English Literature

Benjamin Franklin by Paul Elmer More

Benjamin Franklin by Paul Elmer More.jpg



When the report of Franklin’s death reached Paris, he received, among other marks of respect, this significant honor by one of the revolutionary clubs: in the café where the members met, his bust was crowned with oak-leaves, and on the pedestal below was engraved the single word vir. This simple encomium, calling to mind Napoleon’s This is a man after meeting Goethe, sums up better than a volume of eulogy what Franklin was in his own day and what his life may still signify to us. He acted at one time as a commander of troops, yet cannot be called a soldier; he was a great statesman, yet not among the greatest; he made famous discoveries in science, yet was scarcely a professional scientist; he was lauded as a philosopher, yet barely outstepped the region of common sense; he wrote ever as a moralist, yet in some respects lived a free life; he is one of the few great American authors, yet never published a book; he was a shrewd economist, yet left at his death only a moderate fortune; he accomplished much as a philanthropist, yet never sacrificed his own weal. Above all and in all things he was a man, able to cope with every chance of life and wring profit out of it; he had perhaps the alertest mind of any man of that alert century. In his shrewdness, versatility, self-reliance, wit, as also in his lack of the deeper reverence and imagination, he, I think, more than any other man who has yet lived, represents the full American character. And so in studying his life, though at times we may wish that to his practical intelligence were added the fervid insight of Jonathan Edwards, who was his only intellectual equal in the colonies, or the serene faith of an Emerson, who was born “within a kite string’s distance” of his birthplace in Boston, yet in the end we are borne away by the wonderful openness and rectitude of his mind, and are willing to grant him his high representative position.

Franklin’s ancestors were of the sturdy sort that have made the strength of the Anglo-Saxon race. For three hundred years at least his family had lived on a freehold of thirty acres in the village of Ecton, Northamptonshire; and for many generations father and son had been smiths. Parton, in his capital Life of Franklin, has observed that Washington’s ancestors lived in the same county, although much higher in the social scale; and it may well have been that more than one of Franklin’s ancestors “tightened a rivet in the armor or replaced a shoe upon the horse of a Washington, or doffed his cap to a Washington riding past the ancestral forge.” During these long years the family seems to have gathered strength from the soil, as families are wont to do. Seeing how the Franklins, when the fit of emigrating seized upon them, blossomed out momentarily, and then dwindled away, we are reminded of Poor Richard’s wise observation,—

“I never saw an oft-removëd tree

Nor yet an oft-removëd family

That throve so well as those that settled be.”

About the year 1685, Josiah Franklin, the youngest of four sons, came with his wife and three children to Boston. He had been a dyer in the old home, but now in New England, finding little to be done in this line, he set up as a tallow-chandler and soap-boiler, and prospered in a small way. By his first wife he had four more children, and then by a second wife ten others,—a goodly sheaf of seventeen, among whom Benjamin, the destined philosopher, was the fifteenth.

The second wife, Benjamin’s mother, was the daughter of Peter Folger, one of the settlers of Nantucket,—”a godly and learned Englishman,” who, like many of the pious New England folk, used to relieve his heart in doggerel rhymes. In his “Looking-Glass for the Times” he appeals boldly for liberty of conscience in behalf of the persecuted Anabaptists and Quakers, and we are not surprised that Franklin should have commended the manly freedom of these crude verses. Young Benjamin was open to every influence about him, and something of the large and immovable tolerance of his nature may have been caught from old Peter Folger, his grandfather. We can imagine with what relish that sturdy Protestant, if he had lived so long, would have received Benjamin’s famous “Parable against Persecution,” which the author used to pretend to read as the last chapter of Genesis, to the great mystification of his audience,—”And it came to pass after these things that Abraham sat in the door of his tent,” etc. Try the trick to-day, and you will find most of your hearers equally mystified, so perfectly has Franklin imitated the tone of Old Testament language.

But we forget that our hero, like Tristram Shandy, is still in the limbo of non-existence. Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, January 6 (old style), 1706. At that time the family home was in Milk Street, opposite the Old South Church, to which sacred edifice the child was taken the day of his birth, tradition asserting that his own mother carried him thither through the snow. Shortly afterwards the family moved to a wooden house on the corner of Hanover and Union streets.

