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Part 1 – 1706 to 1718 – Boston Chapter 1 The Franklins And The Folgers In the eighteenth century, The Age of Reason, he was one of the best known men in the world. In France his face was found on medallions, plates, snuffboxes, cards, and prints everywhere. It was so common he told his daughter it was “as well known as that of the moon.” Today Benjamin Franklin is still instantly recognized by billions. As the years pass his prominence slowly fades but his legend will remain a part of the American character. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson are the only other Americans to share an equal status, which places him in the company of giants. Each of those great men has some personal meaning to nearly everyone, but who was Franklin the man, whose legend is symbolic of wisdom, industry and genius? How did he become the most famous man of his age? What did he do to achieve such supreme and lasting status? His accomplishments were astonishing but perhaps to an even greater degree than those other remarkable Americans, Franklin achieved greatness as much for who he was as what he did. He was a man of letters and science and at the same time a tradesman and mechanic. He was a philosopher as well as a man of action. His innate ability to comprehend the physical world was as astounding as his understanding of human nature. The first established him as one of the greatest scientists of his age and the second brought him business success. He was America’s first and best diplomat and anyone who challenged him, from business competitors to kings, learned that he was a most formidable enemy. Born on Sunday, January 6, 1706 in his father’s house on Milk Street in Boston he was the youngest son of Josiah Franklin and Josiah’s second wife, Abiah Folger. It was a loving and nurturing, although strict home. Josiah’s Puritanism was unadulterated. In 1694 he was declared a saint and his devotion was so complete four years later he was elected to the post of tithingman, an official who oversaw one quarter of the families of Boston to ensure their compliance with church-state doctrine and discipline. Abiah’s father, Peter Folger was an original settler of Nantucket and a resourceful, talented and rebellious man; a surveyor, teacher, writer, miller and clerk of the court who once refused to record court proceedings to protest being granted less land than he felt he was entitled to and during King Phillips War in 1676 he wrote in favor of the Indians and against the Puritan leadership. Benjamin’s other grandfather lived on the family’s ancestral property, a thirty acre piece in Ecton, England, where he operated the foundry and engaged in multiple other trades and interests including writing, woodworking, science and history. Like many blacksmiths Thomas Franklin was a talented tinkerer and as a young man he fabricated the parts and assembled a clock that worked throughout his life. The lines that produced the Puritan saint Josiah, and the settler’s daughter Abiah, must have been compatible because their household was a success. Their youngest child Jane later wrote, “It was indeed a lowly dwelling we were brought up in, but we were fed plentifully, made comfortable with fire and clothing, had seldom any contention among us… All was harmony, especially between the heads.” In their “lowly dwelling”, with nine brothers and sisters born of Abiah and three from Josiah’s deceased first wife Anne Child, Ben grew to be a strong lad with a love of play and the outdoors. Drawn to the water he became a powerful swimmer. The beaches and marshes around Boston were his playground and classroom. While on the shore and in the water his curiosity grew and his powers of observation were born. His understanding of human nature began there as well. He was a voracious reader. His “bookish inclination”, as he referred to it in his autobiography, was noted by his father, who decided Ben would be a scholar. He was enrolled in The Boston Grammar School at the age of eight and the following year attended George Brownell’s school of writing and arithmetic. Josiah Franklin realized however the expense of fully educating his son would be too great so he took his son out of the school and put him to work in his own candle and soap shop. Thus, at the age of ten, Benjamin Franklin’s formal education ended.

