Story type: Essay
I will speak ill of no man, not even in matter of truth; but rather excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasion speak all the good I know of everybody.
Benjamin Franklin was twelve years old. He was large and strong and fat and good-natured, and had a full-moon face and red cheeks that made him look like a country bumpkin. He was born in Boston within twenty yards of the church called “Old South,” but the Franklins now lived at the corner of Congress and Hanover Streets, where to this day there swings in the breeze a gilded ball, and on it the legend, “Josiah Franklin, Soap-Boiler.”
Benjamin was the fifteenth child in the family; and several having grown to maturity and flown, there were thirteen at the table when little Ben first sat in the high chair. But the Franklins were not superstitious, and if little Ben ever prayed that another would be born, just for luck, we know nothing of it. His mother loved him very much and indulged him in many ways, for he was always her baby boy, but the father thought that because he was good-natured he was also lazy and should be disciplined.
Once upon a time the father was packing a barrel of beef in the cellar, and Ben was helping him, and as the father always said grace at table, the boy suggested he ask a blessing, once for all, on the barrel of beef and thus economize breath. But economics along that line did not appeal to Josiah Franklin, for this was early in Seventeen Hundred Eighteen, and Josiah was a Presbyterian and lived in Boston.
The boy was not religious, for he never “went forward,” and only went to church because he had to, and read “Plutarch’s Lives” with much more relish than he did “Saints’ Rest.” But he had great curiosity and asked questions until his mother would say, “Goodness gracious, go and play!”
And as the boy wasn’t very religious or very fond of work, his father and mother decided that there were only two careers open for him: the mother proposed that he be made a preacher, but his father said, send him to sea.
To go to sea under a good strict captain would discipline him, and to send him off and put him under the care of the Reverend Doctor Thirdly would answer the same purpose–which course should be pursued? But Pallas Athene, who was to watch over this lad’s destinies all through life, preserved him from either.
His parents’ aspirations extended even to his becoming captain of a schooner or pastor of the First Church at Roxbury. And no doubt he could have sailed the schooner around the globe in safety, or filled the pulpit with a degree of power that would have caused consternation to reign in the heart of every other preacher in town; but Fate saved him that he might take the Ship of State, when she threatened to strand on the rocks of adversity, and pilot her into peaceful waters, and to preach such sermons to America that their eloquence still moves us to better things.
Parents think that what they say about their children goes, and once in an awfully long time it does, but the men who become great and learned usually do so in spite of their parents–which remark was first made by Martin Luther, but need not be discredited on that account.
Ben’s oldest brother was James. Now, James was nearly forty; he was tall and slender, stooped a little, and had sandy whiskers, and a nervous cough, and positive ideas on many subjects–one of which was that he was a printer. His apprentice, or “devil,” had left him, because the devil did not like to be cuffed whenever the compositor shuffled his fonts. James needed another apprentice, and proposed to take his younger brother and make a man of him if the old folks were willing. The old folks were willing and Ben was duly bound by law to his brother, agreeing to serve him faithfully, as Jacob served Laban, for seven years and two years more.
Science has explained many things, but it has not yet told why it sometimes happens that when seventeen eggs are hatched, the brood will consist of sixteen barnyard fowls and one eagle.
James Franklin was a man of small capacity, whimsical, jealous and arbitrary. But if he cuffed his apprentice Benjamin when the compositor blundered, and when he didn’t, it was his legal right; and the master who did not occasionally kick his apprentices was considered derelict to duty. The boy ran errands, cleaned the presses, swept the shop, tied up bundles, did the tasks that no one else would do; and incidentally “learned the case.” Then he set type, and after a while ran a press. And in those days a printer ranked considerably above a common mechanic. A man who was a printer was a literary man, as were the master printers of London and Venice. A printer was a man of taste. All editors were printers, and usually composed the matter as they set it up in type. Thus we now have the expressions: a “composing-room,” a “composing-stick,” etc. People once addressed “Mr. Printer,” not “Mr. Editor,” and when they met “Mr. Printer” on the street removed their hats–but not in Philadelphia.
