Benjamin Franklin

THIS celebrated individual, the youngest but two of a family of seventeen children, was born at Boston, in Massachusetts, on the 17th of January, 1706. His father was at first a dyer, and afterwards a soap-boiler and tallow-chandler, and had quitted England in order to escape the prosecution of the non-conformists, under Charles II. His son Benjamin was sent to a grammar-school at eight years of age, with a view of being educated for the church; but this design was soon abandoned, and the subject of our memoir, after having made a slight progress in writing and arithmetic, returned home, and assisted at his father's trade. This employment was very irksome to Franklin, whose inclinations had become directed to a sea-faring life; and it was at length agreed that he should be apprenticed to his cousin who was a cutler. An obstacle to this, however, arose in the amount of premium required, and he was eventually bound, in his twelfth year, to his brother James, a printer.

He soon made great progress in this business, and an acquaintance formed with several booksellers' apprentices, enabled him to indulge his love of reading, by borrowing books, which they had facilities to obtain. It has often happened to me,' he says, in a memoir of the early part of his life, to pass the greater part of the night in reading by my bed-side, when the book had been lent to me in the evening, and was to be returned the next morning, lest it might be missed or wanted.' This disposition being noticed by a Mr. Matthew Adams, who had a large collection of books, he offered the use of them to Franklin, who soon became an author, and composed several little pieces in verse. Two of these, a ballad, called The Lighthouse Tragedy,' and a song on the noted pirate, Blackbeard, were, by his brother's directions, printed: but the most unpoetic part of the story remains to be told - their author was despatched about the town to sell them. Franklin says, the first had a prodigious run, because the event was recent, and had made a great noise but they were wretched verses in point of style mere blindman's ditties.' His father seems to have been of the same opinion, for he ridiculed . the productions; and thus,' says their author, my exultation was checked, and I escaped the misfortune of being a very miserable poet.' At this period he formed an acquaintance with a young man of the name of Collins, who was also a great lover of books. They were frequently together, and were both fond of disputation, which they sometimes carried on in writing. This, probably, assisted in bringing out some of the dormant qualities of Franklin's mind; but his style was greatly inferior to that of his rival, to improve which he took the following method I bought,' he says, an odd volume of The Spectator, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view, I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiments in each sentence, laid them by a few days; and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before in any suitable words that should occur to me. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time, if I had gone on making verses; since the continual search for words of the same import, but of different length to suit the measure, or of different sound, for the rhyme, would have laid me under constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales in the Spectator, and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also, sometimes jumbled my collection of hints into confusion, and, after some weeks, endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and complete the subject, This was to teach me method in the arrangement of my thoughts. By comparing my works with the original, I discovered many faults, and corrected them; but sometimes had the pleasure to fancy that, in certain particulars of small consequence, I had been fortunate enough to improve the method of the language; and this encouraged me to think that I might, in time, come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.

Franklin added to his habits of industry a self-denial and control over his passions, even at this early age, which were truly surprising. When. about sixteen, a work fell into his hands, which recommended vegetable diet: this he determined to follow, and undertook to provide for himself, upon his brother's allowing him one-half of the ordinary expense of his board, of which half, even, he contrived, by great abstemiousness, to save a considerable portion. Here was a new fund for the purchase of books; and he accordingly obtained such as enabled him to perfect himself in those elementary branches of knowledge in which he was deficient, among which were arithmetic and geometry.

In 1720, his brother established a public paper, entitled The New England Courant, the second that had appeared in America. Franklin was employed to distribute the copies, and, occasionally, being present at the meetings which were held at his brother's house, by a number of literary characters, who were contributors, his, love of authorship was rekindled, and he sent a communication -in the usual way, but in a feigned hand. It was received, and commented upon in Franklin's hearing; who, in his memoir, tells us, he had, 'the exquisite pleasure to find that it met with their approbation, and that, in the various conjectures they made respecting its author, no one was mentioned who did not enjoy a high reputation in the country for talents and genius.' Many other articles were written, and forwarded in the same manner, and, being equally well received, their author made himself known; expecting that the discovery would insure for him more respect and greater fraternal indulgence than he had previously experienced. His brother, however, continued to treat him with much rigor, and being a man of ungovernable passions, frequently proceeded to the extremity of blows. This severe and tyrannical treatment,' says Franklin, contributed, I believe, to imprint on my mind that aversion to arbitrary power, which, during my whole life, I have ever preserved.'

