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Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

Benjamin Franklin


IN the early part of the eighteenth century, when Boston was a little town of less than ten thousand inhabitants, there lived just opposite the Old South Church a good soap boiler and candle maker, named Josiah Franklin. He had seven daughters and ten sons. And this story is about the youngest of his sons, Benjamin, who was born in Boston, January 6, 1706.

With so many mouths to feed, Josiah Franklin could not afford to keep any one of his children long in school. However, Benjamin learned to read when he was very young, and at the age of eight he was sent to the Latin Grammar School. The next year he went to a school where arithmetic and writing were taught. These two years were all that he spent in school.

Like most boys who live near the sea, Benjamin Franklin was a good swimmer and could handle a boat like an old seaman. Like most boys, too, he was always on the lookout for adventure and sometimes led his friends into trouble.

One of his favorite playgrounds was on the edge of a salt marsh, where at high tide he could fish for minnows. Running about on its banks the boys had trampled them into a mere quagmire. The mud was so deep that the fun was spoiled. What could they do? Never at a loss for some way out of his difficulties, Benjamin was ready with a scheme. Not far from the marsh a new house was being built, and the builders had already brought the stones and piled them ready for use. Why couldn't the boys get these stones and build a wharf in the mud? The very thing, they all thought.

So that night after the workmen had left the new house, Benjamin and his friends met there and began to move the stones. Some of them were pretty large and very heavy, and it took two or three boys to carry them. But they worked as hard and fast as they could, until they got all the stones to the edge of the marsh and their wharf built.

Picture the surprised workmen when they went to use their stones in the morning! Not one was left. Who could have taken them and where were they? A search was made. The little wharf was soon discovered, and word was sent to the fathers of the boys.

Franklin says of the occasion, "Several of us were corrected by our fathers; and though I pleaded the usefulness of the work, mine convinced me that nothing was useful which was not honest."

In olden times boys began quite early to learn some trade. The natural thing for a boy to do was to learn his father's trade. So for two years after leaving school Benjamin worked for his father, cutting wicks, molding candles, tending shop, and running errands. As he did not like this kind of work in the least, Mr. Franklin took him to see bricklayers, joiners, tanners, and cutters at their work. Not one of these trades suited the boy.

At last, his great liking for the few books at his command persuaded his father to make a printer of him. Benjamin's brother James was a printer; and when the lad was twelve years old, he was apprenticed to this elder brother. In return for his board and clothes, and for being taught the printer's trade, Benjamin was to work for his brother until he was twenty-one.

Once in the printing house, Benjamin had better opportunities for reading. Often the booksellers would lend him books, which he would sit up all night to read that they might be returned in the morning. One of James Franklin's friends took a fancy to the boy and invited him to his own library, loaning him as many books as he cared to read.

Inspired by his reading he began to practice writing and worked at it faithfully, always trying to improve his language. All day long he worked hard at his trade; but in the early mornings, in the evenings, and on Sundays, he would read and write to his heart's content. It was through his ability in writing that Benjamin Franklin was able to do great good in later life, as you shall see.

Two years after Benjamin went to work for his brother, James began to print a newspaper which he called the New England Courant.  Benjamin was very anxious to write something for this paper, but he was sure that James would not print anything if he knew that it had been written by his little brother. So one night Benjamin slipped under the door of the printing house a little story that he had written. James Franklin found it and showed it to some of his friends. All agreed that it had been written by some very clever man. This delighted the young writer, and he kept up his secret writings for some time, enjoying the joke on James immensely.

When Benjamin was sixteen, James printed something in his paper which the Massachusetts Assembly did not like. They therefore refused to let him publish the New England Courant  any more. So he decided to print the paper under the name of Benjamin Franklin.

Now the paper was more clever than ever before. Every number was full of fresh news and lively jokes. The paper sold like hot cakes. Things would have gone very well had not James Franklin proved a harsh master to his young brother, often beating him.

Finally Benjamin could bear it no longer and left the printing house. This made James very angry. He went around to all the other printers in Boston and told them not to give Benjamin any work. Surely this was a sorry plight for the young printer.

Early~Life in~Philadelphia

UNABLE to get work in Boston, young Franklin decided to slip away on a packet boat which was going to New York. This meant a sea journey of three hundred miles and was quite an undertaking for those days. In October, 1723, he reached New York, a lad of seventeen, an entire stranger in the city, with very little money in his pocket.

