It was on this day in 1789 that Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote what was probably his last great quote, a saying about the Constitution and life that came true some five months later.
In his time, Franklin may have been the most quoted public figure of his generation. Franklin, publisher, businessman, and diplomat, became known for sayings or “proverbs” that appeared in Poor Richard’s Almanac and his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. Notably, Franklin wrote, or used other sources of content, over a period of 25 years for the Almanac by himself, as “Richard Saunders”.
To this day, there are discussions about the origin of some of these quotes. For example, one of the most popular sayings attributed to Franklin is “a penny saved is a penny earned.” East seems to be a combination of two Franklin proverbs.
Other famous Franklin quotes are well documented. In “Tips for a young trader”, Franklin writes that, “Remember that time is money”.
But Franklin also quoted in public documents from his participation in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention, and in a large volume of personal correspondence.
And one of his last big dates came when Franklin knew his life was near the end.
In November 1789, Franklin wrote the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, concerned that he had not heard from Le Roy since the beginning of the French Revolution. Franklin wrote in French and the letter was later translated for the 1817 printing of his private correspondence.
After asking about Le Roy’s health and events in Paris over the past year, Franklin gives a quick update on the main event in the United States: the ratification of the Constitution a year earlier and the start of a new government under it. .
“Our new Constitution is already established, everything seems to promise that it will be lasting; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Franklin said. He concluded with a note about his own mortality to his friend: “My health continues as it has been for some time, except that I grow thin and weak, so I can’t hope to last much longer.”
Franklin would succumb to a combination of illnesses at the age of 84 in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790. In what is believed to be his last known letter, Franklin wrote to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson on April 8, responding to a previous consultation on a Boundary Dispute involving an area between the Bay of Fundy in Canada and Maine.
“Your Letter found me under a severe Outburst of my Evil, which prevented me from answering it before, nor from really attending to any type of Business. I can now assure you that I am perfectly clear in the Reminder that the map we used to draw the boundary was brought into the Treaty by the commissioners of England,” Franklin replied, asking Jefferson to speak to John Adams about the boundary.
“I have the honor to be in the highest esteem and respect sir, your most obedient and humble servant,” Franklin said in his last letter.
While the concept of a “death and taxes” quote existed before Franklin, the publication of his articles in 1817 made the proverb a staple of American popular culture.