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Benjamin Franklin

A Philadelphia Printer

A Boston Childhood

Doing Good


Ben left Boston on September 25, 1723, and headed to New York. He hoped to find work as a printer there, but he struck out. With no money and no friends, he continued south to Philadelphia, which at the time was the biggest city in America. Arriving in the morning of October 6, with only a dollar and some bread, Ben soon found a job in the printing shop of Samuel Keimer. Next door he found a place to sleep, in the home of John and Sarah Read. There he met Deborah, the Reads' daughter, and before long the couple planned to get married.

Seven months after arriving in Philadelphia, Franklin met the Pennsylvania governor, William Keith. Keith liked Franklin and promised to help him start his own printing shop. Franklin returned to Boston to ask his father for a loan to get started, but Josiah refused. Back in Philadelphia, Governor Keith told Franklin to go to London, where he could buy the supplies he would need. Keith would provide the credit. With this promise, Franklin sailed on November 5. He arrived in London on Christmas Eve, 1724, only to learn that Keith had not kept his promise. With no credit and no money of his own, Franklin could not even afford to return to Philadelphia.

Franklin was unfazed. He soon found a job Samuel Palmer's printing shop in London, where in February of 1725 he helped print an edition of William Wollaston's Religion of Nature Delineated. Unimpressed by Wollaston's arguments, Franklin published an anonymous essay in response. Called A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, it caught the attention of London's liberal freethinkers.

Later that year Franklin moved to a different printing shop in London, then agreed to work for a Quaker merchant named Thomas Denham back in Philadelphia. Franklin sailed for America with Denham on July 23, 1726. Back home, he learned Denham's business quickly. Soon, however, both Franklin and Denham fell gravely ill with pleurisy. Nearly dying, Franklin recovered in March 1727; Denham died soon after. Franklin returned to Samuel Keimer's printing shop and took up his old job. Before long he was back to his old energetic self, establishing a weekly discussion and debating club called the Junto.

In the spring of 1728, Franklin and a business partner, James Meredith, decided start their own printing shop with a loan from Meredith's parents. They intended to start a newspaper; when Samuel Keimer learned this he immediately started the Pennsylvania Gazette. Annoyed, Franklin wrote a series essays for a competing newspaper. Within a year, Keimer was bankrupt; Franklin and Meredith bought the Pennsylvania Gazette at a bargain and turned it into a successful paper. In 1730, Franklin and Meredith won a contract to print the colony's official papers. Franklin bought out his partner Meredith and soon was the most successful printer in town.


Franklin's move to Philadelphia was bold. It was remarkable that a young man with limited education and no experience would leave all that he knew behind in Boston and head for a new city. Philadelphia was the biggest city in America, a bustling center of trade and culture. When Franklin got there he was optimistic, certain he would succeed. Many Americans have since shared Franklin's optimism, believing one can achieve one's dreams by going somewhere new and starting over. This is probably why Franklin's story of arriving empty-handed in Philadelphia and starting from scratch still appeals to so many of us. It is part of our mythology.

Of course, many people in America who have started over from scratch and worked hard to reach their dreams have failed. Nevertheless, some people succeed–and Franklin was one of them. It was partly good luck: he quickly met people who were willing to help him. He also had good timing, arriving in Philadelphia at a time when the city was growing quickly. He also had talent and rare intelligence. These things added up nicely for Franklin, and by the time he was a young adult he was on his way to social and financial success.

Franklin's success as a printer and businessman did not come right away, as his experience with Governor Keith indicates. Being stranded in London was a setback, but Franklin made the best of it. It may even have been was a blessing in disguise, because in London Franklin met people who were as intelligent and forward thinking as he. Franklin's response to Wollaston's essay was radical for its time–more or less arguing against the existence of God. Soon, Franklin had a reputation for being a free thinker, and he grew popular among London's more radical intellectuals. This era saw the beginnings of the Enlightenment, a time when thinkers and politicians questioned old beliefs and argued that all people were created equal. They believed human nature could be improved, and that God was rational. Some even argued that God did not exist, but was simply the ideal form of the human mind. Though Franklin soon returned to believing in God, he soaked up and held on to many of these beliefs.

Franklin was a true intellectual and a businessman. His ideas made him well known, while his cunning and shrewdness (especially in dealing with his former boss, Samuel Keimer) made him successful. He applied his beliefs about human nature to his own behavior, consciously trying to appear honest and hard working. While he clearly was (for the most part) honest and hardworking, he knew that his success depended not only on being honest and hard working, but on appearing that way as well. In short, Franklin understood the value of having a good image. Perhaps Franklin deserves a little of the credit (or blame) for today's extremely image-conscious business world.

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