Ben didn’t enjoy his father’s trade. The odors and the heat were unpleasant and his mind was not challenged. He craved the open water and fresh air and eventually his love for the sea manifested itself when he proclaimed to his family he would become a sailor, like his older brother Josiah. His father was staunchly opposed to this course. He thought sailors a loathsome bunch and a necessary evil at best. Unlike his namesake, his youngest would not become one of them. He knew the conditions in the candle shop had a great deal to do with Ben’s misguided ambition so he took Benjamin around Boston to observe the craftsman who were building the city and manufacturing its wares. Ben’s future would lie in the trades and he needed to see how real work was done and forget the sea. Ben, respectful of his father, did not resist. He enjoyed watching the men cut and lay stone and shape metal, wood and leather, so from an early age he had knowledge of the practical technologies of his time. He gained a sense for tools and materials and the physical laws that govern their use. As young Benjamin came to understand the function and form of man’s creations a tendency to invent was born. His studies of logic, geometry, navigation, and science complimented his observations. He even applied some of the principles he’d learned to his favorite sport, swimming, after reading an illustrated book translated from French, which described dozens of strokes and movements. Inventive lad that he was, Ben made paddles for his hands and feet but abandoned their development as he found them more hindrance than aid. The boy’s love of books persisted so his father settled on the printing trade for his son and placed him in an apprenticeship with Ben’s brother, James. Books were an expensive luxury at the time but as a printer’s assistant the young Franklin had access to books as few others did. Soon Ben was writing poetry and ballads. In his autobiography, which was in the form of a letter to his son William, he wrote: I now took a fancy to poetry, and made some little pieces; my brother, thinking it might turn to account, encouraged me, and put me on composing occasional ballads. One was called The Lighthouse Tragedy, and contained an account of the drowning of Captain Worthilake, with his two daughters: the other was a sailor’s song, on the taking of Teach (or Blackbeard) the pirate. They were wretched stuff, in the Grub-streetballad style; and when they were printed he sent me about the town to sell them. The first sold wonderfully, the event being recent, having made a great noise. This flattered my vanity; but my father discouraged me by ridiculing my performances, and telling me verse-makers were generally beggars. So I escaped being a poet, most probably a very bad one; but as prose writing had been of great use to me in the course of my life, and was a principal means of my advancement, I shall tell you how, in such a situation, I acquired what little ability I have in that way. His ability in that way was striking. Franklin became a prolific writer. His success in the telling, and the selling, of the tale of Captain Teach was a powerful lesson. From then on he used the written word to not only build his personal wealth but to influence the course of history. His cleverly conceived editorials and essays written during his tenure in England as the agent for four colonies from 1765 to 1775 and in France while ambassador from 1776 to 1785 were instrumental in the American fight for independence. His pen would become mighty indeed.

Franklin’s Birthplace On Milk Street, Boston - 1706

Part 2 – 1718 to 1723 – Apprenticeship Chapter 2 The Runaway In 1717 James Franklin returned to Boston from his apprenticeship in England. The following year, twelve-year-old Benjamin became his apprentice. His indentures stated that Ben would remain apprenticed until his twenty-first year and he would receive no pay until his last year of service. Benjamin learned quickly and served his brother well until 1723. The rift between the two that led to Ben’s flight to Philadelphia began the previous year. Soon after establishing himself as a printer James started the second newspaper in America, The New England Courant. He did so despite warnings from his friends that one newspaper in America was quite enough. Some of these friends wrote letters and incidental pieces for the paper and their discussions on the important matters of the day enticed Benjamin to try his hand. He had some ingenious men among his friends, who amus’d themselves by writing little pieces for this paper, which gain’d it credit and made it more in demand, and these gentlemen often visited us. Hearing their conversations, and their accounts of the approbation their papers were received with, I was excited to try my hand among them; but, being still a boy, 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 in at night under the door of the printing-house. It was found in the morning, and communicated to his writing friends when they call’d 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. I suppose now that I was rather lucky in my judges, and that perhaps they were not really so very good ones as I then esteem’d them. Obviously, the approbations bolstered the boy’s confidence, although they didn’t turn his head. In all, fourteen of his letters appeared in the Courant in 1722. He signed them as Mrs. Silence Dogood, a modest, witty and sensible widow of a country parson. With his writing fully accepted as well as his ideas, Ben did become more at ease with James’ friends and contributors. This new familiarity seemed inappropriate to James. Though a brother, he considered himself as my master, and me as his apprentice, and accordingly, expected the same services from me as he would from another, while I thought he demean’d me too much in some he requir’d of me, who from a brother expected more indulgence. Our disputes were often brought before our father, and I fancy I was either generally in the right, or else a better pleader, because the judgment was generally in my favor. But my brother was passionate, and had often beaten me, which I took extreamly amiss; and, thinking my apprenticeship very tedious, I was continually wishing for some opportunity of shortening it, which at length offered in a manner unexpected. James started the Courant to supplement his income and to promote his political beliefs. His apprenticeship in London was at a time when the cause of freedom was exciting many young men. He was strongly influenced by the movement and upon returning to Boston he peacefully opposed the administrators of the colony. No longer ruled by the Puritan theocracy, Boston was then governed by representatives of the King and a commercial aristocracy whose authority was often self-serving. James and others lashed out at them on the pages of the Courant. Although freedom of the press was usually respected in England, the colonial authorities were less tolerant. After pirates were sighted off the coast in June of 1722, the same year Ben was submitting Mrs. Dogood’s insights, James published a letter, which contained a particularly sarcastic and scathing review of the colony’s inadequate response to the marauders.

