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Benjamin Franklin

A Boston Childhood

Terms, Events and Important People

A Philadelphia Printer

Summary

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.

Commentary

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.

Franklin never became a minister because his family simply could not afford the cost of educating him. It is difficult to guess how Franklin felt about this. He may have liked being a minister, since he enjoyed reading and writing. However, his Autobiography gives us the sense that, even at a young age, Franklin was not particularly religious.

Though Franklin may not have been a Puritan at heart, his origins in a Puritan society are obvious. He believed, as did many Puritans at that time, that it was important to be honest and diligent, to work hard and to always try to be a good person. While plenty of people still believe in these things today, the Puritans really believed in them. They lived simply, devoting most of their energy into doing the things they hoped would please God. Franklin did the same things–working hard and helping others, for instance–but he did them less to honor God than to succeed in the world. This is a subtle but important difference: whereas earlier Puritans believed that man's fate was predetermined, the Puritans of Franklin's time increasingly came to believe that–as Franklin later put it–"God helps them that help themselves." Franklin echoes this message in his autobiography, making what was originally a religious idea into a secular one.

Franklin's drive to improve himself was very Puritan, even if his basic goal was not. For example, as a young apprentice in his brother's printing shop, Franklin bought a copy of the Spectator, a literary magazine popular at the time. In his Autobiography he tells how he spend hours studying the magazine, outlining the essays and rewriting them in his own words. By doing this he taught himself how to write well–a skill that would help make him famous. While devout Puritan youths learned to read and write in order to study and debate the scriptures, Franklin used his skills to influence people.

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