Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Benjamin Franklin,
the Father of the American Union

Far back in colonial days there lived in Boston a poor candle-maker named Josiah Franklin, who, like many poor men, was rich in children. There were seventeen of them in all, but only one of these, the youngest son, was ever heard of afterwards. But this one made up for all the rest, for he grew to be one of the greatest men in the whole history of the American colonies.

Little Benjamin showed himself a bright boy, but he had not much chance for schooling. His father had so many children that they had to help him make a living, and Benjamin was put into his father's soap and candle shop when he was ten years old, his school life lasting only two years. He had learned little more than how to read and write, but, like Abraham Lincoln, many years afterwards, he made very good use of this small learning.

He was very fond of books, but had to do all his reading at night by the light of the kitchen fire, or perhaps by a tallow candle of his own making. He was an active and industrious lad, though as fond perhaps of play as of work and, like a true boy, at times given to mischief. He loved the water, and after a while took a fancy to be a sailor, as he was getting very tired of candle and soap making. His father was afraid he might run away to sea, and therefore, as the boy thought so much of books, he took him out of the shop and put him to learn the printing trade with his brother, who had a printing office.

This suited Benjamin very well. He soon learned to set type, but he liked most of all to go to the bookstore, where he got an opportunity to borrow books for his evening reading. The quick-witted little fellow in time fancied that he could write himself, and he began to compose verses, which his Brother thought so much of that he printed them and sent the young poet out to sell his own verses. This made him very proud of his talent, until his father laughed at him, saying, "Verse makers are likely to be beggars."

The house in which Franklin was born


It may be this that caused Benjamin to give up poetry and take to prose. His brother printed a small newspaper, one of the first in America, and the boy began to write small things for it. These he slipped under the office door at night, so that no one should know who wrote them. He grew very proud again when he saw them in print and heard a gentleman in the office talk of them as very good.

Printing a newspaper was not always a pleasant thing in those days. Something James Franklin put in his paper made the governor so angry that he sent him to prison for a month. While he was in jail Benjamin got out the paper and printed some sharp things which seem to have made the governor more angry than ever, for when James Franklin was let out of prison he was forbidden to publish a newspaper any longer.

James got around this by publishing the paper in the name of Benjamin Franklin. This was another thing to make the boy, then only seventeen, proud. It may also have made him a little saucy and rather too independent for an apprentice, for after this there were many quarrels between the two brothers, and finally Benjamin left the office, saying he would not work there any longer.

He tried to get work in other printing offices in Boston, but none of them would have him, as they knew that he was apprenticed to his brother. As he could get no employment in Boston, he resolved to leave there. He had to do it secretly, for by law his brother could hold him, so he got some money by selling part of his books, and took passage in a sloop for New York. There was no work to be had in that city, and he next set out for Philadelphia, then the largest city in the colonies.

In his very entertaining autobiography Benjamin Franklin has told us all about this part of his life. We read there the story of how he crossed New Jersey, walking much of the way and going down the Delaware in a boat. When he reached Philadelphia he was in his working clothes, with his very small baggage stuffed into his pockets. He walked up the street, munching at some rolls of bread he had bought at a baker's shop and gazing about curiously at the Quaker city. A girl named Deborah Read, standing at the door of her father's shop, laughed to see this queer-looking boy, with his hands full of bread and his pockets full of clothing. She got to know him better in later years, and in the end became his wife, and a very good one she made.

All this is of interest, as dealing with the early life of a very remarkable man. That he was not a common boy may be seen by what he did in his brother's office before he was seventeen years of age. The remainder of Franklin's autobiography is full of interesting matter and shows us that from the start he was a leader of men and a starter of new things. But we cannot go into the details of these, as his life is full of more important matter, about which something must be said.

The runaway printer's apprentice was not long in finding work to do in Philadelphia. He was an excellent type-setter, and had read so much and had such a fund of information that he was very useful in a printing office.

He was only a year in Philadelphia when the governor of Pennsylvania, seeing how bright and able he was, promised to help him set up a shop of his own, and he took ship for England to buy type and other materials for this purpose. But the money promised him did not come, and he had to go to work as a printer in London, where he stayed for more than a year. The governor had treated him very badly, but in 1729, when he was twenty-three years old, some friends helped him to start in business in Philadelphia and to buy out a newspaper. The next year he married Deborah Read.

