I AM about to tell you the story of a very great and noble man. It is the story of one whom all the world honors—of one whose name will forever be remembered with admiration. Benjamin Franklin was not born to greatness. He had none of the advantages which even the poorest boys may now enjoy. But he achieved greatness by always making the best use of such opportunities as came in his way. He was not afraid of work. He did not give up to discouragements. He did not overestimate his own abilities. He was earnest and faithful in little things; and that, after all, is the surest way of attaining to great things. There is no man to whom we Americans owe a greater debt of gratitude. Without his aid the American colonies would hardly have won independence. It was said of him that he knew how to subdue both thunder and tyranny; and a famous orator who knew him well, described him as "the genius that gave freedom to America and shed torrents of light upon Europe." But, at the close of a very long life, the thing which gave him the greatest satisfaction was the fact that he had made no man his enemy; there was no human being who could justly say, "Ben Franklin has wronged me."
Nearly two hundred years ago, there lived in Boston a little boy whose name was Benjamin Franklin.
On the day that he was seven years old, his mother gave him a few pennies.
He looked at the bright, yellow pieces and said, "What shall I do with these coppers, mother?"
It was the first money that he had ever had.
"You may buy something with them, if you would like," said his mother.
"And will you give me more when they are gone?" he asked.
His mother shook her head and said: "No, Benjamin. I cannot give you any more. So you must be careful not to spend them foolishly."
The little fellow ran out into the street. He heard the pennies jingle in his pocket as he ran. He felt as though he was very rich.
Boston was at that time only a small town, and there were not many stores. As Benjamin ran down toward the busy part of the street, he wondered what he should buy.
Should he buy candy or toys? It had been a long time since he had tasted candy. As for toys, he hardly knew what they were.
If he had been the only child in the family, things might have been different. But there were fourteen boys and girls older than he, and two little sisters that were younger.
It was as much as his father could do to earn food and clothing for so many. There was no money to spend for toys.
Before Benjamin had gone very far he met a boy blowing a whistle.
"That is just the thing that I want," he said. Then he hurried on to the store where all kinds of things were kept for sale.
"Have you any good whistles?" he asked.
He was out of breath from running, but he tried hard to speak like a man.
"Yes, plenty of them," said the man.
"Well, I want one, and I'll give you all the money I have for it," said the little fellow. He forgot to ask the price.
"How much money have you?" asked the man.
Benjamin took the coppers from his pocket. The man counted them and said, "All right, my boy. It's a bargain."
Then he put the pennies into his money drawer, and gave one of the whistles to the boy.
Benjamin Franklin was a proud and happy boy. He ran home as fast as he could, blowing his whistle as he ran.
His mother met him at the door and said, "Well, my child, what did you do with your pennies?"
"I bought a whistle!" he cried. "Just hear me blow it!"
"How much did you pay for it?"
"All the money I had."
One of his brothers was standing by and asked to see the whistle. "Well, well!" he said, "did you spend all of your money for this thing?"
"Every penny," said Benjamin.
"Did you ask the price?"
"No. But I offered them to the man, and he said it was all right."
His brother laughed and said, "You are a very foolish fellow. You paid four times as much as it is worth."
"Yes," said his mother, "I think it is rather a dear whistle. You had enough money to buy a whistle and some candy, too."
The little boy saw what a mistake he had made. The whistle did not please him any more. He threw it upon the floor, and began to cry. But his mother took him upon her lap and said: "Never mind, my child. We must all live and learn; and I think that my little boy will be careful, after this, not to pay too dear for his whistles."
When Benjamin Franklin was a boy there were no great public schools in Boston as there are now. But he learned to read almost as soon as he could talk, and he was always fond of books.
His nine brothers were older than he, and every one had learned a trade. They did not care so much for books.
"Benjamin shall be the scholar of our family," said his mother.
"Yes, we will educate him for a minister," said his father. For at that time all the most learned men were ministers.
And so, when he was eight years old, Benjamin Franklin was sent to a grammar school, where boys were prepared for college. He was a very apt scholar, and in a few months was promoted to a higher class.
But the lad was not allowed to stay long in the grammar school. His father was a poor man. It would cost a great deal of money to give Benjamin a college education. The times were very hard. The idea of educating the boy for the ministry had to be given up.
In less than a year he was taken from the grammar school, and sent to another school where arithmetic and writing were taught.
