Benjamin Franklin and the junto’s influence on colonial america Essay

Benjamin Franklin and the junto’s influence on colonial america

            The Junto, the socially and intellectually accomplished club Benjamin Franklin founded as a young printer, had a significance influence on several aspects of life in colonial America.  Guided by Franklin’s strong ethic of civic improvement, it helped improve urban services and infrastructures, provided aid to the poor, and created non-sectarian institutions that later became common throughout the colonies and the young republic.

            The Junto was very much the product of both its founder and the city to which he moved at age 17.  Franklin initially left Boston to both seek work as a printer (he chafed as an apprentice to his sometimes-abusive brother James) and to escape the Puritan stronghold’s intellectually repressive culture.  Though biographer Esmond Wright states that the Boston of Franklin’s youth was “in social, as in political, character no longer an oligarchy of the spiritual elect” (Franklin of Philadelphia, 17), its elites nonetheless persecuted and jailed outspoken critics of their rule, such as James Franklin, who featured inflammatory articles (some by his teenage brother Benjamin) in his New England Courant.  This controversial two-page weekly newspaper attacked local leaders such as Cotton Mather, who loudly denounced the paper and twice sent its owner to jail.  The kind of intellectual liberty Franklin sought did not exist in his birthplace.

            Franklin’s independent spirit was undimmed; he left for Philadelphia in 1723 to become a printer in his own right.  Wright also adds that “it was only after breathing the tolerant air of Philadelphia that Franklin began to live” (Franklin of Philadelphia, 24).  Though he was indelibly shaped by Calvinist Boston – particularly its emphasis on good conduct and material prosperity as evidence of one’s virtue – he found Philadelphia a better place to apply those virtues, doing so in civic life instead of through the Calvinist doctrine he came to reject.  An inherently social man who thrived in a group context, Franklin used the city not only to make himself rich (which occurred by the time he turned forty), but also to do good on a much larger scale than he could have accomplished in the hierarchical, intolerant Boston of his youth.

            The Quaker city (founded only twenty-four years before Franklin’s birth) emphasized the justice and humanitarianism Boston in practice lacked.  In addition, Philadelphia was civic-minded and tolerant almost from its inception as a haven for the Quakers and other persecuted groups.  Still something of a raw frontier community when Franklin arrived, it afforded ambitious, free-thinking, gifted people like him opportunities to not only succeed in the skilled trades, but also to help shape civic life.  Wright quotes a contemporary of Franklin’s who deemed Philadelphia “paradise for artisans and hell for officials and preachers” (Franklin of Philadelphia 30).  Though not democratic in the modern sense, the city had a relatively open society in which one could succeed.

            In 1727, Franklin, now a printing shop foreman, formed the Club of the Leather Apron, which came to be simply called the Junto (a variant of the word “junta,” meaning “to join”).  Its membership, which never exceeded a dozen, comprised mostly young skilled tradesman like its founder, all but two under age thirty and one as young as eighteen (Morgan 41).  Their original intention, according to historian Edmund S. Morgan, was only partly to socialize; its members aimed mainly to cultivate contacts through which they could improve themselves and each other in intellectual and material ways.  Franklin made it a forum in which they could offer each other practical help; Morgan says Franklin “was interested in getting rich . . . and a whole series of questions was directed toward promoting that end for all the members” (Morgan 42).  However, as its members steadily advanced their own fortunes, the Junto soon directed its abundant energies into public service, aiming to help the city as much as it had helped its own small circle.

            Its founding members included shoemaker William Parsons, clerk William Coleman, surveyor Nicholas Scull, joiner William Maugridge, physician Thomas Bond, and several others (Franklin of Philadelphia 38), most of whom were ambitious and sought each other’s company in order to share information about business opportunities, socialize with other young men of their class (but not to carouse, though they did drink modest amounts of wine), and improve  their knowledge, since many had received only scant amounts of education (Franklin’s own schooling was brief, and he was always eager to build his voracious knowledge).  In addition, the club was wholly non-sectarian, making it somewhat unique among other social clubs of its time and place.  Wright comments that the Junto was “part mutual aid society, part social fraternity, part academy” (Franklin of Philadelphia 37).

