At the commencement of the Revolutionary War, the most prominent and influential man in the colonies was perhaps Benjamin Franklin, then sixty-nine years of age. Certainly it cannot be doubted that he was one of the most illustrious founders of the American Republic. Among the great statesmen of the period, his fame is second only to that of Washington.
I will not dwell on his early life, since that part of his history is better known than that of any other of our great men, from the charming autobiography which he began to write but never cared to finish. He was born in Boston, January 17, 1706, the youngest but two of seventeen children. His father was a narrow-minded English Puritan, but respectable and conscientious,--a tallow-chandler by trade; and his ancestors for several generations had been blacksmiths in the little village of Ecton in Northamptonshire, England. He was a precocious boy, not over-promising from a moral and religious point of view, but inordinately fond of reading such books as were accessible, especially those of a sceptical character. He had no sympathy with the theological doctrines then in vogue in his native town. At eight years of age he was sent to a grammar school, and at ten he was taken from it to assist his father in soap-boiling; but, showing a repugnance to this sort of business, he was apprenticed to his brother James at the age of twelve, to learn the art, or trade, of a printer. At fifteen we find him writing anonymously, for his brother's newspaper which had just been started, an article which gave offence to the provincial government, and led to a quarrel with his brother, who, it seems, was harsh and tyrannical.
Boston at this time was a flourishing town of probably about ten thousand or twelve thousand people, governed practically by the Calvinistic ministers, and composed chiefly of merchants, fishermen, and ship-carpenters, yet all tolerably versed in the rudiments of education and in theological speculations. The young Benjamin, having no liking for the opinions, manners, and customs of this strait-laced town, or for his cold and overbearing brother, concluded in his seventeenth year to run away from his apprenticeship. He found himself in a few days in New York, without money, or friends, or employment. The printers' trade was not so flourishing in the Dutch capital as in the Yankee one he had left, and he wandered on to Philadelphia, the largest town in the colonies, whose inhabitants were chiefly Quakers,--thrifty, prosperous, tolerant, and kind-hearted. Fortunately, there were several printing-presses in this settlement; and after a while, through the kindness of a stranger,--who took an interest in him and pitied his forlorn condition, wandering up and down Market Street, poorly dressed, and with a halfpenny roll in his hand, or who was attracted by his bright and honest face, frank manners, and expressive utterances,--Franklin got work, with small wages. His industry and ability soon enabled him to make a better appearance, and attract friends by his uncommon social qualities.
It does not appear that Franklin was particularly frugal as a young man. He spent his money lavishly in convivial entertainments, of which he was the life, among his humble companions, a favorite not only with them, but with all the girls whose acquaintance he made. So remarkable was he for wit, good nature, and intelligence that at the age of eighteen he attracted the notice of the governor of the province, who promised to set him up in business, and encouraged him to go England to purchase types and a printing-press. But before he sailed, having earned money enough to buy a fine suit of clothes and a watch, he visited his old home, and paraded his success with indiscreet ostentation, much to the disgust of his brother to whom he had been apprenticed.
On the young man's return to Philadelphia, the governor, Sir William Keith, gave him letters to some influential people in England, with promises of pecuniary aid, which, however, he never kept; so that when Franklin arrived in London he found himself without money or friends. But he was not discouraged. He soon found employment as a printer and retrieved his fortunes, leading a gay life, and spending his money, as fast as he earned it, at theatres and in social enjoyments with boon companions of doubtful respectability. Disgusted with London, or disappointed in his expectations, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726 as a mercantile clerk for a Mr. Durham, who shortly after died; and Franklin resumed his old employment with his former employer, Keimer, the printer.
On his long voyage home he had had time for reflection, and resolved to turn over a new leaf, and become more frugal and respectable. He would not give up his social pleasures, but would stick to his business, and employ his leisure time in profitable reading. This, Mr. Parton calls his "regeneration." Others might view it as the completion of "sowing his wild oats." He certainly made himself very useful to the old visionary Keimer, who printed banknotes for New Jersey, by making improvements on the copper plate; but he soon left this employment and set up for himself, in partnership with another young man.
