Table of Contents
PART I - PRINTER, JOURNALIST, TRADESMAN (1722-1757)
THE DOGOOD PAPERS
THE PRINTER TO THE READER
AN APOLOGY FOR PRINTERS
LETTER FROM ANTHONY AFTERWIT
LETTER FROM CELIA SINGLE
ADVICE TO A PRETTY CREATURE AND REPLIES
HINTS FOR THOSE THAT WOULD BE RICH
A TRUE PROGNOSTICATION, FOR 1739
PREFACE TO POOR RICHARD IMPROVED
A STRIKING SUN DIAL
THE WAY TO WEALTH
PART II - THE BETTERMENT OF LIFE
PROPOSALS RELATING TO THE EDUCATION OF YOUTH IN PENSILVANIA. PHILADELPHIA: - ...
TO MISS MARY STEVENSON
TO MISS MARY STEVENSON
TO MISS MARY STEVENSON
TO OLIVER NEAVE
THE HANDSOME AND DEFORMED LEG
TO RICHARD PRICE
THE ART OF PROCURING PLEASANT DREAMS - Inscribed to Miss [Shipwey], Being ...
TO CADWALLADER COLDEN
TO MRS. ABIAH FRANKLIN
TO MRS. DEBORAH FRANKLIN
TO MRS. DEBORAH FRANKLIN
TO WILLIAM STRAHAN
TO WILLIAM FRANKLIN
CODICIL TO THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT
TO PETER COLLINSON
TO A FRIEND IN BOSTON
TO PETER COLLINSON
TO PETER COLLINSON
TO JOHN PRINGLE
TO SIR ALEXANDER DICK
TO DAVID HUME
TO JOSEPH PRIESTLEY
TO SIR JOSEPH BANKS
TO LA SABLIERE DE LA CONDAMINE
TO GEORGE WHATLEY
DESCRIPTION OF AN INSTRUMENT FOR TAKING DOWN BOOKS FROM HIGH SHELVES
TO BENJAMIN VAUGHAN
PART III - POLITICS: THEORY AND PRACTICE
ON TRANSPORTED FELONS
EXPORTING OF FELONS TO THE COLONIES - The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1751.
OBSERVATIONS CONCERNING THE INCREASE OF MANKIND, PEOPLING OF COUNTRIES, ETC.
JOIN OR DIE - The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1754.
THREE LETTERS TO GOVERNOR SHIRLEY
TO ISAAC NORRIS
TO PETER COLLINSON
ON THE PRICE OF CORN, AND MANAGEMENT OF THE POOR
RULES BY WHICH A GREAT EMPIRE MAY BE REDUCED TO A SMALL ONE; - Presented to a ...
AN EDICT BY THE KING OF PRUSSIA
TO WILLIAM FRANKLIN
TO WILLIAM STRAHAN
TO JOSEPH PRIESTLEY
TO A FRIEND IN ENGLAND
TO LORD HOWE
ANECDOTE RECALLED BY JEFFERSON
TO MRS. MARY HEWSON
THE SALE OF THE HESSIANS
TO A FRIEND
MODEL OF A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION
TO CHARLES DE WEISSENSTEIN
PASSPORT FOR CAPTAIN COOK
TO GEORGE WASHINGTON
TO JAMES HUTTON
TO SIR JOSEPH BANKS
INFORMATION TO THOSE WHO WOULD REMOVE TO AMERICA
TO SIR JOSEPH BANKS
TO MRS. SARAH BACHE
SPEECH IN THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION ON THE SUBJECT OF SALARIES
SPEECH IN THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION AT THE CONCLUSION OF ITS DELIBERATIONS
ON THE ABUSE OF THE PRESS
AN ADDRESS TO THE PUBLIC;
PLAN FOR IMPROVING THE CONDITION OF THE FREE BLACKS
SIDI MEHEMET IBRAHIM ON THE SLAVE TRADE
PART IV - RELIGION: BELIEF AND CRITIQUE
A DISSERTATION ON LIBERTY AND NECESSITY, PLEASURE AND PAIN
TO JOSIAH FRANKLIN
TO JOSEPH HUEY
TO JARED INGERSOLL
TO RICHARD PRICE
TO SAMUEL MATHER
TO EZRA STILES
PART V - BAGATELLES AND DALLIANCES
A WITCH TRIAL AT MOUNT HOLLY
ADVICE TO A YOUNG MAN
THE SPEECH OF POLLY BAKER
TO THE EDITOR OF A NEWSPAPER
THE TWELVE COMMANDMENTS
THE EPHEMERA - An Emblem of Human Life
ELYSIAN FIELDS - M. Franklin to Madame Helvétius
THE WHISTLE - To Madame Brillon
MORALS OF CHESS
TO MRS. ELIZABETH PARTRIDGE
DIALOGUE BETWEEN FRANKLIN AND THE GOUT
AN ECONOMICAL PROJECT
A PETITION OF THE LEFT HAND
PART VI - VIRTUOSO
TO PETER COLLINSON
TO DAVID HUME
TO GIAMBATISTA BECCARIA
TO COURT DE GEBELIN
TO NOAH WEBSTER
Glossary of Correspondents
THE PORTABLE BENJAMIN FRANKLIN
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1706-1790) was the first American to achieve international celebrity. From the colonial period of his initial fame through to the twenty-first century, he has been regarded both at home and abroad as the one person who most clearly combines the many facets of the American character. He was the only person to sign all four major documents of the founding of the United States—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Treaty Alliance with France, and the Treaty of Peace with England—and his participation in these momentous events, his rise to wealth from humble beginnings, his practical inventions, such as bifocals, his scientific discoveries, most prominently in the field of electricity, his myriad contributions to both civic improvement and the betterment of everyday life, his philanthropic schemes, his sagacity, and his shrewd (and often earthy) wit all remain freshly available in the lucid prose of his many writings.
LARZER ZIFF has written books on many aspects of American literary and cultural history, including the period of Benjamin Franklin. Research professor at the Johns Hopkins University, he is a winner of the Christian Gauss Award and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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First published in Penguin Books 2005
Copyright © Larzer Ziff, 2005
All rights reserved
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following works:
Manuscript of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin as edited in Benjamin Franklin’s Memoirs:
Parallel Text Edition, Max Farrand, editor (HM 9999). Used by permission of The Huntington Library,
San Marino, California.
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, volume 18, November 1790-March 1791, edited by Julian P. Boyd.
Copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press. .
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Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790.
The portable Benjamin Franklin / edited with an introduction and notes by Larzer Ziff.
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1. Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790. 2. Statesmen—United States—Biography. 3. Scientists—United
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In 1756, John Adams, then an ambitious twenty-one-year-old schoolmaster in Worcester, Massachusetts, pondered the impossibility of his ever achieving fame, located as he was in a modest profession in a provincial colonial town thousands of miles from the political and cultural institutions that nurtured the famous. He attempted to rationalize the matter by telling his diary that those who love fame “descend to as mean tricks and artifices in pursuit of Honor as the Miser descends to in the pursuit of Gold.” Yet fame, he knew, had already come to one—even if only one—American, “Mr. Franklin of Phyladelphia,” who, he noted, possessed “a prodigious Genius cultivated with prodigious industry.”
