Franklin by C.F. Briggs

 An English traveller in the United States once expressed his astonishment at nowhere finding a monument of Franklin. He regarded it as a new proof of the ingratitude of republics. But if we have erected no columns, nor statues, to the memory of our first great man, we have manifested our gratitude for the services he rendered us, and the hearty appreciation of his character, which is universal among us, in a better, more affectionate and enduring manner. We name our towns, counties, ships, children, and institutions after him. His name is constantly in our mouth, and his benevolent countenance and lofty brow are as familiar to us as the features of Washington. We have Franklin banks, Franklin insurance companies, Franklin societies, Franklin hotels, Franklin markets, and even Franklin theatres. One of our line of battle ships is called the Franklin, and there will be found a Ben Franklin, the name affectionately abbreviated, on all our western lakes and rivers. The popular heart cherishes his memory more tenderly than that of any of our great men. Washington's heroism and lofty virtues set him above us, so that while we look up to him with veneration and awe, we  hardly feel that he was one of us. His impossible grandeur forbids the familiar sympathy which we feel for our own kind. But Franklin's greatness is of that kind which makes the whole world kin. In him we recognize the apotheosis of usefulness. He was our Good Genius, who took us by the hand in our national infancy, and taught us the great art of making the most of the world. He warmed our houses by the stove which still bears his name, and protected us from the terrifying thunderbolt by his simple rod. He showered upon us lessons of wisdom, all calculated to increase our happiness, and his wise and pithy apothegms have become an important part of our language. Never before was a young nation blessed with so beneficent and generous a counsellor and guide. The influence of Franklin upon the national character is beyond estimate. He taught us alike by precept and example; and, in his autobiography, he laid the corner stone of our literature, bequeathing us a book which will always be fresh, instructive, and charming, while our language endures, or we look to literature for instruction and entertainment.

Franklin was a pure, unadulterated Englishman; he came of that great stock whose mission it is to improve the world. Though we claim him, and justly, as an American, he was born, and lived the better part of his life, a subject of the English crown. There was never a more thorough Englishman, nor one whose whole consistent life more happily illustrated the Anglo-Saxon character, nor one who was better entitled to be called an American, or who showed a more lively and enduring love for his native soil.

Every schoolboy is familiar with the history of Franklin; his autobiography is our national epic; it is more read than  Robinson Crusoe; and our great national museum, the Patent Office, has been filled with the results of ambitious attempts to follow in the path of the inventor of the lightning-rod. One boy reads Robinson Crusoe and runs off to sea, while another reads Franklin's Life and tries for a patent, or begins to save a penny a day, that he may have three hundred pennies at the end of the year. There are writers who have accused Franklin of giving a sordid bias to our national character. But nothing could be more unjust. There is nothing sordid in the teachings of our great philosopher; while the example of his purely beneficent life has, doubtless, been the cause of many of the magnificent acts of private benevolence which have distinguished our countrymen.

Franklin says in his autobiography, in reference to his stove, which has warmed so many generations of his countrymen, and rendered comfortable so many American homes: "Governor Thomas was so pleased with the construction of this stove that he offered to give me a sole patent for the vending of them for a term of years; but I declined it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on such occasions, viz., that as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by an invention of ours: and this we should do freely and cordially." No, there was no sordidness in the teachings of Franklin.

His immortal biography was commenced at the ripe age of sixty-six, while he was in England, a time of life when most men have lost the power to instruct or amuse with the pen; but it has the ease, the freshness, and the vigor of youth. It was continued at Passy, in France, and concluded in Philadelphia. He was one of the few instances of a precocious  genius maintaining his powers to an advanced period of life. There were no signs of childishness in his almost infantile compositions, or of senility in his latest productions.

