300 Years of Benjamin Franklin

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Ben FranklinJanuary 17th is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, one of the most beloved and versatile Americans who ever lived. Famous for his kite experiment, his multiple inventions, and the practical wisdom he expressed in Poor Richard’s Almanac (a book second only to the Bible in popularity in colonial America), he also published The Pennsylvania Gazette, established the first fire company and public library, founded an insurance company, an academy, and a hospital, and pursued a seemingly unlimited number of other interests. But perhaps his greatest contribution to America was his work as a political theorist, statesman, and diplomat. Elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, Franklin helped write the Declaration of Independence. During the ensuing Revolutionary War, he sailed to France and obtained financial and military aid for the fledgling American government. He later helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris that ended the war and recognized the former 13 colonies as a sovereign nation. He went on to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and helped frame the document that became the fundamental law of the United States.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) commemorated the tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth through a variety of learning opportunities and teaching projects. A new edition of a film (first released in 2002) about the life of Franklin, produced by PBS and co-funded by NEH, aired on January 24, 2006. Benjamin Franklin: An Extraordinary Life, an Electric Mind is an interactive Web site based upon the original film, which  is designed for middle school and high school students. We the People, an initiative of the NEH supporting projects that strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture, added The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, edited by Louis P. Masur, to its Bookshelf on “Becoming American” for grades 9-12. Previously added to the Bookshelf on “Freedom” is Robert Lawson’s classic work, Ben and Me, an account of Franklin’s life and inventions as told by his pet mouse, Amos. This book is geared toward grades 4-6, but is an excellent read-aloud for younger students. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin is a collaborative undertaking by a team of scholars at Yale University, co-funded by the NEH, to collect, edit, and publish the writings of Franklin as well as the many Franklin-related manuscripts. Volumes 38 and 39 are completed. All published volumes of this comprehensive project are available to visiting scholars in the Sterling Memorial Library of Yale University. "Ben Franklin, The Man of Sense," an article based upon research done under an NEH grant by Alan Houston, appeared in the January/February 2006 volume of Humanities Magazine.

In partnership with the Pew Charitable Trust, the NEH also sponsored Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America, a two one-week workshop for 100 teachers, held June 26-30 and July 3-8, 2006 at Villanova University. The sessions focused upon the contributions Franklin made to the concept of American civic virtue and included visits to such historic sites in Philadelphia as Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. For further information see: NEH Workshops for Landmarks of American History and Culture. The Franklin workshop is the last item listed on the page.

EDSITEment invites you to explore numerous reviewed websites featuring the life and achievements of Benjamin Franklin. American Studies at the University of Virginia provides a link to Benjamin Franklin: Glimpses of the Man, an interactive site for grades 6-8 providing descriptions of Franklin’s many roles in colonial society as well as pictures of his various inventions. You can even listen to someone playing the glass harmonica. Older students can read excerpts from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin through the same Web site. Digital Classroom (of the National Archives and Records Administration) contains a brief biography of Franklin in a section devoted to America’s Founding Fathers. American Memory (from the Library of Congress) provides access to “Today in History, January 17” featuring descriptions of Franklin’s scientific and political achievements as well as images of historical papers and engravings. Teaching with Documents: Images of the American Revolution, accessible through the same website, provides background information about the American Revolution as well as a painting of Franklin at the French court and a photo of the first page of the Peace of Paris.

EDSITEment offers you two lesson plans that explore specific aspects of Franklin’s life and activities. Jefferson vs. Franklin: Renaissance Men invites students to examine primary and secondary sources in order to compare the intellectual interests and achievements of Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Students will define the term “Renaissance Man” and decide, after careful research, in what ways Franklin embodied this concept. Jefferson vs. Franklin: Revolutionary Philosophers challenges students to explore the philosophical contributions that Franklin and Jefferson made to the movement for American independence. This lesson plan provides an introduction to Franklin’s Albany Plan of 1754 as well as Jefferson’s Draft of the Virginia Constitution, documents that profoundly influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Franklin’s Albany Plan was a loose confederation of the thirteen colonies with a representative grand council empowered to levy taxes, raise troops, regulate Indian trade, and provide mutual defense. This was the first known plan to unify the colonies. To promote his ideas Franklin published in his Pennsylvania Gazette an early political cartoon-sketch of a snake divided into eight pieces, each representing a colony. Beneath the sketch were the words “Join or Die.” You can learn more about Franklin’s ideas about forming a union by accessing The Albany Plan of 1754, which is available through a link the EDSITEment-reviewed website Avalon Project at Yale University Law School. Although the above lesson plans are intended for grades 6-8, they can easily be adapted for high school students.

A thought-provoking activity that can be tailored to students of middle school and high school appears in The Quotable Franklin, a link accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. By clicking on the “quoting” profile of Franklin, you can view a selection of his famous sayings. Call upon students to explain the meanings of the quotes and to discuss ways they might apply this sage wisdom to contemporary times.

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Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) (Detail)
by Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1725-1802)
Image courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution.