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The Self-Made Man: Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, as we all know, was a man of many distinctions; Franklin was an author, a political theorist, a politician, a scientist, an inventor, a statesman, and a diplomat, and is remembered today as one of the most important figures of the American Enlightenment. He’s also celebrated by rowdier historians for all the sex he had as the American minister to Paris, but that’s another story for another column.

But Franklin thought of himself first and foremost as a printer, since that was his day job for much of his life, and his successes there laid the foundation for many of his other accomplishments. In fact, Franklin was the most entrepreneurial of the Founding Fathers, since he didn’t inherit any land or property and had to work his way into prominence.

As you may know, Franklin was one of fifteen children born to extremely fertile working-class parents. The original plan was to send young Ben to school to become a clergyman, but the family couldn’t afford it, so Ben only had a couple years of formal education before being apprenticed to his older brother James, who was a printer. Franklin was an avid reader with a curious mind, and he got the hang of printing well enough that when he moved to Philadelphia at 17, he started a printing business of his own, and made a name for himself through publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper, in which he wrote regular columns that bolstered his reputation as an industrious, civic-minded, and unpretentious man.

That was no accident, either. Franklin knew the value of good PR, and made sure that as many people knew about his work ethic and agreeable personality as possible. To quote from his autobiography, he “took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances of the contrary.” Relatedly, he understood the importance of networking, and organized weekly meetings of other tradesmen and artisans in town to discuss local issues and business opportunities. Called the Junto, that series of meetings helped create the nation’s first subscription-based library, among other civic initiatives.

Franklin was also an unorthodox thinker who knew how to identify gaps in the marketplace and devise solutions for them. Sometimes his fixes were obvious (printing a German-language newspaper in a city whose immigrant population was mostly German) and sometimes they were quite novel for the time (helping build Philadelphia’s first hospital by suggesting a matching funds donation, which he promoted in the Gazette as a moral duty to help the sick).

On top of all that, Franklin was a diversified businessman. He printed all sorts of stuff, from newspapers to novels to his yearly Poor Richard’s Almanac, which contained stories, recipes, seasonal weather forecasts, puzzles, and a veritable Twitter feed of proverbs and funny sayings penned by Franklin himself. He and his wife also invested in paper mills that fed into their wholesale paper business, an obvious benefit for a printer.

To sum up, Ben Franklin wasn’t greedy, wasn’t a jerk, worked really hard, and maintained beneficial relationships with people who were productive and dependable. That’s a method that TSB endorses, and those are all good work habits that benefited him throughout his life.

Here’s a link to Ben Franklin’s autobiography, provided by Project Gutenberg.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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