Benjamin Franklin, Printer
Benjamin Franklin is unmistakably the most resplendent figure in American history. Starting out as an apprentice, Franklin was to become a renowned printer, a great statesman, and an innovator always trying to find ways to improve his community. But how could this peasant apprentice become such an influential man in a large-scale society such as Philadelphia? This was the question that baffled and worried many aristocrats of the early eighteenth century.
For Franklin was to become a household name and soon an inspiration to all that sought freedom from the won’t class system. Franklin symbolized the classic cliche of rags to riches vividly throughout his lifetime. His resilience and genius truly gave America a rebirth in the right direction. However, unlike many other success stories, he always managed to keep his attitude in perspective and on his goals. Franklin personally attributed his success to frugality and common sense (Looby 25).
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Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706. He was the youngest boy of a very traditional family of seventeen (Franklin 4). Franklin’s family was so set on customs that his father made him sign his life away as an indentured servant at the age of only ten (Locke 2316).
Luckily for young Franklin, his master was his older brother James who owned a printing press. Franklin loved the fact that he had access to books and news. As a boy with only two years of schooling, Franklin soon began to educate himself by reading and imitating different books and essays (Doren 17).
While studying his English prose, Franklin came across a remarkable piece of work by John Locke entitled Essay Concerning Human Understanding. And according to biographer Carl Van Doren, “It shaped his own ideas and strengthened the values he would live by” (17). The bookish atmosphere of the printing house and the constant talk and criticism that went on among his brother’s peers was an excellent school for his eager mind (Culver 4630). This was to be the foundation of Benjamin Franklin’s education.
In 1721, Franklin’s brother decided to publish a newspaper called The New England Courant (Doreen 19). The paper was but a single sheet printed on both sides. There were already two newspapers to compete within a town, so Franklin’s brother James decided to spice up his newspaper by printing sensational controversies. So unlike the other two newspapers, The Courant was now open to the public by means of a commentary section (Meltzer 44).
Many individuals in the area would drop off letters anonymously with hopes of them being published. Soon the newspaper’s commentary section was receiving a tremendous response, so young Franklin decided to get involved in this newfound public journalism. Franklin secretly wrote letters under the alias of Mrs. Dogood knowing that if his brother found out the letters would not be printed (Crane 11).
He secretly slipped the first letter under the door, at the age of only sixteen. Author Verner Crane believes that this hidden secret was “Perhaps a means by which to use his pen to free himself of always being looked down upon as merely a boy and an apprentice” (10). His brother James along with the rest of the readers loved the letters. Mrs. Dogood was a delicious change from what the Bostonians used to.
Franklin put his own thoughts into her mouth and sprinkled her speech with generous quotations from Defoe and Cicero (Meltzer 46). Mrs. Dogood made fun of religious hypocrites, the town drunks, and women’s hoop petticoats (46). However, the letters also advocated political views, such as freedom of speech, insurance for widows, and asked why girls should not be educated as much as boys. Needless to say, the controversies flared sales. But after a total of fourteen letters, young Franklin ran dry and confessed to his brother James.
Instead of being pleased with his younger brother’s talent, James was very annoyed (47). He made it clear that he was the master, and Franklin was still his apprentice. James did not care that Franklin’s writings were attracting new customers who ordinarily did not bother to read. Young Franklin’s letters were both poetic and interesting, with excellent grammar. However none of this mattered to James, and he often beat young Franklin to get his point across. It was here that the cruel realization of servitude manifested itself to a young Benjamin Franklin.
James kept writing scandalous stories and eventually ended up in jail for offending the Governor. During his time in prison, young Franklin took over the paper (Crane 11). James was getting too much heat for his writings, so he decided to break Franklin’s indenture as a cover-up. Franklin was named editor, so James could retain his freedom of speech. However, a secret indenture was drawn to insure young Franklin would stay.
But after their next quarrel, Franklin decided to leave anyhow. He knew his brother would not dare reveal “the secret indenture” (14). After seven years of service as an apprentice, Franklin finally found a clever way to escape his servitude. Out of rage, James made sure young Franklin would not find work in Boston. So Franklin had no other choice but to leave in search of a new home.