He learned to write very well, indeed; but he did not care so much for arithmetic, and so failed to do what was expected of him.
When he was ten years old he had to leave school altogether. His father needed his help; and though Benjamin was but a small boy, there were many things that he could do.
He never attended school again. But he kept on studying and reading; and we shall find that he afterwards became the most learned man in America.
Benjamin's father was a soap-boiler and candle-maker. And so when the boy was taken from school, what kind of work do you think he had to do?
He was kept busy cutting wicks for the candles, pouring the melted tallow into the candle-moulds, and selling soap to his father's customers.
Do you suppose that he liked this business?
He did not like it at all. And when he saw the ships sailing in and out of Boston harbor, he longed to be a sailor and go to strange, far-away lands, where candles and soap were unknown.
But his father would not listen to any of his talk about going to sea.
Busy as Benjamin was in his father's shop, he still had time to play a good deal.
He was liked by all the boys of the neighborhood, and they looked up to him as their leader. In all their games he was their captain; and nothing was undertaken without asking his advice.
Not far from the home of the Franklins there was a mill pond, where the boys often went to swim. When the tide was high they liked to stand at a certain spot on the shore of the pond and fish for minnows.
But the ground was marshy and wet, and the boys' feet sank deep in the mud.
"Let us build a wharf along the water's edge," said Benjamin. "Then we can stand and fish with some comfort."
"Agreed!" said the boys. "But what is the wharf to be made of?"
Benjamin pointed to a heap of stones that lay not far away. They had been hauled there only a few days before, and were to be used in building a new house near the mill pond.
The boys needed only a hint. Soon they were as busy as ants, dragging the stones to the water's edge.
Before it was fully dark that evening, they had built a nice stone wharf on which they could stand and fish without danger of sinking in the mud.
The next morning the workmen came to begin the building of the house. They were surprised to find all the stones gone from the place where they had been thrown. But the tracks of the boys in the mud told the story.
It was easy enough to find out who had done the mischief.
When the boys' fathers were told of the trouble which they had caused, you may imagine what they did.
Young Benjamin Franklin tried hard to explain that a wharf on the edge of the mill pond was a public necessity.
His father would not listen to him. He said, "My son, nothing can ever be truly useful which is not at the same time truly honest."
And Benjamin never forgot this lesson.
As I have already said, young Benjamin did not like the work which he had to do in his father's shop.
His father was not very fond of the trade himself, and so he could not blame the boy. One day he said:
Benjamin, since you have made up your mind not to be a candle-maker, what trade do you think you would like to learn?"
"You know I would like to be a sailor," said the boy.
"But you shall not be a sailor," said his father. "I intend that you shall learn some useful business on land; and, of course, you will succeed best in that kind of business which is most pleasant to you."
The next day he took the boy to walk with him among the shops of Boston. They saw all kinds of workmen busy at their various trades.
Benjamin was delighted. Long afterwards, when he had become a very great man, he said, "It has ever since been a pleasure to me to see good workmen handle their tools."
He gave up the thought of going to sea, and said that he would learn any trade that his father would choose for him.
His father thought that the cutler's trade was a good one. His cousin, Samuel Franklin, had just set up a cutler's shop in Boston, and he agreed to take Benjamin a few days on trial.
Benjamin was pleased with the idea of learning how to make knives and scissors and razors and all other kinds of cutting tools. But his cousin wanted so much money for teaching him the trade that his father could not afford it; and so the lad was taken back to the candle-maker's shop.
Soon after this, Benjamin's brother, James Franklin, set up a printing press in Boston. He intended to print and publish books and a newspaper.
"Benjamin loves books," said his father. "He shall learn to be a printer."
And so, when he was twelve years old, he was bound to his brother to learn the printer's trade. He was to stay with him until he was twenty-one. He was to have his board and clothing and no other wages, except during the last year. I suppose that during the last year he was to be paid the same as any other workman.
When Benjamin Franklin was a boy there were no books for children. Yet he spent most of his spare time in reading.
His father's books were not easy to understand. People nowadays would think them very dull and heavy.
But before he was twelve years old, Benjamin had read the most of them. He read everything that he could get.
After he went to work for his brother he found it easier to obtain good books. Often he would borrow a book in the evening, and then sit up nearly all night reading it so as to return it in the morning.