That same year the prodigious Franklin of Philadelphia, thirty years Adams’s senior, was elected to the Royal Society of London, put a bill through the Pennsylvania Assembly that provided night watchmen and street lighting for Philadelphia, received an honorary master’s degree from William and Mary College, toured the New York frontier to inspect military defenses against possible French attacks from Canada, and during a visit to Virginia on post office business met George Washington. It was a typical Franklin year, and yet so wide-ranging was his genius, and so conscientiously did he, as Adams surmised, “cultivate” it, that no year’s activities could actually be termed typical. Each year brought new experiments, new offices, new ventures. In the following year, for instance, Franklin departed for London as his colony’s agent in the commencement of what would prove to be a long and distinguished diplomatic career. Yet also and always a man of business and a writer of force, he improved the time afforded by the long sea voyage to write a preface to the newest edition of his Poor Richard Improved. In it Father Abraham, “a plain clean old Man with white Locks,” advises his fellow villagers on the conduct of life by issuing a stream of proverbs to suit their daily activities. Later abstracted from the almanac and titled “The Way to Wealth,” the proverbs attained a worldwide popularity that continues to this day.
In Adams’s lifetime, fame did, of course, come to him, albeit in a condition different from that of Franklin’s, affected as it was by the virulent abuses that partisan politics had invoked. As he looked back at his career from his retirement, Adams was alarmed by the abyss that had opened between the events he had gone through and their portrayal in the histories published by those too young to have participated in the nation’s founding. The sad truth that age seemed to bring home to him was that the price one paid for making history was that history then made one over in its image regardless of the actuality one had lived. The only defense against such misrepresentation, as Benjamin Rush, another founding father, suggested to him, was to write “‘a history of your own times’ as far as you were an actor in them. Let them be published by your sons after your death. It will be more than a patent of nobility to your descendants to the end of time.” And Adams likewise urged Rush to engage in the same task in order to defend his reputation against what he termed “the corruption of tradition and consequently . . . the corruption of history.” Writing privately for the information of their children, both men produced such manuscripts.
Benjamin Franklin had been dead for some twenty years when Adams and Rush corresponded on the matter of protecting themselves from the corruption of history. Like them he, too, had written a memoir initially addressed to his son (the term “autobiography,” not used in English before 1797, was to be applied to it by later editors). But there the resemblance ends in contrasts so striking as to overwhelm that slight similarity. Franklin was unconcerned with the corruption of history because his fame had never seriously been threatened. He did not aim at producing a patent of nobility for his descendants but at providing an account of his life that could assist them in conducting theirs.
Indeed, Franklin distrusted inherited honors. When in 1784 word reached him in Paris that disbanded officers of the Continental army had formed a hereditary Society of the Cincinnati—Washington and Hamilton were to be its first presidents—he was scornful of what he saw as a flagrant breach of republican principles and an affront to the good sense of the American people. He admired the Chinese custom of ascending honor, he wrote his daughter, Sarah Bache, according to which when one attained the rank of mandarin his parents were immediately entitled to the same honors on the supposition that it must have been owing to the education and example they provided that their son had attained his rank. This ascending honor, he said, “is therefore useful to the state” because it encourages parents to give their children a good and virtuous education. “But the descending honor to posterity who could have no share in obtaining it, is not only groundless and absurd, but often hurtful to that posterity, since it is apt to make them proud, disdaining to be employed in useful arts.” He did not conceive of the history of his life as a patent of nobility for his descendants as his contemporaries saw theirs.
Franklin’s son William, whom he addressed at the start of the Autobiography, was born out of wedlock to an unknown mother and taken into the family of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin after their marriage. Rather than appearing to defend the honor of an established family as did the other memorialists, in the Autobiography Franklin is, in effect, creating a new kind of family. The account of their immediate forebears that he gives William is essentially a story of discontinuities—ancestral removal within England, parental removal from England to America, and his own removal from Boston to Philadelphia—a story that underlies the work’s demonstration that it is not a question of what or where you were at birth but what you make of life’s opportunities regardless of place of birth. With such an underlying theme, the Autobiography effortlessly broadens from advice to a son to a manual for all young persons born into modest means.
From the very start of his recollections Franklin anticipated and disarmed the skeptics who were prepared to point out that his real aim was to celebrate himself, not instruct others. By putting his recollections into print so as to make them as durable as possible, Franklin says:
I shall indulge the inclination so natural in old men to be talking of themselves and their own past actions; and I shall indulge it without being troublesome to others, who, through respect to age, might think themselves obliged to give me a hearing, since this may be read or not as one pleases. And lastly (I may as well confess it, since my denial of it will be believed by nobody), perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own vanity. Indeed, I scarce ever heard or saw the introductory words, “Without vanity I may say,” etc., but some vain thing immediately followed. Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it in themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be quite absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.
A brief paraphrase might run as follows: this indulgence is not really vanity, because if you don’t like it you don’t have to read it; well, I suppose it is vanity, but, then, we’re all vain and, moreover, our wish to have others share our high estimation of ourselves may very well be the reason we do good things, not bad, so that we should perhaps thank God for our vanity rather than repent it. Each statement in Franklin’s sequence anticipates and incorporates the statement that would counter it, the whole climaxed by the final suggestion that vanity is a gift of God. In the Christian doctrine of Franklin’s parents, and, indeed, of most Americans of his day, pride was a cardinal sin, but Franklin who is aware of this does not mention it. In the Autobiography, as in many of his other writings, the arguments that he contests are not directly cited, but, rather, rendered obsolete by his development of an opposed viewpoint.
The writing of the Autobiography began in 1771, but Franklin’s critical involvement in the large public affairs of the succeeding years forced him to put it aside. In 1784, while serving as American minister to France, however, he found time to continue the narrative, but by then William and he were estranged. During the Revolution, William had remained loyal to the Crown while his father in the same period had pursued a vehement course of opposition. As a consequence, after the 1784 resumption the tendency already present in the first part was amplified, and from its specific applicability to William, the narrative modulated into a text addressed to all young American men of plain beginnings. Over time, with the worldwide spread of capitalism and, much later, with the entry of women into the marketplace for talent, the Autobiography found an even wider applicability than the large one it had always enjoyed from its first publication.
That publication has had a tangled history. Franklin supervised the preparation of two fair copies of his manuscript, one of which he sent to Benjamin Vaughan in England and the other to Louis Guillaume le Veillard in France. Both copies disappeared and the Autobiography’s first publication (1791) was in French, a translation of part of the copy sent to le Veillard, while the first edition in English (1793) was a translation back from the imperfectly translated and incomplete French edition. Confusion was compounded in the next century as Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin, published a fuller edition based on a copy of one of the now-missing fair copies, but in it “improved” his grandfather’s style so that it would meet the standards he thought to prevail, and John Bigelow in 1868 published an edition based on the copy sent to le Veillard, which he had discovered and purchased in Paris. Many other editions of the popular work, all in some degree faulty, were published into the following century. Finally, in 1949, modern bibliographical science addressed the problem in Max Farrand’s “critical edition,” which reconstructed the text by comparing the le Veillard copy recovered by Bigelow with those editions that could claim some connection with the lost Benjamin Vaughan copy. But the matter did not come to a complete rest even there. Further scholars have since been busy correcting minor faults.
