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Benjamin Franklin endeavored to learn from his experiences. As an old man he recalled an experience he had when he was seven years old. With money in his pocket he offered it all for a whistle he wanted in a toy shop. Pleased with his whistle, his playing it irritated his family, who laughed at him for spending four times what it was worth. He learned not to give too much for the whistle and to economize, often asking himself if something was worth the whistle.
Benjamin Franklin began writing his Autobiography in 1771, but he wrote most of it between August 1788 and his death on 17 April 1790. His autobiography is more popular than any other so far. Here is a summary up to the year 1744.
Franklin began by recognizing the vanity of such a project, but he suggested that vanity often motivates people to be good. He thanks God in humility for the kind providence that has brought him happiness. His ancestors lived in England and had been Protestants since the Reformation. His father Josiah Franklin brought his wife and three children to New England in 1682. He was fifty years old when his youngest son Benjamin was born in Boston on 17 January 1706 (by the adjusted new calendar). Benjamin learned to read so early that he had no memories from before that. He went to a grammar school and was taught how to write, but he did not do well in arithmetic. At the age of ten his father took him out of school so that he could help him manufacture candles and soap. Benjamin urged his friends to build a little wharf, and they used stones that were for a new house. His father reprimanded Ben that what is not honest is not useful. He recalled having many conversations with his father and family about what is “good, just, and prudent.” Ben loved to read and spent what little money he had on books. He did not like his father’s “books in polemic divinity,” but he eagerly devoured the works of John Bunyan and liked Plutarch’s Lives.
At the age of 12 Ben signed indentures to be an apprentice until he was 21 to his brother James, who had started a printing business in 1717. James encouraged him to write ballads and had Ben sell two of them on the street. One was about the pirate Teach (Blackbeard), who was killed in 1718. His father warned Ben that poets are often beggars and turned him toward prose. Ben had debates with his friend John Collins, and he took the side that females can study and should be educated. When he was sixteen, Ben read a book on the vegetable diet and decided to become a vegetarian. His brother agreed to give him half the money he paid for board to provide his own meals. Ben saved half of that and used the rest for buying books. He read Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Logic: or the Art of Thinking by Jansenist monks. Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates stimulated him to experiment with the Socratic method of asking questions. Ben found that expressing himself with "modest diffidence" instead of with dogmatic certainty created less opposition and improved knowledge.
The Boston News-Letter was the only newspaper in America until December 1719, when the Boston Gazette and the American Weekly Mercury in Philadelphia were founded. In 1720 or 1721 Ben’s brother James Franklin began printing The New England Courant. Ben delivered the papers. He quarreled with James, who had a temper and often beat him. At the age of sixteen Ben secretly submitted a series of anonymous articles which were approved and printed. When the Assembly censured James and imprisoned him for a month, Ben managed the paper and criticized the government. They decided to print the paper under the name of Benjamin Franklin to protect James. He agreed to release him from the indenture, but they made a private agreement for the same term. However, Ben resented the blows so much that he decided to exert his freedom and leave his brother, who made sure no printers in Boston would hire him. Ben considered his breaking this agreement the first error in his life. Ben also had made political enemies. Some considered him an atheist because he preferred to spend his Sundays reading.
At the age of 17 Ben went to New York, where the printer William Bradford told him that his son needed help in Philadelphia. With little money Ben managed to get there by boat in October 1723. His future wife Deborah Read saw Franklin walking in the street eating a roll. Andrew Bradford had hired someone and sent Franklin to the other printer, Samuel Keimer. Franklin lodged with the Read household. He collected a debt for Samuel Vernon and was allowed to use the money for several years. His closest friend, John Collins, developed a drinking habit and borrowed money from Ben. Eventually Collins left him and never paid his debt. Franklin considered his using Vernon’s money a mistake. He met Governor William Keith, who offered to help him set up his own printing business and suggested that he go to England to buy the materials. Franklin and Keimer had such good discussions that they considered establishing a new doctrine; but this ended after Franklin persuaded Keimer to try a vegetarian diet for three months. Franklin began eating cod and only occasionally stayed on the vegetarian diet. Franklin was courting Deborah Read; but they were persuaded by her mother to put off marriage because they were both only eighteen. The poet James Ralph left behind his wife and child to go to England with Franklin. On the ship he met the Quaker merchant Thomas Denham, who told him that Governor Keith had a habit of making promises he did not keep.
Franklin got a printing job at Palmer's but regretted later that he wrote only one letter to Deborah while he was in England. He thought another one of his errors was writing and publishing a pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. He also regretted his failed attempt to become familiar with Ralph’s mistress. Ralph also owed Franklin money. Franklin got another printing job and tried to persuade the workers that drinking strong beer all day did not make them stronger and was expensive. Denham persuaded Franklin not to travel around Europe with a friend but to return to Philadelphia after being in London for eighteen months. Franklin worked for Denham in Philadelphia until February 1727 when he became very ill with pleurisy. Denham also became ill and died. Keimer hired Franklin to manage his printing house.
When Franklin read refutations of the deists, he thought their arguments were stronger than the criticisms. He reflected that the freethinkers John Collins and Ralph had wronged him, and he had behaved badly toward Vernon and Deborah. He became convinced that truth, sincerity, and integrity were most important in human relations and for happiness, and he resolved to practice them. He realized that certain actions are not bad for us because they are forbidden but that they are forbidden because they are harmful. Franklin started a new printing business with support from Hugh Meredith.
