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VI

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

The contemporary of Edwards who best shows what American human nature had become, is Benjamin Franklin. Unlike the persons at whom we have glanced, this man, who before he died became more eminent than all the rest together, sprang from socially inconspicuous origin. The son of a tallow chandler, he was born in Boston, on January 6, 1706. As a mere boy, he was apprenticed to his brother, a printer, with whom he did not get along very

well. At seventeen he ran away, and finally turned up in Philadelphia, where he attracted the interest of some influential people. A year later he went to England, carrying from these friends letters which he supposed might be useful in the mother country. The letters proved worthless; in 1726, after a life in England for which vagabond is hardly too strong a word, he returned to Philadelphia. There he remained for some thirty years. He began by shrewdly advancing himself as printer, publisher, and shopkeeper; later, when his extraordinary ability had drawn about him people of more and more solid character, he became a local public man and proved himself also an admirable selftaught man of science. About the time of Washington's birth, he started that “Poor Richard's Almanac" whose aphorisms have had such lasting vogue. It is Poor Richard who told us, among other things, that “ Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise;" that “God helps them that help themselves;” and that “Honesty is the best policy.” After fifteen years Franklin's affairs had so prospered that he could retire from shopkeeping and give himself over to scientific work. He made numerous inventions : the

In 1775

lightning-rod, for example; the stove still called by his name; and double spectacles, with one lens in the upper half for observing distant objects, and another in the lower half for reading. In 1755 he was made Postmaster-General of the American colonies; and the United States post-office is said still to be conducted in many respects on the system he then established. So he lived until 1757, the year before Jonathan Edwards died.

In 1757 he was sent to England as the Agent of Pennsylvania. There he remained, with slight intervals, for eighteen years, becoming agent of other colonies too. he returned home, where in 1776 he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Before the end of that year he was despatched as minister to France, where he remained until 1785. Then he came home and was elected President of Pennsylvania. In 1787 he was among the signers of the Constitution of the United States. On the 17th of April, 1790, he died at Philadelphia, a city to which his influence had given not only the best municipal system of eighteenthcentury America, but also, among other institutions which have survived, the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Franklin of world tradition, the great Franklin, is the statesman and diplomatist who from 1757 until 1785 proved himself both in England and in France to possess such commanding power.

But the Franklin with whom we are concerned is rather the shrewd native American whose first fifty years were spent in preparation for his world-wide career. He was born, we have seen, a Yankee of the lower class, not technically a gentleman. How significant this fact was in the middle of the eighteenth century may be seen by a glance at any Quinquennial Catalogue of Harvard College. In this, from the beginning until 1772, the names of the graduates are arranged not in alphabetical order, but in that of social precedence. The sons of royal governors and of king's counsellors come first, then sons of ministers and magistrates, and so on; and the records of the College show that an habitual form of discipline during this period was to put a man's name in his class-list beneath the place to which his birth entitled him. To spirited American youths social inferiority is galling; the effect of it on Franklin's career appeared in several ways. For one thing he always hated Harvard College, and had small love for anything in Massachusetts; for another, he instinctively emigrated to a region where he should not be hampered by troublesome family traditions; for a third, with the recklessness which is apt to endanger youth in such a situation, he consorted during his earlier life with men who though often clever were loose in morals. Before middle life, however, his vagabond period was at an end. By strict attention to business and imperturbable good sense, he steadily outgrew his origin. By the time he was fifty years old his studies in electricity had gained him European reputation; and in all the American colonies there was no practical public man of more deserved local importance.

In the course of this career he had written and published copiously. None of his work, however, can be called exactly literary. Its purpose was either to instruct people concerning his scientific and other discoveries and principles; or else, as in “ Poor Richard's Almanac," – perhaps his nearest approach to pure letters, to in Auence conduct. But if Franklin's writings were never precisely literature, his style was generally admirable. His account in the “ Autobiography ” of how, while still a Boston boy, he learned to write, is at once characteristic of his temper and conclusive of his accomplishment :

“ About this time I met with an odd volume of the 'Spectator.' It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, 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 sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try'd to compleat 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 come to hand. 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 occasion 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 a constant necessity of search. ing 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 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 endeavoured to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. My time for these exercises and for reading was at night, after work or before it began in the morning, or on Sundays, when I contrived to be in the printing-house alone, evad. ing as much as I could the common attendance on public worship which my father used to exact of me when I was under his care, and which indeed I still thought a duty, though I could not, as it seemed to me, afford time to practice it."

Sound eighteenth-century English this, though hardly of Addisonian urbanity. Even more characteristic than the English of this passage, however, is Franklin's feeling about religion, implied in its last sentence. The Boston where this printer's boy stayed away from church to teach himself how to write was the very town where Increase and Cotton Mather were still preaching the dogmas of Puritan theocracy; and a few days' journey westward Jonathan Edwards, only three years older than Franklin, was beginning his lifelong study of the relation of mankind to eternity. To the religious mind of New England, earthly life remained a mere Aeeting moment. Life must always end soon, and death as we see it actually seems unending. With this solemn truth constantly in mind, the New England Puritans of Franklin's day, like their devout

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ancestors, and many of their devout descendants, bent their whole energy toward eternal welfare as distinguished from anything temporal. Yet in their principal town Franklin, a man of the plain people, exposed to no influences but those of his own day and country, was coolly preferring the study of earthly accomplishment to any question which concerned matters beyond human life.

Another extract from his “ Autobiography ” carries his religious history a little further :

“My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite con. trary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but, each of them having afterwards wrong'd me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another free-thinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho' it might be true, was not very useful."

“ Not very useful:” the good sense of Franklin tested religion itself by its effects on every-day conduct.

Later still in his “ Autobiography” he tells how he was impressed by the ministrations of the only Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia, to whose services he paid the willing tribute of annual subscription :

“He used to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevailed on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday's leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, un

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