The young printers started fairly, and hired the lower part of a house in Market Street, most of which they sublet. Their first job brought them but five shillings. Soon after, they were employed to print a voluminous history of the Quakers, at a very small profit; but the work was so well done that it led to a great increase of business.
The idea then occurred to Franklin to print a newspaper, there being but one in the colony, and that miserably dull. His old employer Keimer, hearing of his purpose accidentally, stole the march on him, and started a newspaper on his own account, but was soon obliged to sell out to Franklin and Meredith, not being able to manage the undertaking. "The Pennsylvania Gazette" proved a great success, and was remarkable for its brilliant and original articles, which brought the editor, then but twenty-three years old, into immediate notice. He had become frugal and industrious, but had not as yet renounced his hilarious habits, and could scarcely be called moral, for about this time a son was born to him of a woman whose name was never publicly known. This son was educated by Franklin, and became in later years the royal governor of New Jersey.
Franklin was unfortunate in his business partner, who fell into drinking habits, so that he was obliged to dissolve the partnership. In connection with his printing-office, he opened a small stationer's-shop, and sold blanks, paper, ink, and pedler's wares. His business increased so much that he took an apprentice, and hired a journeyman from London. He now gave up fishing and shooting, and convivial habits, and devoted himself to money-making; but not exclusively, since at this time he organized a club of twelve members, called the "Junto,"--a sort of debating and reading society. This club contrived to purchase about fifty books, which were lent round, and formed the nucleus of a circulating library, which grew into the famous Franklin Library, one of the prominent institutions of Philadelphia. In 1730, at the age of twenty-four, he married Deborah Reid, a pretty, kind-hearted, and frugal woman, with whom he lived happily for forty-four years. She was a true helpmeet, who stitched his pamphlets, folded his newspapers, waited on customers at the shop, and nursed and tended his illegitimate child.
After his marriage Franklin gave up what bad habits he had acquired, though he never lost his enjoyment of society. He was what used to be called "a good liver," and took but little exercise, thus laying the foundation for gout, a disease which tormented him in the decline of life. He also somewhat amended his religious creed, and avowed his belief in a superintending Providence and his own moral accountability to God, discharging conscientiously the duties to be logically deduced from these beliefs,--submission to the Divine will, and kindly acts to his neighbors. He was benevolent, sincere, and just in his dealings, abhorring deceit, flattery, falsehood, injustice, and all dishonesty.
From this time Franklin rapidly gained in public esteem for his integrity, his sagacity, and his unrivalled good sense. His humor, wit, and conversational ability caused his society to be universally sought. He was a good judge of books for his infant library, and he took a great interest in everything connected with education. He was the life of his literary club, and made reading fashionable among the Quakers, who composed the leading citizens of the town,--a people tolerant but narrow, frugal but appreciative of things good to eat, kind-hearted but not remarkable for generosity, except to the poor of their own denomination, law-abiding but not progressive, modest and unassuming but conscious and conceited, as most self-educated people are. It is a wonder that a self-educated man like Franklin was so broad and liberal in all his views,--an impersonation of good nature and catholicity, ever open to new convictions, and respectful of opinions he did not share, provoking mirth and jollity, yet never disturbing the placidity of a social gathering by irritating sarcasm.
Franklin's newspaper gave him prodigious influence, both social and political, in the infancy of journalism. It was universally admitted to be the best in the country. Its circulation rapidly increased, and it was well managed financially. James Parton tells us that Franklin "originated the modern system of business advertising." His essays, or articles, as we now call them, had great point, vivacity, and wit, and soon became famous; they thus prepared the way for his almanac,--originally entitled "Richard Saunders," and selling for five-pence. The sayings of "Poor Richard" in this little publication combined more wisdom and good sense in a brief compass than any other book published in America during the eighteenth century. It reached the firesides of almost every hamlet in the colonies. The New England divines thought them deficient in spirituality, rather worldly in their form, and useful only in helping people to get on in their daily pursuits. But the eighteenth century was not a spiritual age, in comparison with the age which preceded it, either in Europe or America. The acute and exhaustive treatises of the seventeenth century on God, on "fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute," on the foundation of morals, on consciousness as a guide in metaphysical speculation, had lost much of their prestige, if Jonathan Edwards' immortal deductions may be considered an exception. Prosperity and wars and adventures had made men material, and political themes had more charm than theological discussion. Pascal had given place to Hobbes and Voltaire, and Hooker to Paley. In such a state of society, "Poor Richard," inculcating thrift and economy, in English as plain and lucid as that of Cobbett half-a-century later, had an immense popularity. For twenty-five years, it annually made its way into nearly every household in the land. Such a proverbial philosophy as "Honesty is the best policy," "Necessity never made a good bargain," "Fish and visitors smell in three days," "God heals, and the doctors take the fees," "Keep your eyes open before marriage, and half-shut afterwards," "To bear other people's afflictions, every one has courage enough and to spare,"--savored of a blended irony and cynicism exceedingly attractive to men of the world and wise old women, even in New England parishes, whatever Calvinistic ministers might say of the "higher life." The sale of the almanac was greater than that of the "Pilgrim's Progress," and the wealth of Franklin stood out in marked contrast with the poverty of Bunyan a century before.