Franklin began an intellectual club called the Junto in the fall of 1727 that met on Friday evenings to discuss morals, politics, and natural philosophy (science). The debates were conducted by a president as a sincere search for truth, and positive opinions and direct contradictions were discouraged with small fines. Franklin worked hard at printing and believed industry to be a useful virtue. When Keimer heard he was going to start a newspaper and founded one himself, Franklin gave him competition by writing entertaining articles called “The Busy-Body” for Bradford’s paper in February and March 1729. Within a year he bought the paper from Keimer. Franklin believed that paper money helped the economy, and he wrote a pamphlet on The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency in April 1729. Delaware gave him his first contract for printing money. Franklin gained readers for his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, by writing on 9 October 1729 a commentary on a dispute between Governor Burnet and the Massachusetts Assembly. He supported the legislators’ tactic of not giving the Governor a regular salary in order to maintain control over expenditures and protect their liberties. Franklin paid his debt to Vernon and borrowed money from two friends to buy out Meredith who was drinking and wanted to return to farming.
Deborah had married John Rogers in 1725. He may have had a previous wife, and he left her in 1727; he was later reported dead. Because of this doubt they were not legally married, but Franklin began living with Deborah as his common law wife on 1 September 1730. He persuaded members of the Junto to pool their books into a common library, and they sold subscriptions for forty shillings each and ten shillings per year. Subscribers had to sign promissory notes to pay double the value for a book that was not returned. Franklin wrote that he spent time in no other amusements besides reading to which he devoted an hour or two a day.
Franklin wrote the second part of his Autobiography while he was in France in 1784. This short section describes his efforts to practice the art of virtue. About his religious beliefs Franklin wrote,
I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the deity,
that he made the world, and governed it by his providence;
that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man;
that our souls are immortal;
and that all crime will be punished
and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter
these I esteemed the essentials of every religion.1
He observed that other articles of religion that did not inspire or promote morality caused people to be divided and unfriendly to each other.
Franklin developed a project to work on moral perfection, and he decided to work on one virtue at a time while keeping a record of his failings on the thirteen virtues that he chose and described with the following precepts:
1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order. Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.2
Franklin spent a week concentrating on each virtue and thus could go through the cycle four times in a year. Each day he examined his behavior and made a mark when he had violated any of them. He formed the following prayer for his daily use:
O Powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide!
Increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interests;
strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates.
Accept my kind offices to thy other children,
as the only return in my power for thy continual favors to me.3
For Franklin the sequence of virtues was important because each virtue helped him with those that followed. He found that temperance gave him health and that industry and frugality brought easier circumstances and wealth. With sincerity and justice he gained the confidence of his country. He avoided the distinguishing tenets of any particular religion and suggested that this was a way of practicing the art of virtue. Originally he had only twelve virtues, but a Quaker friend informed him that he was thought proud. So he added humility and noticed that pride is very difficult to overcome, because one may become proud of being humble.
In 1731 Franklin wrote some observations based on his reading of history. He noted that the great affairs of the world are brought about by parties, which work for their own interests, while the individuals in the parties have their own private interests. Few people in politics act only for the good of their own country, and even fewer consider the good of all humanity. He believed that a party of virtue could be formed by good men of all nations and that it would please God and be successful.
At the end of 1732 Franklin began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac with entertaining and useful remarks. This annual publication was very popular, and many of the proverbs were collected together in the 1758 edition and were reprinted as “The Way to Wealth” in 145 editions by 1800. In his newspaper he avoided libeling and personal abuse. In 1733 he helped one of his journeymen start a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina. Franklin had already learned German, but that year he began studying French, then Italian and Spanish. He suggested that learning these living languages first made studying Latin easier. He was reconciled with his brother James, and after his death he brought up his son in the printing business. Benjamin's four-year-old son died of smallpox in 1736, and he regretted not having him inoculated; but he recognized there was risk either way. Franklin objected to expanding the size of the Junto; but he encouraged the members to start other groups, and many did.
Franklin was chosen as clerk of the Assembly in 1736, and this helped him get jobs printing the votes, laws, money, and other public business. When Franklin was opposed the next year by Isaac Norris, Jr., whom he had satirized, he borrowed a book from him and thanked him. After this experience Franklin observed, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”4 He wrote an essay for the Junto and his newspaper on how fires are caused by carelessness. Discussion led in December 1736 to the forming of the Union Fire Company to extinguish fires by mutual assistance. The fines of members who missed the monthly meetings were used to purchase equipment. He noted that the city never lost more than two houses at a time because of their efforts. In 1737 Col. Spotswood, the Postmaster General, replaced the deputy at Philadelphia with Franklin, and this helped him improve his correspondence and his newspaper.
In 1739 Franklin listened to the influential preaching of George Whitefield, and he observed that his sermons made many people more religious. On one occasion he was determined not to contribute any money, but Whitefield’s oratory persuaded him to empty his pockets of his gold. He could hear Whitefield’s voice clearly from a distance, and he calculated that more than thirty thousand people could hear such a speaker. Several of Franklin's workers started printing businesses in other colonies. In 1742 he invented a more efficient stove which saved on wood; but he never patented any of his inventions so that they could be used freely. In 1743 he proposed that an academy be founded; but Richard Peters did not want to use the building that was constructed for itinerant preachers such as Whitefield. Franklin wrote a paper proposing how useful knowledge could be promoted, and the next year he founded the American Philosophical Society.
The New England Courant published social satires by its owner James Franklin and by Nathaniel Gardner. While he was working there at the age of sixteen, Benjamin Franklin secretly submitted a series of fourteen articles, which were printed on the front page after the first one was well received. He used the pseudonym Silence Dogood. Cotton Mather's “Essays to Do Good” were currently popular, and he had recently published his sermon Silentarius. Franklin began by noting that most people are unwilling to approve or disapprove of writing until they know something about the author. Franklin suspected that his work would be ignored if it was known he was the author, and so he ironically invented a persona quite different than himself. Silence Dogood writes how her father died when she was born on a ship going from London to New England. Her indigent mother had to shift for a living, and Silence was apprenticed to a country minister. He taught her virtue, instructed her in needle-work, writing, and arithmetic, and let her read his books.