He went to William Bradford, the only printer in New York. Mr. Bradford had no work for him, but advised Benjamin to go to Philadelphia, a hundred miles farther south, where his son was a printer.

Franklin set out in a boat that was going to Amboy on the coast of New Jersey. The sea was rough, and the trip took thirty hours. As there was neither food nor water on the boat, he felt hungry and sick by the time Amboy was reached.

The next morning it was raining hard; but Franklin started on foot to Burlington, a distance of fifty miles. All day he walked. That night he stopped at a poor inn, soaking wet and very tired. He wished that he had never left home. Early the next morning he was on his way again; and when evening came, he found himself within ten miles of Burlington. On the third morning he reached Burlington, where he found a boat which was going to Philadelphia that evening.

As there was no wind, the whole distance had to be rowed. When midnight came, nothing had been seen of Philadelphia. Probably impressed by the amount of rowing they had done, some of the men insisted that they must have passed the city, and that they would go no farther. So there was nothing to do but to land and wait for the morning. A fire was built with the rails of an old fence, and the men huddled around it until dawn.

Then Philadelphia was seen a little way ahead; and by nine o'clock Franklin had left his traveling companions and was wandering alone up one of the streets of the Quaker city.

It is no wonder that after all his travel and lack of rest Franklin was tired and hungry. The first thing he did was to try to find out where he could get some breakfast. A boy directed him to a bakeshop. It seems that bread must have cost more in Boston than in Philadelphia; for when Franklin asked for a modest threepenny worth, to his surprise he was handed out three great puffy loaves. They were much too large to put into his pockets, so he tucked one under each arm and, eating the third, went on up the street.

As luck would have it, he sauntered thus by the house of a certain Mr. Read, just as little Miss Read was standing in the doorway. And this young lady, little dreaming that she was looking at her future husband, could not keep from laughing at the poor awkward young stranger.

After finding a lodging house and being refreshed by a good night's rest, Franklin started out to find Bradford, the printer. Mr. Bradford did not need any help, so Franklin went to the only other printer in the city, a man by the name of Keimer; and here he was given work.

Keimer got Franklin a boarding place at Mr. Read's, the very house where the saucy young lady had laughed at him. Franklin says, "My chest and clothes being come by this time, I made rather a more respectable appearance in the eyes of Miss Read than I had done when she first happened to see me, eating my roll on the street."

While Franklin was working for Keimer, his brother-in-law, Captain Holmes, who was at Newcastle, wrote urging the young man to go home. When the captain received the answer, he showed it to the Governor of Pennsylvania, who happened to be with him. The Governor read the letter and was surprised that a boy of seventeen could write so well.

One day when Franklin and Keimer were at work near the window of the printing house, they saw two finely dressed gentlemen coming to the door. Keimer thought of course that the distinguished visitors were for him. He was very much surprised when one of them said that he was the Governor of Pennsylvania and wanted to see Benjamin Franklin.

The Governor told Benjamin that there was great need of a good printer in the colonies, and that if he would set up in business for himself he should have all the public printing of Pennsylvania and Delaware. This was indeed an honor.

Furthermore the Governor offered to send Franklin to London that he might choose for himself those things necessary for his start as an independent printer. Of course Franklin was delighted, and when the yearly ship sailed from Philadelphia to London he was one of its passengers. He was to find letters of credit from the Governor waiting for him on his ship, but for some unaccountable reason the Governor failed to send them. This fact Franklin did not discover until the ship had almost reached England. And soon he was alone in London, the greatest city in the world, without money or friends.

However, Benjamin Franklin was not to be easily discouraged. He soon found employment in a printing house and went to work with a will.

There was a young man at the printing house, whom Benjamin thought very good company. Admiring Franklin's skill in swimming this young man proposed that they should travel together through Europe, giving swimming lessons. Benjamin was quite pleased with the plan, and the first great American came very near becoming a swimming master. However, he decided to give up the idea and to return once more to Philadelphia.

For a while after he reached Philadelphia, Benjamin worked for his old employer, Keimer. But in a short time, through his good sense and thrifty habits, he was able to set up in business for himself. He was soon making a success of job printing, but he was not satisfied with this. His aims were higher.

At this time William Bradford printed the only newspaper in Pennsylvania, and that was a very poor one. In 1729, when Franklin was twenty-three years old, he decided that he would print a newspaper and make it the best in America.

