The Age of Benjamin Franklin
Dr. Robert J. Allison is Professor of History at Suffolk University in Boston and also teaches history at the Harvard Extension School. He graduated from the Harvard Extension School with an A.L.B. before earning a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization at Harvard in 1992. Professor Allison received the Harvard Extension School's Petra Shattuck Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997, the Suffolk University Student Government Association's Distinguished Faculty Award in 2006, and the Suffolk University Outstanding Faculty Award in 2007. His books include The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815 (2000); A Short History of Boston (2004); Stephen Decatur, American Naval Hero (2005); The Boston Massacre (2006); The Boston Tea Party (2007); and the upcoming A Short History of Cape Cod. He has edited books on American history spanning from the colonial period to the 20th century. Professor Allison was a consultant to the Commonwealth Museum at the State Archives in Boston, and he is on the board of overseers of the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He is vice president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, an elected fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and president of the South Boston Historical Society.
01: Benjamin Franklin and the American Dream
Begin your course with a look at Franklin’s unfinished autobiography, a book in which he consciously created a persona for himself as a role model others may follow. Although there is more to Franklin than he showed on the page, surveying the Autobiography offers some foundational insights into his life, his worldview, and the times in which he lived.
02: Meet the Franklins
In many ways, the Franklins were a typical 18th century family—extended across space (New England, the West Indies, and Europe), and filled with comedy and tragedy, wealth and poverty. Here, you will meet his parents and siblings, learn the story of his wife and first-born son, and accompany Franklin on his travels as his family grew.
03: Benjamin Franklin's Boston Beginnings
We may associate Franklin with Philadelphia, but his roots lie in Boston. As you will find out in this lecture, many of the virtues Franklin would cultivate throughout his life grew from the values of the Boston Puritans. Delve into the Boston of the time to meet some of the people and witness the events that Franklin experienced in his youth.
04: Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia
Shift your attention to the next stop on Franklin’s life voyage, the City of Brotherly Love. Not only was 18th century Philadelphia one of the leading cities in British America, it was one of the leading cities in the British Empire. Find out what made this city so important, and discover how the city shaped Franklin—and how Franklin shaped the city.
05: Benjamin Franklin in London
If Philadelphia was one of the British Empire’s leading cities, London itself was becoming the metropolis of the Western world: the largest city in Europe, the financial center of the British Empire, and the nexus of global trade. From the royal exchange to the gambling dens, get to know this great city, and examine some of Franklin’s pastimes.
06: Benjamin Franklin: Printer and Postmaster
The world was experiencing a major revolution in the 18th century thanks to the printing press. The rise in literacy, the spread of ideas, and the creation of communities across oceans and colonial boundaries re-shaped the world’s intellectual landscape. Delve into Franklin’s career as a printer, where he was at the center of this revolution.
07: Benjamin Franklin: Scientist
In addition to the print revolution, the 18th century saw scientific paradigms shift with the triumph of empirical knowledge. Franklin was a scientist—or, as he would have termed it, a “natural philosopher”—and his scientific contributions alone would have earned him a place in the history books. Examine some of his major inventions and ideas.
08: Benjamin Franklin and Electricity
Unpack Franklin’s greatest scientific contributions, which were in the field of electricity. As one of his biographers put it, Franklin found electricity as merely a curiosity but he left it a science. Review his most important discoveries, experiments, and contributions, and reflect on the lasting legacy of Franklin as a scientist.
09: Benjamin Franklin's Religious Beliefs
Franklin lived during a great age of rationality and questioning, but also through one of the greatest religious revivals in world history. Franklin himself was a close friend of both George Whitefield, a famous evangelist, and David Hume, a powerful skeptic. Find out what Franklin made of these divergent intellectual movements.
10: Benjamin Franklin: American Satirist
The 18th century was also the golden age of satire, which provided an excellent way to question authority and challenge received wisdom. As you will learn in this lecture, Franklin was among peers with Swift, Defoe, and Voltaire, and he used personas like Silence Dogood to offer blistering critiques of society.
