American people opposed it with all their might.

Scarcely had Franklin been at home two years when he was again sent to England to plead the cause of his countrymen.

This time he remained abroad for more than ten years; but he was not so successful as before.

In 1774 he appeared before the King's council to present a petition from the people of Massachusetts.

He was now a venerable man nearly seventy years of age. He was the most famous man of America.

His petition was rejected. He himself was shamefully insulted and abused by one of the members of the council. The next day he was dismissed from the office of deputy postmaster-general of America.

In May, 1775, he was again at home in Philadelphia.

Two weeks before his arrival the battle of Lexington had been fought, and the war of the Revolution had been begun.

Franklin had done all that he could to persuade the English king to deal justly with the American colonies. But the king and his counselors had refused to listen to him.

During his ten years abroad he had not stayed all the time in England. He had traveled in many countries of Europe, and had visited Paris several times.

Many changes had taken place while he was absent.

His wife, Mrs. Deborah Franklin, had died. His parents and fifteen of his brothers and sisters had also been laid in the grave.

The rest of his days were to be spent in the service of his country, to which he had already given nearly twenty years of his life.

XIV.—Franklin's Wonderful Kite

Benjamin Franklin was not only a printer, politician, and statesman, he was the first scientist of America. In the midst of perplexing cares it was his delight to study the laws of nature and try to understand some of the mysteries of creation.

In his time no very great discoveries had yet been made. The steam engine was unknown. The telegraph had not so much as been dreamed about. Thousands of comforts which we now enjoy through the discoveries of science were then unthought of; or if thought of, they were deemed to be impossible.

Franklin began to make experiments in electricity when he was about forty years old.

He was the first person to discover that lightning is caused by electricity. He had long thought that this was true, but he had no means of proving it.

He thought that if he could stand on some high tower during a thunderstorm, he might be able to draw some of the electricity from the clouds through a pointed iron rod. But there was no high tower in Philadelphia. There was not even a tall church spire.

At last he thought of making a kite and sending it up to the clouds. A paper kite, however, would be ruined by the rain and would not fly to any great height.

So instead of paper he used a light silk handkerchief which he fastened to two slender but strong cross pieces. At the top of the kite he placed a pointed iron rod. The string was of hemp, except a short piece at the lower end, which was of silk. At the end of the hemp string an iron key was tied.

"I think that is a queer kind of kite," said Franklin's little boy. "What are you going to do with it?"

"Wait until the next thunderstorm, and you will see," said Franklin. "You may go with me and we will send it up to the clouds."

He told no one else about it, for if the experiment should fail, he did not care to have everybody laugh at him.

At last, one day, a thunderstorm came up, and Franklin, with his son, went out into a field to fly his kite. There was a steady breeze, and it was easy to send the kite far up towards the clouds.

Then, holding the silken end of the string, Franklin stood under a little shed in the field, and watched to see what would happen.

The lightnings flashed, the thunder rolled, but there was no sign of electricity in the kite. At last, when he was about to give up the experiment, Franklin saw the loose fibres of his hempen string begin to move.

He put his knuckles close to the key, and sparks of fire came flying to his hand. He was wild with delight. The sparks of fire were electricity; he had drawn them from the clouds.

That experiment, if Franklin had only known it, was a very dangerous one. It was fortunate for him, and for the world, that he suffered no harm. More than one person who has since tried to draw electricity from the clouds has been killed by the lightning that has flashed down the hempen kite string.

When Franklin's discovery was made known it caused great excitement among the learned men of Europe. They could not believe it was true until some of them had proved it by similar experiments.

They could hardly believe that a man in the far-away city of Philadelphia could make a discovery which they had never thought of as possible. Indeed, how could an American do anything that was worth doing.

Franklin soon became famous in foreign countries as a philosopher and man of science. The universities of Oxford and Edinburgh honored him by conferring upon him their highest degrees. He was now Doctor  Benjamin Franklin. But in America people still thought of him only as a man of affairs, as a great printer, and as the editor of Poor Richard's Almanac.

All this happened before the beginning of his career as ambassador from the colonies to the king and government of England.

I cannot tell you of all of his discoveries in science. He invented the lightning rod, and, by trying many experiments, he learned more about electricity than the world had ever known before.

He made many curious experiments to discover the laws of heat, light, and sound. By laying strips of colored cloth on snow, he learned which colors are the best conductors of heat.

He invented the harmonica, an ingenious musical instrument, in which the sounds were produced by musical glasses.

During his long stay abroad he did not neglect his scientific studies. He visited many of the greatest scholars of the time, and was everywhere received with much honor.

The great scientific societies of Europe, the Royal Academies in Paris and in Madrid, had already elected him as one of their members. The King of France wrote him a letter, thanking him for his useful discoveries in electricity, and for his invention of the lightning rod.

All this would have made some men very proud. But it was not so with Dr. Franklin. In a letter which he wrote to a friend at the time when these honors were beginning to be showered upon him, he said:

"The pride of man is very differently gratified; and had his Majesty sent me a marshal's staff I think I should scarce have been so proud of it as I am of your esteem."

XV.—The Last Years

In 1776 delegates from all the colonies met in Philadelphia. They formed what is known in history as the Second Continental Congress of America.

It was now more than a year since the war had begun, and the colonists had made up their minds not to obey the oppressive laws of the King of England and his council.

Many of them were strongly in favor of setting up a new government of their own.

The Congress, therefore, appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence. Benjamin Franklin was one of that committee.

On the 4th of July, Congress declared the colonies to be free and independent states, no longer subject to the laws of England. Among the men who signed their names to this Declaration of Independence was Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.

Soon after this Dr. Franklin was sent to Paris as minister from the United States. Early in the following year, 1777, he induced the King of France to acknowledge the independence of this country.

He thus secured aid for the Americans at a time when they were in the greatest need of it. Had it not been for his services at this time, the war of the Revolution might have ended very differently, indeed.

It was not until 1785 that he was again able to return to his home.

He was then nearly eighty years old.

He had served his country faithfully for fifty-three years. He would have been glad if he might retire to private life, but the people who knew and appreciated his great worth, would not permit him to do so.

When he reached Philadelphia he was received with joy by thousands of his countrymen.

General Washington was among the first to welcome him, and to thank him for his great services.

That same year the grateful people of his state elected him President of Pennsylvania.

Two years afterwards, he wrote:

"I am here in my niche  in my own house, in the bosom of my family, my daughter and grandchildren all about me, among my old friends, or the sons of my friends, who equally respect me.

"In short, I enjoy here every opportunity of doing good, and everything else I could wish for, except repose; and that I may soon expect, either by the cessation of my office, which cannot last more than three years, or by ceasing to live."

The next year he was a delegate to the convention which formed the present Constitution of the United States. By the adoption of this Constitution, the thirteen United States became a single nation worthy to be ranked with the other great governments of the world.

In a letter written to his friend, General Washington, not long afterwards, Benjamin Franklin said: "For my personal ease I should have died two years ago; but though those years have been spent in pain, I am glad to have lived them, since I can look upon our present situation."

In April, 1790, he died, and was buried by the side of his wife, Deborah, in Arch street graveyard in Philadelphia. His age was eighty-four years and three months.

Many years before his death he had written the following epitaph for himself:

"The Body
Benjamin Franklin, Printer,
(Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stripped of its lettering and gilding,)
Lies here food for worms.
Yet the work itself shall not be lost,
For it will (as he believed) appear once more
In a new
And more beautiful Edition,
Corrected and Amended
The Author."