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On this day in history, Jan. 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father, born in Boston

Benjamin Franklin, scientist, philosopher, author and the most celebrated American on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the era of revolution, was born on this day in history, Jan. 17, 1706. 

The Founding Father’s bust and the words “Birthplace of Franklin” mark the site at 17 Milk St. in downtown Boston today. 

“If a 20th-century photographer had managed to commandeer a time machine and travel back to record the historic scenes of the revolutionary era, Franklin would have been present in almost every picture,” Joseph Ellis wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 history, “Founding Brothers.”

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Ellis listed the momentous events in America’s creation forged by Franklin.

“In Philadelphia during the Continental Congress and the signing of the Declaration of Independence; in Paris to draft the wartime treaty with France and then almost singlehandedly (assist to John Adams) conclude the peace treaty with Great Britain; in Philadelphia again for the Constitutional Convention and the signing of the Constitution.”

Franklin was born to humble means: He was the 15th of 17 children fathered by candlemaker Josiah Franklin over two marriages. 

The elder Franklin was born in Northamptonshire, England, in 1657 and arrived in the colonies in 1682. 

He had 10 children with Franklin’s mother, Abiah Folger, of Nantucket.

Franklin provides an early testament to the ability of colonists to overcome their birth status — a notable distinction between America and the rest of the world at the time, as noted by numerous scholars. 

Though born in Boston, he achieved fame in Philadelphia, where he arrived at 17 years old on Oct. 6, 1723. 

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“In 1729, he started the Pennsylvania Gazette, which became the leading newspaper in the colony. His Poor Richard’s Almanack became the most useful almanac in all of the colonies,” the Philadelphia Visitors and Convention Bureau writes of the city’s most famous adopted son.

“In the 1730s, Franklin started the first volunteer fire company and became postmaster of Philadelphia. He also formed the nation’s first hospital, while attempting to uncover the mysteries of the earth with scientific discoveries.”

Franklin’s scientific research elevated him to celebrity in British society — a stamp of international approval unknown by any other 18th-century American.

His groundbreaking discoveries in electricity “won him the 1753 Copley Medal (the 18th-century equivalent of the Nobel Prize) and a fellowship of the Royal Society,” Smithsonian Magazine wrote in 2016 of Franklin’s life in London. 

“It also transformed his social standing. He was famous. This son of a poor tallow chandler was embraced by a British aristocracy enthralled by science and particularly keen on the sizzle of electricity.”

He was by far the elder statesman of the Founding Fathers. Franklin was 70 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams, John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson were 40, 39 and 33, respectively, on July 4, 1776.

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Each signer of the Declaration of Independence pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to the cause of the new nation — knowing full well they might be executed for their act of rebellion. 

But Franklin was unique even among these heroes. 

He had spent much of his life living in London, visiting for the first time at just 18 years old before returning to Philadelphia two years later. 

Smithsonian Magazine called Franklin “a loyal British royalist” and “one-fifth revolutionary, fourth-fifths London intellectual.”

Franklin increasingly grew at odds with British leadership over their treatment of the American colonies.

He could have chosen a life of leisure and celebrity amid British nobility. Yet he cast it all aside.

Franklin chose love of homeland over acclaim of British society and patriotism over fame and ease. 

Franklin left Britain for Philadelphia for the last time on March 20, 1775, just four weeks before the transatlantic disagreement exploded into warfare at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

His birthplace sits across from Old South Meeting House, a National Historic Landmark built in 1729, where debate erupted into protest against British taxes on Dec. 16, 1773. 

Angry Bostonians marched down to the waterfront to throw crates of tea into the harbor in what soon was dubbed the Boston Tea Party.

History remembers Franklin as the pudgy, bespectacled old man of the Founding Fathers. 

It’s not a complete picture of the man for all ages.

“No certain early likeness of him survives, but what he outwardly was when he returned to Philadelphia may be imagined backwards from later portraits and various chance notes on his personal appearance,” Carl Van Doren wrote in his 1938 biography, “Benjamin Franklin,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.

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“Strongly built, rounded like a swimmer or a wrestler, not angular like a runner, he was five feet nine or ten inches tall, with a large head and square, deft hands. His hair was blond or light brown, his eyes grey, full, and steady, his mouth wide and humorous with a pointed upper lip,” Van Doren also wrote.

“His clothing was as clean as it was plain. Though he and others say he was hesitant in speech, he was prompt in action.”

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