When the owners of books found that he always returned them soon and clean, they were very willing to lend him whatever he wished.
He was about fourteen years of age when he began to study how to write clearly and correctly. He afterwards told how he did this. He said:
"About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. I had never before seen any of them.
"I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it.
"I thought the writing excellent, and wished if possible to imitate it.
"With that view, I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiments in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should occur to me.
"Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults and corrected them.
"But I found that I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them.
"Therefore, I took some of the tales in the Spectator and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again."
About this time his brother began to publish a newspaper.
It was the fourth newspaper published in America, and was called the New England Courant.
People said that it was a foolish undertaking. They said that one newspaper was enough for this country, and that there would be but little demand for more.
In those days editors did not dare to write freely about public affairs. It was dangerous to criticise men who were in power.
James Franklin published something in the New England Courant about the lawmakers of Massachusetts. It made the lawmakers very angry. They caused James Franklin to be shut up in prison for a month, and they ordered that he should no longer print the newspaper called the New England Courant.
But, in spite of this order, the newspaper was printed every week as before. It was printed, however, in the name of Benjamin Franklin. For several years it bore his name as editor and publisher.
Benjamin Franklin did not have a very happy life with his brother James.
His brother was a hard master, and was always finding fault with his workmen. Sometimes he would beat young Benjamin and abuse him without cause.
When Benjamin was nearly seventeen years old he made up his mind that he would not endure this treatment any longer.
He told his brother that he would leave him and find work with some one else.
When his brother learned that he really meant to do this, he went round to all the other printers in Boston and persuaded them not to give Benjamin any work.
The father took James's part, and scolded Benjamin for being so saucy and so hard to please. But Benjamin would not go back to James's printing house.
He made up his mind that since he could not find work in Boston he would run away from his home. He would go to New York and look for work there.
He sold his books to raise a little money. Then, without saying good-bye to his father or mother or any of his brothers or sisters, he went on board a ship that was just ready to sail from the harbor.
It is not likely that he was very happy while doing this. Long afterwards he said: "I reckon this as one of the first errata of my life."
What did he mean by errata?
Errata are mistakes—mistakes that cannot easily be corrected.
Three days after leaving Boston, young Franklin found himself in New York. It was then October, in the year 1723.
The lad had but very little money in his pocket. There was no one in New York that he knew. He was three hundred miles from home and friends.
As soon as he landed he went about the streets looking for work.
New York was only a little town then, and there was not a newspaper in it. There were but a few printing houses there, and these had not much work to do. The boy from Boston called at every place, but he found that nobody wanted to employ any more help.
At one of the little printing houses Franklin was told that perhaps he could find work in Philadelphia, which was at that time a much more important place than New York.
Philadelphia was one hundred miles farther from home. One hundred miles was a long distance in those days.
But Franklin made up his mind to go there without delay. It would be easier to do this than to give up and try to return to Boston.
There are two ways of going from New York to Philadelphia.
One way is by the sea. The other is by land, across the state of New Jersey.
As Franklin had but little money, he took the shorter route by land; but he sent his little chest, containing his Sunday clothes, round by sea, in a boat.
He walked all the way from Perth Amboy, on the eastern shore of New Jersey, to Burlington, on the Delaware River.
Nowadays you may travel that distance in an hour, for it is only about fifty miles.
But there were no railroads at that time; and Franklin was nearly three days trudging along lonely wagon-tracks, in the midst of a pouring rain.
At Burlington he was lucky enough to be taken on board a small boat that was going down the river.
Burlington is only twenty miles above Philadelphia. But the boat moved very slowly, and as there was no wind, the men took turns at rowing.
Night came on, and they were afraid that they might pass by Philadelphia in the darkness. So they landed, and camped on shore till morning.
Early the next day they reached Philadelphia, and Benjamin Franklin stepped on shore at the foot of Market Street, where the Camden ferry-boats now land.
No one who saw him could have guessed that he would one day be the greatest man in the city.
He was a sorry-looking fellow.
He was dressed in his working clothes, and was very dirty from being so long on the road and in the little boat.
His pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings, and all the money that he had was not more than a dollar.
He was hungry and tired. He had not a single friend. He did not know of any place where he could look for lodging.
It was Sunday morning.
He went a little way up the street, and looked around him.
A boy was coming down, carrying a basket of bread.
"My young friend," said Franklin, "where did you get that bread?"
