Why Benjamin Franklin Wanted To Get Rich

With all of this talk about firing on the site lately, I wanted to share with you a more optimistic spin by sharing with you the story of why Benjamin Franklin wanted to get rich. Rather than seeing financial independence purely in terms of trying to avoid poverty and financial ruin, Benjamin Franklin saw financial independence as something that would provide him with the platform to do something great.

Franklin’s immense popularity prompted people like King George to call him the “most dangerous man in America”, simply because his original ideas (Daylight Savings Time, bifocal glasses, etc.) and witty responses to his adversaries stirred up jealousies in the minds of very powerful people. Heck, the legend is that Benajmin Franklin did not receive the opportunity to write “The Declaration of Independence” simply because his fellow American politicians feared that he would include a subtle joke at Britain’s expense in the Declaration of Independence that would be latent in the text until years later when Franklin would reveal it.

But Franklin had his financial house in order when he began to become an outspoken character, and that was because his anonymously published Poor Richard’s Almanac generated so much immediate wealth that he was able to be “effectively retired” in his late 30s and early 40s. I put the term in quotes and left the age range vague because Franklin used his profits to buy newspapers, publish court records, and get his hands on print shops that would generate substantial sums of income, but were not entirely free from consuming up his time.

Benjamin Franklin grew up poor because his dad was a candle-maker that had sixteen children, and Franklin’s taste of extreme poverty inspired a desire for self-sufficiency at an early age, and thankfully he was able to make lots of money in a hurry thanks to Poor Richard’s Almanack so that he could pursue inventions, the publishing of unpopular opinions, and a leadership role in America’s nascent republic.

I have no doubt that Franklin’s financial success provided him with the backbone to take on bold invention projects and voice controversial opinions in the American square. While your ambitions may not involve forming a country, the lesson from Franklin’s life is that your life can really begin to open up once you have the right financial infrastructure in place. If you are a small business owner, you are going to behave much differently when you need $6,000 to come in the door next month to keep all of your bills paid, compared to someone who is pursuing business projects solely with the purpose of making the best product possible without the need for an immediate financial tradeoff.

Early in Franklin’s life, he was a supporter of slavery. By 1758, he was able to publicly take the position that schools should be opened for the purpose of educating slaves, which was then a very bold position to take. If Benjamin Franklin was broke, I highly doubt that he would have been able to become a progressive of his time by favoring slave education and even advocating for the abolition of slavery towards the end of his life.

Historical figures don’t exist in a vacuum. When you are scraping by financially, you are not necessarily in a position to take bold stances, particularly if they veer substantially away from the mainstream “safe” opinion. If you have unpopular views and causes that you want to support, financial strength is an important ingredient in being able to successfully pursue them. A lot of times, people just study the political viewpoints of people in isolation of context, and more often than not, increases in passive income lead to increased boldness.

Of course, Franklin was brilliant in his own right before he became wealthy. When he was just twenty years old, he came up with these thirteen virtues to live by:

  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.”

  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.”

We associate Benjamin Franklin with public service and inventions, but it’s easy to not bother to ask, “How did he get himself in a position to be a public servant and have the time necessary to pursue inventions?” The answer is that he got very rich off of publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack. That was his fountain of power. That is what provided him the opportunity to make other investments, and live out a robust American life. With economic success, I doubt Franklin could have found his public or creative successes. All of this stuff is intertwined, and economic security provides an outlet for boldness elsewhere.