National Archives at Philadelphia


Finding Franklin


This exhibit uses the records of the Mid Atlantic Region to uncover Benjamin Franklin's legacy with regard to the creation and operation of the Federal government from its inception through the Civil War. The region's records begin in 1789; however, Franklin only lived until 1790 giving him little time to leave physical evidence in the Federal record. Franklin's spirit, rather than signature, is present in the records of the Mid Atlantic Region.

Federal records do provide a fascinating opportunity to track Franklin's role in shaping the Federal government. In this exhibit you'll compare documents from the fledgling Federal government with Franklin's Sketch of Articles of Confederation (July 21, 1775). In it, Franklin lays out his framework for government to the Continental Congress that united the colonies in a perpetual union whereby common goals could be achieved. Franklin envisioned a government with the ability to adapt to change, the authority to create a common currency, and the capacity to coordinate a common military force. These themes would later become key powers of the Federal government as framed in the Constitution.

Documents from the Mid Atlantic Region not only illustrate how Franklin's ideas are mirrored in the operation of the Federal government, but also show how his vision for the government differed. A separation of powers, a free press, and the question of slavery are all evidenced in the documents of the Federal government. While explicitly missing in Franklin's Articles, these themes were not altogether vacant from his thought. Franklin often sought compromise in order to promote what he thought to be the common good. On September 17, 1787, Franklin wrote, "I agree to this Constitution with all its faults...I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument."

In making these comparisons, revealing which of his ideas were adopted, or modified or dropped, you'll come to understand some of the early political, social, and economic issues that shaped the United States - 200 years ago and today.

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List of full citations for documents in this exhibit