The business enterprise of the gifted publisher at this time was a most noticeable thing. He began to import books from England and to print anything that had money in it,--from political tracts to popular poems, from the sermons of Wesley to the essays of Cicero. He made no mistakes as to the popular taste. He became rich because he was sagacious, and an oracle because he was rich as well as because he was wise. Everybody asked his advice, and his replies were alike courteous and witty, although sometimes ironical. "Friend Franklin," said a noted Quaker lawyer, "thou knowest everything,--canst thou tell me how I am to preserve my small beer in the back yard? for I find that my neighbors are tapping it for me." "Put a barrel of Madeira beside it," replied the sage.
In 1736 Franklin was elected clerk of the General Assembly,--a position which brought more business than honor or emolument. It secured his acquaintance with prominent men, many of whom became his friends; for it was one of his gifts to win hearts. It also made him acquainted with public affairs. Its chief advantage, however, was that it gave him the public printing. His appointment in 1737 as postmaster in Philadelphia served much the same purposes. With increase of business, the result of industry and good work, and of influence based on character, he was, when but thirty years old, one of the most prominent citizens of Philadelphia. His success as a business man was settled. He had the best printing jobs in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware. No one could compete with him successfully. He inspired confidence while he enlarged his friendships, to which he was never indifferent. Whatever he touched turned to gold. His almanac was a mine of wealth; the sermons he printed, and the school-books he manufactured, sold equally well. With constantly increasing prosperity, he kept a level head, and lived with simplicity over his shop,--most business men lived over their shops, in both England and America at that period. He got up early in the morning, worked nine or ten hours a day, spent his evenings in reading and study, and went to bed at ten, finding time to keep up his Latin, and to acquire French, Spanish, and Italian, to make social visits, and play chess, of which game he was extravagantly fond till he was eighty years old. His income, from business and investments, was not far from ten thousand dollars a year,--a large sum in those days, when there was not a millionaire in the whole country, except perhaps among the Virginia planters. Franklin was not ambitious to acquire a large fortune; he only desired a competency on which he might withdraw to the pursuit of higher ends than printing books. He had the profound conviction that great attainments in science or literature required easy and independent circumstances. It is indeed possible for genius to surmount any obstacles, but how few men have reached fame as philosophers or historians or even poets without leisure and freedom from pecuniary cares! I cannot recall a great history that has been written by a poor man in any age or country, unless he had a pension, or office of some kind, involving duties more or less nominal, which gave him both leisure and his daily bread,--like Hume as a librarian in Edinburgh, or Neander as a professor in Berlin.
Franklin, after twenty years of assiduous business and fortunate investments, was able to retire on an income of about four thousand dollars a year, which in those times was a comfortable independence anywhere. He retired with the universal respect of the community both as a business man and a man of culture. Thus far his career was not extraordinary, not differing much from that of thousands of others in the mercantile history of this country, or any other country. By industry, sagacity, and thrift he had simply surmounted the necessity of work, and had so improved his leisure hours by reading and study as to be on an intellectual equality with anybody in the most populous and wealthy city in the country. Had he died before 1747 his name probably would not have descended to our times. He would have had only a local reputation as a philanthropical, intelligent, and successful business man, a printer by trade, who could both write and talk well, but was not able to make a better speech on a public occasion than many others who had no pretension to fame.