"At the baker's," said the boy.
"And where is the baker's?"
The boy showed him the little baker shop just around the corner.
Young Franklin was so hungry that he could hardly wait. He hurried into the shop and asked for three-penny worth of bread.
The baker gave him three great, puffy rolls. Franklin had not expected to get so much, but he took the rolls and walked out.
His pockets were already full, and so, while he ate one roll, he held the others under his arms.
As he went up Market Street, eating his roll, a young girl stood in a doorway laughing at him. He was, indeed, a very funny-looking fellow.
The girl's name was Deborah Read. A few years after that, she became the wife of Benjamin Franklin.
Hungry as he was, Franklin found that he could eat but one of the rolls, and so he gave the other two to a poor woman who had come down the river in the same boat with him.
As he was strolling along the street he came to a Quaker meetinghouse.
The door was open, and many people were sitting quietly inside. The seats looked inviting, and so Franklin walked in and sat down.
The day was warm; the people in the house were very still; Franklin was tired. In a few minutes he was sound asleep.
And so it was in a Quaker meetinghouse that Benjamin Franklin found the first shelter and rest in Philadelphia.
Later in the day, as Franklin was strolling toward the river, he met a young man whose honest face was very pleasing to him.
"My friend," he said, "can you tell me of any house where they lodge strangers?"
"Yes," said the young man, "there is a house on this very street; but it is not a place I can recommend. If thee will come with me I will show thee a better one."
Franklin walked with him to a house on Water Street, and there he found lodging for the night.
And so ended his first day in Philadelphia.
Franklin soon obtained work in a printing house owned by a man named Keimer.
He found a boarding place in the house of Mr. Read, the father of the girl who had laughed at him with his three rolls.
He was only seventeen years old, and he soon became acquainted with several young people in the town who loved books.
In a little while he began to lay up money, and he tried to forget his old home in Boston as much as he could.
One day a letter came to Philadelphia for Benjamin Franklin.
It was from Captain Robert Holmes, a brother-in-law of Franklin's.
Captain Holmes was the master of a trading sloop that sailed between Boston and Delaware Bay. While he was loading his vessel at Newcastle, forty miles below Philadelphia, he had happened to hear about the young man Franklin who had lately come from Boston.
He sat down at once and wrote a letter to the young man. He told him how his parents and friends were grieving for him in Boston. He begged him to go back home, and said that everything would be made right if he would do so.
When Franklin read this letter he felt very sad to think of the pain and distress which he had caused.
But he did not want to return to Boston. He felt that he had been badly treated by his brother, and, therefore, that he was not the only one to be blamed. He believed that he could do much better in Philadelphia than anywhere else.
So he sat down and wrote an answer to Captain Holmes. He wrote it with great care, and sent it off to Newcastle by the first boat that was going that way.
Now it so happened that Sir William Keith, the governor of the province, was at Newcastle at that very time. He was with Captain Holmes when the letter came to hand.
When Captain Holmes had read the letter he was so pleased with it that he showed it to the governor.
Governor Keith read it and was surprised when he learned that its writer was a lad only seventeen years old.
"He is a young man of great promise," he said; "and he must be encouraged. The printers in Philadelphia know nothing about their business. If young Franklin will stay there and set up a press, I will do a great deal for him."
One day not long after that, when Franklin was at work in Keimer's printing-office, the governor came to see him. Franklin was very much surprised.
The governor offered to set him up in a business of his own. He promised that he should have all the public printing in the province.
"But you will have to go to England to buy your types and whatever else you may need."
Franklin agreed to do this. But he must first return to Boston and get his father's consent and assistance.
The governor gave him a letter to carry to his father. In a few weeks he was on his way home.
You may believe that Benjamin's father and mother were glad to see him. He had been gone seven months, and in all that time they had not heard a word from him.
His brothers and sisters were glad to see him, too—all but the printer, James, who treated him very unkindly.
His father read the governor's letter, and then shook his head.
"What kind of a man is this Governor Keith?" he asked. "He must have but little judgment to think of setting up a mere boy in business of this kind."
After that he wrote a letter of thanks to the governor. He said that he was grateful for the kindness he had shown to his son, and for his offer to help him. But he thought that Benjamin was still too young to be trusted with so great a business, and therefore he would not consent to his undertaking it. As for helping him, that he could not do; for he had but little more money than was needed to carry on his own affairs.