Franklin’s story of his life does not extend beyond 1766 when as a colonial agent in London he successfully worked for the repeal of the Stamp Act. Still to come were the great years of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution, and the international recognition of the United States of America. But while Franklin’s narrative of his intimate involvement in those events would certainly have made an unmatched contribution to the national history, his letters, satires, and polemical writings, a broad selection of which appears in this volume, provide a primary view of what he would have drawn upon. Moreover, the core fable of the Autobiography is, finally, independent of monumental public events. It is the success story of an individual—later to be trivialized in rags-to-riches folklore—with its assertion of the interdependence of private and civic improvement.
Franklin’s account of himself was also, inevitably, an account of his country, not so much of the great national events in which he participated as of the reflexive relationship that existed between the advancement of his career and the well-being of his society; an account, that is, of how his civic environment shaped him and, consequently, of how he shaped it. Critics who have decried the self-help practices advocated in the Autobiography as petty and selfish have failed to take into account self-improvement’s dependence upon civic improvement, a theme that runs throughout Franklin’s narrative. In his account, he advanced because he worked toward shaping a world hospitable to individual well-being, and such a world served others as well as, if not far more than, himself.
The most influential critique of Franklin’s outlook has been that of the German sociologist Max Weber in his powerfully argued The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (1904-05). Examining the notorious chart of virtues in the Autobiography, Weber comments, “According to Franklin those virtues, like all others, are only in so far virtues as they are actually useful to the individual, and the surrogate of mere appearance is always sufficient when it accomplishes the end in view.” This is so, and yet, as with his earlier argument about vanity, Franklin might well query whether the social value of the end in view is not the essential issue. A virtue such as temperance, for example, is indispensable for worldly success because intemperance leads to wasteful expenditure and inefficiency on the job. Mere appearance, therefore, will not suffice because even if others regard one as temperate, intemperance itself will have deleterious consequences. On the other hand, humility is beneficial because others are apt to trust and be persuaded by someone whom they regard as modest far more than they are to trust someone they perceive to be prideful. In this case, then, Franklin admitted, appearance will serve: “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”
Needless to say, a host of theological, philosophical, or psychological objections have been raised against such a calculated detachment of behavior from character. By the standard of the Puritan patriarchs of Franklin’s native Boston, for one example, any assertion that public behavior is a reliable source of information about an individual’s true character—in their terms, of the state of his soul—is heretical. An individual’s distinctive entity is not the product but the cause of his actions and that entity is determined by his relationship to God. He cannot truly do good, truly serve his fellow man, unless that service proceeds from a gracious soul. Franklin’s letters to Josiah Franklin and Joseph Huey in this volume reflect his awareness of the uneasiness stirred among family and friends by his reversing these priorities and asserting that God’s grace is, in effect, earned by moral behavior rather than the cause of it. Even the many who in Franklin’s time had drifted from orthodoxy nevertheless held notions of individual identity as ultimately independent of social conduct. For them, America was a nation of yeoman farmers where the immanent self was formed by daily contact with nature and nature’s god; the individual brought such an identity to society and there retained its irreducible core.
At the heart of Franklin’s use of the terms appearance and reality is his concern with the relation of private to public life. Convinced that both personal success and the welfare of society depend upon the social conduct of individuals, he insisted upon the private development of virtues (or habits) that had a beneficial effect on public behavior, while he fully admitted that since other virtues—humility, for example—were in the keeping of the observer rather than the observed, no damage was done by the mere assumption of their appearance so long as the result was socially beneficial. Moreover, even those virtues one truly possessed were of limited value if one were not seen to possess them: “I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. . . . To show that I was not above my business I sometimes brought home the paper I purchased at the stores through the streets on a wheelbarrow.”
To observe Franklin acting in this fashion is to recognize that to a degree unmatched by any other leader in the new nation, he was formed by the city, by the conditions of trade and the circumstances of daily intercourse with a range of his fellow citizens. Shaped by the city, he was also its shaper, founding the institutions of modern urban life such as hospitals, schools, fire companies, sanitation agencies, and streetlighting facilities. His boyhood apprenticeship to his brother, publisher of an intensely political newspaper, gave him daily glimpses into the crucial importance of acting in association with others rather than individually. At the age of sixteen he took the knowledge thus gained to Philadelphia, America’s largest and the British empire’s second-largest city, and his developing genius was further molded by urban conditions when he worked in London in his nineteenth and twentieth years.
Many of the foremost thinkers in Franklin’s America, such as Jefferson, believed that the future happiness of the new nation depended upon its maintaining a rural character apart from the corruptions of the city, on one hand, and the savagery of the wilderness, on the other. While Franklin never differed from this ideal explicitly—he even briefly contemplated removing to Ohio—his philosophy clearly issued from urban circumstances. Inevitably, whether for better or worse, modern man lives in the city, and Franklin’s Autobiography has endured because it speaks to the conditions of life in the city.
A half century after Franklin’s death, what were seen as the pernicious consequences of his concentration on man as a social creature were challenged by the American transcendentalists. The one thing of value in the world, Emerson affirmed, is the active soul, and Thoreau dramatized this contention in Walden. His opening chapter with its penny-ha’penny accounting of expenditures mocks Franklin’s bookkeeping habits while Walden as a whole may be read as a counter Autobiography. Subtitled “Life in the Woods,” the book advocates the realization of self in solitude, the need to burrow beneath the alluvion of appearance to the immaterial rock of reality beneath it and there found one’s character.
But although Franklin and Thoreau thus seem diametrically opposed—society vs. solitude, material advancement vs. spiritual growth—their differences may more aptly be seen as a dialogue within American culture. For most who pursue it, life in the woods, either literally, for example, by maintaining a house by a pond, or figuratively, for example, by making a retreat to an ashram, is a leisure activity underwritten by material success (to recognize which is not necessarily to impugn its sincerity). Thoreau saw the mass of men in his society leading lives of quiet desperation, but even as his America benefited from his pointing to other values, so he benefited from the civil liberties and modest everyday prosperity of the America Ben Franklin imagined and worked to create for him.
Franklin had arrived in both Philadelphia and London as a stranger and, accordingly, formed himself in terms of what the city required of young men. For want of other credentials, such as recognized family status or class affiliation, he had to give an account of himself in words and deeds, and the account he gave is what he became. To the moment of his death at the age of eighty-four, when he was known throughout the world, Franklin was still giving an account of himself. Dictating the final part of the Autobiography from his sickbed, he was fashioning a narrative that he thought should stand for—should be—Benjamin Franklin. Although from his day to ours, corrections and supplements to the details in that narrative have been undertaken on the basis of evidence external to it, still the Franklin of the Autobiography is the Franklin that persists because that Franklin incorporates his central perception of the public nature of private character.
Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, like almost all the other founding fathers, were rooted in the regions of their birth; indeed, seemed to exemplify what it meant to be born and bred a Virginian or a Massachusetts Yankee. Public life may have removed them from their native regions, but when duty ceased to call they returned to them as the places where they could realize their best selves. But despite the close association that exists between Franklin and Philadelphia, so close that it is quite impossible to conceive of one without the other, Franklin was not a native son. The career that unfolds in the Autobiography provides the model of a pattern that would become typical of American life: the connection of upward social movement to outward geographic movement.
