1. Education

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A Student's History of American Literature

by Edward Simonds

Chapter 1: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 2: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 3: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 4: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 5: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 6: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | Chapter 7: I | II | III | IV |
Chapter 2.


Next to Washington the most conspicuous and most widely useful of Americans throughout the eighteenth century was Benjamin Franklin. He was perhaps the most typical American of his time; certainly he was the most versatile man of affairs and the most picturesque in personality of all that distinguished group who helped to guide the nation in that troubled age. Through the second quarter of the century he lived the quiet life of a thrifty, sagacious man of business, at the same time taking a practical interest in matters of public moment and presenting the most original model of good citizenship that can be found. His contribution to American literature, the larger portion of which belongs to this earlier period of his career, is not great, but it is noteworthy.

Boyhood in Boston.

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, in 1706, of typical Puritan stock. His father, Josiah Franklin, who had come from England in 1685, was a soap-boiler and candle-maker. At the sign of the blue ball, near the South Meeting House, he had his little shop where he sold his soap and candles. Benjamin was the fifteenth in a family of seventeen children, and while the opportunities for formal education were not promising, Josiah Franklin, a man of sound understanding, was ingenious in providing means to improve the minds of his children. At table, he discussed useful topics for their benefit. Benjamin, he designed for the ministry, and at eight years of age he sent him to school. Within the year, however, he was compelled to withdraw his boy from the school and soon after set him to work in the shop cutting wicks for the candles, filling the moulds, and running errands. This work proved distasteful, and after some efforts to find a trade that the boy would like, Ben was apprenticed to his brother James, who owned a printing business. It was a fortunate choice; and here, for a time, he throve.

Habits of Study.

From his earliest childhood, Franklin had a passion for books. So soon as he could read, he had waded through the small library -- a musty collection of treatises on divinity -- which he found on his father's shelves. With his first spending money, he bought the works of John Bunyan, in separate little volumes; and these he later sold in order to buy Richard Burton's Historical Collections, small and cheap, in forty volumes. Among his father's books, he discovered a copy of Plutarch's Lives, which he read "abundantly." A volume of Defoe, An Essay on Projects, and that little work by Cotton Mather, known as Essays to do Good, Franklin afterward recalled as having given a turn to his thinking which directly influenced him in the principal events of his later life.

He now obtained other books, and by chance secured an odd volume of the Spectator. This became not only a source of delight, but, by an ingenious system of his own devising, it also became a means of instruction in the art of expression, and in no small degree helped him to acquire a sound literary style.

The Newspaper

In 1721, James Franklin, the brother to whom Benjamin had been apprenticed, began to publish a newspaper, The New England Courant, one of the first in the colonies. To this paper, articles were sometimes contributed by acquaintances who were interested in the project. It was not long before the printer's apprentice got the idea that he, too, could write readable articles; but, suspecting that if he were known to be their author, his brother would refuse to print his pieces, Ben wrote the papers in a disguised hand and slipped them under the door of the printing-office at night. When these articles were read, the boy had the pleasure of hearing them approved by gentlemen who visited the office, and guesses made as to their authorship. Once when James Franklin was arrested on account of some indiscreet utterance regarding public affairs in his newspaper and compelled to undergo brief imprisonment, the conduct of the paper was turned over to Benjamin, who managed it alone and with success. However, the brothers did not get along well together; there were differences and disputes; and in 1723, when seventeen, Ben ran away. To raise a little money, he sold his books, slipped secretly aboard a sloop, and after three days' sail found himself in New York. He was without acquaintance, recommendations, or resources other than the knowledge of his trade, his shrewd practical sense, and the sturdy self-reliance developed by his experience in the past.

Arrival in Philadelphia.

Franklin did not secure employment in New York, but hearing that printers were needed in Philadelphia, he proceeded to that city. The familiar sketch of Franklin as an awkward youth trudging along Market Street, a large roll under each arm and hungrily devouring a third, dates from this period. He describes the scene himself, and says that a Miss Read, his future wife, who was standing in her father's doorway, saw him pass in this guise, and commented on the uncouth appearance.