Benjamin Franklin felt much disappointed when his father refused to help send him to England. But he was not discouraged.
In a few weeks he was ready to return to Philadelphia. This time he did not have to run away from home.
His father blessed him, and his mother gave him many small gifts as tokens of her love.
"Be diligent," said his father, "attend well to your business, and save your money carefully, and, perhaps, by the time you are twenty-one years old, you will be able to set up for yourself without the governor's help."
All the family, except James the printer, bade him a kind good-bye, as he went on board the little ship that was to take him as far as New York.
There was another surprise for him when he reached New York.
The governor of New York had heard that there was a young man from Boston on board the ship, and that he had a great many books.
There were no large libraries in New York at that time. There were no bookstores, and but few people who cared for books.
So the governor sent for Franklin to come and see him. He showed him his own library, and they had a long talk about books and authors.
This was the second governor that had taken notice of Benjamin. For a poor boy, like him, it was a great honor, and very pleasing.
When he arrived in Philadelphia he gave to Governor Keith the letter which his father had written.
The governor was not very well pleased. He said:
"Your father is too careful. There is a great difference in persons. Young men can sometimes be trusted with great undertakings as well as if they were older."
He then said that he would set Franklin up in business without his father's help.
"Give me a list of everything needed in a first-class printing-office. I will see that you are properly fitted out."
Franklin was delighted. He thought that Governor Keith was one of the best men in the world.
In a few days he laid before the governor a list of the things needed in a little printing-office.
The cost of the outfit would be about five hundred dollars.
The governor was pleased with the list. There were no type-foundries in America at that time. There was no place where printing-presses were made. Everything had to be bought in England.
The governor said, "Don't you think it would be better if you could go to England and choose the types for yourself, and see that everything is just as you would like to have it?"
"Yes, sir," said Franklin, "I think that would be a great advantage."
"Well, then," said the governor, "get yourself ready to go on the next regular ship to London. It shall be at my expense."
At that time there was only one ship that made regular trips from Philadelphia to England, and it sailed but once each year.
The name of this ship was the Annis. It would not be ready to sail again for several months.
And so young Franklin, while he was getting ready for the voyage, kept on working in Mr. Keimer's little printing-office.
He laid up money enough to pay for his passage. He did not want to be dependent upon Governor Keith for everything; and it was well that he did not.
At last the Annis was ready to sail.
Governor Keith had promised to give to young Franklin letters of introduction to some of his friends in England.
He had also promised to give him money to buy his presses and type.
But when Franklin called at the governor's house to bid him good-bye, and to get the letters, the governor was too busy to see him. He said that he would send the letters and the money to him on shipboard.
The ship sailed.
But no letters, nor any word from Governor Keith, had been sent to Franklin.
When he at last arrived in London he found himself without money and without friends.
Governor Keith had given him nothing but promises. He would never give him anything more. He was a man whose word was not to be depended upon.
Franklin was then just eighteen years old. He must now depend wholly upon himself. He must make his own way in the world, without aid from anyone.
He went out at once to look for work. He found employment in a printing-office, and there he stayed for nearly a year.
Franklin made many acquaintances with literary people while he was in London.
He proved himself to be a young man of talent and ingenuity. He was never idle.
His companions in the printing-office were beer-drinkers and sots. He often told them how foolish they were to spend their money and ruin themselves for drink.
He drank nothing but water. He was strong and active. He could carry more, and do more work, than any of them.
He persuaded many of them to leave off drinking, and to lead better lives.
Franklin was also a fine swimmer. There was no one in London who could swim as well. He wrote two essays on swimming, and made some plans for opening a swimming school.
When he had been in London about a year, he met a Mr. Denham, a merchant of Philadelphia, and a strong friendship sprang up between them.
Mr. Denham at last persuaded Franklin to return to Philadelphia, and be a clerk in his dry-goods store.
And so, on the 23rd of the next July, he set sail for home. The ship was nearly three months in making the voyage, and it was not until October that he again set foot in Philadelphia.
When Franklin was twenty-four years old he was married to Miss Deborah Read, the young lady who had laughed at him when he was walking the street with his three rolls.
They lived together very happily for a great many years.
Some time before this marriage, Franklin's friend and employer, Mr. Denham, had died.
