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THE FIRST GREAT AMERICAN
“He snatched the lightning from heaven and their scepter from tyrants."
In the reign of Good Queen Anne of England, ten little English colonies were struggling to gain a foothold on the eastern coast of North America. Smoke curled slowly upward from rough log cabins in the clearings of the silent forest. Close to the sea had sprung up a few small cities and towns-many of the towns not much larger than some of our villages of today. Their low, deep-roofed houses, wide of hearth, like those of the mother country, set back from narrow unpaved streets.
There was just this fringe of English life along the shore. Behind it were three thousand miles of continent filled with savage Indians.
FATHER AND SON
In the colony of Massachusetts, in the city of Boston, Benjamin Franklin was born January 17, 1706. He was the fifteenth of seventeen children, thirteen of whom lived to be men and women and founded homes of their own. He came of strong and vigorous stock. His father lived to be eighty-nine years of age; his mother, to be eighty-five. So far as Benjamin could remember, neither had ever been sick a day in their long lives.
His father, Josiah Franklin, an emigrant from England, was an earnest, hard-working man with great skill in the use of all kinds of tools and a gift for music and drawing. His judgement was so respected that his friends and neighbors, and even the leading men of Boston, used to come to him for practical advice. After two years of schooling, Benjamin went to work, at the age of ten, in his father's shop. Mr. Franklin was a soap boiler and candle maker, so the small boy spent his time cutting wicks and filling molds for candles, tending shop and running errands. He hated this work and longed to go to sea. Swimming and pottering about boats, all his spare moments were spent near the water. He led the boys in their games and scrapes and became an expert swimmer.
At last, his father, fearing that Benjamin would run away to sea, as an older brother had done, took him to see men of different trades at their work, hoping to arouse in the boy an interest in something that would keep him on land. Benjamin was always full of eager curiosity about everything in the world. He liked to watch work done well, and he learned to use his hands so skillfully, that he became an excellent mechanic. In after years he was able himself to make everything that he needed for the most difficult scientific experiments, and for the work of his inventions; and he often did odd jobs about his home, when no workman could be had.
Always Franklin had a passion for books. He says in the story he wrote of his own life: “I cannot remember when I could not read." In those days there were no public libraries; books were scarce; in all America only four of the colonies had printing presses. Among his father's few books, he read over and over Plutarch's Lives of Great Men, a book that has helped and inspired many another young fellow who has afterwards become a great man himself. Saving his pennies, he bought a copy of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. He read this till he had learned it almost by heart. Then he sold it, and with the money, and a little more that he had saved, he bought forty or fifty small cheap histories.
A BOY PRINTER IN BOSTON
Because of this love for books, his father finally put Benjamin, when he was twelve years old, to work with his brother James, who was a printer. Now there was more chance for the boy to read. He shrewdly made many friends among the apprentices of book sellers, and persuaded them to lend him books from their masters' shelves. By the light of a farthing candle, made in his father's shop, he often read one of these books through the night and far into the morning hours, that it might be returned to its place before the shops were opened.
Reading soon led to Benjamin's writing short poems, which his brother sent him to peddle in the streets of Boston; but his father put a stop to it by telling him plainly that poets were always beggars. About this time, there came into his hands a copy of the Spectator, an English paper that was soon to be famous. It was written by two men named Addison and Steele. He read it as he had read Plutarch's Lives; he patiently rewrote its essays in his own words, and then compared them with the Spectator and corrected them. In this way he tried to learn to write clearly and well. At the same time he trained his mind by studying navigation, arithmetic and grammar.
To save money to buy the books he loved, he asked his brother to give him half of what it cost to board him, and let him provide his own food. After that a visitor to Franklin's shop, during the noon hour, would have found Benjamin, all alone, eagerly studying his books, while he munched a biscuit or a piece of bread, and a handful of raisins or a tart from the pastry shop-a poor meal that he washed down with a glass of water. He saved half the amount given him for food and collected quite a library.
Ambitious to see something of his own printed in his brother's paper, The New England Courant, he slipped some pages that he had written under the door of the printing house. To his great joy they were printed and, after several such successes, he confessed that he had written them.
SEEKING HIS FORTUNE
James Franklin always acted toward his brother like a tyrant. He was harsh and hot tempered and often beat the boy. This treatment gave Benjamin a hatred of power unfairly used, and this hatred he never lost throughout his long life. Even as a boy he rebelled,
and left his brother's shop. James prevented ‘his finding work with any printer in Boston. So the resolute lad sold many of the books that had cost him so much in self-denial and saving, and secretly took passage for New York. Finding no work there, he set out for Philadelphia by boat. On this voyage he was nearly shipwrecked and, after many adventures crossing New Jersey fifty miles on foot, he took a rowboat down the Delaware to Philadelphia.
Weary, hungry, wet and dirty, the pockets of his working clothes stuffed out with shirts and stockings, his whole capital a Dutch dollar and a few pennies in copper, he landed at Market Street Wharf, Philadelphia, alone in a strange city.
He walked up the little unpaved street gazing curiously about him, till he met a boy with bread. He asked him the way to the baker's, hurried there and bought for three pence three great puffy rolls. He tucked one under each arm, and walked up Market Street devouring the third. Deborah Read, a young girl out on her father's door step, laughed heartily at his comical appearance, little dreaming that she would one day become his wife. Still eating, Franklin wandered about till he found himself again at the wharf, where he took a drink of the river water, and gave his other two rolls to a woman and her child who were there waiting for a boat.
These are his own words, that tell what else he did that first Sunday in Philadelphia, and how he wandered into one of the silent religious meetings of the Quakers: "Thus refreshed I walked again up the street, which by this time had many clean dressed people in it, all walking the same way. I joined them and was thereby led into the great meeting house of the Quakers near the market. I sat down among them, and after looking around for a while and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy through labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep and continued so until the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. Walking down again toward the river and looking in the faces of people, I met a young Quaker man whose countenance I liked, and, accosting him, requested he would tell me where a stranger could get lodging. He brought me to the 'Crooked Billet ' in Water Street. Here I got dinner and, while I was eating it, several sly questions were asked me, as it seemed to be suspected from my youth and appearance that I might be some runaway.”
The boy quickly found work in Philadelphia with