Young Franklin felt a proper degree of pride in his work, if not vanity. In fact, he himself has said that vanity is a good thing, and whenever he saw it come flaunting down the street, always made way, knowing that there was virtue somewhere back of it–out of sight perhaps, but still there. James, being a brother, had no confidence in Ben’s intellect, so when Ben wrote short articles on this and that, he tucked them under the door so that James would find them in the morning. James showed these articles to his friends, and they all voted them very fine, and concluded they must have been written by Doctor So-and-So, Ph.D., who, like Lord Bacon, was a very modest man and did not care to see his name in print.
Yet, by and by, it came out who it was that wrote the anonymous “hot stuff,” and then James did not think it was quite so good as he at first thought, and moreover, declared he knew whose it was all the time. Ben was eighteen and had read Montaigne, and Collins, and Shaftesbury, and Hume. When he wrote he expressed thoughts that then were considered very dreadful, but that can now be heard proclaimed even in good orthodox churches. But Ben had wit and to spare, and he leveled it at government officials and preachers, and these gentlemen did not relish the jokes–people seldom relish jokes at their own expense–and they sought to suppress the newspaper that the Franklin brothers published.
The blame for all the trouble James heaped upon Benjamin, and all the credit for success he took to himself. James declared that Ben had the big head–and he probably was right; but he forgot that the big head, like mumps and measles and everything else in life, is self-limiting and good in its way. So, to teach Ben his proper place, James reminded him that he was only an apprentice, with three years yet to serve, and that he should be seen seldom and not heard all the time, and that if he ran away he would send a constable after him and fetch him back.
Ben evidently had a mind open to suggestive influences, for the remark about running away prompted him to do so. He sold some of his books and got himself secreted on board a ship about to sail for New York.
Arriving at New York, in three days he found the broad-brimmed Dutch had small use for printers and no special admiration for the art preservative; and he started for Philadelphia.
Every one knows how he landed in a small boat at the foot of Market Street with only a few coppers in his pocket, and made his way to a bakeshop and asked for a threepenny loaf of bread, and being told they had no threepenny loaves, then asked for threepenny’s worth of any kind of bread, and was given three loaves. Where is the man who in a strange land has not suffered rather than reveal his ignorance before a shopkeeper? When I was first in England and could not compute readily in shillings and pence, I would toss out a gold piece when I made a purchase and assume a ‘igh and ‘aughty mien. And that Philadelphia baker probably died in blissful ignorance of the fact that the youth who was to be America’s pride bought from him three loaves of bread when he wanted only one.
The runaway Ben had a downy beard all over his face, and as he took his three loaves and walked up Market Street, with a loaf under each arm, munching on the third, he was smiled upon in merry mirth by the buxom Deborah Read, as she stood in the doorway of her father’s house. Yet Franklin got even with her, for some months after, he went back that way and courted her, grew to love him, and they “exchanged promises,” he says. After some months of work and love-making, Franklin sailed away to England on a wild-goose chase. He promised to return soon and make Deborah his wife. But he wrote only one solitary letter to the broken-hearted girl and did not come back for nearly two years.
* * * * *
Time is the great avenger as well as educator; only the education is usually deferred until it no longer avails in this incarnation, and is valuable only for advice–and nobody wants advice. Deathbed repentances may be legal-tender for salvation in another world, but for this they are below par, and regeneration that is postponed until the man has no further capacity to sin is little better. For sin is only perverted power, and the man without capacity to sin neither has ability to do good–isn’t that so? His soul is a Dead Sea that supports neither ameba nor fish, neither noxious bacilli nor useful life. Happy is the man who conserves his God-given power until wisdom and not passion shall direct it. So, the younger in life a man makes the resolve to turn and live, the better for that man and the better for the world.