That pattern was not quite foreseen by Alexis de Tocqueville who visited the United States in 1831-32 in order to study “the shape of democracy.” “The Union,” he wrote:
is a vast body and somewhat vague as the object of patriotism. But the state has precise shape and circumscribed boundaries, it represents a defined number of familiar things which are dear to those living there. It is identified with the soil, with the rights of property, the family memories of the past, activities of the present, dreams for the future. Patriotism, which is most often nothing but an extension of individual egoism, therefore remains attached to the state and has not yet been passed to the Union.
Yet by 1837 a British observer was writing that the American’s “affections have more to do with the social and political system with which he is connected than with the soil which he inhabits. The man whose attachments converge upon a particular spot of earth, is miserable if removed from it; but give the American his institutions, and he cares little where you place him.” The nation to which such an American was attached was not a physical space in which he lived the everyday life, nor a specific people with whom he felt a familial or ethnic identity, but a less visible community of shared ideals. D. H. Lawrence, historically the most eloquent of Franklin’s critics—passionate to the point of melodrama—phrased the matter thus: “America has never been a blood home-land. Only an ideal home-land. The home-land of the idea, of the spirit
.” The United States that claimed the loyalty of its citizens was not a family of those who shared a common soil and common traditions such as Tocqueville observed at the level of a single state. It was a nation of people united by their attachment to proclaimed ideals, an imagined community rather than an observable physical entity, one that depended for its existence upon the dissemination of shared ideals. As Wilbur Zelinsky phrased the matter in his study of nationhood, “The fact that members of . . . a nation are normally far too numerous for more than a limited face-to-face contact implies that nationalism can only flourish during an era when print and other advanced media of communication and tutelage are available.” In eighteenth-century America, print was the only advanced medium of communication, and no one recognized its social and political potential more perceptively and deployed it more consequentially than “B. Franklin, Printer.”
From the start the printed word served young Franklin as his entry into a superior social world. Books taught him how to write, how to dispute, and even how to plan his meals. And reading, of course, introduced him to the many fields his genius mastered. But, in addition, books were his passport to social and thence political advancement. He received an early indication of this when as a runaway of suspicious appearance he stopped at an inn in New Jersey and there began a lifelong friendship with its owner, Dr. Brown, when the older man discovered that the youth owned and read books. On a return journey to Boston, Franklin, still an unknown lad, was summoned to the house of Governor Burnet of New York because the governor had heard from the captain of the ship on which Franklin arrived that there was a young man aboard who owned a number of books. “The Governor treated me with great civility, showed me his library, which was a very large one, and we had a good deal of conversation about books and authors.” When Franklin’s employer, Keimer, received the commission to print New Jersey’s currency, Franklin and he went to Burlington and in a three-month stay there executed the job under the close supervision of members of the colony’s legislature. “My mind having been much more improved by reading than Keimer’s,” Franklin wrote, “I suppose it was for that reason my conversation seemed to be more valued. They had me to their houses, introduced me to their friends and showed me much civility. . . . These friends were afterwards of great use to me.” When Franklin’s rise in Philadelphia was substantially forwarded by his appointment as printer to the Pennsylvania Assembly, he learned that a new member of that body who promised to be influential was opposed to his continuing as printer and he therefore set out to win him over: “Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favor of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately and I returned it in about a week, with another note expressing strongly my sense of the favor.” Thus began another lifelong and politically profitable friendship.
Franklin’s interest in books and his conversion of private reading into a body of knowledge superior to any university education available were, however, far from being a simple matter of calculated social climbing. Although he recognized that the mere fact of being familiar with books could gain him access to a higher social circle and did not hesitate to act upon it, he reached beyond this to establish the emerging class of ambitious, self-taught trades-and-crafts-men as a deciding political force in American society. In a world in which money to acquire and leisure to read books were the mark of the elite class he was displacing, Franklin had to avoid the appearance of leisure appropriate to that class: “A book, indeed, sometimes debauched me from my work; but this was seldom, snug and gave no scandal.” But in his establishment of a library that would make books available to others like himself, he was also consciously undermining whatever superiority that class exercised simply because its members could afford financially to own books, and therefore, in a sense, to monopolize learning. The members of new associations, such as the Library Company and the Junto (later to become the American Philosophical Society), knew that knowledge not birth was the key to material success and civic power, and they proceeded accordingly.
Of even greater importance than Franklin’s consumption of the printed word, however, was his production of it through his professional recognition not merely of the importance of print but of the print culture that was just coming into being. Although many writers were slow to grasp the fact, there was a difference between a written piece that was later printed and a piece written deliberately to be printed. Reflecting an oral culture, they proceeded from the assumptions that the writer—because of his rank, learning, or office—was in a position of authority relative to his readership, which was conceptualized as a determinate body of interested readers (very much as the writer of a sermon assumed a position of authority over the specific congregation he was to address). To the extent that such assumptions operated, literate culture was not yet print culture.
But Franklin did grasp the features that distinguished modern print culture. He saw that print’s capacity to diffuse information, thought, and sentiments beyond the limits of place and moment meant that it need not address a specifically existing audience, such as members of a religious denomination, a particular occupation, or a certain social class, but that it could cross such boundaries in constructing its readership. Once a work was printed, the author had no control over who was to read it. The audience constituted by print was indeterminate, made up of individuals who neither knew nor lived in proximity to one another. Yet print could lead such a group to realize a potency greater than that of determinate, hence local, groups.
In the Autobiography Franklin describes the influence of Addison’s Spectator essays upon the development of his style, a style that Dr. Johnson, speaking of Addison, characterized as “on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling.” Of equal if not greater importance as a stylistic influence was his interest in the transactions of the Royal Society to which his electrical experiments gained him admission in 1756. One of the world’s oldest scientific organizations, the Royal Society, founded in 1660, abandoned the empty theories of nature that had previously dominated scientific thinking to replace them with conclusions founded upon observation and experiment. Additionally, its program called as vigorously for stylistic reform as it did for philosophical reform. In his History of the Royal Society (1667), Thomas Sprat said, “They have exacted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness; bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can: and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that of Wits or Scholars.”
Witty as he could be and scholarly as he was, Benjamin Franklin nevertheless rejoiced in his identity as an artisan—what he termed “a leather-apron man”—and consciously positioned his style in opposition to that of the professional men whose writings still remained within the assumptions of an oral culture. Writing about ministerial prose, for example, he rather gleefully proclaimed:
Let them have the liberty of repeating the same sentence in other words; let them put an adjective to every substantive, and double every substantive with a synonyma, for this is more agreeable than hauking, spitting, taking snuff, or other means of concealing hesitation. Let them multiply definitions, comparisons, similitudes, and examples. Permit them to make a detail of causes and effects, enumerate all the consequences, and express one half by metaphor and circumlocution. Nay, allow the preacher to tell us whatever a thing is negatively, before he begins to tell what it is affirmatively; and permit him to divide and subdivide as far as two and fiftiethly.
But when a discourse is to be printed, “bound down upon paper,” as Franklin puts it, then the brief, the perspicuous, and the direct are called for because the discourse must stand without the aid of the speaker’s presence.