The dry-goods store, of which he was the owner, had been sold, and Franklin's occupation as a salesman, or clerk, was gone. But the young man had shown himself to be a person of great industry and ability. He had the confidence of everybody that knew him.
A friend of his, who had money, offered to take him as a partner in the newspaper business. And so he again became a printer, and the editor of a paper called the Pennsylvania Gazette.
It was not long until Franklin was recognized as one of the leading men in Philadelphia. His name was known, not only in Pennsylvania, but in all the colonies.
He was all the time thinking of plans for making the people about him wiser and better and happier.
He established a subscription and circulating library, the first in America. This library was the beginning of the present Philadelphia Public Library.
He wrote papers on education. He founded the University of Pennsylvania. He organized the American Philosophical Society.
He established the first fire company in Philadelphia, which was also the first in America.
He invented a copper-plate press, and printed the first paper money of New Jersey.
He also invented the iron fireplace, which is called the Franklin stove, and is still used where wood is plentiful and cheap.
After an absence of ten years, he paid a visit to his old home in Boston. Everybody was glad to see him now,—even his brother James, the printer.
When he returned to Philadelphia, he was elected clerk of the colonial assembly.
Not long after that, he was chosen to be post-master of the city. But his duties in this capacity did not require very much labor in those times.
He did not handle as much mail in a whole year as passes now through the Philadelphia post-office in a single hour.
Here are some of the rules of life which Franklin made for himself when he was a very young man:
1. To live very frugally till he had paid all that he owed.
2. To speak the truth at all times; to be sincere in word and action.
3. To apply himself earnestly to whatever business he took in hand; and to shun all foolish projects for becoming suddenly rich. "For industry and patience," he said, "are the surest means of plenty."
4. To speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but to speak all the good he knew of everybody.
When he was twenty-six years old, he published the first number of an almanac called Poor Richard's Almanac.
This almanac was full of wise and witty sayings, and everybody soon began to talk about it.
Every year, for twenty-five years, a new number of Poor Richard's Almanac was printed. It was sold in all parts of the country. People who had no other books would buy and read Poor Richard's Almanac. The library of many a farmer consisted of only the family Bible with one or more numbers of this famous almanac.
Here are a few of Poor Richard's sayings:
"A word to the wise is enough."
"God helps them that help themselves."
"Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
"There are no gains without pains."
"Plow deep while sluggards sleep, And you shall have corn to sell and to keep."
"Little strokes fell great oaks."
"Keep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee."
"The sleeping fox catches no poultry."
"Diligence is the mother of good luck."
"Constant dropping wears away stones."
"A small leak will sink a great ship."
"Who dainties love shall beggars prove."
"Creditors have better memories than debtors."
"Many a little makes a mickle."
"Fools make feasts and wise men eat them."
"Many have been ruined by buying good pennyworths."
"Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt."
"For age and want save while you may; No morning sun lasts the whole day."
It is pleasant to know that Franklin observed the rules of life which he made. And his wife, Deborah, was as busy and as frugal as himself.
They kept no idle servants. Their furniture was of the cheapest sort. Their food was plain and simple.
Franklin's breakfast, for many years, was only bread and milk; and he ate it out of a two-penny earthen bowl with a pewter spoon.
But at last, when he was called one morning to breakfast, he found his milk in a china bowl; and by the side of the bowl there was a silver spoon.
His wife had bought them for him as a surprise. She said that she thought her husband deserved a silver spoon and china bowl as well as any of his neighbors.
And so, as you have seen, Benjamin Franklin became in time one of the foremost men in our country.
In 1753, when he was forty-five years old, he was made deputy postmaster-general for America.
He was to have a salary of about $3,000 a year, and was to pay his own assistants.
People were astonished when he proposed to have the mail carried regularly once every week between New York and Boston.
Letters starting from Philadelphia on Monday morning would reach Boston the next Saturday night. This was thought to be a wonderful and almost impossible feat. But nowadays, letters leaving Philadelphia at midnight are read at the breakfast table in Boston the next morning.
At that time there were not seventy post-offices in the whole country. There are now more than seventy thousand.
Benjamin Franklin held the office of deputy postmaster-general for the American colonies for twenty-one years.
In 1754 there was a meeting of the leading men of all the colonies at Albany. There were fears of a war with the French and Indians of Canada, and the colonies had sent these men to plan some means of defence.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the men from Pennsylvania at this meeting.
