The Age of Benjamin Franklin

Course No. 8517
Professor Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.
Suffolk University
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Course No. 8517
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Gain insight into one of the most famous Americans, and in many ways the archetypal American of his time; a profound thinker yet also a highly pragmatic figure.
  • numbers Explore his many scientific contributions, from his early years as a printer to his groundbreaking work in the burgeoning field of electricity.
  • numbers Delve into the drama of the American Revolution and consider Franklin's evolving worldview as he worked to negotiate among the Americans, the British, and the French.
  • numbers See why Benjamin Franklin has earned his place on the world's stage-and consider why he continues to capture our imagination as a true character when so many of his counterparts have become merely names in the history books.

Course Overview

We all have certain images of Ben Franklin: the witty Founding Father who promoted independence; the Philadelphia printer who created Poor Richard’s Almanack; the scientist who conducted experiments with kites in electrical storms; the author of what is arguably America’s best-known autobiography. These images reveal an intellectually curious and successful man of the 18th century, but they don’t fully capture the rich and multi-faceted genius of one of the most extraordinary Americans—perhaps the quintessential American—in history.

Why is Benjamin Franklin so compelling? What made him so successful in his day? And why has he continued to influence generations of Americans? Tackle these questions and more in The Age of Benjamin Franklin, a thorough—and sometimes surprising—course that presents a full portrait of a personality that defies easy definition. Taught by Professor Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University, these 24 insightful lectures explore the many aspects of Franklin’s life and times.

From his humble beginnings as the son of a Boston soap maker to a world-renowned diplomat, Franklin’s story is the embodiment of the American Dream, characterized by a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps resolve. It’s the story he tells in his world famous autobiography—a blueprint for becoming a “self-made” man, by combining hard work and following a series of thirteen virtues. What you’ll learn early in this course is the difference between the character of Franklin that he created in his Autobiography, and the far more nuanced—and interesting—reality. For instance:

  • He was an Enlightenment thinker with Puritan roots, a friend of the leading thinkers of his time such as Voltaire and the evangelist George Whitfield.
  • He was Boston-born and Philadelphia proud, yet he was equally at home in London or Paris.
  • He championed intellectual values and wore the leather apron of a working man.
  • He possessed a scientific and creative mind, and his inventions include the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and a flexible urinary catheter.
  • He was extraordinarily sociable; had a wife, children, a large, extended family, and close friendships with so many women that at least one scholar was inspired to call him “the founding flirt.”
  • He was a brilliant writer and humorist. His publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack inspired other American writers like Noah Webster.
  • He was highly respected, but not universally beloved in his time (or afterward). Many, like John Adams, questioned Franklin’s moral compass, in politics as well as in his personal life.

In this course, you’ll explore these many sides and more to discover who Benjamin Franklin was, what he believed, and how he conducted himself in business and politics. To better understand Franklin’s unique genius, Professor Allison takes you into his world of the 18th century—an era of political revolution, science and reason, communication and literacy. As Franklin rises to international greatness, you’ll see his countrymen take their own places on the world stage as they shake off the British Empire to form a new nation. Informative, entertaining, and insightful, The Age of Benjamin Franklin takes you into the fascinating life and times of a bona fide American genius.

A Paragon of the Enlightenment

Even if Benjamin Franklin had not gone into politics and had not lived during the American Revolution, it’s likely that he would have found a prominent place in history as a printer, scientist, inventor, and general Enlightenment thinker.

Professor Allison unpacks Franklin’s role as a scientist—or as as it was called at the time, a “natural philosopher”—exploring both the science and the truth behind the famous image of Franklin with the kite in the lightning storm. Although he may be best known as a Founding Father, his work on electricity is an equally grand achievement. As one scholar put it, he found the field of electricity as a parlor trick (something to shock guests at a dinner party), and he left it a science. We owe concepts of positive and negative charge, the battery, the Leyden jar, and more to Ben Franklin.

Professor Allison also delves into Franklin’s many other contributions to history. As you will find out, he had a dizzying series of accomplishments and interests, somehow finding time to:

  • Build a national printing business
  • Open America’s first library
  • Pioneer the development of the post office
  • Publish a number of satires
  • Invent the Franklin stove
  • Help create and codify the science of electricity
  • Write a string quartet
  • Write one of the first texts about chess published in the U.S.
  • Take up swimming

In addition, Franklin traveled the world, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, negotiated for support during the Revolutionary War and for peace following it, served in Congress, helped write the American Constitution, and hobnobbed with the likes of Cotton Mather, George Washington, Jeremy Bentham, David Hume, Voltaire, and countless others. He was a busy, busy man: ambitious, worldly, imaginative, and forward thinking, representing the best output from the Age of Enlightenment.

