The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin



Copyright © 2004Gordon Wood
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59420-019-X

Chapter One



Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706 (January 6, 1705, in theold-style calendar), of very humble origins, origins that always struckFranklin himself as unusually poor. Franklin's father, Josiah, was a nonconformistfrom Northamptonshire who as a young man had immigratedto the New World and had become a candle and soap maker, oneof the lowliest of the artisan crafts. Josiah fathered a total of seventeenchildren, ten, including Benjamin, by his second wife, Abiah Folger,from Nantucket. Franklin was number fifteen of these seventeen and theyoungest son.

In a hierarchical age that favored the firstborn son, Franklin was, as heruefully recounted in his Autobiography, "the youngest Son of the youngestSon for 5 Generations back." In the last year of his life the bitterness wasstill there, undisguised by Franklin's usual irony. In a codicil to his willwritten in 1789 he observed that most people, having received an estatefrom their ancestors, felt obliged to pass on something to their posterity."This obligation," he wrote with some emotion, "does not lie on me, whonever inherited a shilling from any ancestor or relation."

Because the young Franklin was unusually precocious ("I do notremember when I could not read," he recalled), his father initially sentthe eight-year-old boy to grammar school in preparation for the ministry.But his father soon had second thoughts about the expensesinvolved in a college education, and after a year he pulled the boy out ofgrammar school and sent him for another year to an ordinary school thatsimply taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. These two years of formaleducation were all that Franklin was ever to receive. Not that thiswas unusual: most boys had little more than this, and almost all girls hadno formal schooling at all. Although most of the Revolutionary leaderswere college graduates-usually being the first in their families toattend college-some, including Washington, Robert Morris, PatrickHenry, Nathanael Greene, and Thomas Paine, had not much more formalschooling than Franklin. Apprenticeship in a trade or skill was stillthe principal means by which most young men prepared for the world.

Franklin's father chose that route of apprenticeship for his son andbegan training Franklin to be a candle and soap maker. But since cuttingwicks and smelling tallow made Franklin very unhappy, his father finallyagreed that the printing trade might better suit the boy's "Bookish Inclination."Printing, after all, was the most cerebral of the crafts, requiringthe ability to read, spell, and write. Nevertheless, it still involved heavymanual labor and was a grubby, messy, and physically demanding job,without much prestige.

In fact, printing had little more respectability than soap and candlemaking. It was in such "wretched Disrepute" that, as one eighteenth-centuryNew York printer remarked, no family "of Substance wouldever put their Sons to such an Art," and, as a consequence, masters were"obliged to take of the lowest People" for apprentices. But Franklin fitthe trade. Not only was young Franklin bookish, but he was also nearlysix feet tall and strong with broad shoulders-ideally suited for the difficulttasks of printing. His father thus placed him under the care of anolder son, James, who in 1717 had returned from England to set himselfup as a printer in Boston. When James saw what his erudite youngestbrother could do with words and type, he signed up the twelve-year-oldboy to an unusually long apprenticeship of nine years.

That boy, as Franklin later recalled in his Autobiography, was "extremelyambitious" to become a "tolerable English Writer." Although literacy wasrelatively high in New England at this time-perhaps 75 percent of malesin Boston could read and write and the percentage was rapidly growing-bookswere scarce and valuable, and few people read books the wayFranklin did. He read everything he could get his hands on, includingJohn Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Plutarch's Lives, Daniel Defoe's Essay onProjects, the "do good" essays of the prominent Boston Puritan divine CottonMather, and more books of "polemic Divinity" than Franklin wantedto remember. He even befriended the apprentices of booksellers in orderto gain access to more books. One of these apprentices allowed himsecretly to borrow his master's books to read after work. "Often," Franklinrecalled, "I sat up in my Room reading the greatest Part of the Night,when the Book was borrow'd in the Evening & to be return'd early in theMorning lest it should be miss'd or wanted." He tried his hand at writingpoetry and other things but was discouraged with the poor quality of hisattempts. He discovered a volume of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele'sSpectator papers and saw in it a tool for self-improvement. He read thepapers over and over again and copied and recopied them and tried torecapitulate them from memory. He turned them into poetry and thenback again into prose. He took notes on the Spectator essays, jumbled thenotes, and then attempted to reconstruct the essays in order to understandthe way Addison and Steele had organized them. All this painstakingeffort was designed to improve and polish his writing, and it succeeded;"prose Writing" became, as Franklin recalled in his Autobiography, "of greatUse to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of myAdvancement." In fact, writing competently was such a rare skill that anyonewho could do it well immediately acquired importance. All theFounders, including Washington, first gained their reputations by somethingthey wrote.