He presented a plan for the union of the colonies, and it was adopted. But our English rulers said it was too democratic, and refused to let it go into operation.
This scheme of Franklin's set the people of the colonies to thinking. Why should the colonies not unite? Why should they not help one another, and thus form one great country?
And so, we may truthfully say that it was Benjamin Franklin who first put into men's minds the idea of the great Union which we now call the United States of America.
The people of the colonies were not happy under the rule of the English. One by one, laws were made which they looked upon as oppressive and burdensome. These laws were not intended to benefit the American people, but were designed to enrich the merchants and politicians of England.
In 1757 the people of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Georgia, decided to send some one to England to petition against these oppressions.
In all the colonies there was no man better fitted for this business than Benjamin Franklin. And so he was the man sent.
The fame of the great American had gone before him. Everybody seemed anxious to do him honor.
He met many of the leading men of the day, and he at last succeeded in gaining the object of his mission.
But such business moved slowly in those times. Five years passed before he was ready to return to America.
He reached Philadelphia in November, 1762, and the colonial assembly of Pennsylvania thanked him publicly for his great services.
But new troubles soon came up between the colonies and the government in England. Other laws were passed, more oppressive than before.
It was proposed to tax the colonies, and to force the colonists to buy stamped paper. This last act was called the Stamp Tax, and the American people opposed it with all their might.
Scarcely had Franklin been at home two years when he was again sent to England to plead the cause of his countrymen.
This time he remained abroad for more than ten years; but he was not so successful as before.
In 1774 he appeared before the King's council to present a petition from the people of Massachusetts.
He was now a venerable man nearly seventy years of age. He was the most famous man of America.
His petition was rejected. He himself was shamefully insulted and abused by one of the members of the council. The next day he was dismissed from the office of deputy postmaster-general of America.
In May, 1775, he was again at home in Philadelphia.
Two weeks before his arrival the battle of Lexington had been fought, and the war of the Revolution had been begun.
Franklin had done all that he could to persuade the English king to deal justly with the American colonies. But the king and his counselors had refused to listen to him.
During his ten years abroad he had not stayed all the time in England. He had traveled in many countries of Europe, and had visited Paris several times.
Many changes had taken place while he was absent.
His wife, Mrs. Deborah Franklin, had died. His parents and fifteen of his brothers and sisters had also been laid in the grave.
The rest of his days were to be spent in the service of his country, to which he had already given nearly twenty years of his life.
Benjamin Franklin was not only a printer, politician, and statesman, he was the first scientist of America. In the midst of perplexing cares it was his delight to study the laws of nature and try to understand some of the mysteries of creation.
In his time no very great discoveries had yet been made. The steam engine was unknown. The telegraph had not so much as been dreamed about. Thousands of comforts which we now enjoy through the discoveries of science were then unthought of; or if thought of, they were deemed to be impossible.
Franklin began to make experiments in electricity when he was about forty years old.
He was the first person to discover that lightning is caused by electricity. He had long thought that this was true, but he had no means of proving it.
He thought that if he could stand on some high tower during a thunderstorm, he might be able to draw some of the electricity from the clouds through a pointed iron rod. But there was no high tower in Philadelphia. There was not even a tall church spire.
At last he thought of making a kite and sending it up to the clouds. A paper kite, however, would be ruined by the rain and would not fly to any great height.
So instead of paper he used a light silk handkerchief which he fastened to two slender but strong cross pieces. At the top of the kite he placed a pointed iron rod. The string was of hemp, except a short piece at the lower end, which was of silk. At the end of the hemp string an iron key was tied.
"I think that is a queer kind of kite," said Franklin's little boy. "What are you going to do with it?"
"Wait until the next thunderstorm, and you will see," said Franklin. "You may go with me and we will send it up to the clouds."
He told no one else about it, for if the experiment should fail, he did not care to have everybody laugh at him.
At last, one day, a thunderstorm came up, and Franklin, with his son, went out into a field to fly his kite. There was a steady breeze, and it was easy to send the kite far up towards the clouds.
Then, holding the silken end of the string, Franklin stood under a little shed in the field, and watched to see what would happen.
The lightnings flashed, the thunder rolled, but there was no sign of electricity in the kite. At last, when he was about to give up the experiment, Franklin saw the loose fibres of his hempen string begin to move.
