We have first-hand information concerning the life of Benjamin Franklin, for although he did not publish an autobiography, he wrote down the story of his life in the form of a very long letter to his son.
While it is true that Franklin rose "from printer's boy to first Ambassador of the American Republic," I think that statement by itself is apt to give an impression of even a humbler origin than was the case. His father was well-to-do, and came of a family of some account. Benjamin tells us concerning his ancestors that "they lived in the same village, Ecton, in Northamptonshire, on a freehold of about thirty acres, for at least three hundred years, and how much longer could not be ascertained."
Franklin leaves us an interesting word-picture of his great-grandfather, which shows that his ancestors were made of proper stuff. This great-grandfather lived during the reign of Queen Mary, at a time when there were persecutions perpetrated by Popery. The old gentleman kept his Bible in a safe hiding-place and yet in a position very convenient for reference. He turned a footstool upside down and then tied the open Bible within the bottom of the stool, so that the book was hidden entirely when the stool stood upon its legs. While reading to his family, with the upturned stool on his knees, one of the children would keep watch lest an officer of the Spiritual Court should come along, and on any alarm being given, the stool was immediately placed upon its feet again.
Benjamin's father, who had been a wool-dyer in this country, emigrated, about the year 1682, to that part of America then known as New England, but Benjamin, who was the fifteenth in a family of seventeen, was not born till twenty-five years later. Although he was born in Boston in 1706, he was a British subject, the Americans being then but colonists of Great Britain. New England was still young, the father of Benjamin's mother having been one of the first settlers in that part.
In the New World Benjamin's father commenced business as a candle and soap-manufacturer, on a small scale.
Although Benjamin had only two years' schooling, which was between the age of eight and ten years, he must have received good tuition from his father, for he was able to read before he went to school. He tells us that his father always made it a point that the table-talk was of interest and instruction to the children. There was never any discussion of their food; that was strictly prohibited. Even if the food was not to their minds, or was extra pleasing, or was not well cooked, no remark whatever was to be made. Benjamin tells us that with this good training he found in later life that he was quite indifferent to what kind of food was set before him. He found this a great convenience in travelling; he did not envy those whose delicate tastes were often bringing them into conflict with the innkeepers. This avoidance of thinking about the food became such a habit with Franklin that he says, "Indeed, I am so unobservant of it, that to this day I can scarce tell a few hours after dinner of what dishes it consisted."
Another habit formed by Benjamin was to waste no time. No doubt he was taught this by his father, for he showed signs of this habit at a very early age, as we may gather from the following incident. When a child he felt that the very long graces which his father said before and after meals occupied a good deal of time. One day, while the little fellow was watching the winter's meat being salted and stored away in casks, he asked his father if it would not do to say grace over the whole lot once for all as it would save a lot of time.
His father had desired at first that his youngest son, Benjamin, should be a clergyman, but with the expenses of bringing up a family of seventeen he did not care to go to the further expense of a college training. At ten years of age Benjamin was put into his father's business, but the cutting of wicks and the pouring of molten wax into candle-moulds did not interest the boy. After two years of such work he told his father that he disliked the business, whereupon his father very wisely offered to find him some business which should be more congenial. But it is often no light task to determine for what business a boy is best suited, and so his father took Benjamin' on his walks with him, to let the boy see different tradesmen at work, and that he himself might observe the boy's inclinations. There was some thought of apprenticing him to a cutler, but the fees demanded seemed to the father unreasonable. He had observed that all Benjamin's pocket-money was spent on books, and that the boy had a decided bookish inclination, and so it occurred to him that the printing trade would be a congenial one to Benjamin. An older brother had been set up in business as a printer, and so it was arranged that Benjamin should become an apprentice to him. The apprenticeship was to be a very long one, for Benjamin, who was then twelve years of age, was not to be free till he came of age.
Benjamin found the work very congenial, especially as he could borrow copies of the books from other apprentices. Sometimes he was required to return these books by the morning, but on such occasions he would sit up the greater part of the night till he finished the book. Later on a merchant who frequented the printing-office offered Benjamin the use of his large library.
