Benjamin Franklin


Next to Washington the most conspicuous and most widely useful of Americans throughout the eighteenth century was Benjamin Franklin. He was perhaps the most typical American of his time; certainly he was the most versatile man of affairs and the most picturesque in personality of all that distinguished group who helped to guide the nation in that troubled age. Through the second quarter of the century he lived the quiet life of a thrifty, sagacious man of business, at the same time taking a practical interest in matters of public moment and presenting the most original model of good citizenship that can be found. His contribution to American literature, the larger portion of which belongs to this earlier period of his career, is not great, but it is noteworthy.

Boyhood in Boston.

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, in 1706, of typical Puritan stock. His father, Josiah Franklin, who had come from England in 1685, was a soap-boiler and candle-maker. At the sign of the blue ball, near the South Meeting House, he had his little shop where he sold his soap and candles. Benjamin was the fifteenth in a family of seventeen children, and while the opportunities for formal education were not promising, Josiah Franklin, a man of sound understanding, was ingenious in providing means to improve the minds of his children. At table, he discussed useful topics for their benefit. Benjamin, he designed for the ministry, and at eight years of age he sent him to school. Within the year, however, he was compelled to withdraw his boy from the school and soon after set him to work in the shop cutting wicks for the candles, filling the moulds, and running errands. This work proved distasteful, and after some efforts to find a trade that the boy would like, Ben was apprenticed to his brother James, who owned a printing business. It was a fortunate choice; and here, for a time, he throve.

Habits of Study.

From his earliest childhood, Franklin had a passion for books. So soon as he could read, he had waded through the small library -- a musty collection of treatises on divinity -- which he found on his father's shelves. With his first spending money, he bought the works of John Bunyan, in separate little volumes; and these he later sold in order to buy Richard Burton's Historical Collections, small and cheap, in forty volumes. Among his father's books, he discovered a copy of Plutarch's Lives, which he read "abundantly." A volume of Defoe, An Essay on Projects, and that little work by Cotton Mather, known as Essays to do Good, Franklin afterward recalled as having given a turn to his thinking which directly influenced him in the principal events of his later life.1

He now obtained other books, and by chance secured an odd volume of the Spectator. This became not only a source of delight, but, by an ingenious system of his own devising, it also became a means of instruction in the art of expression, and in no small degree helped him to acquire a sound literary style.

The Newspaper

In 1721, James Franklin, the brother to whom Benjamin had been apprenticed, began to publish a newspaper, The New England Courant, one of the first in the colonies.1 To this paper, articles were sometimes contributed by acquaintances who were interested in the project. It was not long before the printer's apprentice got the idea that he, too, could write readable articles; but, suspecting that if he were known to be their author, his brother would refuse to print his pieces, Ben wrote the papers in a disguised hand and slipped them under the door of the printing-office at night. When these articles were read, the boy had the pleasure of hearing them approved by gentlemen who visited the office, and guesses made as to their authorship. Once when James Franklin was arrested on account of some indiscreet utterance regarding public affairs in his newspaper and compelled to undergo brief imprisonment, the conduct of the paper was turned over to Benjamin, who managed it alone and with success. However, the brothers did not get along well together; there were differences and disputes; and in 1723, when seventeen, Ben ran away. To raise a little money, he sold his books, slipped secretly aboard a sloop, and after three days' sail found himself in New York. He was without acquaintance, recommendations, or resources other than the knowledge

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