He put his knuckles close to the key, and sparks of fire came flying to his hand. He was wild with delight. The sparks of fire were electricity; he had drawn them from the clouds.
That experiment, if Franklin had only known it, was a very dangerous one. It was fortunate for him, and for the world, that he suffered no harm. More than one person who has since tried to draw electricity from the clouds has been killed by the lightning that has flashed down the hempen kite string.
When Franklin's discovery was made known it caused great excitement among the learned men of Europe. They could not believe it was true until some of them had proved it by similar experiments.
They could hardly believe that a man in the far-away city of Philadelphia could make a discovery which they had never thought of as possible. Indeed, how could an American do anything that was worth doing.
Franklin soon became famous in foreign countries as a philosopher and man of science. The universities of Oxford and Edinburgh honored him by conferring upon him their highest degrees. He was now Doctor Benjamin Franklin. But in America people still thought of him only as a man of affairs, as a great printer, and as the editor of Poor Richard's Almanac.
All this happened before the beginning of his career as ambassador from the colonies to the king and government of England.
I cannot tell you of all of his discoveries in science. He invented the lightning rod, and, by trying many experiments, he learned more about electricity than the world had ever known before.
He made many curious experiments to discover the laws of heat, light, and sound. By laying strips of colored cloth on snow, he learned which colors are the best conductors of heat.
He invented the harmonica, an ingenious musical instrument, in which the sounds were produced by musical glasses.
During his long stay abroad he did not neglect his scientific studies. He visited many of the greatest scholars of the time, and was everywhere received with much honor.
The great scientific societies of Europe, the Royal Academies in Paris and in Madrid, had already elected him as one of their members. The King of France wrote him a letter, thanking him for his useful discoveries in electricity, and for his invention of the lightning rod.
All this would have made some men very proud. But it was not so with Dr. Franklin. In a letter which he wrote to a friend at the time when these honors were beginning to be showered upon him, he said:
"The pride of man is very differently gratified; and had his Majesty sent me a marshal's staff I think I should scarce have been so proud of it as I am of your esteem."
In 1776 delegates from all the colonies met in Philadelphia. They formed what is known in history as the Second Continental Congress of America.
It was now more than a year since the war had begun, and the colonists had made up their minds not to obey the oppressive laws of the King of England and his council.
Many of them were strongly in favor of setting up a new government of their own.
The Congress, therefore, appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence. Benjamin Franklin was one of that committee.
On the 4th of July, Congress declared the colonies to be free and independent states, no longer subject to the laws of England. Among the men who signed their names to this Declaration of Independence was Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.
Soon after this Dr. Franklin was sent to Paris as minister from the United States. Early in the following year, 1777, he induced the King of France to acknowledge the independence of this country.
He thus secured aid for the Americans at a time when they were in the greatest need of it. Had it not been for his services at this time, the war of the Revolution might have ended very differently, indeed.
It was not until 1785 that he was again able to return to his home.
He was then nearly eighty years old.
He had served his country faithfully for fifty-three years. He would have been glad if he might retire to private life, but the people who knew and appreciated his great worth, would not permit him to do so.
When he reached Philadelphia he was received with joy by thousands of his countrymen.
General Washington was among the first to welcome him, and to thank him for his great services.
That same year the grateful people of his state elected him President of Pennsylvania.
Two years afterwards, he wrote:
"I am here in my niche in my own house, in the bosom of my family, my daughter and grandchildren all about me, among my old friends, or the sons of my friends, who equally respect me.
"In short, I enjoy here every opportunity of doing good, and everything else I could wish for, except repose; and that I may soon expect, either by the cessation of my office, which cannot last more than three years, or by ceasing to live."
The next year he was a delegate to the convention which formed the present Constitution of the United States. By the adoption of this Constitution, the thirteen United States became a single nation worthy to be ranked with the other great governments of the world.
In a letter written to his friend, General Washington, not long afterwards, Benjamin Franklin said: "For my personal ease I should have died two years ago; but though those years have been spent in pain, I am glad to have lived them, since I can look upon our present situation."
In April, 1790, he died, and was buried by the side of his wife, Deborah, in Arch street graveyard in Philadelphia. His age was eighty-four years and three months.
Many years before his death he had written the following epitaph for himself:
|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 believed) appear once more|
|In a new|
|And more beautiful Edition,|
|Corrected and Amended|