April 17, 1790 – Death of Benjamin Franklin

On this day in history, Benjamin Franklin died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 84. Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1706. His formal schooling ended when he was ten. For a time he worked for his father (a tallow-chandler and soapmaker), and at age 12 he became an apprentice for his brother, a printer. At 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, finding work in print shops. Franklin was largely self-educated, being a voracious reader by his own account in his famous Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was also an inventor, coming up with such innovations as bifocals, a flexible catheter, the library step stool, the rocking chair, the lightning rod, the “Franklin stove” (a metal-lined fireplace for rooms that provided more heat and less smoke than the traditional open fireplace), and swim fins (for which he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968), inter alia.

Franklin in London, 1767, wearing a blue suit with elaborate gold braid and buttons, a far cry from the simple dress he affected at the French court in later years. Painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House

Franklin in London, 1767, wearing a blue suit with elaborate gold braid and buttons, a far cry from the simple dress he affected at the French court in later years. Painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House

He was a prolific writer, employing a number of pseudonyms, some of which included Silence Dogood (the thoughts of a “middle-aged widow” – Franklin was 16 at the time); Richard Saunders (used for his Poor Richard’s Almanac); Anthony Afterwit (who wrote about married life); Polly Baker (who examined society’s treatment of women – ironically, since Franklin was no paragon of virtue on that score); and Alice Addertongue and Busy Body (both purveyors of gossip).

Franklin’s Autobiography is still widely read today, especially in schools. It contains much good advice Franklin followed more in the breach than in the observation. For example, he listed 13 virtues he claims he practiced all his life:

Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”

Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”

Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”

Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”

Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”

Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”

Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”

Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”

Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”

Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”

Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Those who are familiar with Franklin’s life will recognize that when it came to his personal goals, Franklin was more of an aspirer than an accomplisher.

Nevertheless, the effusion of eulogies for him testify that he made a great impact. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that there was “more respect and veneration attached to the character of Doctor Franklin in France than to that of any other person in the same country.” James Madison was also laudatory: “I never passed half an hour in his company without hearing some observation or anecdote worth remembering.”

Franklin’s picture has appeared on every $100 bill since 1928. (His picture was on the first $100 Federal Reserve Note issued in 1914, but those bills, along with all other U.S. currency, were resized and redesigned in 1928.) The Treasury Department claims their records do not show why Franklin was selected for the $100 bills, now often referred to as “Benjamins.” The bill is one of two denominations printed today that does not feature a President of the United States; the other is the $10 bill, featuring Alexander Hamilton.



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