In the second article the minister decides to marry, and having trouble finding a“topping sort” he awkwardly courts Silence. She accepts, and their match provides conversation for others. After they have three children, the minister dies. As this is a political issue of the newspaper, Silence describes her character as follows:
I am an enemy to vice, and a friend to virtue.
I am one of an extensive charity,
and a great forgiver of private injuries:
a hearty lover of the clergy and all good men,
and a mortal enemy to arbitrary government & unlimited power.
I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country;
& the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges,
is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly.5
In the fourth article Silence satirizes Harvard College by recounting a dream in which she is allowed to enter the temple of learning that is usually closed to the poor. She notices that the ancient languages are not well understood because of idleness and ignorance. She notes that after much trouble and cost many dull children come out “as great blockheads as ever, only more proud and conceited.”
Silence’s fifth article contains a letter suggesting that she reform her own sex first because women are the main cause of “many male enormities.” She answers that men and women have equal shares of most vices, but men are more inclined to drunkenness and swearing. As to idleness, she cites the proverb that a woman's work is never done. If affluent men allow their wives to be idle, it is their own fault. As to ignorance, men are also to blame for not allowing women the advantages of education. Women may become proud because men praise them for their wit, beauty, and accomplishments. Yet many more men have extravagant pride than women. Silence Dogood continues discussing pride in number six. This sense of superiority becomes pride of apparel as people give up homespun garments for expensive imports. She also satirizes the ridiculous fad of women wearing hoop-petticoats.
After an article in the Courant satirized the failure of the government to apprehend pirates quickly, the General Court thought they were being accused of conspiring with pirates. On June 12, 1722 they questioned James Franklin and put him in jail. Benjamin was also interrogated but was released with an admonition. He ran the newspaper until his brother was released on July 7. Two days later his eighth Silence Dogood article was published on freedom of speech. He quoted an abstract from the London Journal, which argued that wisdom depends on freedom of thought, and public liberty on free speech. People ought to be free as long as they do not hurt or control the right of another. Security of property depends on free speech, for if people cannot call their tongues their own, they can hardly call anything else their own. Freedom of speech is terrible for public traitors, and it is the first thing a tyrant tries to overthrow. People ought to speak well of their government when it is deserving, but to do public mischief without people hearing of it is the prerogative of tyranny. People need to be trustees for the administration of the government. In ancient Rome freedom of speech was a symptom and effect of good government. The guilty dread free speech because it exposes them to light. When the bad Roman emperors took away liberty, freedom of speech was also lost.
In number nine Silence Dogood warns against hypocrites as being more dangerous in government than profane people because the public hypocrite may deceive the better people with false rhetoric and make them “ignorant trumpeters” of the one supposed to be godly. She concludes that people should be judged by their entire conduct and its consequences. This article has been considered to be a criticism of Chief Justice Samuel Sewall. In the tenth and eleventh articles Silence Dogood suggests proposals that would enable women to help poor widows and spinsters. In number twelve she discusses the various effects of liquor, and in the fourteenth and last article Silence Dogood discusses the recent conversion of Congregational ministers in Connecticut to the Church of England.
The satirizing of religious hypocrites in The New England Courant led to the Massachusetts Council censuring James Franklin. They wanted him to submit all his articles for their approval before he published them; but he refused to do so. When they issued a warrant on January 28, 1723, he fled from Boston. Young Benjamin once again took charge of the newspaper, and that month he published new rules for the newspaper which satirically suggest that the Courant should honor religion, respect ministers, preserve people's reputations, and not criticize the civil government. Profane and scandalous authors should not be quoted, and they should not give any sermons. Some might read this and assume it is all very reasonable; but knowing the Franklins and the Courant, it was absurd.
On February 4 an article addressed to Samuel Sewall defended James Franklin by asking for the proper procedure according to the strict rules of justice and equity. Ben Franklin argued that his brother broke no law and that laws made after an action (ex post facto) violate the Magna Carta and English liberties. The Chief Justice is warned that he too will be judged by God. If the printer has transgressed a law, he should be presented to a grand jury and get a trial. The article concludes by reminding Sewall of his errors during the Salem witch trials and the public confession he had made at Old South Church on 14 January 1697. Eventually the grand jury dismissed the case because of lack of evidence, and this was the last attempt in Massachusetts to enforce censorship by prior review.
In an article on titles of honor Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Every man sets himself above another in his own opinion, and there are not two men in the world whose sentiments are alike in every thing.”6 He compared modern honorifics to the unadorned names from the Bible.
While he was in England in 1725, Franklin wrote and printed anonymously A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. He began with the assumption there is a Creator of the universe and that God is all wise, good, and powerful. Because nothing can exist beyond its power and goodness, the conclusion is that evil does not exist. People may call pain, sickness, need, theft, murder, and other calamities evil, but from this divine perspective they are not. Franklin questioned the philosophical idea that God may permit some things to be done that God does not do directly. Here I think Franklin began to go astray because it is God’s gift of freedom that gives this permission.
Franklin acknowledged that life is consciousness, but he defined pain as coming from outside the mind itself. He then got caught in the mechanistic approach that trapped so many Epicureans. He assumed that uneasiness causes desire in direct proportion to its intensity. When he reduced all motivations to self-love, he asked how can any action merit praise or blame, reward or punishment? Then he limited pleasure to the satisfaction of the desires. By this degeneration of thought he ended up with a view of humans as animals completely determined by their needs and pains. Although he recognized that the soul could go on after the body dies, he questioned whether it would have any consciousness without a body and whether that could be considered any life at all. He recognized it is possible that this faculty that can contemplate ideas may be united to a new body by reincarnation, but he assumed that the identity is lost. Franklin gave a few copies of this paper to his friends; but he later wrote that he disliked its implications so much that he burned all but one copy.