11: The Musical Benjamin Franklin
Among Franklin’s lesser known abilities are his musical talents, which made effective use of his rational mind and his quest for understanding the world. After surveying the world of 18th century music, Professor Allison reveals Franklin’s musical prowess, including the invention of a new musical instrument.
12: Benjamin Franklin: Ladies Man
Franklin has been called everything from a “babe magnet” to a “high-flying ladies’ man” to “the founding flirt.” Although he was conventionally married and had a family, he also had a number of unconventional liaisons around the world. Here, you will consider the many women in Franklin’s life, and his relationships with them.
13: Benjamin Franklin: A Reluctant Politician
Franklin loved science and ideas, but disliked controversy, a disposition that made him reluctant to enter politics. It is one of history’s greatest ironies that this hesitant politician would become one of the most important political figures in the English-speaking world. Survey Franklin’s entry into politics and consider his style as a politician.
14: Benjamin Franklin and the American Indians
It might be strange to consider, but Franklin knew more about Native Americans than modern historians do. The Iroquois, Delaware, and other natives loomed large in his world and held the balance of power in North America. Witness his negotiations with these groups and reflect on his views toward American Indians.
15: Benjamin Franklin and Slavery in America
Franklin’s attitudes toward race and slavery changed over the course of his long life. During his life he owned four slaves, yet he came to despise the institution for the way it contradicted Enlightenment values. After surveying the institution of American slavery, Professor Allison walks you through Franklin’s life as he wrestled with slavery.
16: Benjamin Franklin and Colonies vs. Empire
As with slavery, Franklin’s attitudes toward the British Empire also shifted as Parliament struggled to govern far-flung colonies. Here, you will review Franklin’s role as an American agent to London while tensions rose between Britain and the colonies. A steady drumbeat of war began to be heard.
17: Benjamin Franklin and the Crisis of 1773
Continue your study of the tensions between Americans and the British. In the wake of the Tea Act and Boston Tea Party, Franklin in London as an agent for the American colonies struggled to patch the relationship and salvage the empire, but by 1775, a break is imminent.
18: Benjamin Franklin and Colonial Independence
At 70 years old, Franklin played a central role in America’s declaration of independence, the formation of a new government in Pennsylvania, and in diplomatic forays to Canada and France. Find out what lessons the reluctant politician had learned that would help him navigate the entirely new world being created around him.
19: Benjamin Franklin and the Age of Revolution
The late 18th century was an age of political revolution, and an era of philosophical revolution, as Enlightenment values spread across Europe and the Americas. As you’ll learn in this lecture, Franklin was the American counterpart of his friends David Hume and Voltaire, all viewing the world with reason and skepticism.
20: Benjamin Franklin: Acclaimed in France
In December 1776, with independence declared and the American Revolution underway, Franklin traveled to Paris as an ambassador and was met with great acclaim. Journey with him through France over the next nine years, and learn how he adapted to French politics and culture, and cultivated an image of himself as a representative of the New World.
21: Benjamin Franklin: Making Peace
Although Franklin enjoyed himself in France, his primary mission was one of complicated diplomacy—first, to bring France into a military alliance with the United States; second, to negotiate with other European powers to support the American cause; and finally, to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain. Witness his strategy for achieving these ends.
22: Benjamin Franklin: Framing the Constitution
When he returned to America, he hoped to spend his remaining years enjoying life as a private citizen, but public duty called once again. Although America had won its independence, many challenges—from paying debts to establishing a government—remained. Delve into the debates and trials of a new nation.
23: Benjamin Franklin's Critics and Enemies
In his Autobiography, Franklin wrote a blueprint for how to win friends, but as you have discovered, he was much more complicated than the persona he created. From his beginnings as a ruthless businessman to his half-century as a political player, he developed numerous critics and even enemies.
24: Benjamin Franklin's Remarkable Legacy
Franklin lived an extraordinary life, but what’s just as extraordinary is his legacy. Why has he been remembered so fondly when so many of his contemporaries have been forgotten? In this final lecture, consider why Franklin’s legacy has endured, and examine the many ways he has been remembered by posterity.