The Reluctant Politician

No history of Ben Franklin would be complete without an examination of the world around him, and the world of the 18th century was one of major intellectual and political upheaval. Franklin himself had little interest in politics, never seeking office but also—fortunately for us—never stepping away when he was needed.

From the Crisis of 1773, to the Stamp Act and the Tea Act, to the Declaration of Independence, the most challenging moments in early American history required deft negotiations among multiple parties. Franklin—with his rational and worldly mind on one hand, as well as his good humor, canny business experience, and pragmatic sensibilities on the other—was the perfect man for the job. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have his detractors; many thought Franklin was not suited to the job of envoy to Europe due to his humble origins, rakish reputation, and his unconcealed love of London (which he called home for 20 years). Even Franklin’s eldest son William—who had helped his father in his explorations of electricity—eventually became estranged from him when the two could not see eye to eye on American independence. Rumors even spread through certain circles that Franklin was a British double agent. You will venture with him to London and Paris as he negotiates, first for peace with the British Empire and then for support from France during the war, while contending with his own personal struggle with breaking from England and the toll it took on his family.

As you follow these dramatic events, you’ll also gain a sense of the 18th century world, reflecting on:

  • The texture of everyday life in Boston and Philadelphia, as well as London and Paris
  • The British Empire’s difficulties in governing far-flung colonies
  • The role Native Americans such as the Iroquois and the Delaware played in the American colonies
  • Race and the slave trade—and its incompatibility with Enlightenment values

Life in the 18th century was fascinating yet messy. In many ways, Franklin, with his boundless energy and curiosity, was the right man for these complicated and challenging times.

A Complex, Absorbing Portrait

With Robert Allison as your guide, you will come to know this outsized figure and the world he inhabited. You’ll discover Franklin was very much the intelligent, hard-working self-made man he presents himself to be in his autobiography. He was also a shrewd and savvy businessman, a canny politician, and a man with his share of enemies and personal conflicts.

