The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

Learn about Ben Franklin's political transformation from imperialist to enthusiastic American patriot in 'The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin' by Gordon Wood.

Imperialist

Most of us think of Ben Franklin as strongly connected to American democracy. After all, he is one of the 'founding fathers' and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Surprisingly, for most of his life, Franklin was an enthusiastic imperialist. He believed that most American colonists fared better when the British monarchy was in charge. So how exactly did Franklin come full circle from a loyal British supporter to play a key role in the American Revolution? Beginning with Franklin's childhood, Gordon Wood explains Franklin's transformation to quintessential American in The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.

Humble Origins

Ben Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, the 15th of 17 children. In those days, only the oldest son inherited the majority of the family wealth and property. Ben Franklin would inherit nothing from his father, a lowly candle and soap maker artisan. Josiah Franklin thought that sending Ben off to an apprenticeship was much more practical than college (and cheaper, too!)

Josiah apprenticed his son as a candle and soap maker, but that didn't work out. Cutting wicks was boring and tallow smelled bad, so his father decided that printing might be a better match for his son, who loved to read. Josiah apprenticed Ben to James, Ben's older brother who was a printmaker in Boston. However, Ben's relationship with James, which was never good, became intolerable and in 1723 Ben ran away. Eventually, Franklin arrived in Philadelphia. By this time, Ben was in his early 20s, well educated in the classics and a skilled printmaker. Philadelphia was a good match for Ben Franklin. Here he became a successful entrepreneur, writer, and citizen, setting the stage for his role as an influential American statesman in later life.

Scientist, Inventor, and Politician

By 1750, Ben Franklin had made his fortune so he turned his attention to science and politics. He experimented with electricity, invented the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove. As a politician, Franklin wore many hats. He was a deputy postmaster and became the originator of the 'Albany Plan' in 1754 in when he unsuccessfully tried to create a plan that would pacify both the colonists and the British. When the French and Indian War broke out, Franklin was still very pro-British. Now 54 years old, Franklin wrote a pamphlet in 1860 to persuade the British to acquire Canada from the French so that they could become an even greater world power and give the colonists a sense of security, too. Franklin would spend most of the next 20 years in England as a representative of the colonies.

Ben Franklin's Transformation

It is not completely clear exactly when Ben Franklin's disillusionment with the British began. Gordon Wood suggests that Franklin may have been snubbed by the British, which may explain some of the changes in Franklin's mindset. However, the real shift in thinking appears to be much deeper and philosophical. Evidence of the changes can be seen in his 1773 article called Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One in which he openly criticized the British for being oppressive to the colonists. Not surprising, the British were not receptive.

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