In 1721 Franklin's brother, after being the printer for another person'snewspaper, decided to establish his own paper, the New England Courant. Itwas only the fourth newspaper in Boston; the first, published in 1690, hadbeen closed down by the Massachusetts government after only one issue.The second, the Boston News-Letter was founded in 1704; it became thefirst continuously published newspaper not only in Boston but in all ofthe North American colonies. The next Boston paper, begun in 1719 andprinted by James Franklin for the owner, was the Boston Gazette. Theseearly newspapers were small, simple, and bland affairs, two to four pagespublished weekly and containing mostly reprints of old European news,ship sailings, and various advertisements, together with notices of deaths,political appointments, court actions, fires, piracies, and such matters.Although the papers were expensive and numbered only in the hundredsof copies, they often passed from hand to hand and could reach beneaththe topmost ranks of the city's population of twelve thousand, includingeven into the ranks of artisans and other "middling sorts."

These early papers were labeled "published by authority." Remainingon the good side of government was not only wise politically, it waswise economically. Most colonial printers in the eighteenth centurycould not have survived without government printing contracts of onesort or another. Hence most sought to avoid controversy and to remainneutral in politics. They tried to exclude from their papers anything thatsmacked of libel or personal abuse. Such material was risky. Much saferwere the columns of dull but innocuous foreign news that they used tofill their papers, much to Franklin's later annoyance. It is hard to knowwhat colonial readers made of the first news item printed in the newlycreated South Carolina Gazette of 1732: "We learn from Caminica, that theCossacks continue to make inroads onto polish Ukrania."

James Franklin did not behave as most colonial printers did. When hedecided to start his own paper, he was definitely not publishing it byauthority. In fact, the New England Courant began by attacking the Bostonestablishment, in particular the program of inoculating people for smallpoxthat was being promoted by the Puritan ministers Cotton Mather andhis father. When this inoculation debate died down, the paper turned tosatirizing other subjects of Boston interest, including pretended learningand religious hypocrisy, some of which provoked the Mathers into replies.Eager to try his own hand at satire, young Benjamin in 1722 submittedsome essays to his brother's newspaper under the name of Silence Dogood,a play on Cotton Mather's Essays to Do Good, the name usually given to theminister's Bonifacius, published in 1710. For a sixteen-year-old boy toassume the persona of a middle-aged woman was a daunting challenge, andyoung Franklin took "exquisite Pleasure" in fooling his brother and othersinto thinking that only "Men of some Character among us for Learningand Ingenuity" could have written the newspaper pieces.

These Silence Dogood essays lampooned everything from funeraleulogies to "that famous Seminary of Learning," Harvard College. AlthoughFranklin's satire was generally and shrewdly genial, there wasoften a bite to it and a good deal of social resentment behind it, especiallywhen it came to his making fun of Harvard. Most of the studentswho attended "this famous Place," he wrote, "were little better thanDunces and Blockheads." This was not surprising, since the main qualificationfor entry, he said, was having money. Once admitted, the students"learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter aRoom genteely, (which might as well be acquire'd at a Dancing-School,)and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge,as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited." Onecan already sense an underlying anger in this precocious and rebelliousteenager, an anger with those who claimed an undeserved social superioritythat would become an important spur to his ambition.