The brothers, however, had soon occasion to be reconciled with each other. James, in consequence of an offensive article in the Courant, was taken into custody, and imprisoned for a month; Benjamin, during that period, was intrusted with the management of the paper, in which he inserted several pasquinades against the governor and other persons in authority. James's enlargement was accompanied with an arbitrary order, that he should no longer print the newspaper called The New England Courant.' To evade this order, it was determined that his brother's indentures should be given up, and the paper, in future, be printed in the name of Benjamin Franklin. A new contract was at the same time secretly entered into between the parties, by which Benjamin's services were to be secured for the remainder of the term of his former apprenticeship; but, a fresh quarrel arising, Franklin thought proper to separate from his brother; dishonorably,' as he candidly acknowledges, availing himself of the circumstance that the contract could not safely be produced.'

Being unable to obtain employment in Boston, he determined upon going to New York; but, apprehending his father would object to this resolution, he sold a part of his books to procure a small sum of money, and departed privately. On his arrival at the latter place, he applied for employment to a printer, who, having no occasion for his services, recommended him to extend his journey to Philadelphia.

His arrival at Philadelphia is thus recorded by himself I was in my working-dress, my best clothes being to come from New York by sea. I was covered with dirt; my pockets were filled with shirts and stockings; I was unacquainted with a single soul in the place, and knew not where to seek a lodging. Fatigued with walking and rowing, and having passed the night without sleep, I was extremely hungry, and all my money consisted of a Dutch dollar, and about a shilling's worth of coppers, which I gave to the boatmen for my passage. At first they refused it on account of my having rowed; but I insisted on their taking it. Man is sometimes more generous when he has little money than when he has plenty; perhaps to prevent his being thought to have but little. I walked towards the top of the street, gazing about, till near Market Street, where I met a boy with bread, and, inquiring where he had bought it, I went immediately to the baker he directed me to. I asked for biscuits, meaning such as we had at Boston; that sort, it seems, was not then made in Philadelphia. I then asked for a three penny loaf, and was told they had none. Not knowing the different prices, nor the names of the different sorts of bread, I told him to 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, walked off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other. Thus I went up Market 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 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 farther. Thus refreshed, I walked again up the street, which, by this time, had many clean dressed people in it, who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great meeting-house of the Quakers, near the market. I sat down among them, and, after looking round awhile, and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy, through labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep, and continued so till the meeting broke up, when some one was kind enough to rouse me. This, therefore, was the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia.'

He was not long in obtaining employment with a printer of the name of Keimer; and, during his stay at Philadelphia, was favorably noticed by the governor, Sir William Keith, who frequently invited him to his table; and at length promised to advance the funds requisite to place him in business on his own account. He had previously advised his young protegé to proceed to Boston and ask assistance from his father, who, however, gave no encouragement to the scheme, but dismissed Franklin with his blessing, who retured to Philadelphia. Sir William now recommended him to visit England, in order to procure an adequate stock of printing materials, and establish a connection with some London booksellers; and offered to furnish him with letters of credit and introduction. Upon this recommendation, Franklin set sail for England, but the ship which carried him to London, in December, 1724, was found to have carried none of the promised letters from the governor of Pennsylvania.