Naturally in so large a family, where the means of support were so slender, young Benjamin had to get most of his education outside of the schoolroom, and something of this practical unscholastic training clung to his mind always. Perhaps this was just as well in that age and place, where theology and education were synonymous terms. Certainly his consequent lack of deep root in the past and his impressionability, though limitations to his genius, make him the more typical of American intelligence. At the age of eight he was sent to the grammar school, where he remained less than a year, and then passed under the charge of Mr. George Brownell, a teacher of the three R’s. Benjamin had learned to read so young that he himself could not remember being unable to read, and at school he did notably well. It is curious, however, that he found difficulty with his arithmetic, and was never a mathematician, though later in life he became skillful in dealing with figures. No error could be greater than Carlyle’s statement that ability in mathematics is a test of intelligence. Goethe, scientist as well as poet, could never learn algebra; and Faraday, the creator of electrical science, knew no mathematics at all.

When ten years old the lad was taken from school and set to work under his father. But his education was by no means ended. There is a temptation to dwell on these early formative years because he himself was so fond of deducing lessons from the little occurrences of his boyhood; nor do I know any life that shows a more consistent development from beginning to end. There is, too, a peculiar charm in hearing the world-famous philosopher discourse on these petty happenings of childhood and draw from them his wise experience of life. So, for instance, at sixty-six years of age he writes to a friend in Paris the story of “The Whistle.” One day when he was seven years old his pocket was filled with coppers, and he immediately started for the shop to buy toys. On the way he met a boy with a whistle, and was so charmed with the sound of it that he gave all his money for one. Of course his kind brothers and sisters laughed at him for his extravagant bargain, and his chagrin was so great that he adopted as one of his maxims of life, “Don’t give too much for the whistle.” As he grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, he thought he met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle,—men sacrificing time and liberty and virtue for court favor; misers, giving up comfort and esteem and the joy of doing good for wealth; others sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind and fortune and health to mere corporal sensations, and all the other follies of exorbitant desire.

Another experience, this time a more painful lesson in honesty, he relates in his Autobiography. Having one day stolen some stones from an unfinished house while the builders were away, he and his comrades built up a wharf where they might stand and fish for minnows in the mill-pond. They were discovered, complained of, and corrected by their fathers; “and though I demonstrated the utility of our work,” says Franklin, “mine convinced me that that which was not honest could not be truly useful.”

It is interesting, too, to see the boy showing the same experimental aptitude which brought scientific renown to the man. Like all American boys living on the coast, he was strongly attracted to the water, and early learned to swim. But ordinary swimming was not enough for Benjamin: with some skill he made a pair of wooden paddles for his hands, which enabled him to move through the water very rapidly, although, as he says, they tired his wrists. Another time he combined the two joyful pursuits of swimming and kite-flying in such a manner perhaps as no boy before him had ever conceived. Lying on his back, he held in his hands the stick to which the kite-string was attached, and thus “was drawn along the surface of the water in a very agreeable manner.” Later in life he said he thought it not impossible to cross in this manner from Dover to Calais. “But the packet-boat is still preferable,” he added. We shall see how he managed to put even his knowledge of swimming to practical use; and kite-flying, every one knows, served him in his most notable electrical experiment. Certainly, if it could ever be said of any one, it might be said of him, “The child is father of the man.”

But swimming and boyish play formed a small, though it may be important, part of his education. He was from childhood up “passionately fond of reading,” and he was moreover a wise reader, which is still better. Books were not so easy to get in those days; and the good libraries of the country were composed chiefly of great theological volumes in folio on the shelves of the clergymen’s studies. But in one way and another Franklin contrived to lay hands on the food he most needed. All the money he could save he devoted to buying books, and he even had recourse to unusual methods of saving for this purpose. When sixteen he chanced to read a treatise commending a vegetable diet, and forthwith he put himself under this regimen, finding he could thus set aside half his board money to increase his library. He also made the acquaintance of the booksellers’ apprentices from whom he could borrow books; and often he would read late into the night so as to return the purloined volume early the next morning.