Every body knows that the grandfather of Doctor Franklin was the sturdy old puritan, Peter Folger, who wrote the homely verses which Mr. Sparks doubts the propriety of calling poetry, and who dwelt in "Sherborn Town." The house in which he lived, and where the mother of Franklin was born, was still in existence but a few years since, though in a very dilapidated condition. We remember making a pilgrimage to it in our boyish days, after reading the Life of Franklin, and wondering in which of its little rooms the grandfather of the philosopher sat, when he penned the lines which the grandson thought were "written with manly freedom and a pleasing simplicity." The house stood near the water, at the head of a little cove, or creek, and near it was a bubbling spring, from which the mother of the philosopher must have often drank. At that time there were no evidences of the surrounding grounds having been cultivated, and a wretched family inhabited the ruin. There are many descendants of Peter Folger still living, some of whom have been eminent for their learning and talents; but, it is a remarkable circumstance, that, though Franklin's father and grandfather each had five sons, who grew up to man's estate, there is not one male descendant living of that name.

Franklin was born on the 6th of January, old style, 1706, in a house that stood on the corner of Milk-street, opposite the old South Church, Boston, in which he was christened. The church is still standing, but the house has been demolished, and, in its place, there is a large and handsome granite warehouse, which is made to serve the double purpose  of a store and a monument. On the frieze of the cornice is the inscription in bold granitic letters, the birth-place of Franklin.

We cannot help thinking that it is just such a monument as he would have recommended, if his wishes had  been consulted. But the house in which our great philosopher spent his earlier years, and to which his father removed soon after the birth of his youngest son, is still standing, very nearly in the same condition in which it was during his youth. It is on the corner of Hanover and Union streets, and the wooden gilt ball of the old soap-boiler is still suspended from an iron crane, with the inscription Josias Franklin, 1698. The ball is the original one, but it must have been many times regilt and relettered. The building is occupied by a shoe dealer in the lower part, but the upper rooms are in the occupancy of an industrial whose art had no existence until near a century after the death of Franklin's father. A daguerrean artist now takes likenesses in the rooms where the boy-philosopher slept, and sat up late at night to read Defoe's Essay on Projects, and Plutarch's Lives, by the glimmering light of one of his father's own dips. It was here too that he read the Light House Tragedy, after having cut wicks all day; and it was in the cellar of this house, too, that he made that characteristic suggestion to his father, of saying grace over the barrel of beef, which he saw him packing away for the winter's use, to save the trouble of a separate grace over each piece that should be served up for dinner. This anecdote may not be strictly true, but it is perfectly characteristic, and very much like one he tells of himself, when he was the Commander-in-Chief of the military forces of Pennsylvania. The chaplain of his regiment complained to him that the men would not attend prayers, whereupon, says Franklin, "I said to him, 'it is perhaps below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum; but if you were only to distribute it out after prayers you would have them all about you.' He liked the thought,  undertook the task, and, with the help of a few hands to measure out the liquor, executed it to satisfaction, and never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended."

This kind of humorous good sense, was one of the marked peculiarities of his character; there was lurking wit and humor in all his acts, and in his gravest essays, of which his epigrammatic letter to his old friend Strahan, the king's printer, is a notable example.

The old house in which Franklin spent his boyhood is now a long distance from the water, and in the midst of a wilderness of brick and granite buildings, but he speaks of it as near the shore, and it was close by that he built the little wharf of stolen stones, which induced his father to impress upon him the great truth that "that which was not honest could not be truly useful."

Where the young apprentice lived when he was boarded out by his brother, and first "went in" to vegetarianism, we have not been able to ascertain; and, on his flight from Boston, in his seventeenth year, he does not appear to have remained long enough in New-York to have had a home. The first place he slept in, in Philadelphia, was a quaker meeting-house; but his first home in the city which he afterwards rendered famous, from having resided in it, was at a public house in Water-street, known as the Crooked Billet; not a very significant sign to us of the present generation.

Wherever Franklin went, or in whatever new sphere he applied himself to business, he immediately inspired confidence in his ability, and gained friends, as all able men do. The runaway boy of seventeen had hardly begun to put Bradford's printing office in order when he was called upon by Colonel  French, and Sir William Keith, governor of the province, who invited him to a tavern, offered him a bottle of Madeira, and proposed to set him up in business; yet he was not of a glib tongue and a prepossessing appearance.

