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Benjamin Franklin, American Genius
His Life and Ideas, with 21 Activities
By Brandon Marie Miller
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2010 Brandon Marie Miller
All rights reserved.
"AS A YOUNG GENIUS"
IN OCTOBER 1683, Josiah Franklin, his wife Anne, and their three small children gazed hungrily for their first sight of land. They'd left England nine long weeks before on a cramped ship packed tight with 100 other passengers and crew. Twenty-five-year-old Josiah hoped not only to find religious freedom in New England but also to better support his growing family. In Massachusetts a man could live more cheaply and earn more for his hard work. In Boston the Franklins would build a new life.
Josiah labored as a silk and fabric dyer in England. But the Puritans of Boston fined people for wearing fancy clothes or for dressing above their place in society. To make a go of things in the New World, Josiah tackled a new trade — he became a tallow chandler, a maker of candles and soap.
On the corner of Milk Street and High Street, Josiah and Anne rented a two-and-a-half-story clapboard house that also served as Josiah's shop. The ground floor had one long room. To protect the main house from fire, the kitchen was out back in a separate building. Across the street stood South Church, the newest of Boston's three church congregations.
More children filled the Franklin house, but like many homes in colonial America, death stalked the family, too. A baby son died. Then Anne Franklin died, leaving behind a week-old son, who soon followed his mother to the grave. Left with five children to care for, a trade to work, and a shop and home to run, Josiah needed a new wife and helpmate. People remarried quickly in colonial America. Five months after Anne's death, Josiah married Abiah Folger. Her father, Peter Folger, had been an early settler of New England.
Over the next 12 years, Abiah and Josiah's family grew, though tragedy always waited on the doorstep. Two more little sons died, including 16-month-old Ebenezer, who drowned in the tallow shop's boiling vat. On January 17, 1706, Abiah gave birth to a new baby boy. They named him Benjamin after Josiah's brother.
Josiah bundled the new baby into blankets and carried him across the street to South Church. Puritan parents viewed life as a mighty struggle between God and the devil, and since death might snatch their infants at any moment, it was best to quickly baptize a newborn. If death came, the child's cleansed soul was ready for heaven.
But Ben did not die — he thrived, healthy and strong, in a home filled with brothers and sisters. Two more baby girls joined the Franklin mob. The last one, named Jane, became young Ben's favorite of all his siblings.
GROWING UP IN BOSTON
* Roughly 7,000 people called the thriving town of Boston home. As the third-largest shipping center in the whole British Empire, Boston's waterfront rocked with ships and swarming seamen loading and unloading cargo along the wharves. Josiah prospered enough to move his family from the tiny house, once crammed elbow-to-elbow with 14 children, to a larger home and shop in the center of town. By the time Ben was six, many of his elder siblings had left to make their own way in the world.
Rivers, bays, and inlets led to the sea, and young Ben Franklin played often "in and about" the water. He learned to swim and handle a boat. He fashioned flippers for his hands and feet to see if they helped him swim faster. And once, he used a kite to pull himself back and forth across a pond.
Ben's friends looked to him as their captain, even though sometimes he led them "into Scrapes." Once, after they'd trampled their favorite fishing spot into a muddy mess, Ben proposed building a proper wharf to fish from. One night he and his pals lugged away a heap of stones meant for a new house. The boys constructed their stone wharf, but the next morning all was discovered — the missing stones, the newly built wharf, and the boys' identities! "Several of us were corrected by our Fathers," remembered Franklin, "and tho' I pleaded the Usefulness of the Work, mine convinc'd me that nothing was useful which was not honest." In colonial America, corrections usually meant a spanking or whipping.
But young Ben did not always stir up trouble. The lad also possessed a passion for books and learning. Franklin later recalled, "I do not remember when I could not read." He read anything and everything he could lay his hands on. Josiah wondered if he had a scholar on his hands. Should he train Ben to serve as a minister, one of the most highly regarded and respected professions?
Josiah enrolled eight-year-old Ben in the Boston Latin School, the fast track for boys heading to the minister training ground of Harvard. Ben excelled, swiftly climbing to the head of the class. But Josiah pulled Ben from the school after less than a year, perhaps fearing the expense of a Harvard education. Or maybe he had a feeling Ben would not make a very good minister. The bright and curious boy sometimes offered opinions a bit strong for his family. One fall, as the Franklins salted and prepared their meat to store for the winter, Ben suggested they bless all the meat at once to save time saying grace before each meal. Perhaps not minister material!
Josiah instead sent Ben to a school that concentrated on reading, writing, and math, a subject Ben failed and "made no Progress in it." After a year Ben Franklin's formal school days ended, but he'd spent more time in school than most children in colonial America.