Once upon a time Carlyle took Milburn, the blind preacher, out on to Chelsea embankment and showed the sightless man where Franklin plunged into the Thames and swam to Blackfriars Bridge. “He might have stayed here,” said Thomas Carlyle, “and become a swimming-teacher, but God had other work for him!” Franklin had many opportunities to stop and become a victim of arrested development, but he never embraced the occasion. He could have stayed in Boston and been a humdrum preacher, or a thrifty sea-captain, or an ordinary printer; or he could have remained in London, and been, like his friend Ralph, a clever writer of doggerel, and a supporter of the political party that would pay the most.
Benjamin Franklin was twenty years old when he returned from England. The ship was beaten back by headwinds and blown out of her course by blizzards, and becalmed at times, so it took eighty-two days to make the voyage. A worthy old clergyman tells me this was so ordained and ordered that Benjamin might have time to meditate on the follies of youth and shape his course for the future, and I do not argue the case, for I am quite willing to admit that my friend, the clergyman, has the facts.
Yes, we must be “converted,” “born again,” “regenerated,” or whatever you may be pleased to call it. Sometimes–very often–it is love that reforms a man, sometimes sickness, sometimes sore bereavement.
Doctor Talmage says that with Saint Paul it was a sunstroke, and this may be so, for surely Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians was not in love. Love forgives to seventy times seven and persecutes nobody.
We do not know just what it was that turned Franklin; he had tried folly–we know that–and he just seems to have anticipated Browning and concluded:
“It’s wiser being good than bad;
It’s safer being meek than fierce;
It’s better being sane than mad.”
On this voyage the young printer was thrust down into the depths and made to wrestle with the powers of darkness; and in the remorse of soul that came over him he made a liturgy to be repeated night and morning, and at midday. There were many items in this ritual–all of which were corrected and amended from time to time in after-years. Here are a few paragraphs that represent the longings and trend of the lad’s heart. His prayer was:
“That I may have tenderness for the meek; that I may be kind to my neighbors, good-natured to my companions and hospitable to strangers. Help me, O God!
“That I may be averse to craft and overreaching, abhor extortion and every kind of weakness and wickedness. Help me, O God!
“That I may have constant regard to honor and probity; that I may possess an innocent and good conscience, and at length become truly virtuous and magnanimous. Help me, O God!
“That I may refrain from calumny and detraction; that I may abhor deceit, and avoid lying, envy and fraud, flattery, hatred, malice and ingratitude. Help me, O God!”.
Then, in addition, he formed rules of conduct and wrote them out and committed them to memory. The maxims he adopted are old as thought, yet can never become antiquated, for in morals there is nothing either new or old, neither can there be.
On that return voyage from England, he inwardly vowed that his first act on getting ashore would be to find Deborah Read and make peace with her and his conscience. And true to his vow, he found her, but she was the wife of another. Her mother believed that Franklin had run away simply to get rid of her, and the poor girl, dazed and forlorn, bereft of will, had been induced to marry a man by the name of Rogers, who was a potter and also a potterer, but who Franklin says was “a very good potter.”
After some months, Deborah left the potter, because she did not like to be reproved with a strap, and went home to her mother.
Franklin was now well in the way of prosperity, aged twenty-four, with a little printing business, plans plus, and ambitions to spare. He had had his little fling in life, and had done various things of which he was ashamed; and the foolish things that Deborah had done were no worse than those of which he had been guilty. So he called on her, and they talked it over and made honest confessions that are good for the soul. The potter disappeared–no one knew where–some said he was dead, but Benjamin and Deborah did not wear mourning. They took rumor’s word for it, and thanked God, and went to a church and were married.