At the age of eighteen he made his first voyage to London, and lived in Little Britain with his friend Ralph at a cost of three shillings and sixpence a week. Franklin worked in Palmer's famous printing house in Bartholomew Close, near a year, and for the first and only time of his life was improvident and extravagant, spending his earnings at plays and public amusements, and neglecting to write to Miss Read in Philadelphia, with whom he had "exchanged promises." He worked diligently, though, and during that time wrote and published "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain," This essay gained him the friendship of an author who took him to the Horns, a pale ale-house, introduced him to Dr. Mandeville and promised him a sight of Newton. He afterwards removed to lodgings in Duke-street, and occupied a room up three pairs of stairs, which he rented of a widow, who had an only daughter, with whom he used to sup on half an anchovy, a very small slice of bread and butter, and half a pint of ale between them. He remained eighteen months in England, and returned to Philadelphia with the expectation of entering into mercantile business with his friend Denman.

It was during his voyage from London to Philadelphia that he wrote out the plan for regulating his future conduct, which, he says, he had adhered to through life. The plan has not been preserved, but we have the life which was conformed to it, and can easily conceive what it was.

Fortunately for mankind his friend Denman died soon after the return of Franklin to Philadelphia, whereby his mercantile projects were frustrated, and he was compelled to return to his trade of printing; he was just turned of twenty-one, and not finding employment as a merchant's clerk, he undertook the charge of his former employer's printing office. Here his inventive genius was taxed, for he had to make both types and ink, as they could not be procured short of London. He also engraved the copper plates, from his own designs, for the paper money of New Jersey, and constructed the first copper plate press that had been seen in the country. He could not long remain in the employment of another, and, before the end of the year, had established himself in business as a printer, in partnership with his friend Meredith. His life now commenced in earnest, he was his own master, and held his fortune in his own hands; he had already discerned "that truth, sincerity, and integrity, were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life;" and day by day his genius ripened and his noble character was developed. In the year 1730, he was married to Miss Read, and laid the foundation of the Pennsylvania Library; the first public library that had been commenced in the country. The two succeeding years of his life were not marked by any striking event, but they were, perhaps, the two most important in his history, as during that time he schooled himself to virtue by a systematic course of conduct, the particulars of which he has given in his biography. At the end of this period he commenced his "Poor Richard's Almanac," the publication of which was continued by him twenty-five years. It was the first successful attempt in authorship on this side of the Atlantic. His first "promotion," as he calls it, meaning his first public employment, was  on being chosen Clerk of the General Assembly; and the next year he was appointed Postmaster at Philadelphia. His private business all the time increased; he founded societies for philosophical purposes; continued to publish his paper; wrote innumerable pamphlets; was elected colonel of a regiment; invented his stove, and engaged in all manner of beneficial projects; he established hospitals and academies, made treaties with the Indians, became Postmaster General, and after devising means for cleaning the streets of Philadelphia, turned his attention to those of London and Westminster.

 But, it is with the "Homes" of Franklin that our limited space must be occupied, and not with his life and actions. Although he occupied, at various times, almost as many different houses as there are headquarters of Washington, yet there are few of them now left; living always in cities, the houses he inhabited have been destroyed by the irresistible march of improvement. In his fifty-first year, he was sent to London by the General Assembly to present a petition to the king, and to act as the agent of Pennsylvania in England. He sailed from New-York and arrived in London in July, 1757, and at this point of his life his autobiography ends. From an original letter of his in our possession, written on the eve of his departure from Philadelphia, he directs that letters must be sent to him in London at the Pennsylvania Coffee House, in Birchin Lane, where he doubtless lived on his first arrival, but his permanent home in London, during fifteen years, was at Mrs. Stevenson's in Craven-street. He travelled much in Great Britain and on the continent, was present at the coronation of George III., and returned to America in 1762, having stopped awhile at Madeira on the voyage. He went to England again in 1764, and after a brilliant and most serviceable career abroad, returned to his native home in season to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence, giving a greater weight of personal character, and a more potent popular influence to the cause than any other of the immortal participators in that glorious act. He died in the year 1790, on the 17th of April, at 11 o'clock at night, in his 85th year, in his house in Market-street, Philadelphia, which he had built for his own residence. His remains lie by the side of his wife's, in the burying ground of Christ Church,  covered by a simple marble slab, in conformity with his directions. There is a small granite pyramid in the Granary burying ground in Boston, which the economical citizens make do double duty, as a memorial of the greatest name of which their city can boast, and a monument to his parents.