Similarly, Franklin lampooned the verbosity of legal writings in a day when print made them available to common readers: “You must abridge the performance to understand them; and when you find how little there is in a writing of vast bulk, you will be as much surpriz’d as a stranger at the opening of a pumpkin.”
In short, Franklin knew that print meant a readership for sermons that was not to be treated as if it were passively sitting under the minister’s gaze and a readership for legal matters that was larger than and distinct from those familiar with professional jargon. The principle could be extended into almost all areas of knowledge. His first published writings were designed for his brother’s New-England Courant, and throughout his career he shaped his writing for an assumed audience of intelligent, busy people who had the ability to understand even technical subjects if they were presented in a clear and persuasive style. Influenced by American conditions, he accepted the indeterminate nature of his readership—neither ignorant nor learned; interested in gossip and interested in science; alert to personal profit and sympathetic to schemes of social benevolence—and he called forth the audience that from his day to this exists substantially yet amorphously under the title of the common reader.
To publish is to make publicly known, and Franklin, who published constantly, both as printer and author, had an extraordinary sense of the public ownership of all material written, spoken, or, even more radically, simply not maintained in silence. Famously, he declined to patent his widely copied stove, the “Pennsylvania Fireplace,” because in publishing its pattern he believed he had relinquished ownership of it to all who wished to benefit from it (even though another man took his invention and did patent and profit from it). Similarly, he refused to surrender his allegiance to a preacher he supported when it was revealed that the man had preached the sermons of others which he had memorized: “I stuck by him,” Franklin wrote in the Autobiography, “as I rather approved of his giving us good sermons composed by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture.” Even more flagrantly, Franklin justified his making public confidential letters written by Governor Thomas Hutchinson that had fallen into his hands by saying, “It is in vain to say this would be betraying private correspondence, since if the truth only was written, no man need be ashamed or afraid of it being known; and if falsehoods have been maliciously covered under the cloak of confidence, ’tis perfectly just the incendiary writers should be exposed and punished.” The corollary of such an extraordinary belief was that if you wished a thought to remain private, then you should remain silent, and for all his prolific writing Franklin famously, indeed notoriously, could keep his silence.
“Oratory in this age?” John Adams exclaimed in disgust at its decline, “Secrecy! Cunning! Silence! Voila les grandes Sciences des temps modernes.” “Silence,” he went on to say, “is most commonly design and intrigue,” and it was most remarkable in Franklin who “was naturally a great talker.” But the age of oratory had indeed passed, and if Adams was its chief mourner, Franklin was its mortician.
When one speaks, the words he utters are the thoughts of a personalized self. But writing is detached from personal presence. Writer and reader occupy separate places and separate moments in time, and the result is that both writer and reader are transformed from actual presences into the assumed presences that each believes the other to be. Even when the writer appears to invest his or her personality in the writing, that published self is essentially different from the personal self because the very process of reproduction and circulation in multiple copies converts the particular into the general.
Author, printer, publisher, Franklin recognized and collaborated with this inescapable process and enjoyed playing with readers who insisted on equating the published persona with a corporeal individual. In 1736, for example, Poor Richard reported that some wishing him ill have declared “That there is no such a Man as I am.” He resents such uncivil treatment: “So long as I know my self to walk about, eat drink and sleep, I am satisfied that there is really such a Man as I am;” and he goes on to ask, “If there were no such Man as I am, how is it possible I should appear publickly to hundreds of People, as I have done for Several years past in print?” How, indeed? The last word of the question is also the answer.
To many during his lifetime and since, Franklin appeared to be evasive, to be hiding what they hypothesized to be a “real self” behind the personae of the written works. It is a fact, however, that all written discourse is uttered by a persona who is both different from the author yet expressive of him: the one, like Poor Richard, appears publicly; the other, like his creator, walks about, eats, drinks, sleeps, and, it should be added, dreams privately.
After the Battle of Marengo, Jean-Victor-Marie Moreau, one of Napoleon’s generals, asked Napoleon why he had chosen the frozen St. Bernard route for his army when he could have followed a more direct and less dangerous road. “It was the scenery of the business,” Napoleon answered. “I thought its boldness would have a good effect.” No American of Franklin’s day was as appreciative as he of the effect to be derived from “the scenery of the business.” There are many portraits of him, as there are of the other great men of his day. But Franklin iconography places him against “the scenery of the business” far more than the iconography that celebrates the others. We do have Washington crossing the Delaware or, amusingly, with a child’s body but the familiar adult head, standing by a felled cherry tree with his hatchet, but in almost all popular and classical portraiture he stands or sits in magisterial calm. In popular portraiture, however, Franklin acts against a specific background. He flies his kite into an electric storm (usually in his small clothes without protective outerwear) or is allegorized as grasping and taming the lightning even as he confronted and subdued tyranny. Benjamin West has him seated on airborne silk against the background of a stormy sky, his hair and kerchief windblown as he draws electricity from the sky while one group of cherubim above him to his left flies a kite into the menacing clouds and two other cherubim below to his right busy themselves with the laboratory apparatus that stores electricity.
Beyond his contemporaries Franklin invited anecdotal or narrative portraiture because he himself was adept at verbal pictures that suggested a meaning larger than the details of his particular appearance. The popular schoolbook picture of the youth strolling down Market Street eating a puffy roll and carrying another tucked under his arm while a young woman in a doorway, the future Deborah Franklin, smiles in amusement at the sight is drawn from a scene that Franklin not only paints in the Autobiography but then emblematizes: “I have been the more particular in this description . . . of my first entry into that city that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there.” Another popular picture, that of the plainly dressed American symbolizing the egalitarian values of the new republic amid the silken opulence of the French court, was also painted verbally by Franklin. In a letter to a friend dated February 8, 1777, for example, he wrote: “Figure me in your mind as jolly as formerly, and as strong and hearty, only a few years older, very plainly dress’d, wearing my grey strait Hair, that peeps out from under my only Coiffure, a fine Fur Cap, which comes down to my Forehead almost to my Spectacles. Think how this must appear among the Powder’d Heads of Paris.” (This is the image captured by his contemporary, August de Saint-Aubin and reproduced on the cover of this book.) From trundling the paper he had purchased through the streets of Philadelphia on a wheelbarrow to wearing his marten fur cap in the salons of Paris, he was a master at the art of visibly personifying the values he wished to communicate. As print diffused his person into the general, so his attention to physical display concentrated the general in his person.
It is small wonder that many of his contemporaries felt that there was more to Franklin than met their eyes and that he hid himself even when he was present in body. His cunning, they suspected, was not to be trusted. Yet with the range of his writings spread before them, today’s readers do have the kind of access to him that those who met him did not possess, nor that many of his later critics who read only the Autobiography bothered to gain.