The first book he owned was the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” which remained a favorite with him through life and even served to a certain extent as a model for his own work. This book he sold to buy Burton’s “Historical Collections” in forty volumes. His father’s library was mainly theological, and the young lad was courageous enough to browse even in this dry pasture, but to his little profit as he thought. There was, however, a book on his father’s shelves which was admirably suited to train one destined himself to play a large part in a great drama of history. Where could patriotism and fortitude of character better be learnt than in Plutarch? and Plutarch he read “abundantly” and thought his “time spent to great advantage.” That was in the good days before children’s books and boys’ books were printed. In place of—whom shall we say, Henty or Abbott or another?—boys, if they read at all, read Plutarch and the “Spectator.” They came to the intellectual tasks of manhood with their minds braced by manly reading and not deboshed by silly or at best juvenile literature. It is safe to say that no book written primarily for a boy is a good book for a boy to read. Apart from lessons in generous living, Franklin may have had his natural tendency to moralize strengthened by this study of Plutarch. It is indeed notable that in one respect eighteenth-century literature has marked affinity with the Greek. The writers of that age, and among them Franklin, were like the Greeks distinctly ethical. In telling a story or recording a life, their interest was in the moral to be drawn, rather than in the passions involved.

Another book which had a special influence on his style may be mentioned. An odd volume of the “Spectator” coming into his hands, he read the essays over and over and took them deliberately as a model in language. This was before the date of Johnson’s well-known dictum: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” His method of work was “to make short hints of the sentiments in each sentence,” lay these by for a few days, and then having reconstructed the essay from his notes to compare his version with the original. Sometimes he jumbled the collection of hints into confusion and thus made a study of construction as well as of style; or again he turned an essay into verse and after a while converted it back into prose. And this we believe to be the true method of acquiring a good style, more efficacious than any English course in Harvard College.

At sixteen he was reading Locke “On Human Understanding,”—very strong meat for a boy—and the Port Royal “Art of Thinking.” From Xenophon’s “Memorable Things of Socrates” he acquired a lesson which he never forgot and which he always esteemed of importance in his education. This was the skillful assumption of ignorance or uncertainty in dispute, the so-called “irony” of Socrates. At first he employed this ironical method to trap his opponents into making unwary statements that led to their confusion; and in this way he grew expert in obtaining victories that, as he said, neither he nor his cause deserved. Accordingly he afterwards gave up this form of sophistry and only retained the habit of expressing himself in terms of modest diffidence, always saying: He conceived or imagined such a thing to be so, and never using the words certainlyundoubtedly, and the like.

Books, however, occupied but a small part of his life at this time. After leaving school he was first made to assist his father in the tallow-chandler business; but his distaste for this trade was so great that his father, fearing the boy would run away to sea, began to look about for other employment for him. He took the lad to see “joiners, brick-layers, turners, braziers, etc., at their work,” in order to discover where the boy’s inclination lay. And this event of his boyhood he as an old man remembered, saying, that it had ever since been a pleasure to him to see good workmen handle their tools, and adding that it was useful to him in his business and science to have learned so much in the way of handicraft. At length Benjamin’s love of books determined his occupation, and like many another famous author he was set to the printing-press. In 1717 his brother James had come back from England with a press and letters, and at the age of twelve Benjamin was bound to his brother as an apprentice.

James soon discovered Benjamin’s cleverness with the pen and induced him to compose two ballads, “The Light-House Tragedy,” being the story of a recent shipwreck, and “Blackbeard,” a sailor’s song on the capture of that notorious pirate. These ballads, which the author frankly, and no doubt truthfully, describes as “wretched stuff,” were printed and hawked about the streets by the boy. “The Light-House Tragedy” at least sold prodigiously, and the boy’s vanity was correspondingly flattered; but the father stepped in and discouraged such work, warning Benjamin that “verse-makers were generally beggars.” So, perhaps, we were spared a mediocre poet and given a first-rate prose writer, for the stuff of poetry was not in Franklin’s sober brain.

