Not your usual founding father

Selected Readings from Benjamin Franklin

Yale university press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11394-5

Chapter One

The young man and the old man.

We begin with some passages from the journal Franklin kept for a few weeks on a long sea voyage when he was just twenty years old. It is almost the only thing we have, from all his surviving papers, in which he talks to himself about himself. A lot of it, like most of the personal journals of the time, is about wind and weather, and I have included some of those entries just to give a sense of the whole. But other entries include thoughts about a variety of matters that are echoed in his later life. It is a good place to meet an ordinary young man who never lost his ordinary character, even when his exploits raised him to a fame shared by no other American in the intellectual world of his time, and by no other American, Washington excepted, in the political world.

At the time of the journal he has already had a busy, hardworking childhood and adolescence in Boston. Apprenticed to his brother as a printer, he has run away to Philadelphia, worked there for a year, then spent a kind of junior year abroad (actually a year and a half) in London, working as a printer and sowing a few wild oats. Now he is aboard ship, waiting for a favoring wind to carry him back to Philadelphia.

Waiting for the right wind was a common experience for voyagers in the age of sail, especially on vessels that had to clear the English Channel before reaching the open sea. No one wanted to spend needless days aboard a wind-bound ship. So the captain of Franklin's ship inched along the coast, waiting for a fair wind, and allowed his passengers to go ashore at several ports along the way. Thus Franklin's "Albion, farewell!" two days after embarking was a little premature. For the next two weeks he was on and o the ship, visiting towns along the coast, and we get his reactions to them and his account of a small adventure ashore. Then, while he was at sea for sixty-seven days (an unusually long crossing), he recorded his keen observations of what can be seen on an ocean voyage, including the way people cooped up in a ship behave toward one another.

There is nothing quite like the journal in the rest of Franklin's voluminous writings. In the next selection we jump from the energetic young printer confined aboard ship to the man whose mind could not be confined anywhere. The journal contains many hints of the man to come. In his comments on the card sharp's repentance when ostracized, in his search for congenial society among the other passengers, and in his joy at seeing other human faces on the ship that sailed in company with theirs for a time, we get a glimpse of Franklin's need for people, his heartfelt enjoyment of other human beings.

Someone whose company he enjoyed in later life was George Whately, a London merchant who had become a good friend during Franklin's seventeen years in the city. Those years had ended with his departure as the War for American Independence began, with Franklin in a crucial role. But the war is over now, and the two elderly men have resumed their friendship by mail. Franklin, as U.S. minister to France, has sent Whately one of the medallions with which the country honored its supporters abroad. In this long letter to his English friend, ranging over many subjects, we learn something about how, at age seventy-nine, he looks at the world and its ways.

A word about the topics that engaged him. The references to the shocking numbers of abandoned children in both England and France continue an exchange prompted by Whately's appointment as treasurer of London's Foundling Hospital. Franklin was fond of children and ever eager to support efforts for their welfare. The "double spectacles" mentioned are the bifocals that Franklin had just invented-he was always inventing something. The "Cincinnati Institution" is the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of army officers whose hereditary nature raised his hackles. He gave a more extended criticism of it and of all hereditary honors in a letter to his daughter, included in the last section of this book. "Our Constitution" is the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781. Franklin could defend the Articles to Whately for what he thought was good about them. He does not mention the glaring weaknesses that he would be happy to join in correcting two years later at the Constitutional Convention. Read this letter not so much for the details it gives about all these things but for the impression it conveys of the man who wrote it.

Journal of a Voyage, 1726

Friday, July 22, 1726

Yesterday in the afternoon we left London, and came to an anchor o Gravesend about eleven at night. I lay ashore all night, and this morning took a walk up to the Windmill Hill, whence I had an agreeable prospect of the country for above twenty miles round, and two or three reaches of the river with ships and boats sailing both up and down, and Tilbury Fort on the other side, which commands the river and passage to London. This Gravesend is a cursed biting place; the chief dependence of the people being the advantage they make of imposing upon strangers. If you buy any thing of them, and give half what they ask, you pay twice as much as the thing is worth. Thank God, we shall leave it to-morrow.

