Franklin’s widespread interests and numerous fields of endeavor make him the American epitome of the Age of Enlightenment. In this lesson, students will reflect on the parallels between our own age and the one in which Franklin lived and worked. After viewing a short video about Franklin, they will read some of Franklin’s adages through an Enlightenment lens and examine a symbol-rich portrait of Franklin. The lesson culminates with students imagining Benjamin Franklin’s present-day social media presence.
20 - 40 minutes
- Patent - a license given by a government to the creator of an invention giving them the sole right to make, use, and sell that invention for a set period of time
- Abolitionist - someone who wanted the institution of slavery ended
- Persecuted - harassed or very badly treated, generally for reasons relating to identity or beliefs
- Patriot – a person who believed that the American colonies should become independent from Great Britain
- Loyalist – a person who thought that the American colonies should continue to be part of Great Britain
Age of Enlightenment - During the 17th and 18th centuries, many European and American writers, philosophers, and scientists believed that human beings were capable of continuous improvement based on rational thought. Also known as the Age of Reason, this was a time in which many scientific theories and new inventions were developed. Education, the writing of prose and poetry, and diverse intellectual endeavors were all highly valued. Enlightenment ideas were crucial to justifying the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.
Click here to watch a video about the Age of Enlightenment.
*Note: This video includes advertisements prior to viewing.
Click here to watch a read about The Impact of Enlightenment in Europe
Stamp Act - A 1765 act of the British Parliament that put a tax on paper including newspapers, legal documents, and playing cards. Although it was repealed due to angry protests by American colonists, British authorities continued to follow a policy of “taxation without representation,” eventually leading to the American Revolution.
Read more about Taxes and Smuggling
Read more about the Stamp Act
Background on Benjamin Franklin | Writer, Inventor, and Founding Father
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts. One of seventeen children, Franklin’s parents could only afford to send him to clergy school for two years. After leaving school, Franklin became a printer’s apprentice to his brother, James. Using a pseudonym, Franklin advocated for free speech in the newspaper, but James found out and dismissed his brother.
Franklin moved to Philadelphia and worked at several newspapers there, eventually becoming the publisher of the influential Pennsylvania Gazette. As boss of his own newspaper, he was able to spread his ideas of what America could and should become. He also founded the Junto, a philosophical discussion group of his peers. With their help, he established the Library Company of Philadelphia—the first library in America. Franklin believed that everyone should have opportunities to read and further their personal education.
As his writing allowed financial stability, Franklin contributed to numerous public works. He founded a fire company and began printing new anti-counterfeit currency in 1736. He established schools, hospitals, and scientific societies. Franklin also became the postmaster of Philadelphia, reforming the organization and making it far more efficient—a boon to the colonies.
A follower of Enlightenment ideals, Franklin engaged in numerous scientific pursuits. As a young man, he began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack, a collection of weather forecasts, puzzles, and some of his famous adages. With his kite and key experiment, Franklin proved that lightening was electricity and then invented the lightening rod to help control it. He also coined electricity terminology still used today: battery, charge, conductor, and electrify.
Even while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Franklin’s scientific mind was active: contemplating why the trip was shorter heading eastward, he measured the ocean temperatures and discovered the existence of the Gulf Stream! His simpler inventions are no less notable: bifocals, rocking chairs, and the Franklin stove, an efficient home heater.
The stove sold so well that Franklin became one of the wealthiest men in Pennsylvania, moving into a new home and acquiring his first slaves. Franklin shared his home with Deborah Read in a common-law marriage. They had two children, Francis and Sarah, and also raised William, Franklin’s son from a prior relationship.
When Franklin was 51-years old, he traveled to London to serve as Pennsylvania’s colonial agent in England. He ultimately spent almost two decades in London, and was there as the relationship between England and the colonies soured. While in London, he used his influence to argue for American rights before British politicians. At first, he was able to help maintain peace between England and the colonies, but as England continued to clamp down on the rights of the colonists, Franklin embraced the Patriot cause and returned to the colonies in 1775 ready and willing to help the colonies win independence.