He set vigorously to work. In a little while everyone wanted the Pennsylvania Gazette , for that was the name of the paper. It always had the best and latest news, although, as there were no railroads or telegraphs or telephones, this was not always very new. When there was not news enough to fill the paper, Franklin would write funny articles, which surprised and pleased the quiet old Quaker town. Sometimes he would ask funny questions in one paper and answer them himself in the next, pretending to be a different person each time.

Once Franklin published an article in his paper which some of the rich men of Philadelphia did not like. Hearing of their complaint Franklin invited the dissatisfied gentlemen to take supper with him. When they sat down at the table, they saw before them only two puddings made of corn meal, and a stone jug of water. Franklin politely helped his guests and then, filling his own plate, ate heartily. The guests tried to eat, but they were not used to such fare. At last Franklin rose and said, "My friends, anyone who can live on sawdust pudding and water, as I can, needs no man's patronage."

When Franklin was twenty-four he married Deborah Read, the girl who had laughed at him the first morning he came to Philadelphia. Mrs. Franklin was a true helpmate to her husband. He says, "She assisted me cheerfully in my business, folding and stitching pamphlets, tending shop, purchasing old linen rags for the paper makers," etc.

In those days everyone read the almanac very carefully. No matter how few books people had, they were sure to buy an almanac every year. In 1732, the very year that George Washington was born, Benjamin Franklin made up his mind to publish an almanac. It was to contain not only all the useful information usually found in almanacs, but also a great deal of wisdom, which should benefit the common people who bought scarcely any other books.

This almanac was called Poor Richard's Almanack.  It was published for twenty-five years. In it, Franklin printed many funny pieces; but the things that are remembered best are the many wise sayings that he gathered together. Here are a few of them:

"Dost love thy life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of."

"The sleeping fox catches no poultry."

"Lost time is never found again."

"Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes it."

"Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

"One to-day is worth two to-morrows."

But you must find the rest of Poor Richard's sayings for yourself. How much the world thinks of them you may know by the fact that they have been translated into ten languages.

Franklin the Citizen

IN 1736 Franklin was elected to his first public office. He was made clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. The next year he was made deputy postmaster general. He now began to think considerably of public affairs, always planning something to help the common people.

The first thing that he did was to organize a better police force. Then he formed a fire company, the first in Philadelphia. This company had no engines or hose carts, as fire companies have to-day. Every member had to keep ready for use a certain number of leather water-buckets and some strong bags and baskets, in which to carry goods out of the burning house.

In Franklin's day all the houses were heated by great open fireplaces, near which you might sit and scorch your face while your back froze. Franklin invented an open stove which heated the entire room and at the same time saved fuel.

And, lover of learning that he was, he could not be satisfied to think that Pennsylvania had no college. In 1749 he succeeded in getting an academy founded. This was the beginning of the present University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia's public library, too, was started through Franklin's efforts.

Once a doctor came to him and asked him to help in establishing a hospital for poor sick people. The doctor said, "When I ask people to subscribe to this, they always say, 'Have you consulted Franklin, what does he think of it?' " The people of Pennsylvania had come to think that nothing could succeed without Benjamin Franklin's good sense behind it. Franklin undertook the business and soon had established a Philadelphia hospital.

A great many more things were done for Pennsylvania, and especially for Philadelphia, by Franklin. He had the streets cleaned, paved, and lighted. He invented street lamps that did not smoke as the London lamps did.

Once when Franklin was in Boston, he met a man who showed him several electrical experiments. Franklin had known nothing of electricity before this time and was much interested in it.

A Dutchman living in the Dutch city of Leyden had discovered how to collect electricity in bottles, which he called Leyden jars. Franklin got one of these jars filled with electricity and soon had tried many experiments with it. His house was crowded with friends who came to see what he could do. He wrote a paper claiming that electricity and lightning were the same, and performed a famous experiment in proof of his belief.

He made a kite by fastening two cross sticks to a silk handkerchief. To the upright stick was fastened an iron point. The string of the kite was of common hemp, except the end which he held in his hand; this was of silk. Where hemp and silk were fastened together, a key was tied. When Franklin saw a thunderstorm coming he went out into the fields and raised the kite. A thundercloud passed over it; and, after a little, the loose fibers of the hemp string stood out stiffly. Franklin put his knuckles to the key and received a strong spark. Then he tried to fill a Leyden jar with the electricity which came down the string, and he succeeded. Thus he had proved his theory.

Franklin's next invention was the lightning rod to protect houses from lightning by conducting electricity into the ground. Even King George III put lightning rods on his palace and on the royal powder magazines.