Saturday, July 23

This day we weighed anchor and fell down with the tide, there being little or no wind. In the afternoon we had a fresh gale, that brought us down to Margate, where we shall lie at anchor this night. Most of the passengers are very sick. Saw several Porpoises, &c.

Sunday, July 24

This morning we weighed anchor, and, coming to the Downs, we set our pilot ashore at Deal and passed through. And now whilst I write this, sitting upon the quarter-deck, I have methinks one of the pleasantest scenes in the world before me. 'Tis a fine clear day, and we are going away before the wind with an easy pleasant gale. We have near fifteen sail of ships in sight, and I may say in company. On the left hand appears the coast of France at a distance, and on the right is the town and castle of Dover, with the green hills and chalky cliffs of England, to which we must now bid farewell. Albion, farewell!

Monday, July 25

All the morning calm. Afternoon sprung up a gale at East; blew very hard all night. Saw the Isle of Wight at a distance.

Tuesday, July 26

Contrary winds all day, blowing pretty hard. Saw the Isle of Wight again in the evening.

Wednesday, July 27

This morning the wind blowing very hard at West, we stood in for the land, in order to make some harbour. About noon we took on board a pilot out of a fishing shallop, who brought the ship into Spithead o Portsmouth. The captain, Mr. Denham and myself went on shore, and during the little time we staid I made some observations on the place.

... Portsmouth is a place of very little trade in peace time; it depending chiefly on fitting out men of war. Spithead is the place where the fleet commonly anchor, and is a very good riding place. The people of Portsmouth tell strange stories of the severity of one [Sir John] Gibson, who was governor of this place in the Queen's time, to his soldiers, and show you a miserable dungeon by the town gate, which they call Johnny Gibson's Hole, where for trifling misdemeanors he used to confine his soldiers till they were almost starved to death. 'Tis a common maxim, that without severe discipline it is impossible to govern the licentious rabble of soldiery. I own indeed that if a commander finds he has not those qualities in him that will make him beloved by his people, he ought by all means to make use of such methods as will make them fear him, since one or the other (or both) is absolutely necessary; but Alexander and Caesar, those renowned generals, received more faithful service, and performed greater actions by means of the love their soldiers bore them, than they could possibly have done, if instead of being beloved and respected they had been hated and feared by those they commanded.

Thursday, July 28

This morning we came on board, having lain on shore all night. We weighed anchor and with a moderate gale stood in for Cowes in the Isle of Wight, and came to an anchor before the town about eleven o'clock....

Friday, July 29

... The island is about sixty miles in circumference, and produces plenty of corn and other provisions, and wool as fine as Cotswold; its militia having the credit of equalling the soldiery, and being the best disciplined in England. [Joseph Dudley, the former royal governor at Massachusetts] was once in King William's time entrusted with the government of this island. At his death it appeared he was a great villain, and a great politician; there was no crime so damnable which he would stick at in the execution of his designs, and yet he had the art of covering all so thick, that with almost all men in general, while he lived, he passed for a saint. What surprised me was, that the silly old fellow, the keeper of the castle, who remembered him governor, should have so true a notion of his character as I perceived he had. In short I believe it is impossible for a man, though he has all the cunning of a devil, to live and die a villain, and yet conceal it so well as to carry the name of an honest fellow to the grave with him, but some one by some accident or other shall discover him. Truth and sincerity have a certain distinguishing native lustre about them which cannot be perfectly counterfeited, they are like fire and flame that cannot be painted.


Saturday, July 30

This morning about eight o'clock we weighed anchor, and turned to windward till we came to Yarmouth, another little town upon this island, and there cast anchor again, the wind blowing hard and still westerly. Yarmouth is a smaller town than Cowes; yet the buildings being better, it makes a handsomer prospect at a distance, and the streets are clean and neat. There is one monument in the church which the inhabitants are very proud of, and which we went to see. It was erected to the memory of Sir Robert Holmes, who had formerly been governor of the island. It is his statue in armour, somewhat bigger than the life, standing on his tomb with a truncheon in his hand, between the two pillars of porphyry. Indeed all the marble about it is very fine and good; and they say it was designed by the French King for his palace at Versailles, but was cast away upon this island, and by Sir Robert himself in his life-time applied to this use, and that the whole monument was finished long before he died, (though not fixed up in that place); the inscription likewise (which is very much to his honour) being written by himself. One would think either that he had no defect at all, or had a very ill opinion of the world, seeing he was so careful to make sure of a monument to record his good actions and transmit them to posterity.