After a three-day voyage, a courageous young Franklin arrived in New York. He describes himself in his autobiography as, ?a boy of only seventeen, without the least recommendation to or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pockets” (32). Franklin was unsuccessful in obtaining a job in New York. But luckily, a man named William Bradford directed Franklin to his son’s shop in Philadelphia (Adler 22). Franklin found no work in Andrew Bradford’s shop, but Andrew did direct him to a new shop owned by Samuel Kiemer (23). He was hired immediately by Kiemer. Franklin was now his own person; no longer was he anybody’s servant. His worst days were now behind him and a prosperous future was awaiting him in his new home of Philadelphia.
The English Quaker, William Penn founded the Philadelphia colony. Penn had provided for a tolerance of all religions, for free education, for the election of representatives, and for a jury trial in open court (Meltzer 54). Franklin quickly realized that he was in a much freer society than Boston. Philadelphia was considered an asylum for the persecuted and a happy place for craftsmen, traders, shopkeepers, and homesteaders? (55). In essence, this was the perfect place for a self-educated peasant (like Franklin) to make something of himself. It did not take long before Benjamin Franklin fell in love with Philadelphia.
It took Benjamin Franklin only six years to establish himself as printer and to open his own shop. Besides Franklin’s outstanding work as a printer, he is also recognized for being a remarkable entrepreneur. You see in addition to opening his print shop, Franklin also opened a general shop and began selling supplies of many kinds: such as paper, ink, maps, lampblack, tea, groceries, lottery tickets and much more (Meltzer 69).
This was clever of Franklin because he would advertise his products in his paper and vice versa. According to author Jake Edens, “Franklin bought the Pennsylvania Gazette which he edited and printed so ably that he soon became known through all the colonies.” So once again, Franklin found himself at the center of the town’s attention: just as he had with the Mrs. Dogood letters back in Boston. However, this time Franklin did not want to start controversies; instead, he wanted to build solidarity. As Franklin’s success rapidly grew he slowly started to play a very influential role in society.
Franklin’s influence started with the enhancement of the common almanac. Almanacs were every printer’s staple product. Everyone in colonial times was familiar with almanac books containing calendars, astronomical data, statistics, charts, tables, holidays, festivals, weather forecasting, and scrapes of facts about anything the editor hopes the reader will like. So in 1732, only three years after Franklin had launched his newspaper, he concocted Poor Richard’s Almanac (87). And once again, Franklin decided to use a pseudonym in order to remain anonymous. Hence, Richard Saunders “Philomath” is created by Franklin and predestined to write his almanac.
Benjamin Franklin’s almanac was a tremendous success; no other book in the colonies sold more copies, except the Bible (Doren 148). With success comes recognition and Franklin was most certainly recognized within the colonies. Year after year, Franklin packed the almanac with his sayings and rearranged proverbs. Franklin’s Biographer Milton Meltzer says, Franklin was adept at taking other people’s lines and giving them a wry twist that enhanced their flavour and drove home their meaning (90). For instance, an old proverb goes “God restore health and physicians hath the thanks”. Franklin wrote this as “God heals and the doctor takes the fee? (90). However, the majority of Franklin’s sayings were original; such as “a penny saved is a penny earned”, or “It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright” (Doren 160). The almanac was to run for twenty-five years, earning Benjamin Franklin the tittle “Father of Common Sense” among his contemporaries (Crane 55).
The success of the almanac helped establish a good reputation for Franklin. People started to look at Franklin as a role model and above all as a symbol of America’s opportunities. This trust proved to be priceless in Franklin’s political endeavours. His political exertions within the founding of the United States of America were clearly unmatched by any politician. This can easily be proven by the fact that he is the only man who signed all four key documents in American History: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, the Treaty of Alliance with France, and the Constitution of the United States (Eiselen 412).
Franklin was by far the most influential man in the colonies; he was a natural leader fulfilled with original ideas. However, Franklin was not content with the fact that he was wealthy and successful; he wanted to give back to the community. According to author Helen Augur, “Franklin’s motto was to improve himself through improving his community” (77).