During his early apprenticeship Benjamin became a vegetarian; the idea was suggested by some book he had read, but the real advantage that Benjamin saw in this diet was that the meals were more easily eaten, leaving more time for reading, and the cost of the food was less, so that he had more pocket-money for buying books. When his purse was not long enough to meet his demand for books, he would sell those he had read and buy the new ones.
While Benjamin was thoroughly interested in the printing business, he was not very happy in it, for his brother was often unkind to him. Benjamin was only a stepbrother to his master, their father having been married twice, but one can only surmise from what follows that Benjamin's stepbrother was jealous of the boy's quickness in learning.
After Benjamin had served a few years of his apprenticeship, it so happened that his stepbrother began to publish a newspaper, the second in New England. People had tried to dissuade the brother, as they considered one newspaper quite sufficient for New England. Those who wrote the news for this paper were in the habit of meeting at the printing office to discuss matters. The youthful Benjamin, then only fifteen years of age, thought he would like to try his hand at writing articles. He knew very well that his brother would not allow him, and so he wrote in a disguised hand and pushed the anonymous manuscript beneath the door of the printing office after closing hour. He heard the journalists discuss his production next day, and the verdict was very encouraging; indeed, it was the general opinion that the article had been written by some well-known man of learning. This and other similar articles were published, and at last Benjamin informed his stepbrother and the journalists that he had been the anonymous author. The journalists were genuinely interested in him, but the stepbrother was exceedingly displeased, and thought the boy was far too vain.
Benjamin's position in the printing office was by no means improved by the foregoing incident, but it so happened that his brother got himself into trouble with the authorities for publishing some political offence, for which he was sent to prison for one month, and he was deposed from the editorship of the newspaper. Benjamin took charge of the business in the absence of his brother, and on his return it was arranged that Benjamin should edit the paper, but he and his brother could not work peaceably together. Benjamin had already served five years of the long apprenticeship into which his father had led him. There were another four years still to serve, although Benjamin was already an expert printer, and so the lad determined to cut short the continual unpleasantness. His only hope was to take French leave, and so he embarked upon a ship sailing for New York, meantime selling his books in order to pay his passage and give him a little cash in hand.
The New York printer to whom he applied for work told him that he had no work, but that his son in Philadelphia might require assistance. Benjamin went off to Philadelphia by ship, and after a stormy voyage arrived at the printing office, to find that the printer's father whom he had seen in New York had travelled on horse-back and had arrived in Philadelphia before him. The son had no work to offer him either, but the father took Benjamin over to the opposing firm, where he found employment.
Not long after Benjamin had got to work in Philadelphia, the husband of one of his sisters spoke to the Governor of the province concerning the lad. The Governor, on hearing of Benjamin's abilities, suggested that he should set up in business on his own account as he would soon outstrip the other printers, whose work was very inferior. Benjamin made a voyage home to ask his father for the necessary capital. While on this visit home Benjamin related his adventures to an old chum, Collins, who thereupon determined to go also to Philadelphia. It was agreed that Collins should go by land to New York, and await Benjamin there, who would follow by ship as soon as his father had come to a decision. But his father considered Benjamin was too young to be in business for himself. However, he promised that if the lad had saved some money by the time he was twenty years of age, he would help him out with the rest of the capital. While at home Benjamin visited the printing office of his stepbrother, who disliked him the more because he had been successful.
Benjamin set out once more by ship for New York, but this time with the good wishes of his parents and friends. When he reached New York he found his friend Collins awaiting him. During all the years that Franklin had known Collins he had been a thoughtful and studious lad, especially expert in mathematics. But now he found that Collins had taken to brandy-drinking, and Franklin was horrified to hear that Collins had not been sober a single day since his arrival in New York. To make matters even worse, Collins had been gambling, all his money was gone, and he was in debt for his lodgings. Poor Franklin, who saved every penny he could towards buying new books, had to pay up Collins's debts and his passage from New York to Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia Franklin found that Collins was a burden on his hands. The lad, although provided with excellent recommendations, could not get work as a clerk. Franklin says, "Whether they discovered his dram-drinking by his breath or by his behaviour, he met with no success in any application, and continued lodging and boarding at the same house with me, and at my expense." Frequent quarrels arose, as Collins would not mend his ways, and their friendship ended in the following manner. When out on the river one day with some other young fellows, Collins refused to row when it was his turn to do so. Franklin insisted that Collins should do his share of the work, although the others were willing to let him off. Collins then ordered Franklin to row in his place or he would throw him overboard. Franklin still insisted that Collins must row, whereupon Collins went forward and struck at Franklin, who described his own actions in the following words: "When he came up and struck at me, I clapt my head under his thighs, and rising, pitched him head foremost into the river. I knew he was a good swimmer and so was under little concern about him." Franklin kept the boat out of Collins's reach until he saw that the swimmer was thoroughly tired, when he took him into the boat, but all pretence at friendship disappeared after that. A little later Collins left for the West Indies.