Deborah brought to the firm a very small dowry; and Benjamin contributed a bright baby boy, aged two years, captured no one knows just where. This boy was William Franklin, who grew up into a very excellent man, and the worst that can be said of him is that he became Governor of New Jersey. He loved and respected his father, and called Deborah mother, and loved her very much. And she was worthy of all love, and ever treated him with tenderness and gentlest considerate care. Possibly a blot on the ‘scutcheon may, in the working of God’s providence, not always be a dire misfortune, for it sometimes has the effect of binding broken hearts as nothing else can, as a cicatrice toughens the fiber.
Deborah had not much education, but she had good, sturdy commonsense, which is better if you are forced to make choice. She set herself to help her husband in every way possible, and so far as I know, never sighed for one of those things you call “a career.” She even worked in the printing-office, folding, stitching, and doing up bundles.
Long years afterward, when Franklin was Ambassador of the American Colonies in France, he told with pride that the clothes he wore were spun, woven, cut out, and made into garments–all by his wife’s own hands. Franklin’s love for Deborah was very steadfast. Together they became rich and respected, won world-wide fame, and honors came that way such as no American before or since has ever received.
And when I say, “God bless all good women who help men do their work,” I simply repeat the words once used by Benjamin Franklin when he had Deborah in mind.
* * * * *
When Franklin was forty-two, he had accumulated a fortune of seventy-five thousand dollars. It gave him an income of about four thousand dollars a year, which he said was all he wanted; so he sold out his business, intending to devote his entire energies to the study of science and languages. He had lived just one-half his days; and had he then passed out, his life could have been summed up as one of the most useful that ever has been lived. He had founded and been the life of the Junto Club–the most sensible and beneficent club of which I ever heard.
The series of questions asked at every meeting of the Junto, so mirror the life and habit of thought of Franklin that we had better glance at a few of them:
1. Have you read over these queries this morning, in order to consider what you might have to offer the Junto, touching any one of them?
2. Have you met with anything in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated to the Junto; particularly in history, morality, poetry, physics, travels, mechanical arts, or other parts of knowledge?
3. Do you know of a fellow-citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation; or who has lately committed an error, proper for us to be warned against and avoid?
4. What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard; of imprudence, of passion, or of any other vice or folly?
5. What happy effects of temperance, of prudence, of moderation, or of any other virtue?
6. Do you think of anything at present in which the members of the Junto may be serviceable to mankind, to their country, to their friends, or to themselves?
7. Hath any deserving stranger arrived in town since last meeting that you have heard of? And what have you heard or observed of his character or merits? And whether, think you, it lies in the power of the Junto to oblige him, or encourage him as he deserves?
8. Do you know of any deserving young beginner, lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto in any way to encourage?
9. Have you lately observed any defect in the laws of your country, of which it would be proper to move the legislature for an amendment? Or do you know of any beneficial law that is wanting?
10. Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?
11. In what manner can the Junto, or any of its members, assist you in any of your honorable designs?
12. Have you any weighty affair on hand in which you think the advice of the Junto may be of service?
13. What benefits have you lately received from any man not present?
14. Is there any difficulty in matters of opinion, of justice and injustice, which you would gladly have discussed at this time?
The Junto led to the establishment, by Franklin, of the Philadelphia Public Library, which became the parent of all public libraries in America. He also organized and equipped a fire-company; paved and lighted the streets of Philadelphia; established a high school and an academy for the study of English branches; founded the Philadelphia Public Hospital; invented the toggle-joint printing-press, the Franklin Stove, and various other useful mechanical devices.
After his retirement from business, Franklin enjoyed seven years of what he called leisure, but they were years of study and application; years of happiness and sweet content, but years of aspiration and an earnest looking into the future. His experiments with kite and key had made his name known in all the scientific circles of Europe, and his suggestive writings on the subject of electricity had caused Goethe to lay down his pen and go to rubbing amber for the edification of all Weimar.
Franklin was in correspondence with the greatest minds of Europe, and what his “Poor Richard Almanac” had done for the plain people of America, his pamphlets were now doing for the philosophers of the Old World.