He was now thrown entirely upon his own resources, and having taken lodgings in Little Britain, at one shilling and nine pence per week, he got into work at Palmer's printing-house, in Bartholomew Close, in which employ he continued for nearly a year. From Palmer's he removed to Watts's, near Lincoln's Inn Fields, where, by his companions, he was dubbed the Water-American. 'From my example,' he says, a great many of them left off their muddling breakfast of beer, bread, and cheese, finding they could, with me, be supplied from a neighboring house with a large porringer of hot water-gruel, sprinkled with pepper, crumbled with bread, and a bit of butter in it, for the price of a pint of beer, viz., three-halfpence.' About this period, he fell in with some deistical companions, renounced his religious principles, commenced sceptic, and published A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, in answer to Wollaston's Religion of Nature. This work introduced him to the notice of Sir Hans Sloane, Dr. Mandeville, Dr. Pemberton, and other eminent persons, though Franklin acknowledged the printing of it as one of the errors of his life. After having been in London eighteen months, he accepted the offer of a Mr. Denham, a merchant of Philadelphia, to return with him as his clerk, at a salary of L50. He arrived at Philadelphia on the 11th of October, 1720: but, Mr. Denham dying in the following year, his clerk was compelled to return to his former occupation, and again entered into the employ of Keimer; acting in the several capacities of letter-founder, ink-maker, engraver, and copper-plate-printer. The press which he used in the latter calling was constructed by himself, and was the first erected in America. A quarrel with Keimer, led to a final separation between him and Franklin, who now entered into partnership with a young man of the name of Meredith. We had scarcely,' says Franklin, opened our letters and put the press in order, before George House, an acquaintance of ours, brought a countryman to us, whom he had met in the street inquiring for a printer. All our cash had been expended in the variety of particulars we had been obliged to procure, and this countryman's five shillings, being our first fruits, and coming so seasonably, gave me more pleasure than any money I have ever since received.' The frugality and industry of Franklin soon brought their business into a thriving condition, and he began to think of establishing a newspaper, when he was anticipated by Keimer, who started one of his own. He now wrote, in conjunction with a friend, a series of papers called The Busy Body, which so much eclipsed the publication of his rival, that he was glad to dispose of his paper, at any price, to Franklin. Meredith proving inattentive to business, Franklin was persuaded to dissolve partnership, and take the concern entirely into his own hands, which he was enabled to accomplish, through the liberal assistance of two acquaintances, who were members of the Junto. This was a club, established by Franklin, for the discussion of subjects connected with morals, politics, and natural philosophy; it eventually became the centre of thought for the whole people; and contributed, in a great degree, to the success of their struggle for independence.

In September, 1730, he married a female to whom he had been previously attached, when she was Miss Read, but who, during his absence, had conceived herself forgotten, and given her hand to a potter, of the name of Rogers. This person had involved himself in debt, and fled to the West Indies, but Franklin's affection was not damped by the probability of the lady's first husband being still alive, and he consented to make her his spouse.

In 1732, he published his celebrated almanac, under the name of Richard Saunders, more generally known as Poor Richard's Almanack,' and which became so celebrated for its numerous happily-expressed and valuable moral maxims. These were collected, many years afterwards, in to a little tract, called The Way to Wealth; having for its object the ex tension of industry and economy, habits which no man ever practiced more successfully than Franklin himself. Dr. Bard a Scotchman, residing in Philadelphia, used to say to him, The industry of this Franklin is superior to any thing of the kind I ever witnessed. I see him still at work when I return from the club at night, and I find he is at it again in the morning, before his neighbors are out of bed.' On one occasion, having laid down a rule that he would compose a sheet a day of a particular work, in folio, he had the misfortune, after his evening's labor, to derange two whole pages. Such, however, was his perseverance; that he distributed and composed them anew before he retired to bed.

In 1736, he commenced his political career, by being appointed clerk to the general assembly; and, in the following year, entered upon the duties of post-master. He was also appointed an alderman, and put into the commission of the peace; but took no part in the business of the bench, commonly employing himself, while sitting with his brother magistrates, incontriving magic squares and circles.' From this period, till 1744, he was actively and usefully employed in instituting fire companies, erecting public buildings, and establishing philosophical societies. In 1744, during the war between England and France, he particularly distinguished himself in procuring means of resistance against the enemy, and succeeded in bringing over the Quakers to give their pecuniary aid. They were, however, particularly scrupulous not to acknowledge that their grants were connect ed with the principle of warfare. When, therefore, the assembly was ap plied to, for a certain quantity of gunpowder, the members would not comply with the request; but voted L3,000 to be placed in the hands of the governor, for the purchase of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain.' The governor was advised not to accept the grant, but he replied - ' I shall take the money; "other grain" means gunpowder.' Franklin, hearing of this, suggested that the insurance companies, which were also well stocked with Quakers, might likewise very properly contribute their aid, by a grant for the purchase of fire-engines.