In the Journal he kept during his return voyage from England in 1726 Franklin wrote a “Plan of Conduct” in which he set himself the following four objectives:
1) to be frugal until he paid his debts,
2) to speak the truth sincerely and not give false expectations,
3) to work with industry and patience while avoiding foolish projects aimed at becoming rich quickly, and
4) to speak ill of no person but excuse faults and on proper occasions to speak well of people.
In 1728 Franklin wrote the following epitaph for himself that suggests he may have believed in reincarnation:
Franklin wrote “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion” in November 1728 for his private purposes. His first principles include one supreme and most perfect being, an infinite father of the gods who is above needing or expecting any worship or praise. He noted that humans are inclined to devotion and worship of some unseen power. Franklin speculated that the infinite being may have created other gods and that a wise and good God may be the author and owner of this solar system. He suggested that this God does care about humans and may be pleased by their praise. Franklin strongly believed that virtue is the way to happiness, and he warned that no pleasure which hurts humans is innocent. Franklin then outlined a form of religious worship involving adoring, praying, and thanking.
In the adoration the divine qualities of God such as goodness, power, wisdom, life, justice, sincerity, and friendship are praised. Then Milton’s “Hymn to the Creator” may be sung. Franklin includes under Petition a series of requests, and each concludes with the words “Help, O Father.” The one praying asks to avoid infidelity, impiety, ostentation, hypocrisy, pride, anger, cruelty, unreasonable severity, calumny, deceit, envy, fraud, flattery, hatred, ingratitude, avarice, ambition, intemperance, luxury, lasciviousness, extortion, and perjury. The positive qualities prayed for include caring for and defending one’s country and obeying its laws, forgiving, friendship, being faithful in trust, impartial in judgment, temperate in pleasures, candid, humane, generous, charitable to the poor, having integrity and evenness of mind, resolution in difficulties, courage in affliction, keeping promises, being peaceful, prudent, reverent to the aged, kind to neighbors, good-natured with companions, hospitable to strangers, honest, open-hearted, gentle, merciful, and good. Then with the concluding words “my good God, I thank thee” one may give thanks for peace, liberty, food, clothing, air, light, fire, water, knowledge, literature, arts, friends, prosperity, life, reason, speech, health, and joy. A second part of these articles was lost.
Franklin expressed a view opposite to his Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity in a speech he made to the Junto in 1730 “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World.” He reasoned that the admirable order of the universe indicates that a being of infinite wisdom exists. That God is good may be seen by his giving life to so many creatures, and the vastness of the Earth, sun, planets, and stars suggests that God is very powerful. Franklin refuted the views that God no longer interacts with the universe he created while accepting the idea that providence may answer prayers and affect the world. He acknowledged the free agency of humans and reasoned that a God that gives humans some degree of wisdom, power, and goodness may also give us some freedom. At the end of this short essay Franklin elucidated the following implications from this belief:
Then I conclude, that believing a providence
we have the foundation of all true religion;
for we should love and revere that Deity for his goodness
and thank him for his benefits;
we should adore him for his wisdom, fear him for his power
and pray to him for his favor and protection;
and this religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions,
give us peace and tranquility within our own minds,
and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others.8
In February 1729 Benjamin Franklin began sending entertaining articles called “The Busy-Body” to Andrew Bradford for his newspaper so that Keimer’s new newspaper would have stronger competition. The anonymous author, who was quickly recognized as Ben Franklin, offers to be a moral censor in order to expose vices and help reform society. He promises to treat the fair sex with decency and respect without offending their modesty. He asks for no payment but only some ink and paper. In the third article he notes that the ancient Persians taught virtue in their public schools. He argues that only virtue can make one great, glorious, and happy, and he suggests Cato as a moral exemplar. Neither wit, wealth, being good-looking nor learning can compare to virtue, for it is impossible to be really great without being good. Thus he concludes that knowledge of humanity and oneself is most profitable.
In the fourth weekly article the Busy-Body includes a letter from a woman with a shop who complains that her neighbor and her children spend too much time bothering her in the shop; but she is afraid to tell her so. In response the Busy-Body advises withdrawing from the house of your neighbors lest they grow to hate you; but he also recommends having the courage to tell your friends that long visits may be inconvenient. In the fifth article the Busy-Body suggests that he can illuminate the little follies that friends are too tender to mention and the great villainies that have been craftily accomplished without the law restraining them. A letter from a man claims that he has second sight and so may be useful to the censor. Franklin wrote only one more Busy-Body article, and in that one he satirizes an astrologer who aims to cooperate with the psychic man in order to dig up buried treasure. Such foolish ventures preoccupy people but do not create value. He suggests that the fishing from the banks of Newfoundland has provided more real value than the silver ore from the Potosi mines. After Andrew Bradford approved the article and left town, Franklin added a section with a strong argument for issuing paper money. This anti-proprietary political message so offended Bradford that his wife ordered copies retrieved. When he returned, Bradford printed a new edition without the addition.
On 3 April 1729 Franklin published a pamphlet called A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of Paper-Currency. He argued that the lack of money in a trading country causes higher interest rates, and people will invest in land that is safer than voyages. The lack of money also causes the prices of produce to go down, and many laborers and artisans lose their jobs and go elsewhere. Relatively more goods are purchased from abroad, but the overall economy is stifled. Those with much money will purchase land and may oppose adding to the money supply. They may be joined by lawyers who get clients dealing with unpaid debts and by the dependents of the elite class.
Those involved in trade and manufacturing will favor adding to the currency. Franklin argued that the local people who understand their own circumstances should decide such issues rather than those in England. He defined money as a medium of exchange that represents an exchange of labor. Traditionally silver and gold have been used as money, but their value fluctuates based on scarcity. The plentiful increase of these elements from America to Europe caused their value to decline six-fold so that labor which had been sold for a penny a day has become worth six-pence. The increase of commerce led the financial centers in Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, and Venice to issue bills of credit that became easier to use even than silver and gold. Bankers could lend large sums on good security to governments and others for a reasonable interest of about 5%. Because barter is less efficient than using money, currency frees up labor for productive uses and thus improves the economy. As long as the paper currency is secured by land there is no problem because too much paper currency will affect the price of land and cause people to get rid of their currency.