We have noted that Franklin had become a vegetarian, and it is rather amusing to learn how he returned to an ordinary diet. He tells us that during one of the voyages between Boston and Philadelphia, the crew caught some excellent cod-fish, which when fried smelt most appetising. His vegetarian principles determined that he should eat nothing that had been alive, the idea being that it was not right to massacre the fish, which had done no injury to deserve death. But when Franklin saw some of the fish being opened, and he espied a quantity of small fish in the stomachs of the cods, he argued that if the fish ate one another he had a perfect right to eat them, and so ended Franklin's vegetarianism.
While Franklin was employed by the printer at Philadelphia, the Governor of the province offered to set him up in business for himself. The Governor told Franklin that he would give him letters of credit whereby he could purchase a printing press in England, and at the same time gain some useful experience in a London printing office. Franklin got ready to sail for England: a very great undertaking in these days when the voyagers were dependent upon the wind to carry them to their destinations.
Franklin could not understand why the Governor made so many excuses for delay in giving him the necessary letters of credit. In the end he was told that if he went on board the ship, which was about to sail, the Governor would send the letters down to the ship in the mail-bag and the captain would hand them to him on the voyage. The lad believed this promise, but before he reached England he found that he had been most cruelly deceived; there was not a single letter of any kind for him. And so the youth was stranded in London, to make the best he could of it for himself. Some readers may wonder what object the Governor could have in behaving in such a manner to young Franklin. But have we not seen people act very similarly in these more modern days, with the sole object of making themselves agreeable and important by their proposed assistance?
However, Franklin soon got employment in a large printing office in the City. He lodged in the street still called Little Britain, and next to his lodgings was a second-hand bookshop, whose owner was good enough to let Franklin have the use of many books. Later on he found employment in a still larger printing office, where he was not content to do just as much work as the other employees.
His fellow-workers, of whom there were about fifty, had formed the habit of drinking ale at their work; indeed, an alehouse boy was in attendance at the printing office to receive the men's orders. As Franklin did not follow their custom they nicknamed him the "Water-American." But it occurred to some of them later that this Water-American could do more work than they could, despite their six pints of ale drunk during working hours. They remarked also that for three half-pence he got "a large porringer of hot water-gruel, sprinkled with pepper, crumbled with bread, and a bit of butter in it." This seemed a much better bargain than did a pint of beer, and many of the printers followed Franklin's example.
One day when on the Thames with a boating party Franklin swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars, performing many feats of activity, both upon and under the water. Owing to this event he received an invitation from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to teach his sons to swim, and this request was accompanied by an offer to set Franklin up as a swimming master in , but the kind offer did not tempt the young printer.
During the eighteen months spent in the London printing shops, Franklin had remained on intimate terms with a merchant who had been a fellow-passenger on the long voyage from America. Franklin speaks very highly of this gentleman. He tells us that the merchant had formerly been in business in London, but things had not gone well with him and he had been forced to ask his creditors to accept part payment of their accounts as a settlement of his indebtedness. After this he had emigrated to America, where he had been very successful, and he was in London at this time to purchase a large consignment of goods for his store. On his return to London he had invited all his old creditors to dine with him. They were very pleased to accept the invitation, as they owed him no grudge; and when they expected nothing but the evening's entertainment they were greatly surprised to find, when the plates of the first course were removed, under each man's plate a bank order not only for the remainder of the old debt, but with interest added to date.
