How Franklin's Puritan Upbringing Influenced His Politics

When Was the Puritan Era?

The Puritan religious movement originated in 17th century England. Puritans believed that the Church of England was too Catholic because it retained some popish rituals and practices. They sought to purge their Protestant religion of the remnants of Catholicism.

Some of the strictest factions of the Puritan movement broke away from the Church of England when their concerns went unaddressed. They became known as the Separatists. They experienced religious persecution and suppression because of their beliefs.

Puritans in the Colonies

Many of the first settlers who came to North America from England in the early 1600s were Separatists who sought religious freedom. Among them were the founders of the Plymouth Colony and later, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritanism remained a dominant religion in New England for more than a century, fading out in the 1740s.

In general, Puritans believed in: Predestination; Good works, prayer and reading the Bible; Rebellion against unworthy leaders; Education and literacy.

Benjamin Franklin's Puritan Upbringing

Born in 1706 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Benjamin Franklin was a child of Puritan parents. At one point, his parents planned for their son to be a minister, but they did not have the money for the schooling he would need. Instead, they could provide him with only two years of formal education, first at Boston Latin School and then George Brownell's English School. By the age of 10, Benjamin was finished with school and worked in his father's candle-making business. When he was 12, he became an apprentice printer at his brother's printing shop.

Young Benjamin took naturally to reading and writing. He continued his education through books. They taught him about people, society, science and religions beyond his own environment.

Young Franklin wanted to write letters for his brother's newspaper, The New England Courant, but his brother forbade it. Franklin tried another tack and created his earliest persona, a Puritan he called Silence Dogood, who described herself as virtue's friend and vice's enemy. As Silence, the boy wrote several letters to the editor that appeared in print.

How the Puritan Religion Influenced Franklin's Politics

As he grew older and became involved in politics, Benjamin Franklin's religion underwent changes too. He called himself a Deist as a young man, but his Puritan upbringing stuck with him throughout his life in certain respects.

For one thing, he actively strove to live a virtuous life and to lead others by his example, according to his autobiography. He listed 13 virtues which were typical of a Christian Puritan perspective, and then described how he tried to live up to them. This program for self-improvement reflects a Puritan belief in making oneself as fit as possible for heaven, although Franklin's focus was more on his earthly existence.

He also made a practice of helping others during his life, founding a library, an academy, a hospital and even a volunteer fire department. He invented a number of useful devices, but never expected to profit from them, citing his wish that others would be able to benefit from their use. This desire to improve the lives of others was also rooted in his early influences at home and the books he read, which included "Essays to Do Good," by Puritan Cotton Mather.

Franklin's ethics extended to his political life, where he strove to help improve society and choose worthy leaders who modeled morality. His embrace of the principles of the Enlightenment, including his scientific inquiries and respect for reason, became a part of his credo, but they did not overtake his Puritan beliefs. Instead, his politics reflected both a Puritan respect for propriety and an Enlightened curiosity to delve into the unknown.

His final political appearance at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 amply illustrates just how Franklin's religious roots in Puritanism informed his politics. He exhorted his fellow ambassadors to consider adding a daily prayer to the proceedings, expressing his belief that without the help of God, their collaborative efforts could not succeed. This hearkens back to the Puritan belief that God supports those who rebel against immoral leaders. It also reiterates Franklin's earlier suggestion for the nation's motto, which stated that those who rebel against tyrants are obedient to God.