Franklin's paper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, was soon popular and profitable, and his own writings in it were much appreciated. In a few years he began to publish an almanac, put out under the name of Richard Saunders. It became known as Poor Richard's Almanac, and was full of useful facts and clever hints and bright sayings, telling people how to live frugally. It was a sort of book of proverbs, and of shrewd common sense, and had a multitude of readers for many years.

Young as he was, Franklin was wide awake to all that was going on, and was well up in literature. He was a friend of the brightest people in the city, and formed a number of them into a social and literary club called the Junto. Simplicity and common sense marked all the doings of the club, for Franklin was its leader and there was never a man of better judgment. It kept together for forty years, and out of it grew the American Philosophical Society, which still stands high among scientific bodies. And the small collection of books made by the members was the beginning of the noble Philadelphia Library, the first subscription library in America.

These were two of the things which Franklin started, but they were not all. He had his eyes on everything, and there was no public movement in which he did not take part. He laid the foundation of the University of Pennsylvania, he formed the first fire company in the city, he was the first to propose street paving, and in fact he was the busiest and most alert citizen of America's greatest city. Any one who wanted anything done went to Franklin first of all.

All this time he was pushing his business and making money. He never put on airs or was too proud to do honest labor, and might be seen in the street wearing a leathern apron, and wheeling goods to his shop in a wheelbarrow, not caring who saw him or what they might think.

Benjamin Franklin soon got to be known as something more than a mere business man. He became an able writer, what he wrote being so full of shrewd sense and discretion that it was read all through the colonies. In addition there was a quaint simplicity about it and a vein of homely and pleasant humor that made it very good reading. People read his writings with satisfaction to-day, and that is more than can be said of the other writers of colonial times.

He was much more than a business man and a writer; he was a keen observer of the ways of nature, and if he had not been so busy in other ways might have made a great figure in science. As it was, he made many discoveries of importance. Thus he pointed out the course of storms over the American continent, he studied the course and character of the Gulf Stream, and he investigated the powers of the different colors in absorbing the heat of the sun.

But his greatest service to science was in the field of electricity. This was then a very young science, and people knew hardly anything about it. No one, for instance, knew that lightning had anything to do with electricity, though some suspected it. Franklin, in his practical way, set himself to find out, and he did it in a very simple manner. He raised a kite into the clouds during a thunder-storm, and when a current of electricity came down the string and a spark flew from a key at the end to his knuckles he was a very happy man, for he knew that he had made a great discovery.

His experiment was talked of and repeated all over Europe and made him a famous man. One man tried it in Russia and brought down so much of the lightning that he was killed by the stroke. But Franklin was quite satisfied with his first trial, and set himself at work to make his discovery of use to mankind. He proposed that buildings should be protected by lightning rods, to carry the electric charge to the earth, and this is one of his practical ideas that are still in use.

One might think that Benjamin Franklin, with his business, and his newspaper, and his looking after the affairs of the city, and his studies in science, and his literary labors and social duties, had quite enough to occupy his time, but he found leisure to do many other things. He was interested in all the affairs of the colonies, and became so active in them that he made himself one of the greatest public men of the time. The shrewd common sense and broad ideas which he applied in his business were also applied in public affairs and proved as useful in one as in the other.

In 1736 he was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, in 1737 was made postmaster of Pennsylvania, and some years later was appointed post-master general of all the colonies. Soon after he was made clerk he was elected a member of the Assembly, which then met in Philadelphia, and later was one of the commissioners sent to treat with the Pennsylvania Indians.

A very important event in his life took place in 1754, when there was great danger of war with France. A congress of deputies from the colonies was held at Albany to treat with the chiefs of the Iroquois Indians of New York. Pennsylvania sent Franklin as its most important man. What he did was to propose a plan for the union of all the colonies for mutual defence. If they were united, he said, they could take care of themselves and would not need troops from Europe. It was the first step taken towards an American Union.

Franklin, in his quaint way, illustrated the position of the colonies by the figure of a snake broken up into thirteen sections. He wished to make them see that a whole snake was much stronger than one cut up into thirteen bits, each acting for itself, and that a whole union would be the same. His plan was rejected by the congress, whose members were jealous for their several colonies. It was also rejected by the British government, which did not want the colonies to become united and powerful. Franklin was much disappointed, for he felt they were all making a mistake. Thus this first step towards a union in America fell through.