With an essay style modeled on Addison, a satiric technique informed by Swift, and a prose style that brought an uninsistent persuasiveness to social and political discussions, bringing them, as Thomas Sprat said of the reformed prose of the Royal Society, as near to mathematical plainness as possible, Franklin was very much an eighteenth-century English writer, albeit a colonial one. Yet compared with the prose of other notable Americans of his day, say Jonathan Edwards, on one hand, or Thomas Jefferson, on the other, Franklin’s seems already to be anticipating a distinctively American articulation. As a writer he was first and foremost a journalist, and as a journalist he had a keen ear for the speech patterns of his readership. Poor Richard speaks as a countryman speaking to his fellow countrymen in the language they share. It is, to be sure, the English of the mother country, but in its loose informality and calculated moments of wink-and-nod vulgarity it also begins to pull away from it. Colloquialisms do not yet amount to a distinctly American vernacular style, but the seed is there, highlighted by Richard’s delight in noting regional pronunciations. New Yorkers, he tells us, say “diss,” for “this,” those at Cape May say “keow” for “cow,” while people in Connecticut and Maryland are unable to talk without saying “Sir” at the beginning or the end of their statements—and sometimes in both places.
The infant American novel of Franklin’s day in its fascination with the theme of seduction and its consciously literary language was very much an English novel despite its American settings. Most such novels were epistolary, written by female characters within the novels and, with the exception of Charles Brockden Brown, the more outstanding novelists were women, which further heightened the tone of propriety connected with what was regarded as “literary” prose.
With Hannah Foster’s The Coquette perhaps exempted, Poor Richard, Anthony Afterwit, Polly Baker, and other Franklin creations are far more palpably American than any of the characters in the novels of their day. Since they spoke the whole of the piece in which they appeared, colloquial speech was called upon to convey the entirety of whatever the reader was meant to infer, as opposed to speech framed within quotation marks by a more formal narrator who is, as it were, in charge of the feelings that are to be conveyed. It is some way from Franklin to Walt Whitman and Mark Twain (both also graduates of the print shop and journalism) and the establishment of American speech as a literary language, but Franklin is certainly their ancestor. In addition to his forays into the colloquial, Franklin shared with them an amused delight in the exuberance of American brag: “The very Tails of the American Sheep are so laden with Wooll, that each has a little Car or Waggon on four little Wheels, to support & keep it from trailing on the Ground,” he wrote in a 1765 piece intended for an English newspaper. And inventor though he was, he delighted also in the frequently absurd tinkerings of his improvement-minded countrymen, which he pleasantly satirized in his instructions on the making of a striking sundial. To read such pieces is to sense one is in the company of a distinctly American writer.
Indeed, even Mark Twain’s iconoclastic inversions of Poor Richard’s maxims—“Fewer things are harder to put up with than a good example,” says Pudd’nhead Wilson—can actually be seen to share the wry misgivings of human nature amply present in Poor Richard. It is Richard who says, “In the affairs of this world men are saved, not by faith, but by the want of it;” “Power to the bold and heaven to the virtuous.” The humorous dimension of human fallibility which is so essential a part of what one marks as Twain’s American tone can be heard in an earlier stage in a number of Franklin’s pieces.
On June 36, 1755, Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia wrote to Peter Collinson in London. He said that in an accompanying packet he was sending his paper on whirlwinds and waterspouts for publication if Collinson thought it would be welcome; sample sheets of asbestos; some superior grease-free candles and a few cakes of American soap, “best in the world for shaving and washing fine linens;” notations describing the North American woodchuck or groundhog; a paper on a worm found in a woman’s liver; and “ten of my fireplace pieces” with a request that Collinson tell him of the reported improvements that one Harris had made of the fireplace. In the letter itself he reported on his activities in the Pennsylvania Assembly and on plans to establish settlements further west; discussed politics in America and England; outlined the present condition of the Library Company; described his mistaken efforts to mend a broken thermometer—“I only tell you this, that you and Mr. Bird may divert yourselves with laughing at me;” and requested that Collinson send him a copy of Johnson’s dictionary and his wife sufficient satin for a gown, “somewhat darker than the enclosed pattern.”
The range of interests and activities contained in the letter—from scientific observations, through inventions and notions that enhance the pleasures of living the everyday life, to a readiness to smile at his mistakes and offer them for the amusement of others—combines to provide a condensed tour of Benjamin Franklin’s mind and temperament, and it is the intention of this volume to offer an expanded version of such a tour, deepening it by representing a range of Franklin’s writings on the major areas of concern mentioned in the letter, and widening it by presenting writings in additional areas of ongoing concern to him such as religious belief and sexual conduct. Care has been taken, moreover, to provide access not just to Franklin’s thoughts but to his temperament as manifested in his literary manner as well as his matter—the differing tones he sounds from the ferocity of political satires that are, nevertheless, comic, to the playful flirtations that are, nevertheless, imbued with a sense of loss.
Stated concisely, it is the intention of this volume to place the reader in Benjamin Franklin’s presence.
Jason Hoppe assisted in the preparation and organization of this volume’s contents. The treatment of Benjamin Franklin and print culture in the Introduction incorporates in revised form the discussion of the subject in Larzer Ziff, Writing in the New Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), and appears here by permission of the publisher.
Note on the Texts
The text of the Autobiography is that established by Max Farrand in 1949.
Thomas Jefferson’s anecdote appears in Julian P. Boyd, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 18, November 1790-March 1791, © 1971 by Princeton University Press, and is here reprinted with the permission of the publisher. Some of the selections from the Pennsylvania Gazette are based on later reprintings, as are the “Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain” and “Advice to a Young Man.” All other items, which is to say the overwhelming majority, are drawn from The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Macmillan Company, 1905-07), 10 volumes, edited by Albert Henry Smyth. Franklin wrote two of them, “The Elysian Fields” and “Conte,” in French; they are here translated by Julia Kent.
Twyford, at the Bishop of St Asaph’s, 1771.
I have ever had a Pleasure in obtaining any little Anecdotes of my Ancestors. You may remember the Inquiries I made among the Remains of my Relations when you were with me in England; and the Journey I took for that purpose. Now imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the Circumstances of my Life, many of which you are yet unacquainted with; and expecting a Week’s uninterrupted Leisure in my present Country Retirement, I sit down to write them for you. To which I have besides some other Inducements. Having emerg’d from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro’ Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducing Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, & therefore fit to be imitated. That Felicity, when I reflected on it, has induc’d me sometimes to say, that were it offer’d to my Choice, I should have no Objection to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning, only asking the Advantages Authors have in a second Edition to correct some Faults of the first. So would I if I might, besides correcting the Faults, change some sinister Accidents & Events of it for others more favourable, but tho’ this were deny’d, I should still accept the Offer. However, since such a Repetition is not to be expected, the next Thing most like living one’s Life over again, seems to be a Recollection of that Life; and to make that Recollection as durable as possible, the putting it down in Writing. Hereby, too, I shall indulge the Inclination so natural in old Men, to be talking of themselves and their own past Actions, and I shall indulge it, without being troublesome to others who thro’ respect to Age might think themselves oblig’d to give me a Hearing, since this may be read or not as any one pleases. And lastly, (I may as well confess it, since my Denial of it will be believ’d by nobody) perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own Vanity. Indeed I scarce ever heard or saw the introductory Words, Without Vanity I may say, &c but some vain thing immediately follow’d. Most People dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves, but I give it fair Quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of Good to the Possessor & to others that are within his Sphere of Action: And therefore in many Cases it would not be quite absurd if a Man were to thank God for his Vanity among the other Comforts of Life.
