Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1706 and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1790 of old age at 84 years old.
Franklin was brought up in a Puritan household, a form of the Episcopalian denomination of Christianity. However, Franklin, as one of the messengers of the Enlightenment to America, abandoned his religion as an adult in favor of reason and science and the man-made ethics of that movement.
The Enlightenment, first emerging in France and then spreading throughout much of western Europe including England, Scotland, The Netherlands, and Germany was the beginning of modern society. Suddenly God was not the only authority and source of knowledge. Thinkers like Voltaire, Hume, Locke, and Kant were looking to Democracy, science, reason, and secularism for answers and casting aside the chains of the church and theology. Franklin, along with Thomas Jefferson in American, was instrumental in bringing these ideas to what is now the United States.
Franklin considered himself a deist. That is, he believed in a higher power but not necessarily an all-knowing, benevolent God. Instead, Franklin’s God was a personification of the reason and order of nature and the universe. He once said:
Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.
Still, Franklin was sympathetic to religion and Christianity and when invited to church services, he would go–for a little while. And, unlike some deists of his time, Franklin didn’t try to “wither Christianity by ridicule or bludgeon it to death with argument.”
Franklin, in classic Enlightenment fashion, came up with his own “commandments,” if you will–guidelines for conduct in society, calling them his 13 virtues. This sort of thinking is indicative of his overall philosophy that religion isn’t necessarily needed to guide mankind towards an ethical life.
Again, the principles of the Enlightenment guided Franklin’s political views. Born in America under the rule of England, Franklin was instrumental in pushing America towards independence from the crown and the establishment of America as a democracy. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and pushed for the unification of the American colonies as one nation against England. For his time, Franklin could easily be labeled a political radical, fearless in the face of the authority of England and the church. He said:
Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.
As social values are drastically different in the American society of Franklin’s era and the American society of today, it would normally be impossible to label Franklin as a “liberal” or “conservative.” Furthermore, the political parties of today did not exist in Franklin’s America.
However, for both his era and today, Franklin could be seen as a liberal. He didn’t marry his partner, but just lived with her until a common-law marriage was established. As previously discussed, Franklin valued reason, science and secularism over religious faith. Scientific progress–without the hindrance of religion–was atop Franklin’s priority list.
Such a synopsis of Franklin does not do this incredible man justice. Know that his values are, to this day, a major positive force in the modern world and should be re-examined and reinforced every now and then, just as a little reminder of what is and what is not important in society and governance.