Benjamin Franklin: Contribution to American Literature

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      Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography stands first among works of its kind in American literature. The young person who does not read it misses both profit and entertainment. Some critics have called it "the equal of Robinson Crusoe, one of the few everlasting books in the English language." In this small volume, begun in 1771, Franklin tells us that he was born in Boston in 1706, one of the seventeen children of a poor tallow chandler, that his branch of the Franklin family had lived for three hundred years or more in the village of Ecton, Northamptonshire, where the head of the family, in Queen Mary's reign, read from an English Bible concealed under a stool, while a child watched for the coming of the officers. He relates how he attended school from the age of eight to ten, when he had to leave to help his father mold and wick candles. His meager schooling was in striking contrast to the Harvard education of Cotton Mather and the Yale training of Jonathan Edwards, who was only three years Franklin's senior. But no man reaches Franklin's fame without an education. His early efforts to secure this are worth giving in his own language:—

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

      "From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books. Pleased with the Pilgrim's Progress, my first collection was of John Bunyan's works in separate little volumes…. 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 De Foe's, called an Essay on Projects, and another of Dr. Mather's, called 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…. Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night."

      He relates how he taught himself to write by reading and reproducing in his own language the papers from Addison's Spectator. Franklin says that the "little ability" in writing, developed through his self-imposed tasks, was a principal means of his advancement in after life.

      He learned the printer's trade in Boston, and ran away at the age of seventeen to Philadelphia, where he worked at the same trade. Keith, the proprietary governor, took satanic pleasure in offering to purchase a printing outfit for the eighteen-year-old boy, to make him independent. Keith sent the boy to London to purchase this outfit, assuring him that the proper letters to defray the cost would be sent on the same ship. No such letters were ever written, and the boy found himself without money three thousand miles from home. By working at the printer's trade he supported himself for eighteen months in London. He relates how his companions at the press drank six pints of strong beer a day, while he proved that the "Water-American," as he was called, was stronger than any of them. The workmen insisted that he should contribute to the general fund for drink. He refused, but so many things happened to his type whenever he left the room that he came to the following conclusion: "Notwithstanding the master's protection, I found myself oblig'd to comply and pay the money, convinc'd of the folly of being on ill terms with those one is to live with continually." Such comments on the best ways of dealing with human nature are frequent in the Autobiography.

      At the age of twenty, he returned to Philadelphia, much wiser for his experience. Here he soon had a printing establishment of his own. By remarkable industry he had at the age of forty-two made sufficient money to be able to retire from the active administration of this business. He defined leisure as "time for doing something useful." When he secured this leisure, he used it principally for the benefit of others. For this reason, he could write in his Autobiography at the age of seventy-six:—

      "… were it offered 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 I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accidents and events of it for others more favorable. But though this were denied, I should still accept the offer. Since such a repetition is not to be expected, the next thing like living one's life over again seems to be a recollection of that life."

      The twentieth century shows an awakened sense of civic responsibility, and yet it would be difficult to name a man who has done more for his commonwealth than Franklin. He started the first subscription library, organized the first fire department, improved the postal service, helped to pave and clean the streets, invented the Franklin stove, for which he refused to take out a patent, took decided steps toward improving education and founding the University of Pennsylvania, and helped establish a needed public hospital. The Autobiography shows his pleasure at being told that there was no such thing as carrying through a public-spirited project unless he was concerned in it.

      His electrical discoveries, especially his identification of lightning with electricity, gained him world-wide fame. Harvard and Yale gave him honorary degrees. England made him a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded him the Copley Medal. The foremost scientists in France gave him enthusiastic praise.

      The Autobiography, ending with 1757, does not tell how he won his fame as a statesman. In 1764 he went to England as colonial agent to protest against the passage of the Stamp Act. All but two and one half of the next twenty years he spent abroad, in England and France. The report of his examination in the English House of Commons, relative to the repeal of the Stamp Act, impressed both Europe and America with his wonderful capacity. Never before had an American given Europe such an exhibition of knowledge, powers of argument, and shrewdness, tempered with tact and good humor.