In 1745, he published an account of his newly-invented fire-place; and, in 1747, was elected a member of the general assembly; in which he was an active defender of the rights of the citizens in opposition to the encroachments of the proprietaries. He introduced several measures relative to the local government of Philadelphia; and busily employed himself in establishing public schools and founding hospitals. In 1749, he took one of his workmen into partnership; and was thus enabled to devote a considerable portion of his time to scientific pursuits, of which it is now time to give some account. At this period, our readers need not, perhaps, be told that electricity was a science which could hardly be said to consist of anything more than a collection of unsystematized and ill-understood facts. Franklin's attention seems to have been first directed to this subject in 1746, when, being at Boston, he met with a Dr. Spence, who had lately arrived from Scotland, and lowed him some electrical experiments. They were not very expertly performed, but being,' said Franklin, on a subject quite new to me, they equally surprised and pleased me. Soon after my return to Philadelphia, our library company received, from Mr. Peter Collinson, F. It S., of London, a present of a glass tube, with some account of the use of it in making experiments. I eagerly seized the opportunity of repeating what I had seen at Boston; and, by much practice, acquired great readiness in performing those also which we had an account of from Eng land, adding a number of new ones. I say much practice, for my house was continually full, for some time, with persons who came to see these new wonders. To divide a little of this incumbrance among my friends, I caused a number of similar tubes to be blown in our glass-house, with which they furnished themselves; so that we had, at length, several performers.'

None were now more zealous in electrical investigations, than Franklin; he was continually devising new experiments, and falling upon important results. He exhibited the power of points in drawing and throwing off the electrical matter; and made the grand discovery of a positive and negative state of electricity. By means of this discovery he satisfactorily explained the phenomena of the Leyden phial, which was at that time exciting the wonder of all Europe, and had caused philosophers so much perplexity. His happiest conjecture, however, was that of the identity between lightning and the electric fluid, though it was not till 1752, that he was enabled, effectually, to establish this important fact. He had long entertained the bold idea of ascertaining the truth of this doctrine, by actually drawing lightning from the clouds; and at length it occurred to him that he might procure communication between them and the earth by means of a common kite. With this simple apparatus, he awaited the approach of a thundercloud, and the kite was raised, but no sign of electricity appeared. His suspense and anxiety were almost insupportable; when suddenly he observed the loose fibres of the string to move he presented his knuckle to to the key by which it was held, and received a strong spark. On this experiment depended the fate of his theory. Repeated sparks were drawn from the key - a phial was charged - a shock given - and this brilliant discovery placed upon an immutable basis.

Franklin, from time to time, forwarded accounts of his experiments to England, for the information of the Royal Society; but they were not admitted into the printed transactions of that learned body. His friend, Mr. Collinson, gave them to Cave, for insertion in The Gentleman's Magazine; but Cave, with great judgment, thought proper to publish them separately, in a pamphlet, the preface to which was written by Dr. Fothergill. By the additions which were subsequently made to this little work, it swelled into a quarto volume, and became the text-book of the science. It was translated into French, German, and Latin, and attracted the attention of all the philosophers in Europe. In France, the highest honors were paid to Franklin's labors: Buffon, D'Alibard, and De Lor, repeated and confirmed his experiments; and the king himself, Louis XV, became a spectator of them. Russia, even, participated in this ardor, and the amiable Richmann fell a martyr to his zeal - an unfortunate flash from the conductor putting, a period to his existence. Eventually, the Royal Society began to reconsider the matter; and Franklin's grand experiment, the object of which had, at first, been treated with ridicule, was verified by Canton, and other members. Franklin was, accordingly, without solicitation, elected a fellow, and had paid to him the unusual honor of being chosen without payment of the customary fees. He was also presented with the Copley medal for the year 1753; and, at a subsequent period, he had the degree of LL.D. conferred upon him by the Universities of St. Andrew's, Edinburgh, and Oxford.

We now resume our account of Franklin's political career. In the year just mentioned, he was presented with the degree of M.A., by the College of Cambridge, in New England; and, in the same year, he was appointed deputy postmaster-general for the British colonies. The American postoffice had never previously made any returns for the revenue; but under the management and improvements of Franklin, it yielded to the crown three times as much as the post-office of Ireland. In 1754, he drew up his celebrated Albany Plan of Union, as a means of defense against the depredations of the Indians. The rejection of this plan was followed by the introduction of British troops into the colonies; this produced taxation, and was soon succeeded by the war, which ended in the final loss of America to the mother-country.