And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all Humility to acknowledge, that I owe the mention’d Happiness of my past Life to his kind Providence, which led me to the Means I us’d & gave them Success. My Belief of this, induces me to hope, tho’ I must not presume, that the same Goodness will still be exercis’d towards me in continuing that Happiness, or in enabling me to bear a fatal Reverse, which I may experience as others have done, the Complexion of my future Fortune being known to him only: and in whose Power it is to bless to us even our Afflictions.
The Notes one of my Uncles (who had the same kind of Curiosity in collecting Family Anecdotes) once put into my Hands, furnish’d me with several Particulars relating to our Ancestors. From these Notes I learned that the Family had liv’d in the same Village, Ecton in Northamptonshire, for 300 Years, & how much longer he knew not (perhaps from the Time when the Name Franklin that before was the Name of an Order of People, was assum’d by them for a Surname, when others took Surnames all over the Kingdom.—on a Freehold of about 30 Acres, aided by the Smith’s Business which had continued in the Family till his Time, the eldest Son being always bred to that Business. A Custom which he & my Father both followed as to their eldest Sons. When I search’d the Register at Ecton, I found an Account of their Births, Marriages and Burials, from the Year 1555 only, there being no Register kept in that Parish at any time preceding. By that Register I perceiv’d that I was the youngest Son of the youngest Son for 5 Generations back. My Grandfather Thomas, who was born in 1598, lived at Ecton till he grew too old to follow Business longer, when he went to live with his Son John, a Dyer at Banbury in Oxfordshire, with whom my Father serv’d an Apprenticeship. There my Grandfather died and lies buried. We saw his Gravestone in 1758. His eldest Son Thomas liv’d in the House at Ecton, and left it with the Land to his only Child, a Daughter, who with her Husband, one Fisher of Wellingborough, sold it to Mr Isted, now Lord of the Manor there. My Grandfather had 4 Sons that grew up, viz. Thomas, John, Benjamin and Josiah. I will give you what Account I can of them at this distance from my Papers, and if they are not lost in my Absence, you will among them find many more Particulars. Thomas was bred a Smith under his Father, but being ingenious, and encourag’d in Learning (as all his Brothers like wise were) by an Esquire Palmer, then the principal Gentleman in that Parish, he qualify’d himself for the Business of Scrivener, became a considerable Man in the Country Affairs, was a chief Mover of all public Spirited Undertakings, for the Country, or Town of Northampton & his own Village, of which many Instances were told us at Ecton, and he was much taken Notice of and patroniz’d by the then Lord Halifax. He died in 1702, Jan. 6, old Style, just 4 Years to a Day before I was born. The Account we receiv’d of his Life & Character from some old People at Ecton, I remember struck you, as something extraordinary from its Similarity to what you knew of mine. Had he died on the same Day, you said one might have suppos’d a Transmigration. John was bred a Dyer, I believe of Woollens. Benjamin, was bred a Silk Dyer, serving an Apprenticeship at London. He was an ingenious Man, I remember him well, for when I was a Boy he came over to my Father in Boston, and lived in the House with us some Years. He lived to a great Age. His Grandson Samuel Franklin now lives in Boston. He left behind him two Quarto Volumes, M.S. of his own Poetry, consisting of little occasional Pieces address’d to his Friends and Relations, of which the following sent to me, is a Specimen. He had form’d a Shorthand of his own, which he taught me, but, never practising it I have now forgot it. I was nam’d after this Uncle, there being a particular Affection between him and my Father. He was very pious, a great Attender of Sermons of the best Preachers, which he took down in his Shorthand and had with him many Volumes of them. He was also much of a Politician, too much perhaps for his Station. There fell lately into my Hands in London a Collection he had made of all the principal Pamphlets relating to Public Affairs from 1641 to 1717. Many of the Volumes are wanting, as appears by the Numbering, but there still remains 8 Vols. Folio, and 24 in 4to & 8vo. A Dealer in old Books met with them, and knowing me by my sometimes buying of him, he brought them to me. It seems my Uncle must have left them here when he went to America, which was above 50 Years since. There are many of his Notes in the Margins.
This obscure Family of ours was early in the Reformation, and continu’d Protestants thro’ the Reign of Queen Mary, when they were sometimes in Danger of Trouble on Account of their Zeal against Popery. They had got an English Bible, & to conceal & secure it, it was fastened open with Tapes under & within the Frame of a Joint Stool. When my Great Great Grandfather read in it to his Family, he turn’d up the Joint Stool upon his Knees, turning over the Leaves then under the Tapes. One of the Children stood at the Door to give Notice if he saw the Apparitor coming, who was an Officer of the Spiritual Court. In that Case the Stool was turn’d down again upon its feet, when the Bible remain’d conceal’d under it as before. This Anecdote I had from my Uncle Benjamin. The Family continu’d all of the Church of England till about the End of Charles the 2ds Reign, when some of the Ministers that had been outed for Nonconformity, holding Conventicles in Northamptonshire, Benjamin & Josiah adher’d to them, and so continu’d all their Lives. The rest of the Family remain’d with the Episcopal Church.
Josiah, my Father, married young, and carried his Wife with three Children unto New England, about 1682. The Conventicles having been forbidden by Law, & frequently disturbed, induced some considerable Men of his Acquaintance to remove to that Country, and he was prevail’d with to accompany them thither, where they expected to enjoy their Mode of Religion with Freedom. By the same Wife he had 4 Children more born there, and by a second Wife ten more, in all 17, of which I remember 13 sitting at one time at his Table, who all grew up to be Men & Women, and married. I was the youngest Son, and the youngest Child but two, & was born in Boston, N. England. My Mother the 2d Wife was Abiah Folger, a Daughter of Peter Folger, one of the first Settlers of New England, of whom honorable mention is made by Cotton Mather; in his Church History of that Country, (entitled Magnalia Christi Americana) as a godly learned Englishman, if I remember the words rightly. I have heard that he wrote sundry small occasional Pieces, but only one of them was printed which I saw now many Years since. It was written in 1675, in the homespun Verse of that Time & People, and address’d to those then concern’d in the Government there. It was in favor of Liberty of Conscience, & in behalf of the Baptists, Quakers, & other Sectaries, that had been under Persecution; ascribing the Indian Wars & other Distresses, that had befallen the Country to that Persecution, as so many Judgments of God, to punish so heinous an Offense; and exhorting a Repeal of those uncharitable Laws. The whole appear’d to me as written with a good deal of Decent Plainness & manly Freedom. The six last concluding Lines I remember, tho’ I have forgotten the two first of the Stanza, but the Purport of them was that his Censures proceeded from Good Will, & therefore he would be known as the Author,
because to be a Libeller, (says he)
I hate it with my Heart.
From Sherburne Town where now I dwell,
My Name I do put here,
Without Offense, your real Friend,
It is Peter Folgier.