At this time the good people of Massachusetts were dependent for the news of the world on a single paper, the “Boston News-Letter,” afterwards called the “Gazette” (and indeed there was no other paper in the whole country), published, as was commonly the case in those days, by the postmaster of the town. But in 1721 James Franklin, much against the advice of his friends, started a rival paper, the “New England Courant,” which the young apprentice had to carry about to subscribers after helping it through the press. Benjamin, however, soon played a more important part than printer’s devil. Several ingenious men were in the habit of writing little Addisonian essays for the paper, and Benjamin, hearing their conversation, was fired to try his own skill. “But being still a boy,”—so he tells the story himself,—”and suspecting that my brother would object to printing anything of mine in his paper if he knew it to be mine, I contrived to disguise my hand, and writing an anonymous paper, I put it at night under the door of the printing-house. It was found in the morning and communicated to his writing friends when they called in as usual. They read it, commented on it in my hearing, and I had the exquisite pleasure of finding it met with their approbation, and that in their different guesses at the author none were named but men of some character among us for learning and ingenuity.” Naturally the lad was flattered by the success of his ruse; and he continued to send in his anonymous essays for more than a year. They have been pretty conclusively identified as the series of articles signed “Silence Dogood,” and are a clever enough imitation of the “Spectator’s” style of allegory and humorous satire, such as Franklin was fond of using all his life. The signature, too, Silence Dogood, was characteristic of the man who turned all religion into a code of morality, and was famous for his power of keeping a secret. Like the ancient poet Simonides, he knew the truth of the saying, Silence hath a safe reward.

Those days were not easy times for printers, nor was the freedom of the press any more respected than liberty of conscience. Trouble very soon arose between the new paper and the authorities chiefly on account of the “Courant’s” free handling of the church. Already the free-thinking party which afterwards formed into the Unitarian church was showing its head, and the writers for the “Courant” were among the most outspoken. The climax was reached when one day the paper appeared with a diatribe containing such words as these: “For my own part, when I find a man full of religious cant and palaver, I presently suspect him to be a knave,”—a sentiment which the religious authorities very properly took as an insult to themselves. James was arrested and imprisoned for a month, and on his release was forbidden to print the “Courant.” To escape this difficulty the old indenture of Benjamin was canceled and the paper was printed in his name; at the same time, however, a new indenture was secretly made so that James might still, if he desired, claim his legal rights in the apprentice. It was a “flimsy scheme,” and held but a little while.

Bickerings had been constant between the two brothers, and Benjamin was especially resentful for the blows his master’s passion too often urged him to bestow.

“My mind now is set,

My heart’s thought, on wide waters,”—

said the youth in the old Anglo-Saxon poem, and this same sea-longing was bred in the bones of our Boston apprentice. Now at length the boy would break away; at least he would voyage to another home, though he might give up the notion of becoming a sailor. He intimates, moreover, that the narrow bigotry of New England in religion was distasteful to him—as we may well believe it was. Yet he always retained an affectionate memory of the place of his birth; and only two years before his death he wrote pleasantly regarding the citizens of that town, “for besides their general good sense, which I value, the Boston manner, turn of phrase, and even tone of voice and accent in pronunciation, all please and seem to refresh and revive me.” The newspapers of those days were full of advertisements for runaway apprentices, and Benjamin was one to get his freedom in the same way. He sold his books for a little cash, took secret passage in a sloop for New York, and in three days (some time in October, 1723) found himself in that strange city “without the least recommendation or knowledge of anybody in the place.” The voyage had been uneventful save for an incident which happened while they were becalmed off Block Island. The crew here employed themselves in catching cod, and to Franklin, at this time a devout vegetarian, the taking of every fish seemed a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had done or could do their catchers any injury. But he had been formerly a great lover of fish, and the smell of the frying-pan was most tempting. He balanced some time between principle and inclination, till, recollecting that when the fish were opened he had seen smaller fish taken out of their stomachs, he bethought himself: “If you eat one another I don’t see why we may not eat you;” so he dined upon cod very heartily, and continued through life, except at rare intervals, to eat as other people. “So convenient a thing it is,” he adds, “to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”


Categories: English Literature

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