Furious at James’ impertinence the Council summoned him. The young printer’s haughty attitude further angered the officials and when he refused to divulge the name of the audacious letter writer they sent him to jail where he stayed for one month. Shortly before this incident, encouraged by the success of his editorials, Ben confessed to James that he was the parson’s widow. This revelation must have had various affects on James, including an increased respect for his younger brother. Prison did not reform James. He continued to irritate the Church and the Government and finally, in January of 1723 a committee appointed by the General Court proposed that James Franklin be strictly forbidden to print or publish the New England Courant or any other pamphlet or paper like it. This edict was not to be strictly obeyed by the Franklin brothers. To circumvent the ruling James made Benjamin publisher of the Courant. The Council may have accepted this because Benjamin’s writing, though no less to the point, was less inflammatory then his brother’s. Ben was more artful, never imposing upon his readers with imperatives. He chose to affect them with humor and by using characters and experiences that all could understand. Mrs. Dogood was only the first example of the disarming and very effective writing style that would become his trademark. An apprentice could not be a publisher so James was forced to destroy Benjamin’s indentures. He drew up a second, private contract and Benjamin agreed to the terms, perhaps because he knew that they wouldn’t be enforced. This rearrangement of the paper’s management further strained their relationship. James, now dependent on Ben, and aware of his tenuous hold on him, approached the other printers in Boston and convinced them not to hire his brother should he come to them. If Ben decided to leave his brother’s employ, he would also have to change trades or leave the city. Finally, in September of 1723 he left Boston suddenly and without comment to anyone for fear that he would be held for breaking his indenture.

Part 3 – 1723 to 1725 – Philadelphia Chapter 3 Travelers Tell Fine Tales With one trunk of belongings and a little money from the sale of a few books, seventeen-year-old Benjamin Franklin boarded a sloop for New York. The wind was favorable and in three days they dropped anchor in New York harbor. New York was the center of England’s administration and military in the colonies and it had the air of a luxurious capital. Founded for business purposes by the Dutch it was fundamentally different than Boston. Ben’s decision to leave his birthplace was daring not only because his prospects outside Boston were unknown but also because he was alone and travel was perilous. In the eighteenth century mankind was composed of thousands of tiny, isolated civilizations. The differences between these diverse societies were great – language, customs, rules of etiquette, the style of wigs and coat tails, all these could change every thirty miles and the variety was a delight to the traveler. Without police, passports or visas, travel was free, often exciting, and quite dangerous. “Travelers tell fine tales”, was a proverb of the eighteenth century and the traveler was often well received with curiosity and an attentive hospitality, which the old customs still imposed. This was the world into which the seventeen-year-old Franklin thrust himself. He sought work in New York with the printer, William Bradford, but was told there was none. Mr. Bradford suggested Ben inquire at his son Andrew’s shop in Philadelphia. The younger Bradford had recently lost a master workman, by the memorable name of Aquila Rose, to death and needed a replacement. After four days in New York Benjamin resumed his adventure and set out for Philadelphia. To lessen his burden and decrease his travel time he sent his trunk by sea and made his own way to Pennsylvania through New Jersey. The physical danger that accompanies any true adventure came on the boat ride across the Hudson to Amboy, New Jersey. The small vessel in which he and a handful of others rode carried a light and very worn sail. On their way, a squall met them, tore their sail to bits and carried them east, away from the Jersey shore. In our way, a drunken Dutchman, who was a passenger too, fell overboard; when he was sinking, I reached through the water to his shock pate, and drew him up, so that we got him in again. His ducking sobered him a little, and he went to sleep. Without sail, there was little they could do but ride the storm wherever it took them. All hoped they would not find themselves on the open ocean. The indifferent storm took them to Long Island, rather than out to sea, but due to the intensity of the surf and the stony beach they couldn’t land so they anchored, waiting for the wind to lighten. Ben and the boatman crowded into the scuttle with the Dutchman to join him in sleep. In that manner we lay all night, with very little rest: but with the wind abating the next day, we made a shift to reach Amboy the next night, having been thirty hours on the water, without victuals, or any drink but a bottle of filthy rum, and the water we sail’d on being salt. That first night ashore in Amboy Ben had a fever but he had read a fever could be treated by drinking water so he drank plentifully. It subsided and the next day he set off on the fifty-mile walk to Burlington, New Jersey. It rained very hard all the day; I was thoroughly soak’d and by noon a good deal tired. Stopping at a poor inn, where I staid all night, beginning now to wish that I had never left home. I cut so miserable a figure, too that I found by the questions ask’d me, I was suspected to be some run-away servant and in danger of being taken up on that suspicion.