            The group was not the first mutual aid society or social club in the colonies, or even in Philadelphia, a city fond of social clubs from its birth.  However, it differed from others because it clearly bore the stamp of Franklin’s dynamic personality and widely varied interests; he “made [it] his civic instrument” (Franklin of Philadelphia 25), using the Junto as a means of doing good for both its members and their young community.  It was the first such group to use the name – Franklin had intended to found many Juntos, both in Philadelphia and elsewhere – but it changed the landscape of colonial social clubs by being so socially and intellectually active.

            Their first civic endeavor of note was the creation of a lending library, which served as the prototype for other public libraries in the colonies and the United States.  Initially, the members established it as a means of sharing their own reading material, which they discussed at length during their meetings.  (The club’s official protocol demanded that a series of pointed questions be asked about each item, whether a civic issue or specific book or article, and that the tone always be cordial.)  Soon, Franklin perceived a dearth of reading material in Philadelphia, and that the demand for books was going largely unanswered.  He noted in his autobiography that “there was not a good Bookseller’s Shop in any of the Colonies to the Southward of Boston. . . . Those who lov’d Reading were oblig’d to send for their Books from England” (Franklin 79).

            In order to help the public educate itself as Franklin had (he had received only two years of formal schooling and was a voracious autodidact), the Junto formed the Library Company, funded by the club’s members and subscriptions from fifty local citizens.  By 1742, the library’s membership had doubled and its reading material included about 375 titles, over a third of which were historical or literary works (Franklin of Philadelphia 38).  Most of the volumes were sent from London by bookseller/botanist Peter Collinson, for years Franklin’s chief contact in Britain and, though not a Junto member, an important part of its history.  Not only did the Library Company thrive, but it also influenced other colonial cities to follow suit.  Franklin commented, “The Institution soon manifested its Utility, was imitated by other Towns and in other Provinces . . . and in a few Years [our citizens] were observ’d by Strangers to be better instructed & more intelligent than People of the sank rank generally are in other Countries” (Franklin 80).  The group can be credited not only with inspiring the creation of public libraries, but also of helping encourage reading and literacy among the colonial public.

            Encouraged by the library’s success, the Junto expanded its civic efforts.  Wright claims, “Self improvement led inevitable to the improvement of city and state.  What the Philadelphia Junto inculcated was the art of civic virtue” (Franklin of Philadelphia 39).  As the Junto’s members became better-read, more prosperous, and better-established in the city, they discussed more than simply means of making each other rich.  They turned their improvement efforts outward toward Philadelphia’s citizens as a whole, basically taking the Puritan and Quaker impulse to do good and projecting it in a secular manner, reframing it as public service and political reform independent of religious sponsorship or content.  According to Morgan, the library’s success “furnished Franklin with a political experience that stood him in good stead in later projects to get Philadelphians to help themselves by helping their neighbors” (Morgan 57).  He recognized the value of clubs in promoting civic well-being, helping spawn other clubs devoted as much to social tasks as to socializing.  In essence, The Junto helped expand cities’ consciousness about quality of life and filling voids through direct action.

            In 1736, the Junto proposed forming clubs devoted to fighting fires and rescuing both people and property.  Fire was then the scourge of colonial America’s densely-packed, largely-wooden cities.  Franklin first presented the idea to the Junto before publishing an article on fire prevention in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette (which became a virtual mouthpiece for the Junto’s ideas).  As a result, several clubs formed and had some success in preventing extensive property damage and loss of life in the city.  Though not the first such effort (Boston already had one such club), it was the most noteworthy and extensive effort to date and served as a prototype for other firefighting groups on America’s eastern seaboard until publicly-operated fire departments emerged in the late nineteenth century.  It also inspired the creation of the Philadelphia Contributorship, a prototype for fire insurance companies and, by extension, the insurance industry in America.

            The Junto also played a role in pioneering ideas about public safety that other colonial cities imitated.  Though constables already served as watchmen in many colonial towns, Franklin found them lax and easily corrupted and called for “a more effective watch,” writing that the idea, “being approved by the Junto, was  . . . not immediately carried into execution, yet, by preparing the minds of people for the change, it paved the way for the law a few years later, when the members of our clubs were grown into more influence” (Benjamin Franklin 104).

