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The service done by Benjamin Franklin to the Benjamin mind of America, in the eighteenth cenFranklin, 1706–1790. tury, was great and high. He followed the earnest theologians who, intent upon making New England the garden of the Lord, merged the idea of the commonwealth in that of the theocracy. He preceded, in a part of his important labors, the nation-makers of the period between 1760 and 1790, who attracted the attention of European thinkers, and deeply affected the future statecraft of the world. But when colonialism was developing into nationality Franklin carried its personal message to Europe, and by his previously acquired reputation, by his learning and persistence, by his catholic ability, and most of all, perhaps, by his tact, impressed foreign diplomats and students with the idea that intellectual weight could be found in men and measures west of the Atlantic. If Franklin could have spent his life in the pursuits of science his reputation would hardly have been higher, in that general department, than it is at present. If, on the other hand, he had not spent time in scientific investigations—to him, in a sense, a recreation and avocation rather than a
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vocation—his diplomatic labors, his work in aiding his strong-minded contemporaries in nation-building, and his practical creation of the United States postoffice, would have given him a firm reputation at a time when, in American politics, lived and worked such men as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. His personality was as strongly-marked as that of any of the five just named, and his breadth of achievement—though not of tastes--more conspicuous than that of the versatile Jefferson himself. If this seem high praise, it has been amply confirmed by a century of criticism. Franklin's faults were not few; he was personally culpable and intellectually limited, as we shall see in this study of his character; but when all deductions are made, the great and human figure of Franklin still arouses interest and enthusiasm in an unusual degree-largely because he was a product characteristically American.
Franklin was a Boston boy by birth, his natal day having been in the sixth year of the eigh
His youth. teenth century, the beginning of which seemed to mark the modern period of the world's history. His father had come from England twentyfour years before, the family being of the class which, in the somewhat aristocratic democracy of Massachusetts Bay, could be called no more than respectable. Most of the Boston notables in the eighteenth century were members of the higher families, and in due time went to Harvard College. Not such was Franklin's fortune ; he was taken from school when a little fellow of nine years and set to
work to help his father in his business, that of a tallow-chandler and soap-boiler. Three years wore away in this humdrum life, when the boy became an “apprentice” in the printing-house of his brother James. At that time the periodical press was just beginning to have a real existence. Addison's Spectator had been familiar in Boston for a few years, and when James Franklin started, 1721, his New England Courant, the second American newspaper, young Franklin was minded to try to write essays of the Addison-Steele order. While lacking any systematic education, he had always been an omnivorous reader; and though few books were then available, he had sensibly selected many standards of the day, and of the rich seventeenth century. That impalpable thing which we call style he had absorbed, at least in part; and his native good-sense soon removed him from merely imitative work. The “art of putting things” in written words was really introduced by Franklin to American readers. These vigorous and readable articles in the Courant were at first contributed by Franklin without his brother's knowledge; when the secret came out James did not bestow upon the earnest young scribbler the praise which had been expected; an estrangement deepened, and the most promising lad yet born in New England sold some of his few and precious books, and late in 1723, aged seventeen, betook himself to Philadelphia, of which he was to become the most distinguished citizen.
Penniless and friendless, his trade stood him in good stead, and he found employment in the printing
house of one Keimer, a Jew. “ The printer,” in those days, combined the functions of the modern publisher and editor, though the public usually learned when the printer-like Keimer—was not an intellectual force. Franklin, still a boy, soon came to have a little local renown as the brains of the Keimer establishment. So illustrious a personage, presumably, as was Sir William Keith, governor of Pennsylvania, “patronized” him, in the old-fashioned sense; and on the strength of Keith's untrustworthy promises to set him up in business, Franklin went to London in the winter of 1724-5, only to repeat his poverty-stricken Philadelphia experience. Typesetting supported him until the middle of 1726, when he returned to Philadelphia, with the promise of a clerkship, which, having got, he soon lost by the death of his employer. A year or two more with Keimer was followed by Franklin's instalment in an office of his own, his capitalist being a fellow-compositor named Meredith. This was in 1729 ; in the same year he bought of Keimer The Pennsylvania Gazette, a paper established to forestall a journalistic scheme of Franklin's, and boasting at the time of its purchase a subscription-list of ninety names. Franklin's Boston editorial knack was applied to the Philadelphia situation, and, indeed, to subjects of general colonial interest ; and by it The Pennsylvania Gazette first made Franklin a man of note. Neither Boston nor New York could boast, at that time, a journal really rivalling this able periodical. In its columns Franklin made his mind felt as a force in many ways; and at this time, sensibly, he was
a man of letters.
remedying, by constant study of several languages, the defects of his early education.
At this period of Franklin's life it was almost as Franklin as evident as it is now that he was to be a
man of affairs as truly as a scholar ; and that he was not to seek or to win a distinctly literary reputation. Literature for its own sake was not to be cultivated in America until more than half a cen
New England ministers had written to further the theological cause; politicians in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and the South
soon to write that they might promote great political reforms ; Franklin had already begun his voluminous and miscellaneous contributions to printed matter, but not as an author. His “works” fill a goodly row of octavos, but how miscellaneous is their character! Adams, in Boston, was ever writing to the papers in order to help his political work; Franklin wrote as a journalist, a social moralist, an early scientist, a politician, or a diplomatist, for ends implied in these words. His longest writing was his “ Autobiography,” and thus he showed the correctness of his own estimate of himself. That estimate was that the man Franklin stood behind all his words and deeds, and that his written and printed words, in particular, were parts of a personality, not an artistic product or series of products. The same statement applies to his few orations. The work of the newspaper writer, the man of scientific pursuits, the statesman, the orator, or even the almanacmaker, may approach literature, and may become a part of literature ; but the aims and attainments of