Having taken a view of the church, town, and fort, (on which there is seven large guns mounted) three of us took a walk up further into the island, and having gone about two miles, we headed a creek that runs up one end of the town, and then went to Freshwater church, about a mile nearer the town, but on the other side of the creek. Having stayed here some time it grew dark, and my companions were desirous to be gone, lest those whom we had left drinking where we dined in the town, should go on board and leave us. We were told that it was our best way to go straight down to the mouth of the creek, and that there was a ferry boy that would carry us over to the town. But when we came to the house the lazy whelp was in bed, and refused to rise and put us over; upon which we went down to the water-side, with a design to take his boat, and go over by ourselves. We found it very difficult to get the boat, it being fastened to a stake and the tide risen near fifty yards beyond it: I stripped all to my shirt to wade up to it; but missing the causeway, which was under water, I got up to my middle in mud. At last I came to the stake; but to my great disappointment found she was locked and chained. I endeavoured to draw the staple with one of the thole-pins, but in vain; I tried to pull up the stake, but to no purpose; so that after an hour's fatigue and trouble in the wet and mud, I was forced to return without the boat. We had no money in our pockets, and therefore began to conclude to pass the night in some hay-stack, though the wind blew very cold and very hard. In the midst of these troubles one of us recollected that he had a horseshoe in his pocket which he found in his walk, and asked me if I could not wrench the staple out with that. I took it, went, tried and succeeded, and brought the boat ashore to them. Now we rejoiced and all got in, and when I had dressed myself we put off. But the worst of all our troubles was to come yet; for, it being high water and the tide over all the banks, though it was moonlight we could not discern the channel of the creek, but rowing heedlessly straight forward, when we were got about half way over, we found ourselves aground on a mud bank, and striving to row her off by putting our oars in the mud, we broke one and there stuck fast, not having four inches water. We were now in the utmost perplexity, not knowing what in the world to do; we could not tell whether the tide was rising or falling; but at length we plainly perceived it was ebb, and we could feel no deeper water within the reach of our oar. It was hard to lie in an open boat all night exposed to the wind and weather; but it was worse to think how foolish we should look in the morning, when the owner of the boat should catch us in that condition, where we must be exposed to the view of all the town. After we had strove and struggled for half an hour and more, we gave all over, and sat down with our hands before us, despairing to get o; for if the tide had left us we had been never the nearer, we must have sat in the boat, as the mud was too deep for us to walk ashore through it, being up to our necks. At last we bethought ourselves of some means of escaping, and two of us stripped and got out, and thereby lightening the boat, we drew her upon our knees near fifty yards into deeper water, and then with much ado, having but one oar, we got safe ashore under the fort; and having dressed ourselves and tied the man's boat, we went with great joy to the Queen's Head, where we left our companions, whom we found waiting for us, though it was very late. Our boat being gone on board, we were obliged to lie ashore all night; and thus ended our walk.


Friday, August 5

Called up this morning and hurried aboard, the wind being North-West. About noon we weighed and left Cowes a third time, and sailing by Yarmouth we came into the channel through the Needles; which passage is guarded by Hurst Castle, standing on a spit of land which runs out from the main land of England within a mile of the Isle of Wight. Towards night the wind veered to the Westward, which put us under apprehensions of being forced into port again; but presently after it fell a flat calm, and then we had a small breeze that was fair for half an hour, when it was succeeded by a calm again.

Saturday, August 6

This morning we had a fair breeze for some hours, and then a calm that lasted all day. In the afternoon I leaped overboard and swam round the ship to wash myself. Saw several Porpoises this day. About eight o'clock we came to an anchor in forty fathom water against the tide of flood, somewhere below Portland, and weighed again about eleven, having a small breeze.

Sunday, August 7

Gentle breezes all this day. Spoke with a ship, the Ruby, bound for London from Nevis, off the Start of Plymouth. This afternoon spoke with Captain Homans in a ship bound for Boston, who came out of the River when we did, and had been beating about in the Channel all the time we lay at Cowes in the Wight.


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