            The Junto included some of the first Americans to recognize, comprehend, and successfully act to fill voids in urban life and address public problems.  Seldom inclined to take things as they existed if he found fault, Franklin used the Junto as an instrument of doing good on a large, public scale.  In addition to addressing the need for libraries and public safety, Franklin and his circle also confronted pressing needs like public health.  Colonial cities tended to be unhealthy, with poor to nonexistent sanitation and drainage, and with populations living in relatively close quarters, outbreaks of disease (particularly smallpox, dysentery, cholera, typhus, and dysentery) were frequent.  The Junto supported inoculations against smallpox (as Franklin had before leaving Boston), and in 1751 Franklin and fellow Junto member Dr. Thomas Bond raised funds for a hospital which would offer poor Philadelphians care, instead of simply placing them in almshouses, where treatment was seldom effective.

            Pennsylvania Hospital admitted its first patients in 1752 and was America’s first incorporated hospital (Durham 180).  Franklin credited Bond with the idea, calling it “a very beneficent Design, which has been acrib’d to me, but was originally his,” though he added, “Previous however to the Solicitation, I endeavored to prepare the Minds of the People by writing on the Subject” (Franklin 125-126).  In addition, the hospital represented a new means of reckoning with poverty.  As historian Gary Nash writes, Franklin “contended that the care of the sick poor in Philadelphia would not cost one-tenth as much in a hospital as under the old system of out-relief and almshouse care,” and that saving a poor man’s life also kept his widow and orphans from requiring public assistance (Nash 160).

            The Junto’s intellectual endeavors to colonial America went well beyond forming Philadelphia’s library.  Drawing from their own practice of sharing information and educating themselves and one another, they proposed forming a philosophical society to promote scholarly activity on a broader basis, so that the colonial public would have access to the latest scientific and scholarly information.  Franklin dubbed the 1743 idea “A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America” (Durham 10), and within two years the American Philosophical Society was formally organized, with Franklin and fellow Junto members Thomas Bond, a physician, and Thomas Godfrey, a mathematician, serving on its board of directors.  It not only included members of various scientific disciplines, but it also established a non-sectarian academic and intellectual community in the colonies.

            Franklin addressed a void in education in 1749 by printing a proposal for a public institution for Philadelphia’s youth, writing that Pennsylvania’s founders that “their hands were full, and they could not do all things” (Benjamin Franklin 120).  He believed that colonists were poorly educated and thus thought inferior to members of the same classes in the mother country, but he asserted their innate equality while adding that ‘the best capacities require cultivation . . . as with the best ground, which unless well tilled and sowed with profitable seed, produces only ranker weeds” (Benjamin Franklin 120).

            Using the Junto as his instrument for shaping and publicizing his ideas, Franklin conceived the Philadelphia Academy and Charitable School for boys between ages eight and sixteen, who would be schooled in “useful” activities ranging from penmanship and oratory to history, commerce, languages, the arts, and the sciences.  The institution would not cater simply to the social elites, and it existed for simply more than training the clergy, as other colonial colleges like Harvard and Yale had done.  Opened in 1751, the Academy was transformed by 1779 into the University of Pennsylvania, which evolved into an elite private institution rather different from the Junto’s original vision.

            More importantly, the Academy reflected the Junto’s sensibilities by favoring and endorsing no religious sect.  Franklin wrote in his proposal that “a Predominancy should not be given to any sect, lest in time that Predominancy might be a means of appropriating the whole to the use of such sect” (Franklin 122).  However, they were by no means opposed to religion; instead, Franklin advocated in his Academy proposal “the necessity of a publick religion, from its usefulness to the publick” but also “the excellency of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION above all others” (Benjamin Franklin, 121).  In a British North America with a long history of sectarian divisions, the Junto’s outlooks created a new paradigm for social relations, based not on narrow sectarian identity but on a larger sense of shared assumptions which embraced Christian ethics (in which Franklin believed strongly throughout his life) and the importance of doing good for mankind as a whole.

            Because the Junto studied and discussed a wide range of scientific and technological subjects as well as civil and educational improvements, it can also be credited (though somewhat less directly) with helping popularize science in colonial America, due mainly to how it publicized Franklin’s own experiments with electricity.  By the mid-1740s, Franklin was wealthy enough to let others run his business fairs, giving him time to “read, study, make Experiments, and  . . . produce something for the common Benefit of Mankind” (Campbell 53).  After Peter Collinson, his contact in London, sent him a Leyden jar used in similar experiments, Franklin purchased more equipment and over the next several years performed valuable work on electrical conductivity (he was the first to use the terms “positive” and “negative” to pertain to electrical charges) and on the conductivity of heat (Ward 288).  He was also first to equate lightning with electricity, inspiring his invention of the lightning rod in 1752.