This very honest merchant offered to take Franklin back to Philadelphia and to give him good employment in his store there. Franklin, who would be about twenty years of age at that time, accepted the kind offer, and they set sail together. This was in the month of July, and the voyage across the Atlantic, which takes us about one week, took them nearly three months, as they did not land in America till the month of October. While Franklin was employed in the store, his master was taken seriously ill and died, whereupon the youth returned to his printing business. Franklin himself had a very serious illness about this time, so serious that he did not expect to recover, and even wrote out his own epitaph, which was as follows
Fortunately there was no occasion for the use of the epitaph. Franklin became manager of the printing office in which he had worked before leaving for London. He improved the business immensely, teaching every printer the best way of doing his work. He showed his master also how he could mould new type for himself and thus save much time and delay in getting it from England. So soon as the master thought that he had learned all he could from Franklin, he told the young man that as his wages were too high he could go. One of the apprentices in the printing office followed Franklin and suggested that they might set up in business together. As this lad's father was willing to buy a printing-press and type for them, the matter was easily settled.
While waiting for the press and type to come from London, Franklin got a pressing invitation to return to the printing office to assist with an important and difficult order for paper-money. Franklin made the first copper-plates ever made in America for the printing of the paper-money, and these were a great success. When, at last, the printing-press arrived from across the seas, the two young men set up in business. They soon had plenty of work, requiring to work both late and early in order to keep up with the demand. They started a newspaper which also proved a success. But unfortunately Franklin's partner did not act wisely. He was scarcely ever sober, and he made a very poor printer. Not long after their beginning business this lad left Philadelphia to go to farming, where he might be out of the way of temptation. The printing business flourished exceedingly, and in the midst of a very active life Franklin found time to take a leading part in a Debating Club and in the formation of a Library, which was the first lending library in America.
About this time he married a Miss Read, in whose father's house he had lodged in his early days in Philadelphia, in which town he still was. Miss Read's first impression of the boy Benjamin Franklin was rather amusing. She happened to be standing at her father's door on that morning when Franklin first set foot in Philadelphia. Being practically a runaway; he had no travelling-box, and as he passed Miss Read his pockets were bulging out to an enormous extent, being filled with such articles as shirts and stockings. What added to the ridiculous picture was the fact that he had just purchased some bread, and getting much more than he had expected, he was busy eating one very large roll, while he had another one tucked under each arm. Love does not seem to have been at first sight, but before Franklin left for London they were lovers. However, during Franklin's absence the girl married a young man, who did not turn out a success. He deserted the young wife, and died somewhere abroad. Franklin had kept up a friendly correspondence with the Read family, and now that he was established in business he married the young widow.
When Franklin was twenty-six years of age he published his famous Almanack, which he continued to publish for a quarter of a century. This annual publication was known throughout the civilised world as "Poor Richard's Almanack." It received this title because Franklin wrote a preface to it each year, signing it "Richard Saunders." The early prefaces were written in a very pathetic tone, as though Richard were adopting this form of livelihood as a last resort. This publication contained so much good sense and so much interesting general information, which was not easily obtained in those days, that it soon became very famous and was translated into several foreign languages.
These old Almanacks make interesting reading, the style of some parts reminds one of the ancient symbols of Pythagoras, to which I referred in Chapter II. For instance, here is one of Poor Richard's sayings: "It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright." (It is difficult for a man in want to act always honestly.)
After ten years' absence from Boston, Franklin paid a visit to his home, where he received a very warm welcome. It is interesting to learn that on this visit he and the stepbrother, under whom he had learned printing, became perfectly friendly. This brother had fallen into ill-health and could not hope to live long. Benjamin offered to look after the brother's son and to train him for business. On Benjamin's return to Philadelphia he prospered so well in business that he was able to devote a good deal of time to public affairs. He became Clerk to the Assembly of his Province (Pennsylvania), and also filled the position of Deputy Postmaster-General. By the time he had reached forty-two years of age, he was able to leave his printing business in the hands of his partner, and to devote himself to public affairs and to philosophical studies.