In Seventeen Hundred Fifty-four, he wrote a treatise showing the Colonies that they must be united, and this was the first public word that was to grow and crystallize and become the United States of America. Before that, the Colonies were simply single, independent, jealous and bickering overgrown clans. Franklin showed for the first time that they must unite in mutual aims.
In Seventeen Hundred Fifty-seven, matters were getting a little strained between the Province of Pennsylvania and England. “The lawmakers of England do not understand us–some one should go there as an authorized agent to plead our cause,” and Franklin was at once chosen as the man of strongest personality and soundest sense. So Franklin went to England and remained there for five years as agent for the Colonies.
He then returned home, but after two years the Stamp Act had stirred up the public temper to a degree that made revolution imminent, and Franklin again went to England to plead for justice. The record of the ten years he now spent in London is told by Bancroft in a hundred pages. Bancroft is very good, and! have no desire to rival him, so suffice it to say that Franklin did all that any man could have done to avert the coming War of the Revolution. Burke has said that when he appeared before Parliament to be examined as to the condition of things in America, it was like a lot of schoolboys interrogating the master.
With the voice and tongue of a prophet, Franklin foretold the English people what the outcome of their treatment of America would be. Pitt and a few others knew the greatness of Franklin, and saw that he was right, but the rest smiled in derision.
He sailed for home in Seventeen Hundred Seventy-five, and urged the Continental Congress to the Declaration of Independence, of which he became a signer. Then the war came, and had not Franklin gone to Paris and made an ally of France, and borrowed money, the Continental Army could not have been maintained in the field.
He remained in France for nine years, and was the pride and pet of the people. His sound sense, his good humor, his distinguished personality, gave him the freedom of society everywhere. He had the ability to adapt himself to conditions, and was everywhere at home.
Once, he attended a memorable banquet in Paris shortly after the close of the Revolutionary War. Among the speakers was the English Ambassador, who responded to the toast, “Great Britain.” The Ambassador dwelt at length on England’s greatness, and likened her to the sun that sheds its beneficent rays on all. The next toast was “America,” and Franklin was called on to respond. He began very modestly by saying: “The Republic is too young to be spoken of in terms of praise; her career is yet to come, and so, instead of America, I will name you a man, George Washington–the Joshua who successfully commanded the sun to stand still.” The Frenchmen at the board forgot the courtesy due their English guest, and laughed needlessly loud.
Franklin was regarded in Paris as the man who had both planned the War of the Revolution, and fought it. They said, “He despoiled the thunderbolt of its danger and snatched sovereignty out of the hand of King George of England.” No doubt that his ovation was largely owing to the fact that he was supposed to have plucked whole handfuls of feathers from England’s glory, and surely they were pretty nearly right.
In point of all-round development, Franklin must stand as the foremost American. The one intent of his mind was to purify his own spirit, to develop his intellect on every side, and make his body the servant of his soul. His passion was to acquire knowledge, and the desire of his heart was to communicate it.
The writings of Franklin–simple, clear, concise, direct, impartial, brimful of commonsense–form a model which may be studied by every one with pleasure and profit. They should constitute a part of the curriculum of every college and high school that aspires to cultivate in its pupils a pure style and correct literary taste.
We know of no man who ever lived a fuller life, a happier life, a life more useful to other men, than Benjamin Franklin. For forty-two years he gave the constant efforts of his life to his country, and during all that time no taint of a selfish action can be laid to his charge. Almost his last public act was to petition Congress to pass an act for the abolition of slavery. He died in Seventeen Hundred Ninety, and as you walk up Arch Street, Philadelphia, only a few squares from the spot where stood his printing-shop, you can see the place where he sleeps.
The following epitaph, written by himself, not, however, appear on the simple monument that marks his grave:
Benjamin Franklin, Printer
(Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stripped of its lettering and gilding,)
Lies here food for worms.
Yet the work itself shall not be lost,
For it will (as he believes) appear once
In a new
And more beautiful Edition
Corrected and Amended
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