            Using his Junto connections in the Philosophical Society as contacts, he circulated his findings throughout the colonies and in Britain as well, drawing attention as well as inspiring further scientific activity in the colonies.  Though historian Harry Ward characterizes Franklin’s work as “dabbling at the surface,” he also concedes that the Junto’s members “effectively popularized science and stimulated its pursuit” (Ward 289).  However, biographer James Campbell states: “Far from being seen in his own day as what we now consider an ‘amateur,’ Franklin was proclaimed as the world’s premier electrician – that is, experimental physicist” (Campbell 54).

            Because the Junto observed no sectarian differences from its inception, it can be credited with helping spread the notion of an obviously Christian but nondenominational “civic religion.”  This not only reduced social differences among the colonists, but it also made it much easier for them to form a consensus regarding the virtues and characteristics necessary to sustain and unite the new American republic.  Historian Bryan LeBeau comments that, as the Revolution neared, colonists “agreed that a successful republic society and government depended on a virtuous people. . . . Most equated republican longevity with widely inculcated moral virtue” (LeBeau 67).  Franklin, he continues, “was the first of his generation to call for public religion and fashion its design (67), doing so in 1749’s proposal for what became the University of Pennsylvania.  This idea, which Franklin evolved with much discussion and input from the Junto’s other members, “was a homegrown version of the Enlightenment . . . [which] did not intend the end of individual denominations, but rather the cessation of sectarianism” (LeBeau 68) and the creation of a new common sense of ethical behavior and civic engagement.

            As a vital and exceptionally productive organization (despite its small membership), the Junto also played some role in politics in the two decades before the Revolution.  An advocate of forming militias to defend Philadelphia as early as 1747, Franklin used the Junto as a platform for mobilizing the city’s artisans, rallying them to his point of view and effectively fighting Pennsylvania’s proprietary government, which represented the Quaker pacifists and ruled the colony much like Old World lords, albeit with a somewhat looser grip.  Franklin “created the sense that the mechanics of Philadelphia were his strength” (Nash 169), and the Junto and its affiliates helped overturn the old leadership, replacing it with a coalition led by merchants and artisans – effectively transferring power form established elites to the artisans for whom Philadelphia had been declared a “paradise” decades earlier.  The Junto also helped plant the seeds of radicalism among the city’s artisan class; Franklin was accused of “infusing into the people’s ears his Republican Anarchical notions . . . [and] leveling Principles” (Nash 170).  In a way, Franklin and his group also helped prepare the people’s minds for the possibility of overturning not only the local ruling order, but that of the American colonies themselves.

            Even from its very beginnings, the Junto was more than simply Franklin’s circle of friends and associates.  He conceived of it as a means of advancing his own career and that of others by acting in the common good and embracing a collective spirit that drew upon the individual talents of its members.  By the 1750s, the group had wielded an influence that far exceeded its small size.  It helped foster a new civic spirit in colonial America, creating civic institutions that aimed to benefit the public, without regard to class or religious sect, which led to a non-denominational community sensibility geared toward good works and virtuous citizenship.  In addition, its artisan origins helped it work effectively among the colonial middle class, helping it become political active and eventually become a dominant force not only in colonial life but in the new republic that Franklin and the Junto had influenced.


Campbell, James.  Recovering Benjamin Franklin.  Chicago: Open Court, 1999.  An examination of Franklin’s scientific work and other intellectual pursuits.

Durham, Jennifer L.  Benjamin Franklin: A Biographical Companion.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1997.  A detailed reference work containing ample, categorized information about Franklin’s life and activities.

Franklin, Benjamin.  Autobiography and Other Writings.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.  The complete text of Franklin’s autobiography and other personal papers.

LeBeau, Bryan.  Religion in America to 1865.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.  An overview of religious activity and attitudes in colonial and pre-Civil War America.

Morgan, Edmund S.  Benjamin Franklin.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.  A recent biography that examines Franklin in a modern light.

Nash, Gary B.  The Urban Crucible.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.  A history of radical political activity in colonial Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Ward, Harry M.  Colonial America, 1607-1763.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1991.  An overview of British North America’s politics, society, and culture.

Wright, Esmond.  Franklin of Philadelphia.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.  A comprehensive biography of Franklin.

________.  Ed.  Benjamin Franklin: His Life as He Wrote It.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.  Excerpts of his autobiography and other writings, with editorial comments.