Franklin, Benjamin (1706 –1790)

2012-06-25 15:20:51

Well-known as a printer, scientist, and inventor, Benjamin Franklin is less well-known as a civil rights champion. There was no more committed proponent of freedom of the press than Franklin, and he was active in the protest movement that began with the Stamp Act Crisis. It is often forgotten that Franklin held certain natural rights sacred, insomuch as he explained in 1759, ‘‘They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’’

Long an advocate of such Lockean ideas as the state of nature, the social contract, and natural law, Franklin particularly embraced Locke’s reverence for life, liberty, and property. His actions during the Stamp Act Crisis and the Revolutionary period show that Franklin fully embraced the citizen’s right to petition the government when government became tyrannical and to initiate revolution when all other means of reform failed. And Franklin’s own writings indicate a particular respect for property and equality before the law. Although he was generally not given to profound political theory, and instead embraced the ideas of Locke and other theorists without expounding on them, he did feel compelled to write about property and equality (although he believed Parliament wrong for passing the Intolerable Acts after the Boston Tea Party, Franklin insisted that the activists should pay for the tea they had destroyed, because it was private property).

As a printer, Franklin also had a profound reverence for freedom of speech and the press. And his concern that citizens remain able to express thoughts, ideas, even criticisms through speech and media were well founded. James Franklin, Benjamin’s older brother, had been jailed for a month when Franklin was sixteen for printing a piece that was critical of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Furthermore, he was forced to shut down his newspaper. To avoid actually closing the paper down, James transferred responsibility to young Benjamin, who published the New England Courant under his own name. So Franklin’s concern was not merely academic.

Franklin was also assigned to Thomas Jefferson’s committee to draft a Declaration of Independence. While Jefferson wrote the first draft himself, Franklin, John Adams, and the other members of the committee read it and offered suggestions before presenting it to the entire Continental Congress for further editing. It may be assumed, because Franklin left no explicit comment, that he approved of Jefferson’s ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And it should not be forgotten that Franklin was a framer of the Constitution, as well. Indeed, he argued against property requirements of officeholders; he believed property qualifications would ‘‘debase the spirit of the common people.’’ As the convention drew to a close and the time came for delegates to sign the document, Franklin stood and gave a speech. He expressed his belief that the document was not perfect and that he had some reservations but that he believed it better than any other government he knew of. He signed it, of course, and supported its ratification.


References and Further Reading

  • Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Wright, Esmond, ed. Benjamin Franklin, A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.