Franklin himself wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Let all men know thee, but let no man know thee thoroughly.” In the end, Professor Allison leaves it to you to evaluate Ben Franklin’s enormous legacy. The man was one of the most notable Americans in history—a pioneer in science, politics, and diplomacy—he was truly a larger-than-life individual. The Age of Benjamin Franklin gives you a rich and entertaining portrait of his life and times.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Benjamin Franklin and the American Dream
    Begin your course with a look at Franklin's unfinished autobiography, a book in which he consciously created a persona for himself as a role model others may follow. Although there is more to Franklin than he showed on the page, surveying the Autobiography offers some foundational insights into his life, his worldview, and the times in which he lived. x
  • 2
    Meet the Franklins
    In many ways, the Franklins were a typical 18th century family—extended across space (New England, the West Indies, and Europe), and filled with comedy and tragedy, wealth and poverty. Here, you will meet his parents and siblings, learn the story of his wife and first-born son, and accompany Franklin on his travels as his family grew. x
  • 3
    Benjamin Franklin's Boston Beginnings
    We may associate Franklin with Philadelphia, but his roots lie in Boston. As you will find out in this lecture, many of the virtues Franklin would cultivate throughout his life grew from the values of the Boston Puritans. Delve into the Boston of the time to meet some of the people and witness the events that Franklin experienced in his youth. x
  • 4
    Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia
    Shift your attention to the next stop on Franklin’s life voyage, the City of Brotherly Love. Not only was 18th century Philadelphia one of the leading cities in British America, it was one of the leading cities in the British Empire. Find out what made this city so important, and discover how the city shaped Franklin—and how Franklin shaped the city. x
  • 5
    Benjamin Franklin in London
    If Philadelphia was one of the British Empire's leading cities, London itself was becoming the metropolis of the Western world: the largest city in Europe, the financial center of the British Empire, and the nexus of global trade. From the royal exchange to the gambling dens, get to know this great city, and examine some of Franklin's pastimes. x
  • 6
    Benjamin Franklin: Printer and Postmaster
    The world was experiencing a major revolution in the 18th century thanks to the printing press. The rise in literacy, the spread of ideas, and the creation of communities across oceans and colonial boundaries re-shaped the world's intellectual landscape. Delve into Franklin's career as a printer, where he was at the center of this revolution. x
  • 7
    Benjamin Franklin: Scientist
    In addition to the print revolution, the 18th century saw scientific paradigms shift with the triumph of empirical knowledge. Franklin was a scientist—or, as he would have termed it, a “natural philosopher”—and his scientific contributions alone would have earned him a place in the history books. Examine some of his major inventions and ideas. x
  • 8
    Benjamin Franklin and Electricity
    Unpack Franklin's greatest scientific contributions, which were in the field of electricity. As one of his biographers put it, Franklin found electricity as merely a curiosity but he left it a science. Review his most important discoveries, experiments, and contributions, and reflect on the lasting legacy of Franklin as a scientist. x
  • 9
    Benjamin Franklin's Religious Beliefs
    Franklin lived during a great age of rationality and questioning, but also through one of the greatest religious revivals in world history. Franklin himself was a close friend of both George Whitefield, a famous evangelist, and David Hume, a powerful skeptic. Find out what Franklin made of these divergent intellectual movements. x
  • 10
    Benjamin Franklin: American Satirist
    The 18th century was also the golden age of satire, which provided an excellent way to question authority and challenge received wisdom. As you will learn in this lecture, Franklin was among peers with Swift, Defoe, and Voltaire, and he used personas like Silence Dogood to offer blistering critiques of society. x
  • 11
    The Musical Benjamin Franklin
    Among Franklin's lesser known abilities are his musical talents, which made effective use of his rational mind and his quest for understanding the world. After surveying the world of 18th century music, Professor Allison reveals Franklin's musical prowess, including the invention of a new musical instrument. x
  • 12
    Benjamin Franklin: Ladies' Man?
    Franklin has been called everything from a “babe magnet” to a “high-flying ladies’ man” to “the founding flirt.” Although he was conventionally married and had a family, he also had a number of unconventional liaisons around the world. Here, you will consider the many women in Franklin’s life, and his relationships with them. x
  • 13
    Benjamin Franklin: A Reluctant Politician
    Franklin loved science and ideas, but disliked controversy, a disposition that made him reluctant to enter politics. It is one of history's greatest ironies that this hesitant politician would become one of the most important political figures in the English-speaking world. Survey Franklin's entry into politics and consider his style as a politician. x
  • 14
    Benjamin Franklin and the American Indians
    It might be strange to consider, but Franklin knew more about Native Americans than modern historians do. The Iroquois, Delaware, and other natives loomed large in his world and held the balance of power in North America. Witness his negotiations with these groups and reflect on his views toward American Indians. x
  • 15
    Benjamin Franklin and Slavery in America
    Franklin's attitudes toward race and slavery changed over the course of his long life. During his life he owned four slaves, yet he came to despise the institution for the way it contradicted Enlightenment values. After surveying the institution of American slavery, Professor Allison walks you through Franklin's life as he wrestled with slavery. x
  • 16
    Benjamin Franklin and Colonies vs. Empire
    As with slavery, Franklin's attitudes toward the British Empire also shifted as Parliament struggled to govern far-flung colonies. Here, you will review Franklin's role as an American agent to London while tensions rose between Britain and the colonies. A steady drumbeat of war began to be heard. x
  • 17
    Benjamin Franklin and the Crisis of 1773
    Continue your study of the tensions between Americans and the British. In the wake of the Tea Act and Boston Tea Party, Franklin in London as an agent for the American colonies struggled to patch the relationship and salvage the empire, but by 1775, a break is imminent. x
  • 18
    Benjamin Franklin and Colonial Independence
    At 70 years old, Franklin played a central role in America's declaration of independence, the formation of a new government in Pennsylvania, and in diplomatic forays to Canada and France. Find out what lessons the reluctant politician had learned that would help him navigate the entirely new world being created around him. x
  • 19
    Benjamin Franklin and the Age of Revolution
    The late 18th century was an age of political revolution, and an era of philosophical revolution, as Enlightenment values spread across Europe and the Americas. As you'll learn in this lecture, Franklin was the American counterpart of his friends David Hume and Voltaire, all viewing the world with reason and skepticism. x
  • 20
    Benjamin Franklin: Acclaimed in France
    In December 1776, with independence declared and the American Revolution underway, Franklin traveled to Paris as an ambassador and was met with great acclaim. Journey with him through France over the next nine years, and learn how he adapted to French politics and culture, and cultivated an image of himself as a representative of the New World. x
  • 21
    Benjamin Franklin: Making Peace
    Although Franklin enjoyed himself in France, his primary mission was one of complicated diplomacy—first, to bring France into a military alliance with the United States; second, to negotiate with other European powers to support the American cause; and finally, to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain. Witness his strategy for achieving these ends. x
  • 22
    Benjamin Franklin: Framing the Constitution
    When he returned to America, he hoped to spend his remaining years enjoying life as a private citizen, but public duty called once again. Although America had won its independence, many challenges—from paying debts to establishing a government—remained. Delve into the debates and trials of a new nation. x
  • 23
    Benjamin Franklin's Critics and Enemies
    In his Autobiography, Franklin wrote a blueprint for how to win friends, but as you have discovered, he was much more complicated than the persona he created. From his beginnings as a ruthless businessman to his half-century as a political player, he developed numerous critics and even enemies. x
  • 24
    Benjamin Franklin's Remarkable Legacy
    Franklin lived an extraordinary life, but what's just as extraordinary is his legacy. Why has he been remembered so fondly when so many of his contemporaries have been forgotten? In this final lecture, consider why Franklin's legacy has endured, and examine the many ways he has been remembered by posterity. x