My elder Brothers were all put Apprentices to different Trades. I was put to the Grammar School at Eight Years of Age, my Father intending to devote me as the Tithe of his Sons to the Service of the Church. My early Readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read) and the Opinion of all his Friends that I should certainly make a good Scholar, encourag’d him in this Purpose of his. My Uncle Benjamin too approv’d of it, and propos’d to give me all his Shorthand Volumes of Sermons, I suppose as a Stock to set up with, if I would learn his Character. I continu’d however at the Grammar School not quite one Year, tho’ in that time I had risen gradually from the Middle of the Class of that Year to be the Head of it, and farther was remov’d into the next Class above it, in order to go with that into the third at the End of the Year. But my Father in the mean time, from a View of the Expense of a College Education which, having so large a Family, he could not well afford, and the mean Living many so educated were afterwards able to obtain, Reasons that he gave to his Friends in my Hearing, altered his first Intention, took me from the Grammar School, and sent me to a School for Writing & Arithmetic kept by a then famous Man, Mr Geo. Brownell, very successful in his Profession generally, and that by mild encouraging Methods. Under him I acquired fair Writing pretty soon, but I fail’d in the Arithmetic, & made no Progress in it. At Ten Years old, I was taken home to assist my Father in his Business, which was that of a Tallow Chandler and Soap Boiler. A Business he was not bred to, but had assumed on his Arrival in New England & on finding his Dying Trade would not maintain his Family, being in little Request. Accordingly I was employed in cutting Wick for the Candles, filling the Dipping Mold, & the Molds for cast Candles, attending the Shop, going of Errands, &c. I dislik’d the Trade and had a strong Inclination for the Sea; but my Father declar’d against it; however, living near the Water, I was much in and about it, learned early to swim well, & to manage Boats, and when in a Boat or Canoe with other Boys I was commonly allow’d to govern, especially in any case of Difficulty; and upon other Occasions I was generally a Leader among the Boys, and sometimes led them into Scrapes, of which I will mention one Instance, as it shows an early projecting public Spirit, tho’ not then justly conducted. There was a Salt Marsh that bounded part of the Mill Pond, on the Edge of which at Highwater, we us’d to stand to fish for Minews. By much Trampling, we had made it a mere Quagmire. My Proposal was to build a Wharf there fit for us to stand upon, and I show’d my Comrades a large Heap of Stones which were intended for a new House near the Marsh, and which would very well suit our Purpose. Accordingly in the Evening when the Workmen were gone, I assembled a Number of my Playfellows, and working with them diligently like so many Emmets, sometimes two or three to a Stone, we brought them all away and built our little Wharf. The next Morning the Workmen were surpris’d at Missing the Stones; which were found in our Wharf; Inquiry was made after the Removers; we were discovered & complain’d of; several of us were corrected by our Fathers; and tho’ I pleaded the Usefulness of the Work, mine convinc’d me that nothing was useful which was not honest.
I think you may like to know Something of his Person & Character. He had an excellent Constitution of body, was of middle Stature, but well set and very strong. He was ingenious, could draw prettily, was skill’d a little in Music and had a clear pleasing Voice, so that when he play’d Psalm Tunes on his Violin & sung withal as he sometimes did in an Evening after the Business of the Day was over, it was extremely agreeable to hear. He had a mechanical Genius too, and on occasion was very handy in the Use of other Tradesmen’s Tools. But his great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgment in prudential Matters, both in private & public Affairs. In the latter indeed he was never employed, the numerous Family he had to educate & the straitness of his Circumstances, keeping him close to his Trade, but I remember well his being frequently visited by leading People, who consulted him for his Opinion in Affairs of the Town or of the Church he belong’d to & show’d a good deal of Respect for his Judgment and Advice. He was also much consulted by private Persons about their Affairs when any Difficulty occur’d, & frequently chosen an Arbitrator between contending Parties. At his Table he lik’d to have as often as he could, some sensible Friend or Neighbor, to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful Topic for Discourse, which might tend to improve the Minds of his Children. By this means he turn’d our Attention to what was good, just, & prudent in the Conduct of Life; and little or no Notice was ever taken of what related to the Victuals on the Table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavor, preferable or inferior to this or that other thing of the kind; so that I was bro’t up in such a perfect Inattention to those Matters as to be quite Indifferent what kind of Food was set before me; and so unobservant of it, that to this Day, if I am ask’d I can scarce tell, a few Hours after Dinner, what I din’d upon. This has been a Convenience to me in travelling, where my Companions have been sometimes very unhappy for want of a suitable Gratification of their more delicate because better instructed Tastes and Appetites.
My Mother had likewise an excellent Constitution. She suckled all her 10 Children. I never knew either my Father or Mother to have any Sickness but that of which they dy’d, he at 89 & she at 85 years of age. They lie buried together at Boston, where I some years since placed a Marble stone over their Grave with this Inscription
And Abiah his Wife
Lie here interred.
They lived lovingly together in Wedlock
Without an Estate or any gainful Employment,
By constant labor and Industry,
With God’s Blessing,
They maintained a large Family
And brought up thirteen Children,
And seven Grand Children
From this Instance, Reader,
Be encouraged to Diligence in thy Calling,
And distrust not Providence.
He was a pious & prudent Man,
She a discreet and virtuous Woman.
Their youngest Son,
In filial Regard to their Memory,
Places this Stone.
J.F. born 1655—Died 1744—Ætat 89
A.F. born 1667—died 1752———85
By my rambling Digressions I perceive myself to be grown old. I us’d to write more methodically. But one does not dress for private Company as for a public Ball. ’Tis perhaps only Negligence.
To return. I continu’d thus employ’d in my Father’s Business for two Years, that is till I was 12 Years old; and my Brother John, who was bred to that Business, having left my Father, married and set up for himself at Rhode Island. There was all Appearance that I was destin’d to supply his Place and be a Tallow Chandler. But my Dislike to the Trade continuing, my Father was under Apprehensions that if he did not find one for me more agreeable, I should break away and get to Sea, as his Son Josiah had done to his great Vexation. He therefore sometimes took me to walk with him, and see Joiners, Bricklayers, Turners, Braziers, &c. at their Work, that he might observe my Inclination, & endeavor to fix it on some Trade or other on Land. It has ever since been a Pleasure to me to see good Workmen handle their Tools; and it has been useful to me, having learned so much by it, as to be able to do little Jobs myself in my House, when a Workman could not readily be got; & to construct little Machines for my Experiments while the Intention of making the Experiment was fresh & warm in my Mind. My Father at last fix’d upon the Cutler’s Trade, and my Uncle Benjamin’s Son Samuel, who was bred to that Business in London, being about that time establish’d in Boston, I was sent to be with him some time on liking. But his Expectations of a Fee with me displeasing my Father, I was taken home again.
From a Child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books. Pleas’d with the Pilgrim’s Progress, my first Collection was of John Bunyan’s Works, in separate little Volumes. I afterwards sold them to enable me to buy R. Burton’s Historical Collections; they were small Chapmen’s Books and cheap, 40 or 50 in all. My Father’s little Library consisted chiefly of Books in polemic Divinity, most of which I read, and have since often regretted, that at a time when I had such a Thirst for Knowledge, more proper Books had not fallen in my Way, since it was now resolv’d I should not be a Clergyman. Plutarch’s Lives there was, in which I read abundantly, and I still think that time spent to great Advantage. There was also a Book of Defoe’s, called an Essay on Projects, and another of Dr. Mather’s, call’d Essays to do Good which perhaps gave me a Turn of Thinking that had an Influence on some of the principal future Events of my Life.
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