In 1755, when the expedition of Gen. Braddock, to dispossess the French of some of their encroachments, was in preparation, a difficulty arose for want of wagons, which Franklin supplied to the number of one hundred and fifty. The expedition, however, failing, he was in danger of a ruinous loss, but was relieved from his obligations by the interference of the governor. He was, subsequently, instrumental in forming a militia bill; and he was appointed colonel of the Philadelphia regiment of one thousand two hundred men, which he held until the troops were disbanded by order of the English government.

On the 27th of July, 1757, Franklin arrived in London, in the character of agent to the general assembly, for the purpose of advocating the privileges of the people against the illiberal and unjust encroachments of the proprietaries. Much prejudice and delusion existed at the time in relation to the affairs of America; and Franklin, in consequence, published, anonymously, a work, entitled An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania. During his sojourn in England, he was engaged in a variety of political controversies, and was examined before a committee of the whole house of commons, relative to the practicability of enforcing the stamp act, which, in consequence of the information he afforded, was repealed. He returned to Philadelphia in the summer of 1762; and shortly afterwards received the thanks of the assembly, and a grant of L5,000. In 1764, through the exertions of the proprietaries, he lost his seat in the house; but there still remained in it a majority of his friends, and he was appointed to resume his agency at the court of Great Britain.

In 1766, he visited Holland and Germany; and, in the following year, France, where Louis XV showed him particular marks of attention. After his return to England he got embroiled relative to some political papers which had been clandestinely furnished to him, and which he forwarded to America, where they were published. He was, in consequence, dismissed from his office of deputy postmaster-general, after having been summoned before the privy-council, and severely censured. He was now looked upon by government with considerable jealousy, and it was proposed to arrest him upon the charge of fomenting a rebellion; but being apprised of this intention, he contrived to leave England secretly, in March, 1775.

On his return to Philadelphia, he was elected a delegate to the congress, and took an active part in bringing about a revolution. It was at this period he wrote the following memorable letter to his old friend in England, Mr. Strahan, the king's printer: -

'PHILADELPHIA, July 5, 1775. Mr. STRAHAN: - You are a member of parliament, and one of that majority which has doomed my country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns, and murder our people. Look upon your hands! They are signed with the blood of your relations. You and I were long friends: - you are now my enemy, and I am yours, B . FRANKLIN.'

In 1776, although in his seventy-first year, he was called upon by Congress, to proceed to France, for the purpose of completing the negotiations begun by Silas Deane and, in 1777, he was appointed plenipotentiary to the French court. He had now not only created a host of political enemies in Great Britain, but was also attacked by certain philosophical opponents. Mr. Wilson, F.R.S., protested against pointed conductors, and performed several experiments, in order to prove the superiority of knobs. In consequence of Wilson's declarations, the pointed lightning conductors were taken down from the queen's palace, a circumstance which gave rise to the following epigram:

Whilst you, great George, for safety hunt, 
And sharp conductors change for blunt, 
The empire's out of joint: 
Franklin a wiser course pursues: 
And all your thunder fearless views, 
By keeping to the point.'

A definitive treaty of peace having been signed between Great Britain and the United States, on the 3d of September 1783, Franklin requested to be recalled home. He arrived at Philadelphia in September, 1785, and was afterwards twice elected president of the assembly. His last public act was the signing of a memorial, on the 12th of February, 1789, for the abolition of slavery.

He had been, for many years, subject to attacks of the gout, to which, in 1782, was added a nephritic colic; and, about the same period, he suffered the first pains of a disease, the most distressing in the list of bodily infirmities. They were three things he had always dreaded; and he used to observe, that, in relation to this complication of disorders, he was something like the woman who had always entertained a great aversion to Presbyterians, parsons, and Irishmen, and at last married an Irish presbyterian parson.' These maladies confined him to his bed during the greater part of the last year of his life; but, notwithstanding the severe pains he labored under, his natural cheerfulness never forsook him. His mental faculties were unimpaired, and his memory continued unaffected to the last hour .of his existence. He was often obliged to take large doses of opium; but, in his moments of ease, he amused himself with reading, or in affectionate conversation with his family. He died on the 17th of April, 1790, and was buried on the 21st of April, in the cemetery of Christ's Church, Philadelphia. On the occasion of his funeral, every possible mark of public respect was shown to his memory: a general mourning, for one month, was ordered throughout America; and the national assembly of France paid a like honor in remembrance of his virtues.