LEARNING A TRADE
* Most colonial boys' education centered on an apprenticeship. Parents signed papers binding their child in service to a craftsman or tradesman. In exchange for the child's work, the master taught him the skills needed for a future job. An apprentice belonged to his master and enjoyed few freedoms. The apprentice could not leave the master's home or business without permission. Older apprentices were forbidden to marry, gamble, or go out to taverns.
At age ten, Ben joined his father in the tallow shop. Tallow, the fat from cattle, was simmered for hours with lye, made from wood ash, to make soap and candles. Ben recalled his jobs "cutting Wick for the Candles, filling the Dipping Mold, & the Molds for cast Candles, attending the Shop, going of Errands" and soon hated the smelly, hot, tedious work.
Josiah feared unhappy Ben might run away and become a sailor, and he'd already had one son perish at sea. He explored other options with his son. He walked Ben about Boston, observing the many craftsmen and tradesmen at work — silversmiths, tanners, coopers (barrel makers), bricklayers, joiners (furniture makers), blacksmiths, and more. In the end Josiah apprenticed Ben in 1718 to one of his elder sons, Ben's half-brother James, who was a printer. James had Ben, now twelve years old, sign an unusually long apprenticeship of nine years.
The two brothers probably did not know each other very well. Older by nine years, James had studied printing in England before returning to Boston and setting up his own shop. Ben, along with James and his other apprentices, boarded with another family. Already keen on living a frugal life, Ben made a deal with James: he'd feed himself if James would hand over half the money he paid for Ben's food. James agreed. Ben squirreled away some of the money by eating a meager diet of water, bread, raisins, and sometimes a biscuit or tart.
As much as Ben disliked working for James, who sometimes beat him, printing suited young Ben much better than the candle and soap business. He loved being around the printed pages full of information, loved hearing the news customers bantered about the shop. The place smelled of ink and leather and wood and paper. Crowded cases holding compartments of tiny metal letters lined the walls. The capital letters were stored in the upper cases.
The shop printed the Boston Gazette for the newspaper owner and did all types of print work: pamphlets, advertisements, stationery, government laws — whatever a customer needed. Ben learned to set the letters in trays, letter by letter, word by word, line by line, row by row. He dabbed and rolled the trays with ink and set them on the heavy printing press. The press forced the paper against the inked letters. As Ben grew tall and strong, he easily shouldered his share of the hard physical work lifting heavy trays of metal letters, carrying reams of paper, and handling the printing press.
JOY IN READING
* Ben found real joy in reading and writing — skills that could turn a lowly apprentice into a gifted printer. Printers often wrote their own articles or pamphlets and edited the work of others. Ben pored over the books in James's small library. Few people in colonial America owned scarce and precious books. Ben discovered a way to get his hands on even more books. He befriended the apprentices of Boston's booksellers. His friends let Ben sneak books from the shops, read them overnight, and return the volumes in the morning.
Ben carved out time for reading and studying. At night, early in the morning, or on Sundays, when by law he should have been in church, Ben hid himself away with his books. Among his favorites were John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Roman historian Plutarch's Lives, Daniel Defoe's Essay on Projects, and Cotton Mather's Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good. Ben knew Mather, a Boston minister and leading member of society.
The books gave young Ben "a Turn of Thinking." He tried new ideas. For a time he became a vegetarian, mastering the boiling of potatoes, rice, and hasty pudding. He experimented with religious ideas such as Deism — a belief that a Superior Being created the world and then left human beings alone. He dropped his habit of arguing and contradicting people and instead adopted a new policy. Following the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, Franklin began asking people seemingly innocent questions that slowly led them to see his side of the argument! He delighted in becoming "the humble Enquirer and Doubter." He found this method "safest to myself & very embarrassing to those against whom I used it."
Ben especially devoured Joseph Addison's and Richard Steele's essays in the Spectator, a British publication. Addison and Steele pricked society's weaknesses through humor and wit, not by lecturing with sermons. "I thought the Writing excellent," Ben wrote, "& wished if possible to imitate it." He read the essays over and over. He copied them out and recopied them. He scribbled notes. He mixed up the essays' sections, then put them back together to see how Addison and Steele organized their writings. In this painstaking manner, Ben mastered "the Arrangement of Thoughts," the skill of engaging readers and winning them over with a clear argument.
THE NEW ENGLAND COURANT
* Only a few men published newspapers in Boston. The papers bore the label "published by authority," meaning the Puritan government granted permission to print. These papers played it safe, steering clear of controversy or tweaking the noses of Boston's Puritan leaders. They mostly reprinted months-old European news and official proclamations.