In 1776, as a member of the Second Continental Congress, Franklin was one of five men requested to draft the Declaration of Independence. Congress then appointed him commissioner to France to obtain France’s support in the upcoming war with Great Britain. He signed the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778, which helped lead to the American victory. And, in 1783, he signed the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war.
After the American Revolution, Franklin returned to America once again and signed the United States Constitution in 1787, making him the only Founding Father to sign the four most important documents to American Independence: The Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution.
Near the end of his life, Franklin came to understand that owning other human beings was morally wrong and in direct contradiction to American ideals. He freed his own slaves and spoke out against slavery, becoming a leading abolitionist until his death in 1790.
Twenty thousand people attended Benjamin Franklin’s funeral – proof that this self-educated writer, inventor, scientist, revolutionary, and Founding Father was a true American icon.
1. Ask students: what twentieth or twenty-first century invention, other than cell phones, has had the most impact on your daily life? How do you think your parents or grandparents might answer the same question?
2. Then, ask students to discern the meaning of the word “enlightenment” by focusing on the root word “light.” Ask them why some may think that we are currently living in an age of enlightenment. (They will likely conclude that this is due to the rapid technology-driven increase in accessible information.)
3. Then, indicate that Benjamin Franklin also lived during such an era, a period known as the Age of Enlightenment. (see definition and links above)
4. Benjamin Franklin, though born into an impoverished Boston family, rose to become a leading figure of the American Enlightenment--excelling in writing, publishing, science, politics, diplomacy, advocacy and more. Indeed, he can be viewed as the epitome (perfect example) of the Enlightenment.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. By the time of his death, what do you think Benjamin Franklin would have considered his single greatest achievement? Two centuries later, which of Franklin’s many accomplishments have had the most impact?
2. In spite of everything he did, Benjamin Franklin frequently signed documents with the words “Benjamin Franklin, Printer.” Why do you think he did this?
3. Do you agree that Benjamin Franklin can be considered as the epitome of the Enlightenment? Who might epitomize the new Age of Enlightenment in which we are living?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right, a 1767 portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Scottish artist David Martin. The painting was done during the time that Franklin was in London negotiating a repeal of the Stamp Act. It was displayed in London where it received wide acclaim. Robert Alexander, a friend of Franklin’s had commissioned the painting in gratitude for help Franklin had given him in reviewing some important papers. The painting, which depicts Franklin reviewing those papers, currently hangs in the White House. The artist created several replicas of the original painting, and copies were made by American artists including Charles Willson Peale, thus similar paintings are also displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Library Company of Philadelphia—an institution founded by Franklin.
Ask students to examine this portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Explain that this period of the 18th century is referred to as the Enlightenment, when ideas, logic and reason were prized.
1. What do you notice about the items in the room? How about Franklin’s clothing?
2. Why might it be significant that he is depicted wearing eyeglasses?
3. What in this picture would make you think of Franklin as a man of the Enlightenment?
4. Can you guess who is portrayed in the sculpture on the table? (Hint! He, too was interested in optics, and is said to have made an important discovery when an apple fell from a tree.) Why would the artist choose to show that historic figure with Franklin?
Written Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)
Benjamin Franklin was known for developing witty adages, many of which he published in issues of Poor Richard’s Almanac. For an activity connecting some of these sayings to Enlightenment philosophy, click here.
Download the Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using Graphic Organizer.
Although he lived in the 18th Century, Benjamin Franklin’s love of information, of meeting new people, of staying abreast of current events, of sharing his opinions, and of community organizing would have made him a natural for social media were he alive today. Have students develop (either digitally or manually) a Facebook page or Twitter account for Benjamin Franklin. The finished product should reflect what students have learned about Franklin’s:
- Inventions and scientific theories
- Opinions on political matters