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  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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  • Closed captioning available

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos and illustrations
  • Suggested reading
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Robert J. Allison

About Your Professor

Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.
Suffolk University
Dr. Robert J. Allison is Professor of History at Suffolk University in Boston and also teaches history at the Harvard Extension School. He graduated from the Harvard Extension School with an A.L.B. before earning a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization at Harvard in 1992. Professor Allison received the Harvard Extension School's Petra Shattuck Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997, the Suffolk University Student...
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The Age of Benjamin Franklin is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 55.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The man and his century I became acquainted with Prof. Allison in his earlier series “Before 1776.” This series on “The Age of Franklin” reminded me of why I enjoyed him so much. Rather than a dry lecturer that sounds like a barely animated syllabus, Prof. Allison is an engaging storyteller, who can draw you into a deeper discussion through anecdotes and illustrations. He deftly weaves back and forth between the facts of Franklin’s life, his writings and accomplishments, and what was happening around him in American and European politics. I only knew the usual handful of Franklin odds and ends, but now I have a better grasp on his family, his achievements, and the vital part he played in 18th-century history. Some of Prof. Allison’s lectures focus on historical events; others focus on a particular topic, such as science, music, or religion. This is a very well-structured survey of a fascinating character and his era. (I bought the audio version which I thought was perfectly fine on its own.)
Date published: 2020-09-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific course! Prof. Allison provides in this course a thoughtful and engaging examination of one of our country's most talented and extraordinary citizens, Benjamin Franklin. The course is of sufficient length to permit Prof. Allison to dig deep into Franklin's life and bring forward interesting vignettes that tell us much about Franklin but that would likely have been omitted in a shorter course. Prof. Allison is a skilled lecturer, and although I found his manner a bit ponderous in his course on the American Colonies, he brings energy and enthusiasm to this subject matter. I listened to the audio version of this course and found that entirely satisfactory. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Impressive Course - (What A Guy!) This course introduces us to the fascinating Benjamin Franklin and the world in which he lived. While his name continues to be a household word, many of us are only familiar with a thumbnail sketch of this early American statesman. This course will remedy that. I decided at the outset to at last read “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” (inexpensive eBook) while taking the course. Good decision. The first 12 lectures closely align to much of the book, which explains the detail provided regarding his ancestry and peripheral family, (which some reviewers found superfluous). The remaining 12 lectures took on a new life, providing rich context of the people and happenings of the era, the personal relationships and politics, the tensions and struggles relating to the call for and effectuation of independence of what came to be The United States of America from its mother country. Franklin was deeply involved in the challenges of the times, contributing greatly to our successful beginnings as a republic with his innate wisdom and his genius in organizational and diplomatic talents. He wasn’t always right, and he wasn’t always the person we would hope our “hero” to be: He was, however, one of our best and brightest, and the person we needed at the time to develop progressive steps and unite others, both within the 13 colonies, and then, later, abroad, to enlist the much needed assistance provided by France. The video version of this course was a special treat. The set was beautifully done, with quality artworks (including a larger-than-life powerful painting by Benjamin West in the background), lovely furnishings, and rich coloring. There was an abundance of illustrations and portraits, cityscapes and scenes of people in various settings. The introductory animations that accompanied each lecture were skillfully done. I thoroughly enjoyed the contents and the professor’s presentation and the production of this course. My knowledge bank has been enriched. I feel very rewarded for experiencing “The Age Of Benjamin Franklin.”
Date published: 2020-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots of new things learned that we didn't know, and not only about Benjamin Franklin. Presented very clearly.
Date published: 2020-07-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More than I ever imagined about Franklin This course, like most of the Great Courses is excellent. The professor is amazingly knowledgeable and is a good teacher. Unfortunately one of the discs was so bad that we could watch less than half of it. I will return it and I am sure they will replace it. However, this has happened in the past with quite a few discs and I think they need to upgrade their process or materials or whatever is causing this recurring problem.
Date published: 2020-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ben Franklin seen from 200 years later Excellent presentation! Very well organized, and with abundant details which gave a fair and rounded assessment of Franklin. The comments on ladies man were a little mixed...I recall the John Adams DVD presenting Franklin very clearly as a man with loose bounds of fidelity though in fairness this was after the death of his wife (which he apparently almost never saw). But very rich details in all.
Date published: 2020-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best This course goes over not only Franklin's life, but the entire course of events during his life. A great way to present an important historical figure in the context of his times. "electrifying" without the kite
Date published: 2020-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent An excellent review of a critical era in our nation's history. Well presented.
Date published: 2020-01-25
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