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Benjamin Franklin was born in a small house on Milk Street in Boston, next to the Old South Church, on January 6, 1706. He was the youngest son of five generations of youngest sons. He had eleven living brothers and sisters. His father, Josiah Franklin, made soap and candles for a living. His mother, Abiah, raised the children. According to Franklin, it was a crowded, noisy, and happy home.
When Ben was eight, his father sent him to the South Grammar School (later known as Boston Latin) to prepare for a life as a minister. After several months, however, Josiah decided he could not afford it and took Ben out. Soon Ben was back in school, this time at George Brownell's English School. He finished in 1716 after one year and never went to school again. Though Ben would have liked to continue, his family was too poor to afford tuition. Instead, he went to work. Josiah sent Ben around to watch several tradesmen, but none of the trades interested Ben. He wanted to go to sea.
Instead, Ben ended up as an apprentice to his half-brother James, who was a printer. Ben loved to read and write poetry, so this job seemed as good as any. At the age of twelve he signed an indenture lasting nine years. While learning the trade from James, Ben worked on his writing, copying the style of essays he read in a copy of a magazine. When James started a paper in 1721, called the New England Courant, Ben submitted a series of essays to the magazine under the pseudonym Silence Dogood. The essays made fun of Boston society and became very popular.
In 1722, the Massachusetts government put James in prison twice for criticizing it in his newspaper–freedom of the press as we know it did not exist then. During these periods, Ben published the paper under his own name. When James returned from prison, he and Ben had several arguments. James likely sensed that his younger half-brother was too talented for his own good. In any case, Ben soon lost his patience with James and quit the printing shop. Ben expected to find work with another Boston printer, but James secretly told all of the other printers in Boston not to hire Ben. With no prospects for work, Ben decided to leave Boston.
We know little about Franklin's early life aside from what he tells us in his Autobiography. This book, written when Franklin was much older, is his most famous piece of writing, and is the first major secular autobiography in American history. While it is classic of American literature, we do know for certain if Franklin told a completely honest and accurate story of his life. Like just about every politician since his time, Franklin knew how to spin stories the right way.
With this warning in mind, we can read Franklin's Autobiography for clues to his early years. As Franklin points out, he was born into a religious home. His parents were Puritans. Many people imagine Puritans as severe and stern people, but this stereotype was generally not true. They were very religious, though; Franklin's parents hoped that young Benjamin would become a minister. For families like the Franklins, it was a sign of honor for one of their sons to become a minister, as, in Puritan Boston, ministers were the most respected members of society. In the Autobiography Franklin jokes that he was his father's "tithe" to the church, meaning that he was the son who was expected to become a minister and bring honor to the entire family.
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