Gateway to the Classics: A First Book in American History by Edward Eggleston
A First Book in American History by  Edward Eggleston

Boyhood of Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, the fifteenth in a family of seventeen children, was born in Boston in 1706. Benjamin learned to read when he was very young, but he was sent to school for only two years. When he was ten years old he had to help his father. Franklin's father made his living by boiling soap and making tallow candles. Little Benjamin had to cut wicks for the candles, fill the molds with the melted tallow, tend the shop, and run on errands. He did not like the soap and candle trade. Playing about the water, he had learned to swim, and to manage a boat, when he was very young. Like many other boys, he got the notion that it would be a fine thing to go to sea and be a sailor. But his father did not think so.


Franklin Begins his Education

Franklin and his playmates used to fish for minnows in a mill pond which had a salt marsh for a shore, so that the boys had to stand in the mud. He was a leader among the boys, and already very ingenious. So he proposed that the boys should build a little wharf in this marsh to stand on. Near the marsh there was a pile of stones, put there to be used in building a new house. In the evening, when the workmen were gone, Franklin and the other boys tugged and toiled until they had managed to carry all these stones away and build them into a wharf, or pier, reaching out into the water.


In the morning the workmen were very much surprised to find that their pile of stones had walked away during the night. They soon found out where the stones were, and complained to the parents of the boys. Franklin and some of the other boys were punished for their mischief. Benjamin tried to make his father see that it was a very useful work to build such a pier, but the father soon showed him that "nothing was useful that was not honest."

When Franklin had worked for two years with the father at the trade of making tallow candles, the father began to be afraid that Ben would run away and go to sea, as another of his sons had done before. So Franklin's father took him to walk with him sometimes, showing him men working at their trades, such as bricklaying, turning, and joining, hoping that the boy would take a fancy to one of these occupations. Meantime, Benjamin became very fond of reading. He read his father's books, which were very dull for children, and he sold some little things of his own to buy more. As the boy was so fond of books, Benjamin's father could think of nothing better than to make him a printer. So Benjamin was apprenticed to his older brother, James Franklin, who already had a printing office. Benjamin liked this trade, and learned very fast. As he was often sent to bookstores, he got a chance to borrow books. He sometimes sat up all night to read one of these, taking great care to keep the books clean and to return them soon.

Benjamin took a fancy to write poetry about this time. His brother printed this "wretched stuff," as Franklin afterwards called it, and sent the boy around the town to peddle it. Ben was very proud of his poetry until his father made fun of it, and told him that "verse-makers were generally beggars."

Franklin had a notion as a boy that it was wrong to eat meat, so he told his brother that if he would give him half of what his board cost, he would board himself. After this, Benjamin made his dinner on biscuit or a tart from the baker's. In this way he saved some of his board money to buy books, and used the time while the other printers were at dinner to study.

James Franklin, Benjamin's brother, printed a little newspaper. Franklin was printer's boy and paper carrier, for after he had worked at printing the papers, he carried them around to the houses of the subscribers. But he also wanted to write for the paper. He did not dare propose to bold a thing to his brother, so he wrote some articles and put them under the printing-office door at night. They were printed, and even Benjamin's brother did not suspect that they were written by the boy.

The two brothers did not get on well together. The younger brother was rather saucy, and the older brother, who was high-tempered, sometimes gave him a whipping.

James Franklin once printed something in his newspaper which offended the government of the colony. He was arrested and put into prison for a month; for the press was not free in that day. Benjamin published the paper while his brother was in prison, and put in the sharpest things he dared to say about the government. After James got out of prison he was forbidden to print a newspaper any longer. So he made up his mind to print it in the name of his brother Benjamin. In order to do this he was obliged to release Benjamin Franklin from his apprenticeship, though it was agreed that Ben was to remain at work for his brother, as though still an apprentice, till he was twenty-one years old. But Benjamin soon got into another quarrel with his brother James, and, now that he was no longer bound, he left him. This was not fair on his part, and he was afterwards sorry for it.

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