In Philadelphia, Franklin soon found work at one of the two printing-shops then established in the town, and before long received some flattering notice from the governor of the colony, Sir William Keith. This gentleman proposed that Franklin set up in business for himself, promising him the government printing, and suggesting that he go to England to secure equipment for the office on the governor's indorsement.


Highly elated, Franklin set out on his errand, but only to find that he had been grossly deceived. His supposed patron was discovered to be without credit or other means to fulfill his promise of assistance; and thus again thrown on his own resources, this time in the city of London, the young American settled down to work at his trade. Eighteen months Franklin now spent in London, accumulating experience -- some of which he afterward deplored -- and all the while establishing himself in habits of study, industry, and thrift. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1726, as yet but twenty years of age and not inadequately prepared for a picturesque and important career.

A Useful Citizen, 1726-1750.

The story of Franklin's life as a citizen of Philadelphia is a record of successful enterprise and practical philanthropy. Again engaged in printing, he developed a profitable business and in 1729 purchased a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, recently established by a business rival. Just previous to this transaction, Franklin had written a series of humorous and satirical sketches, which he called The Busy Body papers; these appeared in the issues of another Philadelphia paper which preceded the Gazette. Soon after his return from England, Franklin organized an association which he called the Junto; it was composed of a few earnest young men of serious purpose and literary tastes who met regularly to discuss important themes, debate public questions, and in a general way to seek means of self-improvement. Out of this society, grew several interesting developments. In time, similar clubs were organized, each presided over by one of the original members of the Junto, the existence of which was to some extent a secret. The usefulness of the institution was thus extended and at the same time a means of influence was established which under the shrewd management of its founder materially helped Franklin in the furtherance of his ideas.

Practical Beneficence.

While his private interests prospered as a result of his shrewd practical policy, Franklin's activity was by no means restricted to these. The same principles of industry, thrift, and common-sense he applied, as opportunity offered, in matters affecting the comfort and common good of all. It was at his instance that the first organized system of police protection displaced the old method of the city "watch." He organized the first volunteer fire department; and by his efforts the service of a state militia was inaugurated. At his suggestion, the members of the Junto joined in buying books for their use in common, and established a library which was the beginning of the circulating library system in America. In 1744, Franklin organized the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and five years later succeeded after considerable effort in founding an academy for the education of the youth in the state; out of this academy grew the University of Pennsylvania. Many minor improvements in municipal methods also came through his suggestion and persistent advocacy. Thus the Philadelphia markets were paved, and then all the city streets, and provision was made for keeping them clean. The invention of an open stove, still used and known as the Franklin stove, he gave freely to the public, refusing to accept a patent therefore, when one was offered him by the governor.

Such a record speaks eloquently not only of Franklin's sagacity, but also of his genuine benevolence. Although it was his policy to keep his own personality in the background, it is no wonder that his services were recognized, and that he was now regarded as the leading citizen in Philadelphia. He was able to retire from active business in 1748, and was henceforward wholly employed in matters of public welfare. Since 1737, he had been postmaster of Philadelphia. In 1750, he was elected a member of the General Assembly.

A Man of Letters.

We have already noted the modest beginnings of Franklin's literary work in the contributions made anonymously, while an apprentice, to his brother's paper in Boston. These articles, signed with the pen-name Silence Dogood, inspired by Cotton Mather's Essays to do Good, and formed on the style of Addison, were merely experimental. The Busy Body papers, contributed to the Philadelphia Mercury in 1728-29, are not notable except for their well-developed sense of humor. But in 1732, Franklin published the first issue of his famous Almanac, which for a quarter of a century appeared annually, exercising no small influence on habits and morals throughout the colonies.

The Almanac.