      In 1773 he increased his reputation as a writer and threw more light on English colonial affairs by publishing, in London, Rules for Reducing a Great Empire to a Small One, and An Edict by the King of Prussia. In 1776, at the age of seventy, he became commissioner to the court of France, where he remained until 1785. Every student of American history knows the part he played there in popularizing the American Revolution, until France aided us with her money and her navy. It is doubtful if any man has ever been more popular away from home than Franklin was in France. The French regarded him as "the personification of the rights of man." They followed him on the streets, gave him almost frantic applause when he appeared in public, put his portrait in nearly every house and on almost every snuff box, and bought a Franklin stove for their houses.

      He returned to Philadelphia in 1785, revered by his country. He was the only man who had signed four of the most famous documents in American history: the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the treaty of peace with England at the close of the Revolution, and the Constitution of the United States. He had also become, as he remains to-day, America's most widely read colonial writer. When he died in 1790, the American Congress and the National Assembly of France went into mourning.

      [Illustration: FACSIMILE OF THE TITLE-PAGE TO "POOR RICHARD'S ALMANAC" FOR 1733] GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—As an author, Franklin is best known for his philosophy of the practical and the useful. Jonathan Edwards turned his attention to the next world; Franklin, to this world. The gulf is as vast between these two men as if they had lived on different planets. To the end of his life, Franklin's energies were bent toward improving the conditions of this mundane existence. He advises honesty, not because an eternal spiritual law commands it, but because it is the best policy. He needs to be supplemented by the great spiritual teachers. He must not be despised for this reason, for the great spiritual forces fail when they neglect the material foundations imposed on mortals. Franklin was as necessary as Jonathan Edwards. Franklin knew the importance of those foundation habits, without which higher morality is not possible. He impressed on men the necessity of being regular, temperate, industrious, saving, of curbing desire, and of avoiding vice. The very foundations of character rest on regularity, on good habits so inflexibly formed that it is painful to break them. Franklin's success in laying these foundations was phenomenal. His Poor Richard's Almanac, begun in 1733, was one of his chief agencies in reaching the common people. They read, reread, and acted on such proverbs as the following, which he published in this Almanac from year to year:—

[Footnote: The figures in parenthesis indicate the year of publication.] "He has changed his one ey'd horse for a blind one" (1733). "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead" (1735). "Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it" (1736). "Fly pleasures and they'll follow you" (1738). "Have you somewhat to do to-morrow; do it to-day" (1742). "Tart words make no friends: a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar" (1744).

      In 1757 Franklin gathered together what seemed to him the most striking of these proverbs and published them as a preface to the Almanac for 1758. This preface, the most widely read of all his writings, has since been known as The Way to Wealth. It had been translated into nearly all European languages before the end of the nineteenth century. It is still reprinted in whole or part almost every year by savings banks and societies in France and England, as well as in the United States. "Dost thou love life?" asks Poor Richard in The Way to Wealth. "Then," he continues, "do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of." Franklin modestly disclaimed much originality in the selection of these proverbs, but it is true that he made many of them more definite, incisive, and apt to lodge in the memory. He has influenced, and he still continues to influence, the industry and thrift of untold numbers. In one of our large cities, a branch library, frequented by the humble and unlearned, reports that in one year his Autobiography was called for four hundred times, and a life of him, containing many of Poor Richard's sayings, was asked for more than one thousand times.

      He is the first American writer to show a keen sense of humor. There may be traces of humor in The Simple Cobbler of Agawam (p. 41) and in Cotton Mather (p. 46), but Franklin has a rich vein. He used this with fine effect when he was colonial agent in England. He determined to make England see herself from the American point of view, and so he published anonymously in a newspaper An Edict of the King of Prussia. This Edict proclaimed that it was a matter of common knowledge that Britain had been settled by Hengist and Horsa and other German colonists, and that, in consequence of this fact, the King of Prussia had the right to regulate the commerce, manufactures, taxes, and laws of the English. Franklin gave in this Edict the same reasons and embodied the same restrictions, which seemed so sensible to George III. and the Tories. Franklin was the guest of an English Lord, when a man burst into the room with the newspaper containing the Edict, saying, "Here's news for ye! Here's the King of Prussia claiming a right to this kingdom!"

      In writing English prose, Franklin was fortunate in receiving instruction from Bunyan and Addison. The pleasure of reading Franklin's Autobiography is increased by his simple, easy, natural way of relating events. Simplicity, practicality, suggestiveness, common sense, were his leading attributes. His sense of humor kept him from being tiresome and made him realize that the half may be greater than the whole. The two people most useful to the age in which they lived were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

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