George Washington may rightly be known as the "father of his country," but for a long time Benjamin Franklin was the most well-known American throughout the world. Born January 17, 1706 in Boston, Franklin was truly a self-made man. He was a printer, a writer, an inventor, a land speculator, one of the world's most famous scientists—most notably for discovering electricity—a diplomat, founder of the postal service, wrote the Pennsylvania Constitution, and served in the Continental Congresses. In addition, Franklin played a role in the Constitutional Convention and was one of America's highest ranking Freemasons.
George Washington, through his political and military leadership, eventually grew to match Franklin's fame. In fact, so much so that John Adams, jealous of the attention heaped on Franklin and Washington throughout the Atlantic World, acidly remarked that history would assume "that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and thence forward these two conducted all the policy negotiations, legislatures, and war."1
While one can forgive Adams of his jealousy, it would be difficult to downplay the crucial importance of Franklin and Washington's relationship to the success of the American Revolution and founding of the United States of America. Franklin was twenty-six years older than Washington, yet he was just as active in the American cause. In 1775 at the age of 69, Franklin traveled from Philadelphia to Massachusetts to meet with Washington after the younger man was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Franklin was one of Washington's strongest supporters in the congress and while serving as a diplomat to the French Court, Franklin praised Washington. Franklin and Washington engaged in a long exchange of letters, starting from the early days of the imperial crisis to the last days of Franklin's life.
Franklin was one of the few men that Washington trusted and respected enough to seek council and advice. Additionally, Washington often pointed those seeking advice on America to Franklin, as evidenced by a letter written from Mount Vernon on June 19, 1788. Washington stated that "queries may then be referred to the 'Information for those who wish to remove to America' and published in Europe in 1784, by the great Philosopher Dr. Franklin. Short as it is, it contains almost everything that needs to be known on the subject of migrating to the Country."2
Franklin held Washington in equally high regard, as noted in his description of Washington in an August 19, 1784 letter to William Strahan. Franklin explained that "An American Planter, who had never seen Europe was chosen by us to command our troops and continued during the whole War. This Man sent home to you, one after another, five of your best Generals baffled, their heads bare of laurels, disgraced even in the opinion of their employers."3
In his will, Franklin bequeathed Washington his walking stick which was adorned with a "cap of liberty." Washington's last letter to Franklin, dated September 23, 1789, summed up their long friendship and service to the American cause: "If to be venerated for benevolence, if to be admired for talents, if to be esteemed for patriotism…can gratify the human mind, you must have the pleasing consolation to know that you did not live in vain…so long as I retain my memory, you will be recollected with respect, veneration, and affection, by your sincere friend, George Washington."4
Franklin—more of a radical democrat than many of the other founders—did not view the popular tumult with as much panic as other framers during the years governed by the Articles of Confederation. He remained dedicated to his republican Enlightenment ideals, which were reflected in his primary response to the troubled times; his founding along with Washington and Thomas Jefferson in February 1787 of the Society for Political Enquiries. Franklin served as first president of the society, which aimed to encourage and exchange innovative political thought and philosophy. As the constitutional convention convened in Philadelphia, his home became a pilgrimage for delegates, and served as a political salon, keeping Franklin in communication with most of the other members. The first thing Washington did upon arriving in Philadelphia for the convention was call upon Franklin to discuss plans for the proceedings of the convention.
Franklin was selected in May of 1787 to serve with the Pennsylvania delegation, and the plan was to have Franklin nominate Washington for president of the convention, thus having the symbol of the learned Enlightenment endorse the symbol of the virtuous republican citizen. Unfortunately, bad weather and Franklin’s health combined to cause him to miss the opening day. Franklin passed away on April 17, 1790.
Frank D. Casale, Ph.D.
Morgan State University
Brands, H. W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Wood, Gordon. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.