To appreciate the popularity of Franklin's annual, it is necessary to recall the lack of original literature in America at that time. Among the common people, except the Bible, the printed sermons of the New England clergy, and their theological pamphlets, there was little if any reading matter of any sort. The almanac, however, was an established and cherished institution. It was as universal as the Bible itself. Various printers issued almanacs; peddlers carried them about in their packs; one hung in every chimney-corner. Their owners used them as receptacles for their memoranda and accounts. Such crude paragraphs and wise saws as might be found inserted among the calculations supplied about everything in the way of "profane" literature which was accessible to the people at large. No less than seven of these annual publications were appearing regularly in Philadelphia when Franklin's first issue appeared. Their predictions were vague and unsatisfying. "Rain here or in South Carolina," said one; "cold to the northward, warm to the southward," it declared. The editors, however, prided themselves on the fact that if they missed the mark in their weather forecasts, they were usually correct in placing the day of the week on its proper date in the month -- and that, after all, was the most useful thing in an almanac.

"Poor Richard."

The new publication, "by Richard Saunders, Philomath," was different from its predecessors. Franklin created a character, Poor Richard, in whose name the work appeared, and whose real existence was debated humorously and seriously. Scattered among the calculations, were many crisp sayings introduced by the phrase "As Poor Richard says," -- sayings which have taken their place among the maxims of the world.

"Keep thy shop, and thy shop will keep thee."
"One today is worth two tomorrows."
"Plow deep while sluggards sleep."
"An empty sack cannot stand upright."
"Fools make feasts and wise men eat them."
"He that by the plow would thrive
Himself must either hold or drive."

These and scores of similar homely proverbs were incorporated in the Almanac. It was Franklin's idea to teach lessons of thrift to his countrymen. Some of the sayings he coined entire, others he quoted from various sources. They were finally sifted and collected in permanent form in a lengthy discourse called Father Abraham's Speech, which was included in the Almanac of 1758 and found its way thus into well-nigh every home in America. Father Abraham's Speech was translated into every European language, and even to this day continues to teach its useful lesson of industry, frugality, and honesty, the world over.

The Autobiography.

Franklin's other literary success was his famous Autobiography, which he began to write in 1771, resumed in 1788, and left incomplete at his death. The purpose of its author was to make the experiences of his own career, the conduct and habit of life which had led to success in his own case, a source of help and inspiration to others. He therefore tells the story of his struggles, his errors, his experiments with himself, his accomplishment, with wonderful frankness and extreme simplicity.

Take for example the following passage: --

"The objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting one's self as the proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one's reputation in the smallest degree above that of one's neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project. I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it to be a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way, my affairs went on more smoothly, and I ever after practiced it on such occasions; and from my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid. If it remains a while uncertain to whom the merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself may be encouraged to claim it, and then even envy will be disposed to do you justice, by plucking those assumed feathers, and restoring them to their right owner. This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolics of any kind; and my industry in my business continued as indefatigable as it was necessary. I was indebted for my printing-house; I had a young family coming on to be educated, and I had two competitors to contend with for business who were established in the place before me. My circumstances, however, grew daily easier. My original habits of frugality continuing, and my father having, among his instructions to me when a boy, frequently repeated a proverb of Solomon, `Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, he shall stand before kings, he shall not stand before mean men,' I thence considered industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction, which encouraged me, -- though I did not think that I should ever literally stand before kings, which, however, has since happened; for I have stood before five, and even had the honor of sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, to dinner."

Characteristics of his Literary Work.

The predominant quality in all of Franklin's writing is its genuine humanness; this is what brought the Almanac into instant popularity, and what makes the Autobiography an enduring American classic. It is a quality that had been extremely rare in the earlier colonial literature. A keen sense of humor, also, homely and blunt but true, is constant in Franklin's work and one of the essential factors in its success. Noted examples of his wit are found in his anecdote of The Whistle and The Dialogue between Dr. Franklin and the Gout, which are among the papers entitled Bagatelles, written when Franklin was in France.