Adding paper currency causes lower interest rates, and lower interest makes money easier to borrow and helps the economy grow. Making money more plentiful allows higher prices that pay more people to work for higher wages, stimulating manufacturing and trade. Even the wealthy and those in England may benefit by investing in this increased prosperity. If too much wheat is grown, people may turn to raising and manufacturing hemp, silk, iron, and other things. Franklin noted that the currencies fell in New England and South Carolina because the bills were not issued prudently on good security; but so far Pennsylvania had good security and beneficial results. Franklin concluded that opponents were free to argue against his proposal; but they had not done so, and he doubted that they would. Very little opposition was mounted, and a bill for paper money was soon passed by a majority of the Assembly. Incidentally Karl Marx gave Franklin credit for being the first to explain clearly how exchange-value may be reduced to labor-time.
Franklin’s son William was born by an unknown woman about 1729 during a period when he consorted with low women. He persuaded Deborah to help him raise the child, and he pretended that William was born in 1731 to cover up his illegitimacy. He published “Rules and Maxims for Promoting Matrimonial Happiness” in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 8 October 1730, just five weeks after his common-law marriage to Deborah began. He directed it to females, not because they are more at fault, but because he believed that they are “better disposed to receive and practice it.” He suggested that the best way to gain a good husband is to be good yourself. He warned against using a lover ill even before marriage because he is likely to upbraid you with it or return it later. Those who play the tyrant or are gentle are apt to be treated the same way. One should avoid trying to manage one’s husband and never deceive or impose on him or try his temper but always be sincere, affectionate, and respectful. Pass over what is disagreeable as human frailty, compose your temper, and maintain a cheerful and good-natured attitude. Human life has its accidents, infirmities, and burdens, and instead of murmuring or disagreeing, it is better to shoulder them together. Do not dispute to try to gain your own will or win the argument because risking a quarrel may cause heartache.
Franklin wrote that woman’s power and happiness are based on her husband’s esteem and love. By studying his temper and controlling her own she may enjoy satisfaction with him, share and sooth his cares, and conceal his infirmities. He suggested wearing your wedding ring, and whenever you are tempted to go against your duties, look at it and remember who gave it to you. The tenderness of conjugal love may be expressed with decency, delicacy, and prudence, but he advised against “the designing fondness of a harlot.” Consider your husband’s income and be careful with your expenses and desires. Franklin concluded by recommending that husbands practice the same things.
By threatening them with bad publicity Franklin got himself elected to the Freemasons of Philadelphia in January 1731. He was made a warden in June 1732 and was elected grand master in June 1734. Thomas Godfrey was in the Junto with Franklin, and his family rented from him in 1728. Franklin courted a relative of Mrs. Godfrey, but they could not agree on a settlement. As a result of the quarrel the Godfreys moved out of the house in April 1730. Franklin satirized how the Godfreys tried to use the courtship of their daughter for their advantage in an Anthony Afterwit piece in July 1732. After that, Godfrey stopped letting Franklin print his almanac and gave it to Andrew Bradford. This stimulated Franklin to begin his own almanac. He criticized the mercantilism of the Acts of Trade and Navigation as well as the Board of Trade’s disallowing acts of the colonies which taxed the importing of slaves and the transporting of felons. Franklin himself owned at least one African slave, but there is no definite evidence until the year 1745.
In May 1731 Franklin provoked a storm of criticism when he and a captain added to an advertisement for passengers or freight this note, “N.B. No Sea Hens nor Black Gowns will be admitted on any Terms.”9 Sea hens are noisy birds, but it was also a slang term for prostitutes; black gowns refer to clergy. Many ministers objected and thought he should have known better. Franklin explained that they only intended it as a joke, and he published a standing “Apology for Printers” that he hoped could be read on all pertinent occasions. He noted that if printers avoided printing anything that would offend anyone, not much would be printed.
Franklin published an essay “On Simplicity” in April 1732. He believed that the natural charm and beauty of “homespun” simplicity and honesty are better than cunning, chicanery, artifice, and affectation. He found that away from the cities one is more likely to find the sincere pleasure of “conversing from the heart” without design. Francis Bacon wrote that cunning is a sinister or crooked wisdom, but it takes a strong heart to tell the truth and to know when to do so. Weaker politicians are the biggest dissemblers. The cunning are like those who cheat at cards because they cannot play the game well. The cunning are unable to accept counsel and advice because their dishonesty might be exposed; but the virtuous involved in honest actions thrive on free debate. Only fools are dishonest because the wise know that being honest is best. Simplicity in manners and speech leads to the highest happiness, but disguise and affectation are tiresome. The crooked cannot have real friends because the honest know them and rascals betray them. Franklin suggested, “We shall resolve to be what we would seem, which is the only sure way not to be afraid to seem what we really are.”10 He warned against the affectation of those who pretend to have simplicity. Plain integrity is not concerned about quaint habits or odd behavior. He concluded that the best defense against the cunning is the integrity and honesty of the wise.
Franklin was not afraid to go against popular beliefs if he thought they were ill advised. Although censure and backbiting were condemned by the divines and writers of morality in all ages, he wrote an essay defending censure as a helpful virtue. He argued that the practice of censuring frequently prevents powerful and ill-designing politicians from “growing too popular for the safety of the state.” The common use of censure also deters the actions of private persons who often strengthen their weak resolution by asking themselves what people will say.
What will the world say of me, if I act thus?
is often a reflection strong enough to enable us
to resist the most powerful temptation to vice or folly.