When Franklin's brother found out who the author of the SilenceDogood pieces was, he was not happy, "as he thought, probably with reason,"that all the praise the essays were receiving tended to make theyoung teenager "too vain." Franklin, as he admitted, was probably "toosaucy and provoking" to his brother, and the two brothers began squabbling.James was only nine years older than his youngest brother, but henonetheless "considered himself as my Master & me as his Apprentice."Consequently, as master he "expected the same Services from me as hewould from another; while I thought he demean'd me too much in somehe requir'd of me, who from a Brother expected more Indulgence."

Since the fraternal relationship did not fit the extreme hierarchicalrelationship of master and apprentice, the situation became impossible,especially when James began exercising his master's prerogative of beatinghis apprentice.

Indentured apprentices were under severe contractual obligations inthe eighteenth century and were part of the large unfree population thatexisted in all the colonies. In essence they belonged to their masters:their contracts were inheritable, and they could not marry, play cards orgamble, attend taverns, or leave their masters' premises day or nightwithout permission. With such restraints it is understandable that Franklinwas "continually wishing for some Opportunity" to shorten or break hisapprenticeship.

In 1723 that opportunity came when the Massachusetts government-likeall governments in that pre-modern age, acutely sensitive to libelsand any suggestion of disrespect-finally found sufficient grounds toforbid James to publish his paper. James sought to evade the restrictionby publishing the paper under Benjamin's name. But it would not do tohave a mere apprentice as editor of the paper, and James had to returnthe old indenture of apprenticeship to his brother. Although James drewup a new and secret contract for the remainder of the term of apprenticeship,Franklin realized his brother would not dare to reveal what hehad done, and he thus took "Advantage" of the situation "to assert myFreedom."

His situation with his brother had become intolerable, and his ownstanding in the Puritan-dominated community of Boston was little better.Since Franklin had become "a little obnoxious to the governingParty" and "my indiscreet Disputations about Religion began to make mepointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist," hedetermined to leave Boston. But because he still had some years left ofhis apprenticeship and his father opposed his leaving, he had to leavesecretly. With a bit of money and a few belongings, the headstrong anddefiant seventeen-year-old boarded a ship and fled the city, a move thatwas much more common in the mobile eighteenth-century Atlanticworld than we might imagine. Thus Franklin began the career that wouldlead him "from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to aState of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World."


Franklin arrived in the Quaker city renowned for its religious freedomin 1723, hungry, tired, dirty, and bedraggled in his "Working Dress," his"Pockets stuffed out with Shirts and Stockings," with only a Dutch dollarand copper shilling to his name. He bought three rolls, and "with a Rollunder each Arm, and eating the other," he wandered around Market,Chestnut, and Walnut Streets, and in his own eyes, and the eyes of hisfuture wife, Deborah Read, who watched him from her doorway, made"a most awkward ridiculous Appearance." He finally stumbled into aQuaker meetinghouse on Second Street, and "hearing nothing said,"promptly "fell fast asleep, and continu'd so till the Meeting broke up,when one was kind enough to wake me."

Franklin tells us in his Autobiography that he offers us such a "particular"-andunforgettable-description of his "first Entry" into the cityof Philadelphia so "that you may in your Mind compare such unlikelyBeginnings with the Figure I have since made there." Although he triedin his Autobiography to play down and mock his achievements, Franklinwas nothing if not proud of his extraordinary rise. He always knew thatit was the enormous gap between his very obscure beginnings and hislater worldwide eminence that gave his story its heroic appeal.

Philadelphia in the 1720s numbered about six thousand people, but itwas growing rapidly and would soon surpass the much older city ofBoston. The city, and the colony of Pennsylvania, had begun in the lateseventeenth century as William Penn's "Holy Experiment" for poorpersecuted members of the Society of Friends. But by the time Franklinarrived, many of the Quaker families, such as the Norrises, Shippens,Dickinsons, and Pembertons, had prospered, and this emerging Quakeraristocracy had come to dominate the mercantile affairs and politics ofthe colony.


Excerpted from The Americanization of Benjamin Franklinby GORDON S. WOOD Copyright © 2004 by Gordon Wood . Excerpted by permission.
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