Franklin was now recognized as the ablest statesman in the colonies, and during the remainder of his life he was kept busy in the public service. When General Braddock wanted wagons for his army and could not get them in Virginia, Franklin obtained them for him from the Pennsylvania farmers, promising to pay for them himself if they were lost. The farmers were more ready to trust him than the English general. In 1757 he was sent to England by Pennsylvania to try to make the sons of William Penn pay their share of the tax for the war with the French and Indians, then going on. This was a very different visit from that of some thirty years before, when he went to London as a boy to buy type. He was now in a position to deal with the great men of England, and succeeded in making the Penns do their duty. Seven years later he was sent back to England, this time by all the colonies, to protest against the taxes that were being laid upon Americans. He stayed there over ten years, doing all he could to have the unjust taxes repealed, and before he came back the battle of Lexington had been fought and the whole country was in a wild fever of excitement.

A man of Franklin's ability was wanted now. While brave men were needed in the army, wise men were needed in the councils, and the day after he landed, on May 6, 1775, he was chosen as a member of the Continental Congress. Pennsylvania fully recognized, the excellent work he had done in Europe, and in this way rewarded him for it.

The next year he was one of the famous committee of five to prepare the Declaration of Independence, and soon after was one of the noble fifty-four who risked their lives and all they owned by signing this great paper. When one of the members said after the Declaration had been signed, "Now we must all hang together," Franklin replied, with his ready wit, "Yes, or we will surely all hang separately."

Franklin made himself active and prominent in the Congress, as he did in everything in which he was concerned. His plan to unite the colonies in 1754 had been defeated, but he helped to unite them now by drafting the form of union that was called the Articles of Confederation. He was made the first Postmaster General of the Confederation; he visited Washington's camp and consulted with him upon ways and means; he went to Canada to see if the people there would join the colonies; he worked on important committees, and his influence was felt in everything that was done.

But the great ability of Dr. Franklin, as he was now called, was best recognized when, near the close of 1776, he was sent to France with the hope of gaining its support in the war with England. He was now seventy years old, and was looked upon as one of the foremost people in the world. He had won great fame both as a scientist and as a statesman, and when he appeared in Paris he was greeted with a delight and enthusiasm enough to turn the head of many men.

His simple ways and quaint American manners charmed the French. Though the great University of Oxford had made him a Doctor of Laws, though he was renowned for his learning, his inventions, his discoveries in science, his homely proverbial wisdom, his ability as a statesman, he was only a plain colonist in his dress and manners and won esteem wherever he went. He completely won over the people to favor the American cause, but the government held back from openly aiding the colonists, though it secretly helped them with money. It was not till 1778, after the capture of Burgoyne's whole army, that a treaty was signed and France sent soldiers and ships to the aid of the Americans.

Franklin stayed in Paris, working in a dozen ways for the good of his countrymen. Among other things, he helped to fit out the fleet of vessels with which Paul Jones won his great naval victory. In 1783 he was one of the commissioners to make peace with England, and signed the treaty which gave liberty to the United States.

It was 1785 when Franklin returned from France. He was then in the eightieth year of his age, and the infirmities of old age were telling upon him. His reception in America was enthusiastic. Even Washington was not regarded with more honor and esteem. These two men, the one in war, the other in the council chamber, had been the leaders in gaining liberty for the colonies, and both were looked up to as America's greatest men.

Franklin had barely landed when he was elected President of Pennsylvania, and he filled this office for three years. While he was president it became very evident that the Articles of Confederation were too weak to hold the States together, and a convention was called to form a stronger union. Franklin, as may well be imagined, was elected a member of this convention, and he took a leading part in forming the Constitution of the United States. Thus he aided in completing the work which he had begun in Albany in 1754. The broken sections of the snake were at length firmly united, and a sound union was formed.

This work done, Franklin retired from public life. He had now passed the age for active service, and two years later, on the 17th of April, 1790, the wise old sage passed away, in the eighty-fifth year of his life.

It would be hard to find in history another man who became as eminent in various ways. He was equally great as a statesman, a scientist, and a practical man of affairs, while as a philosopher of homely common sense he has rarely had his equal. His writings continue to this day to be republished in almost every written tongue. They were nearly all produced during his years of editorial work, and they constitute the best and most original literature coming to us from colonial times. Finally, he deserves very great credit for his services in the cause of American liberty, and his persistent efforts in bringing about a union of the colonies and the states.