The next evening he made the wharf in Burlington and happened upon a rowboat with several people in it about to depart to Philadelphia. Seeing Ben’s proportions and youth they judged him a strong rower and allowed him to join them. They rowed all night and arrived at the Market street wharf at around eight or nine o’clock Sunday morning.

Chapter 4 “With one Dutch dollar and about a shilling of copper” In the Autobiography, Franklin was specific about the events of his journey and his first hours in the city that would be so closely associated with him for many years to come. I have been the more particular in this description of my journey and shall be so of my first entry into that city that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there. I was in my working dress, my best clothes being to come round by sea. I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuff’d out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no soul nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with travelling, rowing, and want of rest, I was very hungry; and my whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar, and about a shilling of copper. The latter I gave the people of the boat for my passage, who at first refus’d it, on account of my rowing; but I insisted on their taking it. A man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro’ fear of being thought to have but little. Then I walked up the street, gazing about till near the market-house I met a boy with bread. I had many a meal on bread, and, inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the baker’s he directed me to, in Second-street, and asked for bisket, intending such as we had in Boston; they, it seems were not made in Philadelphia. Then I asked for a three-penny loaf, and was told they had none such. So not considering or knowing the difference of money, and the greater cheapness nor the names of his bread, I bade him give me three-penny worth of any sort. He gave me accordingly, three great, puffy rolls. I was surprised at the quantity, but took it, and, having no room in my pockets, walk’d off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other. Thus I went up Market Street as far as Fourth Street, passing by the door of Mr. Read, my future wife’s father; when she, standing at the door, saw me, and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward, ridiculous, appearance. Then I turned and went down Chestnut-street and part of Walnut-street, eating my roll all the way, and, coming round, found myself again at Market-street wharf, near the boat I came in, to which I went for a draught of the river water; and being filled with one of my rolls, gave the other two to a woman and her child that came down the river in the boat with us, and were waiting to go further. The next morning, after making himself as tidy as he could, Benjamin went to Andrew Bradford’s where he found the elder Bradford who had just come down on horseback from New York. Unfortunately Andrew could not hire Franklin but he sent him on to Samuel Keimer, a French immigrant and printer recently established in Philadelphia who did put Ben to work repairing and putting into service one old shattered press and one small, worn out font of English. He couldn’t lodge his new hire but made arrangements for Ben to live with Mr. Read, the father of Ben’s future wife, Deborah Read, who had seen him carrying bread under his arm the previous day.