In August 1721, James Franklin began publishing his own newspaper, the New England Courant. James's paper was not "published by authority," and James did not play it safe. The two- to four-page paper appeared each week, printing biting satires poking fun at many of Boston's elite men and the Puritan church. Soon an establishment paper, the Boston Gazette and News Letter, denounced James's efforts as a "Notorious, Scandalous Paper" full of "Nonsense, Unmannerliness ... Immorality, Arrogancy ... Lyes ... all tending to Quarrels and Divisions" meant to corrupt the "Minds and Manners of New England."
On Boston's streets Ben hawked his brother's scandalous paper, as well as some ballads he'd written himself! He shared James's view that the Puritan government needed a bit of criticism. The Courant circulated around Boston — shared, passed along, and read not only by society's upper crust but by "middling sorts" and the city's artisans, as well.
But even while agreeing with James's jabs at authority, Ben chafed at his brother's authority over him. The apprenticeship proved difficult for Ben. Eventually he looked for any chance to shorten or break his bond.
"THE SPECKLED MONSTER"
* In April 1721 the most feared disease in colonial America — smallpox — arrived in Boston on a ship carrying "the speckled monster" among its crew and passengers. Many believed an angry God had sent the disease as punishment to kill and scar. Using his new paper and the smallpox crisis, James Franklin launched attacks on a leading Puritan physician and minister, Cotton Mather, and his supporters.
Cotton Mather had lost 2 wives and 13 of his 15 children to measles or smallpox outbreaks. Mather learned from one of his African slaves that he could prevent smallpox through a process called inoculation: a physician scratched a small amount of smallpox pus into the skin of a healthy person. Those inoculated usually caught only a mild case of smallpox. Their body's defenses, once tested by smallpox, fought off the disease and made them safe from future outbreaks. Mather urgently promoted inoculation to save hundreds of Boston's citizens.
But others viewed inoculation with suspicion — it did not make sense that you saved someone by giving him or her a dose of the disease. Why should Christian men trust the word of a slave, "the Way of the Heathen"? And if God sent smallpox to punish Boston, then life or death was up to God, not men — even church leaders like Mather. Did men have the right to step in to help people? Did God send cures as well as sending the disease?
The smallpox controversy offered the Courant a rousing start. The war of words in Boston's newspapers kept Ben busy setting type and running the press. Words spiraled into violence when someone threw a bomb of gunpowder and turpentine — which failed to explode — into Mather's house. It carried a note: "Cotton Mather, You dog. Dam you: I'll inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you."
In the end, however, Mather was proved correct. Half of Boston's people caught smallpox, and 842 died. Of the 242 people inoculated, only 6 died. James's war with Mather and others put him on a collision course with the Puritan authorities.
SILENCE DOGOOD SOUNDS OFF
* On March 26, 1722, the first of 16 letters appeared in the Courant penned by a respectable, middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood. In reality, 16-year-old Ben Franklin created her out of his imagination, wrote the letters, and slipped them under the Courant's door at night. In the first letter, the widow Dogood introduced herself to her readers. Born on a ship, she recalled her father standing on the deck "rejoycing at my Birth" when "a merciless wave entered the Ship, and in one Moment carry'd him beyond Reprieve. Thus was the first Day which I saw, the last that was seen by my Father." At the print shop, Ben listened with amusement as everyone wondered who this tart-tongued "Silence Dogood" was.
Through Silence Dogood, Ben poked fun at Boston's elite, including the students of Harvard, a place he had once hoped to attend. Dogood labeled Harvard's students "Dunces and Blockheads" who had been admitted to the college because of their fat wallets. In return for their money, the students learned "how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a room genteely," and when their days at Harvard ended, they left school "as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited."
In another letter the widow Dogood describes herself — a pretty good description of Benjamin Franklin, as well.
Know then, That I am an Enemy to Vice, and a Friend to Vertue. I am ... a great Forgiver of Private Injuries: A Hearty Lover of the Clergy and all good Men, and a Mortal Enemy to arbitrary Government and unlimited Power. I am naturally very Jealous for the Rights and Liberties of my Country; and the least appearance of an Incroachment on those invaluable Priviledges is apt to make my Blood boil exceedingly. ... To be brief; I am courteous and affable, good humour'd (unless I am provok'd), handsome, and sometimes witty, but always Sir, Your Friend and Humble Servant, Silence Dogood.
Excerpted from Benjamin Franklin, American Genius by Brandon Marie Miller. Copyright © 2010 Brandon Marie Miller. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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