I must tell you about one of Franklin's experiments, which came near being disastrous. One night he was about to kill a turkey by the shock from two large Leyden jars, when he thoughtlessly took hold of the apparatus and received the whole shock through his body. For a little while he lost his senses entirely. His words upon coming to himself were, "Well, I meant to kill a turkey, and instead I nearly killed a goose."

In 1753 Franklin was made postmaster general of the colonies, and made many improvements in the postal service.

The people of the colonies now began to see that the French were pushing their way to the headwaters of the Ohio and down Lake Champlain from the north, and that they were determined to profit by the discoveries which Champlain and La Salle had made many years before. Something must be done to stop the French, so the English colonies sent men to Albany to meet the chiefs of the Iroquois (the old enemies of the French) and to find means of holding the country. Pennsylvania sent Franklin as her representative to the convention. On the way to Albany, Franklin made a plan for the union of the colonies under one government.

When the convention met, several plans were talked over, and it was decided that Franklin's was the best. But when the scheme was laid before the different colonies they did not like it because, they said, "it did not give the colonists enough power." And when it was laid before the people of England, they said it gave the colonists too much power. So the plan, wise as it was, was not adopted.

In 1757 the descendants of William Penn still governed Pennsylvania. They were not at all like William Penn, for they treated the people very badly. By this time war with the French was on in earnest. The taxes were very high. The Penns were rich and had a great deal of valuable land in Pennsylvania, but they would pay no taxes and compelled the poor people to bear the heavy expenses of the war. So the people of Pennsylvania sent Benjamin Franklin to England to ask the King to take the government of Pennsylvania away from the Penns and to govern it himself.

When Franklin arrived in England he found that everyone knew about him there because of his discoveries in electricity and his clever writings. The English people were more willing to listen to him than to any other American, and the King finally took the government into his own hands, as Franklin asked him to do.

However when several years later the war between the colonies and the French came to an end, the Penns again refused to pay their share of the heavy taxes. So once more Franklin was sent to England to complain.

This time he stayed more than ten years. When he came back his faithful wife was dead, his daughter was married, and he himself was an old man. The battle of Lexington had been fought, and the farmers at Concord had "fired the shot heard round the world." The American Revolution had begun.

As soon as Franklin got back to America he was sent as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress; and he was one of the five men chosen to prepare the Declaration of Independence, which was signed July 4, 1776, making the United States of America an independent nation.

As the members of the Congress were signing the Declaration, John Hancock, who wrote his name so large, "that the King of England could read it without spectacles," said, "We must all hang together."

"Yes," said Franklin, "we must hang together or we shall hang separately."

You must remember that while England was a very rich and powerful nation the United States was very poor indeed. So her Congress decided to send to France to ask for aid in her fight for liberty. In all America there was just one man who could persuade the French people to help the United States, and Congress knew it. They sent Benjamin Franklin, seventy years old, and suffering with rheumatism and gout. "I am old and good for nothing," he said; "as the storekeepers say of their remnants of cloth, I am but a fag end; you may have me for what you please."

When Franklin got to Paris he found the whole city ready to receive him. Everyone had heard of the great Dr. Franklin.

But while fame was plenty, money was scarce. Franklin had to be very careful and very wise indeed to get the help which the United States needed. Finally, in 1778, the French signed a treaty promising ships, men, and money. You may be sure the news of that treaty was most welcome to George Washington. While Washington was fighting at home at the head of the American army, the brave old doctor, in far away France, had secured food and ammunition for the starving soldiers, and shoes for their bleeding feet.

In 1781 the glad news reached Paris that the English general, Cornwallis, had surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown. The war was over. In 1783 men from America and England met in Paris to make the treaty of peace. Through all this time Benjamin Franklin's wise counsel was serving his country well.

It was not until 1785 that Franklin came home for the last time. He was so feeble that he could not ride in a carriage and had to be taken from Paris to the sea-coast, a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, in the "Queen's litter," a kind of covered couch carried between two mules. When the ship reached Philadelphia all the bells of the city were rung, and cannon were fired in honor of his safe arrival.

When he had been home but a few weeks Franklin was elected president of Pennsylvania. Old and weak as he was, the people would not let him off. "They have eaten my flesh," he said jokingly, "and now they are picking my bones."

In 1787 Franklin performed his last duty to his country. The wise men of the United States met in Philadelphia to make the Constitution, and Franklin was chosen one of the delegates.

In 1790 the first great American passed away. His work lives after him in the nation that he did so much to build.