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Benjamin Franklin and Widespread Literacy in Eighteenth Cent

In eighteenth-century colonial America, the ability to read and write became more common and a necessity to some. Americans exchanged ideas and debates on political issues with the growing print industry. Increasingly more printed materials provided both the need and want for the public to become literate. The ability to read and write for the general public was revolutionary. The growing literacy among the common people brought about changes and challenges to existing political and religious institutions.

The widespread literacy found in eighteenth-century colonial American society gives a close connection to Benjamin Franklin as he took the roles of both a beloved writer and publisher, as he wrote and published some of the most popular books in the era, and a man who brought many others with him on the road to literacy.

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As early as the settlements of the Puritans in Massachusetts, literacy has been an important aspect of colonial life. The Bible was essential to Puritan belief. By the time of The Great Awakening, this belief no longer remained in Puritan society. The importance of people having the ability to read and interpret the Bible on their own was stressed by the religious leaders. However, the need for literacy not only pertained to religious believers but also the general public, or more specifically, the white male population. Living in colonial America was no longer merely a fight for survival and free white males were now much more involved in politics than ever.

It was during this time that Benjamin Franklin brought countless contributions to the influential print industry. Eric Foner, the author of Give Me Liberty, states in the book that “The ‘political nation’ was dominated by the American gentry, whose members addressed each other in letters, speeches, newspaper articles, and pamphlets.” The concern for political information was delivered through printed materials. At this time in British North America, widespread literacy created an enormous market for the printing industry and thus the press expanded rapidly.

According to Foner, as the colonies prepared for the American Revolution, about seventy-five percent of the adult male could read and write, and a majority of American families owned at least one book. As Benjamin Franklin describes in his autobiography, “the schools opened I think in the same year 1749. The scholars increasing fast, the House was soon found too small.” At this time, most American families understood that literacy was no longer simply a luxury for the wealthy, but more and more a necessity to survive in the growing commercial society.

With his contributions, Benjamin Franklin helped boost this expansion of literacy. Franklin’s willingness to know how to read and write started when he was still very young. He was put into a Grammar School at the age of eight. He admits in his autobiography that he was ready to learn because he did not remember a time when he could not read. Although he only stayed in Grammar School for one year, he excelled in writing, though arithmetic never became one of his stronger abilities. Despite this fact, at the end of the year, he was not only top of his class, but also jumped to the next level and was ready to start the third. The high cost of living for a large family forced Franklin’s father to remove him from the school, and he was sent to “a School for Writing and Arithmetic.”

Although Franklin only received two years of formal education, he satisfied his love for learning through extensive reading and spent any money he possessed on buying books. Seeing his passion for books, Franklin’s father sent him to work for his brother James. While he worked as an apprentice at James’s printing house, he also practiced his writing on a regular basis with the free time he has, “My Time for these Exercises and for Reading, was at Night after work, or before Work began in the Morning; or on Sundays, when I contrived to be in the Printing House alone.” His hard work paid off as he acquired the ability to write and that ability proved to be a great advantage for his later careers.

Benjamin Franklin not only acknowledged the necessity of the ability to read and write for himself, but he also expressed the same concern for others. He felt that educated people could help build a greater society. Franklin, a believer in republicanism and its concept of universal citizenship, brought about significant influences in the process of expanding the “public sphere” to the common man.

Clubs provided a public space for citizens to debate literary, philosophical, scientific, and political issues became more and more popular in major cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The best-known one, Junto was founded by Benjamin Franklin. The members of Junto had a diverse background, but they all shared a willingness to improve themselves, help others, and strengthen the community.

Very soon after the formation of the Junto, Franklin took over The Pennsylvania Gazette, one of the most prominent newspapers in the United States. Under Franklin, the newspaper soon became the most successful one in the colonies. In 1731, with contributions from the members of Junto, Franklin established the Library Company of Philadelphia. Before the introduction of this, libraries only existed among the wealthy and colleges. Books were too expensive for the majority to own. With a reasonable fee, the combined collection of books from the members of Junto was made available to the subscribers. From 1732 to 1758, Benjamin Franklin continuously published the famous Poor Richard’s Almanack.

It was his most successful one ever. Franklin’s concern for educating others persisted. In 1743, seeing that there was not a single college in Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin proposed establishing an “Academy” that later became the University of Pennsylvania. No one was more elated than Benjamin Franklin to see young scholars succeed, “I have been continued one of its Trustees from the Beginning, now near forty years, and have had the very great pleasure of seeing a number of the Youth who have received their education in it, distinguished by their improv’d abilities, serviceable in public Stations, and Ornaments to their Country.”

Benjamin Franklin was not merely a famous man in the eighteenth century. He was also a symbol that represented the new Americans. His numerous roles show the different stages of the formation of the young and dynamic society in North America. Literacy, though it is only one of the many aspects of Franklin’s life, is undoubtedly the most important one. Without the love for learning and the thirst for knowledge, Benjamin Franklin would not have become the politician, the inventor, or the scientist. Just like Franklin, the colonies would not have achieved liberty without the extensive knowledge gained through widespread literacy.

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Benjamin Franklin and Widespread Literacy in Eighteenth Cent. (2021, Feb 16). Retrieved June 19, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/benjamin-franklin-and-widespread-literacy-in-eighteenth-cent/