Chapter 5 Opportunity Knocks Ben soon began to thrive in his new city. He found young men with whom he could share ideas. His value to Keimer increased rapidly and through more good fortune he was noticed by none other than the governor of the province, Sir William Kieth. The governor, while in New Castle on the Delaware south of Philadelphia, had spoken with a sea captain by the name of Homes. Robert Homes was the master of a sloop that regularly sailed between Boston and the southern Pennsylvania counties that would eventually become the state of Delaware. As it turned out, Captain Homes was married to Benjamin’s sister, Mary. I had a brother-in-law, Robert Holmes (sic), master of a sloop that traded between Boston and Delaware. He being at Newcastle, forty miles below Philadelphia, heard there of me, and wrote me a letter mentioning the concern of my friends in Boston at my abrupt departure, assuring me of their good will to me, and that every thing would be accommodated to my mind if I would return, to which he exhorted me very earnestly. I wrote an answer to his letter, thank’d him for his advice, but stated my reason for quitting Boston fully and in such a light as to convince him I was not so wrong as he had apprehended. Homes mentioned his young brother-in-law and even showed the governor the letter that apparently had made a strong impression upon him. The governor was also impressed, particularly when he was told the age of the writer. Kieth was originally sent to Pennsylvania by the colony’s proprietors, the Penns, as a customs inspector. In 1716 he became governor and showed himself to be an able and even enlightened administrator. He worked successfully with the Assembly, dealt with the Indians justly, pleased the Government in London, and treated the people humanely. He was imaginative, witty and had a pleasant personality. With all these traits in his favor he should have been a star but his judgment was flawed and he seemed pursued by misfortune. Keith visited Franklin at Keimer’s shop shortly after his trip to New Castle. He told Ben a dependable printer was needed in Philadelphia and neither Bradford nor Keimer were up to it. Ben believed this was true. He found Bradford a poor editor if not illiterate and Keimer lacking character and technical knowledge. Keith said if Ben’s father provided the capital needed for the press and type, he would arrange for the new firm to receive much of the public business. At the end of April 1724, with a glowing letter from the governor in his case, Ben boarded a vessel for Boston to seek his father’s support. Ben’s brother-in-law had not returned to Boston since their correspondence and Ben had not been in contact with anyone else from his hometown. In the seven months he was away Ben had prospered. As he entered his father’s house in May of 1724 Ben was dressed in a genteel new suit; he carried a watch and had five pounds sterling, in silver, in his pockets. Ben then called on his brother. He receiv’d me not very frankly, look’d me over, and turned to his work again. The journeymen were inquisitive where I had been, what sort of country it was, and how I lik’d it. I prais’d it much, and the happy life I led in it, expressing strongly my intention of returning to it: and, one of them asking what kind of money we had there, I produc’d a handful of silver, and spread it before them, which was a kind of raree-show they had not been used to, paper money being the money of Boston. Then I took an opportunity of letting them see my watch; and lastly (my brother still glum and sullen), I gave them a piece of eight to drink, and took my leave. This visit of mine offended him extreamly; for when my mother some time after spoke to him of a reconciliation, and of her wishes to see us on good terms together, and that we might live for the future as brothers, he said I had insulted him in such a manner before his people that he could never forget of forgive it. In this, however, he was mistaken.

His father was pleased that Ben was enjoying some success and had made a favorable impression on Governor Keith but he knew something was amiss. He chose not to invest in the project and wrote to the governor that his son was too young to be trusted with the management of such an important and expensive undertaking. Keith was not dissuaded by Josiah Franklin’s refusal and told Ben he would finance the enterprise himself. Ben would go to England, procure the needed equipment, then return to manage the running of it. This was a splendid proposal from Ben’s point of view. The idea of an adventure and enterprise as Keith described was certainly more than he imagined when he entered Philadelphia dirty and hungry less than a year earlier. The governor was preoccupied in the weeks before Ben’s departure. Ben called on him a number of times for the necessary letters of credit he would take to England but he was only told the letters would be ready when needed. Ben’s travel arrangements could not be easily altered nor could they be changed without penalty. Understanding that Keith’s aidede-camp, Colonel French, had brought on board the governor’s dispatches and the needed letters were among them, Ben left for England.

Parts 1, 2 & 3 "Lone Traveler: The Singular Life Of Benjamin Franklin"  

Chapter 1 The Franklins & The Folgers Chapter 2 The Runaway Chapter 3 Travelers Tell Fine Tales Chapter 4 "With one Dutch dollar and a shill...

Parts 1, 2 & 3 "Lone Traveler: The Singular Life Of Benjamin Franklin"  

Chapter 1 The Franklins & The Folgers Chapter 2 The Runaway Chapter 3 Travelers Tell Fine Tales Chapter 4 "With one Dutch dollar and a shill...