This preserves the integrity of the wavering,
the honesty of the covetous,
the sanctity of some of the religious,
and the chastity of all virgins.11
If people disregard censure, they become impudent and may have contempt for all laws, human and divine. The practice of censuring helps people to know themselves better. Friends are rarely sincere or rash enough to tell us about our faults. Only enemies tell us what we have done wrong to our faces; but most people refuse to believe an enemy because they assume they are speaking out of ill will. From backbiting neighbors we may eventually hear what has been said about us but never to us because people are more willing to tell us what others are saying about us. Backbiting also helps people to understand the darker side of humanity. Franklin argued that nothing could be more pernicious than a law against backbiting because it would provide the greatest encouragement to vice.
Five days after “On Censure and Backbiting” was published, Franklin adopted the persona of “Alice Addertongue” to write a letter in which she complains that women have been scandalized without mercy but that the men doing the scandalizing are just as guilty. She has made it her business to censure people every day for twelve years. She encloses for publication accounts of several knavish tricks, drubbed wives, and henpecked husbands, but the editor adds a note that such items are not news at all.
Franklin also published an article how humans are benevolent as well as selfish. He described the detailed questions of the Junto to show how they educate each other and endeavor to work to improve their virtues and assist each other and those in need. He warned about drunkenness which can ruin one’s life and cause an early death. He compiled “The Drinker’s Dictionary” with about 250 terms for being under the influence of alcohol. He praised the men who put out fires and asked whether Pennsylvania needed a militia for self-defense. He explained how the virtue of constancy helps people adhere to a purpose, maintains courage despite obstacles, and strengthens judgment from imagined fears. Steadiness and perseverance enable all the virtues to continue functioning. He praised Charles XII of Sweden and Cromwell for their tenacity but criticized Charles II of England for wavering too much.
Franklin argued that self-denial, which the religious often recommend, is not really a virtue. He asked whether a person who does not have an inclination to wrong people that needs to be denied in order to be just is any less just. Is the person who is not tempted less virtuous than the one who is and must overcome it? Actually those who improve themselves so that virtue eventually becomes a habit grow to have less need for self-denial. Franklin suggested that those who struggle with self-denial do not deserve any more reward for doing the right thing than others. He concluded that the most perfect virtue of the saints is above all temptation.
His wife Deborah belonged to a Presbyterian church, but Benjamin rarely attended. However, in late 1734 he went to hear the sermons of the new preacher Samuel Hemphill because they were more about morality than Calvinist theology. In April 1735 the senior minister Jedediah Andrews charged Hemphill with heresy before a synod, and Franklin wrote a“Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians” to defend his views. “T” believes that faith is the way to salvation, and he is bothered by preaching about duty; but “S” argues that Jesus taught ethics in his Sermon on the Mount and concludes, “A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian.”12 When the synod unanimously censured and suspended Hemphill, Franklin published an anonymous pamphlet filled with his righteous indignation called Some Observations on the Proceedings against the Rev. Mr. Hemphill with a Vindication of his Sermons. The members of the synod and others responded with their own pamphlets, and Franklin wrote another defense. Hemphill was also exposed for plagiarizing his sermons; but Franklin still defended him, writing that he preferred the good sermons of others to bad ones that are original. Eventually Hemphill went away, and Franklin stopped going to church.
Ben warned against holding opinions obstinately. Those who are convinced they are infallible have stopped growing wiser. The great soul always seeks the truth beyond all other considerations and is willing to acknowledge a mistake and admit it in public. He satirized lawyers who have mastered the art of saying little in many words. The respected lawyer Andrew Hamilton led the anti-Proprietary Party and was speaker of the Assembly. He had helped Franklin get government printing jobs. When Bradford printed attacks on Hamilton, Franklin came to his defense by writing “A Half-Hour’s Conversation with a Friend” in November 1733. After Hamilton was elected speaker again, Franklin was chosen as clerk of the Assembly in 1736, and this helped him get even more government printing jobs. Franklin developed a very successful printing business with investments in the entire process from the production of paper and ink to the distribution of the books, pamphlets, and periodicals. He also formed partnerships with printers he knew in other colonies.
In 1740 Franklin wrote a letter for the New Jersey Assembly to Governor Lewis Morris that lampooned the Governor's speech. The Proprietary Party in Pennsylvania criticized Franklin for refusing to print the reasons Governor George Thomas had for rejecting a bill. Franklin lobbied against Governor Thomas and the Proprietary Party before the election of 1740 by publishing the letter Thomas wrote to the Board of Trade on October 20. In the letter, which was not intended to be made public, the Governor aimed to disqualify Quakers from public office, and he objected to importing indentured servants because of their bringing over knowledge of manufacturing. Franklin opposed treating the Quakers as traitors, the mercantilism, and the Governor's request for a fixed salary. He wrote another essay on paper-currency in 1741. After the “knock-down election” of 1742 Franklin criticized William Allen and the Proprietary Party for having used sailors to intimidate voters.
He became the first to publish a novel in America in 1744 when he reprinted Pamela by Samuel Richardson. He published “Old Mistresses Apologue” in 1745 giving eight reasons why older women make better lovers. Franklin wrote anonymously Reflections on Courtship and Marriage in 1746, and this was the first book he had published in England. He defended women and argued that they should have the same education as men. He suggested that friendship is the only basis for a sound marriage, and he held that marriage is a voluntary contract that is binding on both persons for their common welfare and pleasure. He advised couples to avoid petty quarrels.
Often Franklin’s satires were hoaxes, and sometimes they were reprinted in other newspapers as news. In April 1747 “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker” persuades a court in Connecticut not to punish her a fifth time for bearing an illegitimate child by arguing that she is contributing to society, and the next day one of the judges marries her. Accounts of Polly Baker spread to England and Europe; but Franklin admitted thirty years later that he made up this story for amusement. At the end of 1747 he turned his work over to his foreman David Hall who became his partner. Franklin still owned half the printing business and netted an average of £650 a year over the next few years. He retired from printing, publishing, and bookselling so that he could devote his time to scientific research, reading, and community service.
