Frequently Searched

The Immortality of Ben Franklin and the American Dream Made Real

October 6, 2023

We don’t often think of Benjamin Franklin as an immigrant—but he was. In fact, he’s one of the great American immigration stories—and today marks the 300th anniversary of the day he arrived, penniless and alone, in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.

He was born on January 17, 1706, to a poor family in the colony of Massachusetts. His father was an English immigrant named Josiah Franklin, who worked as a candle and soap maker, and Benjamin was one of his sixteen children. He was given only a rudimentary education before being set to work as an apprentice, at the age of twelve, for his brother James, who ran a print shop in Boston. But James was physically abusive, and young Ben decided to run away.

That was illegal. Under the apprenticeship system in place at the time, an apprentice who ran away before his term of service was up was breaking the law—and runaways could be arrested, jailed, and even forced to serve extra time working for their masters. Nevertheless, at the age of 17, Ben broke the law by fleeing Massachusetts for Pennsylvania, where he arrived by boat on October 6, 1723.

Pennsylvania wasn’t just 300 miles away from Boston—the Quaker City was also far more tolerant and cosmopolitan: it was destined to become the intellectual capital of the American colonies, thanks in no small part to Franklin’s influence. In his famous Autobiography, Franklin recalled what it was like when he reached the shore of this new world:

I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no soul nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with traveling, rowing, and want of rest, I was very hungry; and my whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar…. I walked up the street, gazing about till near the market-house I met a boy with bread. I had made many a meal on bread, and, inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the baker’s he directed me to, in Second Street, and asked for biscuit, intending such as we had in Boston; but they, it seems, were not made in Philadelphia. Then I asked for a three-penny loaf, and was told they had none such. So not considering or knowing the difference of money, and the greater cheapness nor the names of his bread, I bade him give me three-penny worth of any sort. He gave me, accordingly, three great puffy rolls. I was surprised at the quantity, but took it, and, having no room in my pockets, walked off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other. Thus I went up Market Street…. I made…a most awkward, ridiculous appearance.

Franklin was able to find work in a print shop, and through hard work and what we now call “networking,” was able to build a reputation for himself. Eventually, he became one of the most famous writers and publishers in the American colonies. Along with his financial success, he also helped lead a wide variety of community projects—co-founding America’s first lending library, first hospital, first home insurance company, first volunteer fire department, and the country’s most prestigious intellectual institution, the American Philosophical Society. He invented bifocals and the Franklin Stove. His experiments with electricity, which climaxed with the invention of the lightning rod, made him a world hero—and all of this was before he became an important patriot leader. He was celebrated as “Doctor” Franklin—but he had barely any formal education at all.

As a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Ben Franklin will always be regarded as among the greatest of statesmen, but he was also America’s first entrepreneurial hero. His Autobiography, published after his death, became a classic among business leaders throughout the nineteenth century, and he remains one of the most popular heroes among entrepreneurs today. His book offered helpful advice on how to be a successful businessman (for example, he urged entrepreneurs to make sure that people see how busy you are)—but it also examined the virtues of entrepreneurship: the moral values that go into making a person a successful and prosperous business leader. He related how he created a catalogue of virtues:

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurred to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully expressed the extent I gave to its meaning. These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

  1. Temperance – Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence – Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order – Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry – Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity – Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness – Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity – Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility – Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

This is an interesting list, because it’s not the list that the heroes of, say, ancient Greek mythology would have written. There’s nothing here about conquering enemies or subduing the powerful. In The Aeneid, Virgil described Rome’s mission like this: “to spare the defeated, break the proud in war.” Franklin’s list is nothing like that. It’s a list of what the economic scholar Dierdre McCloskey calls “the bourgeois virtues”—industry, frugality, moderation. These are the virtues of the respectable businessman and responsible citizen. And they’re the moral building blocks of what we today call the American Dream.

“[In] America,” Franklin later wrote, in an article of advice to Europeans considering immigrating, “people do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? But What can he do…? In short America is the Land of Labor, and by no means what the English call Lubberland…where the Streets are said to be paved with half-peck loaves, the houses tiled with pancakes, and where the fowls fly about ready roasted, crying, Come eat me!” Hard work and devotion would be rewarded, and peace and diversity would prevail, Franklin thought, because America was a land of businesspeople and entrepreneurs.

Ben Franklin’s arrival in Philadelphia in October 1723—with nothing to his name but his willingness to work—is the kind of story that would be played out for centuries to come in places like Ellis Island. And his rise to economic success and national immortality would prove only one of countless similar stories of the American Dream made real.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.



More on this issue

Donate Now

Help all Americans live freer, happier lives. Join the Goldwater Institute as we defend and strengthen freedom in all 50 states.

Donate Now

Since 1988, the Goldwater Institute has been in the liberty business — defending and promoting freedom, and achieving more than 400 victories in all 50 states. Donate today to help support our mission.

We Protect Your Rights

Our attorneys defend individual rights and protect those who cannot protect themselves.

Need Help? Submit a case.

Get Connected to Goldwater

Sign up for the latest news, event updates, and more.