Boston, Massachusetts has seen its fair share of famous Americans going back to the beginning of the nation. As one of the flashpoints of the American Revolution, there are several recognizable names. One of the most famous may be John Adams, second president of the United States and Founding Father. However, there was another famous name born in Boston on January 17, 1706. Without this man, there may have been no United States. He put a lasting stamp on his nation that he helped create. This man was Benjamin Franklin, often called Dr. Franklin or Ben Franklin by his contemporaries.
He hardly started out great. He was born to an immigrant Englishman and an American colonist. His father made candles and soaps.
And his mother’s family were blacksmiths and farmers. Benjamin’s father had been married twice, which made Ben the fifteenth child of Josiah Franklin and the eighth of his full siblings. He was, however, the last son for both his parents.
Ben Franklin’s childhood and education
Ben was raised in a Puritan household, the faith that his father had adopted after immigrating to the American colonies. From a young age he was surrounded by the idea of self-governing, as each congregation had its own principles and decided its own agenda. Discussion and study was also highly prized in these circles. That atmosphere would help shape his feelings about statesmanship and nation when he grew older.
Due to financial troubles, Ben was only able to attend the Boston Latin School for two years. Although he didn’t graduate, it was enough to wet his appetite for learning. He became a voracious reader, saving up any money that he could to buy books when he started working. This was at ten years old, when his formal education ended. He worked with his father until he was twelve, where he became apprenticed to his older brother James Franklin who was a printer.
When Ben was fifteen his brother founded The New-England Courant, which was one of the first independent newspapers in the colonies.
First writing job
Ben wanted to write for the newspaper, but his brother told him no. He still submitted letters to his brother, but each time was denied. Not deterred, Ben invented one of his first pen names. He took on the persona of a local middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood. He would write a letter for the newspaper once every two weeks, sliding the letter under the door of his brother’s print shop. The letters were humorous, often making jokes about life in colonial America.
I highly recommend reading the letters.
Silence Dogood was a complex character, created with a backstory so convincing that offers of marriage were sent to the paper to pass on to “her”. The stories were highly amusing to readers and the persona allowed Ben to share some of his views about freedom of speech.
In 1722, James had been jailed for three weeks due to publishing letters that insulted the governor. During that time, Ben took over the print shop and continued to put out the paper. Through Mrs. Dogood he proclaimed that freedom of thought and speech were paramount to societal liberty. Despite the readers never catching onto the ruse of Silence Dogood, Ben was caught by his brother after fourteen letters.
James didn’t take kindly to being deceived and finding out that his younger brother was the popular correspondent. Ben ended up leaving his apprenticeship without his brother’s permission. At the time, this was illegal and made Ben a fugitive. At seventeen, he arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the place that would be most associated with his name in the future.
A new beginning in Philadelphia
He started by working in print shops, thanks to the skills he had learned during his apprenticeship. However, he wasn’t pleased with his prospects. He wanted there to be something more for Philadelphia, and in only a few months he’d convinced the Pennsylvania governor, Sir William Keith, to go to England to purchase equipment to establish a newspaper.
In the meantime, Ben had gone about to secure a place in the community. He proposed to Deborah Read, the daughter of the house he was boarding in. She was fifteen years old at the time. Her mother was wary of allowing the girl to marry a young man who was about to set off for London. Beyond that, Ben didn’t have much money. Mrs. Read denied Ben’s request.
Although unlucky in his first attempt at a marriage prospect, Ben accompanied Sir Keith to London, getting his first taste of a city he would spend quite some time in. He worked as a typesetter while he waited on the promise of a printing press.
Unfortunately, Sir Keith’s promise to acquire a printing press was hollow. Again, not deterred, Ben found passage back to Philadelphia with the help of a merchant named Thomas Denham. Ben worked for him as a clerk, shopkeeper, and bookkeeper in his business when they arrived back in Philadelphia. He would work for him until 1728, when Denham passed away. At that time, Ben went back to his first trade, setting up a printing press and publishing a newspaper called The Pennsylvania Gazette. Through this paper he was able to print essays about local issues and events. His writings began to give him a sense of respectability as a thoughtful young man.
First steps as a politician, as a revolutionary
He continued to not be idle. In 1727, at twenty-one, he founded a social group named “the Junto”. This group of young progressives focused on discussions with issues of the day.
The Junto was very diverse and included people of all trades. It was comprised of artisans and tradesman who shared similar ideologies.
While in London, Ben had been inspired by the English coffeehouses and the discussions held within. This group gave rise to several organization and social societies in Pennsylvania.
The members of the Junto were also voracious readers, but at the time books were very expensive. They began to compile their books into a library. Ben came up with the idea of a subscription library where the funds of the members would be able to purchase books. From this collection the Library Company of Philadelphia was born, chartered in 1731.
The first American librarian would be hired to work there in 1732. And the Library Company still exists today!
Ben had still not given up on Deborah Read for a wife. While he had gone to London, she had married, but the man had fled with her dowry to the Barbados. Due to the laws at the time, since no one knew if her first husband had died or not, she was not able to officially marry. Despite that, they formed a common-law marriage on September 1, 1730. She became mother to his illegitimate son, William, whose mother was unknown.
By 1733, Ben had another son and had started publishing what would become his most successful work, Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he wrote as Richard Saunders. It was no secret that he was the author, although the fictional persona often denies it. This book was filled with both original and borrowed adages, many of which are still quoted today.
I found the Almanack extremely interesting not only for the proverbs but also for the many handy suggestions. You can find full scanned editions here.
Benjamin Franklin made a great deal out of his youth. He established himself within his society and always strove to keep moving forward. Even when his actions would have brought others social shame, such as illegally leaving an apprenticeship or claiming an illegitimate son, he was not deterred. He engaged with the force of his personality and his drive to share what he believed in. These writing and actions would set the stage for many of the moments for which he would become even more famous.