Benjamin Franklin published the almanacs of Thomas Godfrey and John Jerman in the fall of 1730 and 1731, but the next year Andrew Bradford offered them better terms and printed all five of the almanacs in Philadelphia. Franklin hurried to publish his own almanac and printed Poor Richard’s Almanac in the last week of December 1732 for the year 1733. In his first introduction Franklin took the persona of Richard Saunders who explains that he is poor and is writing almanacs at the urging of his wife to turn his star-gazing into some profit. He predicts the death of his top competitor, Titan Leeds. When he does not die, Richard nonetheless turns it into a running a gag. Franklin published this almanac every year up to 1758. Almanacs were popular and were the chief source of income for many printers. By 1748 Franklin was selling 10,000 a year. In 1751 calculation that going back 21 generations shows more than a million ancestors was presented as proof that continual intermarriages over the ages have made us all one family. In 1752 the English adopted the more correct Gregorian calendar and began the years on January 1. By 1700 the Julian calendar’s error had increased to eleven days which is why Franklin’s birthday on January 6 is adjusted to January 17. In 1753 Franklin included instructions for installing an iron rod to protect a building from lightning. Poor Richard’s Almanac consisted of the usual astronomical and astrological information in 24 pages (increased to 36 pages in 1748), but Franklin included poetry and proverbs on the pages of the months. Most of the proverbs were not new, but Franklin usually phrased them well. Here is a selection of his wit and wisdom:
Great talkers, little doers.13
The poor have little, beggars none,
the rich too much, enough not one.14
To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.15
He that lies down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas….
Distrust and caution are the parents of security.16
Without justice, courage is weak.17
Where there’s marriage without love,
there will be love without marriage….
Who pleasure gives, shall joy receive.18
Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason.19
Do good to thy friend to keep him, to thy enemy to gain him.
A good man is seldom uneasy, an ill one never easy.20
He that cannot obey, cannot command.21
He that is rich need not live sparingly,
and he that can live sparingly need not be rich.
If you would be revenged of your enemy, govern yourself.22
He does not possess wealth, it possesses him.23
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.24
It is better to take many injuries than to give one.25
Early to bed and early to rise,
makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
To be humble to superiors is duty,
to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.26
Fish and visitors stink in three days.27
Do not do that which you would not have known.28
Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.29
He that can have patience, can have what he will.
God helps them that help themselves.30
God heals, and the doctor takes the fees.31
There are no ugly loves, nor handsome prisons.32
Certainly these things agree,
The priest, the lawyer, and death all three:
Death takes both the weak and the strong.
The lawyer takes from both right and wrong.
And the priest from living and dead has his fee.
The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.33
Don’t misinform your doctor nor your lawyer.34
Tomorrow I’ll reform, the fools does say:
Today itself’s too late; the wise did yesterday.3
If you’d have a servant that you like, serve yourself.36
You may be more happy than princes,
if you will be more virtuous.
If you would not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing.
Sell not virtue to purchase wealth,
nor liberty to purchase power.37
If you do what you should not,
you must hear what you would not….
Wish not so much to live long as to live well.38
Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man,
discourse a clear man.39
Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices.40
If thou wouldst live long, live well;
for folly and wickedness shorten life.
Trust thyself, and another shall not betray thee.41
Let thy child’s first lesson be obedience,
and the second may be what thou wilt.
Blessed is he that expects nothing,
for he shall never be disappointed.42
If thou injurest conscience, it will have its revenge on thee.
Hear no ill of a friend, nor speak any of an enemy.
Pay what you owe, and you’ll know what’s your own.43
No longer virtuous no longer free, is a maxim
as true with regard to a private person as a commonwealth.44
Fear to do ill, and you need fear naught else.45
Learn of the skillful:
he that teaches himself hath a fool for his master.46
How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults,
or resolution enough to mend them!47
Who is strong? He that conquers his bad habits.
Who is rich? He that rejoices in his portion.48
Hear Reason, or she’ll make you feel her.49
Sloth (like rust) consumes faster than labor wears:
the used key is always bright.50
Keep thou from the opportunity,
and God will keep thee from the sin.51
The same man cannot be both friend and flatterer.
He who multiplies riches multiplies cares.52
Those who are feared, are hated.
The things which hurt, instruct.
The eye of a master will do more work than his hand.
A soft tongue may strike hard.53
It’s common for men to give pretended reasons
instead of one real one.54
No gains without pains.55
One man may be more cunning than another,
but not more cunning than everybody else.56
To God we owe fear and love;
to our neighbors justice and charity;
to ourselves prudence and sobriety.57
’Tis easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.58
Interest which blinds some people, enlightens others.59
When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.60
Dost thou love life?
Then do not squander time;
for that’s the stuff life is made of.61
A good example is the best sermon.62
He that won’t be counseled, can’t be helped.63
Better is a little with content than much with contention.64
He that cannot bear with other people’s passions,
cannot govern his own.65
Life with fools consists in drinking;
With the wise man, living’s thinking.66
Read much; the mind, which never can be still,
If not intent on good, is prone to ill.
And where bright thoughts or reasonings just you find,
Repose them careful in your inmost mind….
Liberality is not giving much but giving wisely.67
Your true hero fights to preserve,
and not to destroy, the lives, liberties, and estates of his people.
His neighbors also, and all that are oppressed,
share his cares and his protection.68
He that’s secure is not safe.69
Wise men learn by others’ harms; fools by their own.70
The end of passion is the beginning of repentance.