Franklin's literary work was thoroughly typical of himself. Honest, plain, democratic, clear-headed, shrewd, worldly-wise, he was interested in the practical side of life. To him the matter of "getting on" in the world was a duty; and to enable others to see the advantages of integrity, application, and thrift was his self-appointed task. His influence in this direction was immense. The absence of ideality is obvious in all his compositions. He never reached the high levels of imaginative art, but on this lower plane of material interest and every-day life he was, and is, without a peer among writers. The works which have been mentioned possess a universal charm. "I will disinherit you," said Sidney Smith to his daughter, "if you do not admire everything written by Franklin."

1750-1790, His Service to the Country.

Of Franklin's later life, his large usefulness to this country throughout the Revolutionary period, his distinctions and his honors, only a bare summary can be given here. In 1753, he was appointed Postmaster-general and established the postal system on a paying basis. In 1757, he was sent to England as the representative of Pennsylvania his duties keeping him there for the ensuing five years. From 1764 to 1775, he was again in England, the official representative of four of the colonies, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Georgia. The day after his landing again in America, he was appointed a member in the Second Continental Congress, where he was conspicuous for the next fourteen months. It was he who, with characteristic humor, declared, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence: "Yes, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." In September, 1776, Franklin was sent to France as a special envoy to win the sympathy and assistance of that country for the new nation. How well he succeeded in his mission, and what enthusiasm of popular admiration was aroused by his homely, benevolent personality are matters of familiar history. On his return, after having been relieved by Jefferson, in 1785, he was at once made a member of the Constitutional Convention, which finally adopted the Constitution of the United States.

"I seem to have intruded myself into the company of posterity," he said, "when I ought to have been abed and asleep." He was seventy-nine years old. He had seen the development of his country from ten disunited colonies with a population of 400,000 into a nation of thirteen united states with a population of 4,000,000. In the making of that nation, no American had borne a more useful or more conspicuous part. His place in our political history is emphasized by the fact that his signature is found appended to four great documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Peace with England, and the Constitution. Of no other American can this be declared.

But this record of Franklin's versatility is by no means complete. The final word must be concerning his services to Science. Throughout his life, he was an eager searcher after truth, an ardent student of nature. His private correspondence is full of the matter of his investigations which he prosecuted with great intelligence and with remarkable results. As Mr. Franklin, the philosopher, he was renowned among contemporary scholars. That famous experiment with the kite and key which identified electricity with the lightning, was only one of many which brought him fame. The colleges of Yale and Harvard conferred on the soap-boiler's son the degree of M.A. He was honored by the scientific scholars of St. Petersburg, London, and Paris. He was a member of the

Royal Society.

When his death occurred in 1790, it was a French scholar who wrote the epitaph so often quoted:--

The Scholar and Scientist.

"Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis."

Such is, in outline, the record of this remarkable man -- "the many-sided Franklin," as he is appropriately called, our first great American. It was in keeping with his intensely practical nature that Franklin should devise a peculiar, a unique plan of beneficence for the good of posterity. In his will, he bequeathed to the city of Philadelphia, and to the city of Boston, each, the sum of £1000. These funds were to be used in loans, under restrictions, to young tradesmen, in small amounts; principal and interest were to be allowed to accumulate in each case for one hundred years, when, as Franklin calculated, each fund should amount to £131,000. A division was then to be made, £100,000 to be withdrawn and be applied by each city upon public works, and the remainder be placed again in service for a second hundred years. At the expiration of that period, the donor thought that each fund would aggregate something over £4,000,000, and devised that in each instance the sum should then be divided between the city and the commonwealth, to be applied in any form that should be thought best. Unfortunately, in the face of changed conditions, Franklin's idea proved impracticable; however, the city of Boston did possess in this fund, at the end of the period stipulated by the will, the sum of $400,000. The city appropriated $100,000 additional (which was used in buying land) and the entire amount of the Franklin Fund was applied in building and equipping a great evening technical school, to be known as The Franklin Union. Mr. Andrew Carnegie has given the sum of $400,000, which has been set aside as an endowment fund, the income from which provides for the running expenses of the institution.

Chapter 1: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 2: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 3: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 4: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 5: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 6: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | Chapter 7: I | II | III | IV |
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