Benjamin Franklin did a lot toward improving the Philadelphian community and soon the entire nation. In 1727, Franklin started the Junto Club as a collective effort at self-improvement (Doren 74). The Junto Club was like a modern day “salon” in which intellects could discuss everyday problems. One of the club’s most impressive feats was the commencement of the first circulating library in America, an idea that was soon copied throughout the colonies (Meltzer 96). This was vintage Franklin, for he always knew how to take everyday problems and solve them.
For example, one of the first challenges he undertook was the paving of the streets. Everyone in Philadelphia knew that the roads were dangerous and a nuisance, but no one ever took action until Franklin came along. He would first discuss the problem at hand with his friends at the Junto Club, and if they all seemed to agree, Franklin would take it a step further and publish it in his newspaper (Meltzer 98). If he noticed he had the public’s solidarity, he would take it yet another step further by printing pamphlets and distributing them door to door (99).
This finally put enough pressure on the establishment to do something and soon all the streets began to get paved. Franklin’s perseverance and influence had won him a victory. This must have had a tremendous psychological effect on Franklin, for shortly thereafter, he began to tackle many issues by taking the same steps as noted before. With this persistence, Franklin helped to establish a fire department, a police department, and the University of Pennsylvania (103).
In addition to Franklin’s many victories for the community in general, he also helped to establish a militia for the protection of the establishment itself (Doren 88). As previously mentioned the Philadelphia colony was established and ran by Quakers who because of religious reasons and values absolutely refused to take arms. This philosophy had helped keep the community safe hitherto.
However, in 1747 there was a serious threat of invasion by the natives, so Franklin sprang into action. He rushed a pamphlet to the press and soon received support from the Governor of Philadelphia (Meltzer 106). In a matter of days, over ten thousand men volunteered for the militia (107). The troops brought their own arms and drilled themselves over and over. Fortunately for the community, the invasion never took place, however, the men were glad to know that they would have been ready. Being the only man to take charge during the communities? time of crisis, Franklin now received a whole new sort of respect from his contemporaries.
In 1748, after much deliberation, Franklin decided to retire from the printing business. He was only forty-two years old but very wealthy and well respected. But even in retirement, Franklin still continued to contribute to society. He became very intrigued by the chaotic spelling conventions of the English language, and typically enough, proposed its reform.
In 1768, Franklin published a paper entitled A Scheme for the New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling (McCrum 227). And even though the reform was never adopted, it still had a profound influence on many scholars including America’s great lexicographer, Noah Webster (228). However, this was not the first time Franklin had contributed to the English language, for it is undeniable that his newspaper editorials helped enrich the vocabulary of the early settlers.
Benjamin Franklin died in 1790 at the age of eighty-four. Having lived a life full of progress and commitment to his community. Franklin repeatedly stressed the importance of frugality in one’s life in order to be truly happy. Many would agree that this is easy to say after you wealthy and successful, however, Franklin was the kind of man who would give it all up for a cause he believed in.
Did he prove this on the eve of the American Revolution, when the famous “Boston Tea Party” took place? Can you believe Franklin actually offered to repay Britain for the cost of the tea “According to Biographer Verner Crane, this is exactly what Benjamin Franklin did to try to prevent the colonies from going to war” (90). If Britain would have accepted Franklin’s offer this would have bankrupted him.
Franklin was always looking out for his fellow settler. Ironically, when the drums of war were beating it was Franklin’s call to arms “during the threat of the invasion” that guided the colonies to victory. After the revolution, Franklin wanted nothing more than to ensure the success of the future nation. By helping to create and advocate important documents like the Constitution and the Treaty with England, Franklin did ensure the lasting success of the Republic.
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His obsession to educate every settler truly had a significant contribution to the well being of our nation today. Even though, Franklin was a very multi-talented individual the only thing he wanted to be inscribed on his tombstone was “Benjamin Franklin, printer”(Eiselen 416). For this was the key to advocating all of his ideas. I believe Franklin would be proud to know that he is still being printed every day on the face of the United States’ highest-circulating currency bill, the hundred-dollar bill.
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