Words may show a man’s wit, but actions his meaning.71
Content makes poor men rich;
discontent makes rich men poor.72
If passion drives, let reason hold the reins.73
Having been poor is no shame,
but being ashamed of it, is.74
The wise man draws more advantage from his enemies,
than the fool from his friends.75
Doing an injury puts you below your enemy;
revenging one makes you but even with him;
forgiving it sets you above him.76
Keep conscience clear, then never fear.77
He that can hear a reproof, and mend by it,
if he is not wise, is in a fair way of being so.78
Though modesty is a virtue, bashfulness is a vice.79
The wise and brave dares own that he was wrong.80
The proud hate pride—in others.81
Meanness is the parent of insolence.82
Old boys have their playthings as well as young ones;
the difference is only in the price.83
The brave and the wise can both pity and excuse;
when cowards and fools show no mercy.84
Success has ruined many a man.85
Many have quarreled about religion, that never practiced it.
Haste makes waste.86
Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.
He that is of opinion money will do everything,
may well be suspected of doing everything for money.87
God, parents, and instructors can never be requited.88
If you’d know the value of money, go and borrow some.89
Who is wise? He that learns from everyone.
Who is powerful? He that governs his passions.
Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody.90
The doors of wisdom are never shut.91
Being ignorant is not so much a shame,
as being unwilling to learn.92
Diligence overcomes difficulties; sloth makes them.
Neglect mending a small fault, and ’twill become a great one.93
A man has it in his power to be just;
and that is the reason it is so dishonorable to be otherwise.94
Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults.95
Be civil to all; serviceable to many;
familiar with few; friend to one; enemy to none.96
A wise man will desire no more than what he may get justly,
use soberly, distribute cheerfully, and leave contentedly.97
Tell me my faults, and mend your own.98
Work as if you were to live 100 years,
Pray as if you were to die tomorrow.99
Ambition to be greater and richer,
merely that a man may have it in his power
to do more service to his friends and the public,
is of a quiet orderly kind,
pleased if it succeeds, resigned if it fails.
But the ambition that has itself only in view, is restless,
turbulent, regardless of public peace or general interest,
and the secret maker of most mischiefs
between nations, parties, friends, and neighbors.100
Half the truth is often a great lie.101
1. Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin ed. J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall, p. 65.
2. Ibid., p. 67-68.
3. Ibid., p. 71.
4. Ibid., p. 85.
5. The New England Courant, 16 April 1722 in Benjamin Franklin Writings ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, p. 8.
6. The New England Courant, 18 February 1723 in Benjamin Franklin Writings ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, p. 49.
7. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin ed. Leonard W. Labaree et al, Volume 1, p. 111.
8. “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World” in Benjamin Franklin Writings ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, p. 168.
9. The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher 1730-1747 by J. A. Leo Lemay, p. 11.
10. “On Simplicity,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, 13 April 1732 in Benjamin Franklin Writings ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, p. 183.
11. “On Censure and Backbiting,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, 7 September 1732 in Benjamin Franklin Writings ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, p. 193.
12. “Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, 10 April 1735 in Benjamin Franklin Writings ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, p. 261.
13. Poor Richard’s Almanac by Benjamin Franklin, April 1733.
14. Ibid., May 1733.
15. Ibid., June 1733.
16. Ibid., July 1733.
17. Ibid., January 1734.
18. Ibid., May 1734.
19. Ibid., June 1734.
20. Ibid., July 1734.
21. Ibid., August 1734.
22. Ibid., September 1734.
23. Ibid., October 1734.
24. Ibid., July 1735.
25. Ibid., September 1735.
26. Ibid., October 1735.
27. Ibid., January 1736.
28. Ibid., February 1736.
29. Ibid., March 1736.
30. Ibid., June 1736.
31. Ibid., November 1736.
32. Ibid., May 1737.
33. Ibid., July 1737.
34. Ibid., August 1737.
35. Ibid., September 1737.
36. Ibid., October 1737.
37. Ibid., May 1738.
38. Ibid., August 1738.
39. Ibid., October 1738.
40. Ibid., December 1738.
41. Ibid., February 1739.
42. Ibid., May 1739.
43. Ibid., August 1739.
44. Ibid., September 1739.
45. Ibid., September 1740.
46. Ibid., January 1741.
47. Ibid., January 1743.
48. Ibid., January 1744.
49. Ibid., June 1744.
50. Ibid., July 1744.
51. Ibid., August 1744.
52. Ibid., September 1744.
53. Ibid., October 1744.
54. Ibid., February 1745.
55. Ibid., April 1745.
56. Ibid., August 1745.
57. Ibid., September 1745.
58. Ibid., October 1745.
59. Ibid., November 1745.
60. Ibid., January 1746.
61. Ibid., June 1746.
62. Ibid., June 1747.
63. Ibid., August 1747.
64. Ibid., October 1747.
65. Ibid., December 1747.
66. Ibid., April 1748.
67. Ibid., May 1748.
68. Ibid., July 1748.
69. Ibid., August 1748.
70. Ibid., January 1749.
71. Ibid., February 1749.
72. Ibid., April 1749.
73. Ibid., May 1749.
74. Ibid., July 1749.
75. Ibid., August 1749.
76. Ibid., October 1749.
77. Ibid., November 1749.
78. Ibid., May 1750.
79. Ibid., September 1750.
80. Ibid., November 1751.
81. Ibid., December 1751.
82. Ibid., May 1752.
83. Ibid., August 1752.
84. Ibid., October 1752.
85. Ibid., December 1752.
86. Ibid., June 1753.
87. Ibid., July 1753.
88. Ibid., August 1753.
89. Ibid., April 1754.
90. Ibid., July 1755.
91. Ibid., August 1755.
92. Ibid., October 1755.
93. Ibid., November 1755.
94. Ibid., January 1756.
95. Ibid., March 1756.
96. Ibid., April 1756.
97. Ibid., June 1756.
98. Ibid., December 1756.
99. Ibid., May 1757.
100. Ibid., October 1757.
101. Ibid., July 1758.
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