Benjamin Franklin begins writing Part One of his Autobiography in 1771 at the age of 65 while on a country vacation in England in the town of Twyford. In the opening pages, he addresses his son, William, the Royal Governor of New Jersey, telling him that he, Benjamin, has always taken pleasure in hearing stories about his family members, and suggesting that William might enjoy hearing the story of his father’s life. It is the perfect time for him to set his life to paper because he has a period of leisure.
It is important to note that Franklin, in this first part of his Autobiography, at least claims that he is writing for his son and family, and not for the public at large. This position of Franklin’s changes, and so does the tone and style of Franklin’s writing, in later sections of the Autobiography where Franklin’s stated audience changes to a larger public.
Franklin goes on to remark that his life trajectory, from obscure tradesman to renowned statesman, is somewhat unusual, so, beyond just serving his son as entertainment, his story might be worthy of imitation. The felicity—ease and grace—with which he has gone through life has often led Franklin to reflect that, given the chance, he would live his whole life over again only asking that he might correct a few errors ("errata") he made the first time around.
Franklin introduces the themes of self-improvement, error and correction, and industriousness—but also notes that the Autobiography is not a dry, reference manual of strategies, names and dates, but a diverting narrative. This function of the narrative (entertainment) increases the utility of the work as an educational tool, and, perhaps, the educational elements make the narrative more engrossing
The thing most like living one’s life over, Franklin continues, is recollecting it and writing it down. He admits that one of the reasons he is writing the Autobiography is to indulge his vanity. Franklin argues that vanity is a good thing, good for the vain person and the people around him. Then Franklin thanks God and says everything good that has happened to him is owing to God’s providence.
Franklin argues that recollecting his life in writing is like getting a second chance to live it. Naturally, what follows is an admission of the vanity involved in loving oneself and one’s life enough to think others will gain pleasure and learn from reading about it. Perhaps due to accusations of atheism he faced early in life, Franklin is quick to give credit to God.
Franklin relates how he learned from the notes of an uncle (unnamed) that the Franklin family lived in the same English village, Ecton in Northamptonshire, for at least 300 years and possibly longer, maybe even since the name “Franklin” (formerly the name of an order or rank of citizen in England) was adopted by the family. The eldest son of each generation for all of that time was trained as a smith. Consulting the Ecton registry, Franklin discovered that he was the youngest son of the youngest son going back five generations.
Now Franklin begins to describe his lineage and the previous generations of his family. Here there is at least some evidence to support Franklin’s claim that William is more than just the stated audience for this first section of his work. He notes the peculiarity of his being the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations, hinting how lucky it was for him to have been born at all.
Franklin describes seeing the gravestone of his grandfather, Thomas (sr.), who died at Banbury in Oxfordsire. Thomas (sr.) had four sons, Thomas jr., John, Benjamin, and Josiah. Thomas jr. was a smith but went on to become a scrivener (scribe) and became a man much esteemed by the community and gentry. Franklin says he remembers that the account he and William received of Thomas jr.’s life and character at Ecton struck William as something Extraordinary for its similarity to Franklin’s own.
Franklin now introduces the key male members of his father’s family—Franklin tends to dwell more, throughout the Autobiography, on men and male members of his family and society. Perhaps in this, unlike in other areas of his attitude and thinking, his ideas are more symptomatic of the sexism of his times. He notes that a strong character capable of civic achievements may run in the family.
John, the next of Thomas sr.’s sons, was a silk dyer. Franklin says he was an ingenious man, and gives an example of an acrostic that John composed out of the name, “Benjamin Franklin.” John, Franklin says, developed his own method of writing in shorthand, was very pious and had a collection of sermons he transcribed in said shorthand, and was something of a politician.
Not only does civic mindedness run in the family, according to Franklin, so does literacy and even literary accomplishment. He is proud to show off the compositions of his relatives, especially those that flatter his own vanity. Literary achievement is important for Franklin, in that he sees it as a main avenue for his success.
Franklin notes that his “obscure” family was composed of Protestants, so they were sometimes in danger when Catholics like Queen Mary were in power. He shares an anecdote about how the family taped an English Bible under a joint stool so that when his Great-Grandfather was reading from it to the family with the stool on his knees, if an apparitor (a kind of religious police officer) were to come by, he could simply flip the stool over and the Bible would be concealed.
Perhaps more than the actual religious beliefs of his family members, Franklin celebrates how, as Protestants, they questioned the religious power structures of their time. Perhaps he shares this anecdote about the taped bible to show not just their conviction and ingenuity when it came to practicing their religion, but their early commitment to the principle of religious freedom, a principle which would become a cornerstone in early American society.
Franklin describes how his father, Josiah, and his uncle Benjamin broke away from the Episcopal (Anglican) Church while the rest of the family remained with it. Josiah married young and moved to New England (Boston, where much of Part One takes place) with his first wife and first three children around 1682 to practice his new religion freely. Josiah had four more children with his first wife and then ten more by a second wife, Franklin’s mother, Abiah Folger. Franklin was the youngest son.
Now Franklin describes how his family first came from England to the American colonies and sets the stage for his own appearance there. His father sired a prodigious family, and Franklin is proud of his family’s size and success. He introduces his mother, whom he speaks of tenderly. We see how religious freedom was an essential element of the Franklin family’s emigration.
Abiah was the daughter of one of the first settlers of New England, Peter Folger, who was mentioned by the historian Cotton Mather in Magnalia Christi Americana. Peter, Franklin’s grandfather, dabbled in writing. There is one political poem that Franklin remembers having read. He found it well-written and includes its last six lines.
Franklin links his lineage to the colonies’ first Puritan settlers, ascribing himself, in the process, a kind of American nobility or bona fides. Once again he samples from his ancestors’ literary achievements, these deriving from his mother’s line.
All of Franklin’s elder brothers were apprenticed to various trades, but Franklin was sent to grammar school at the age of eight because Josiah intended to put him in the priesthood. Franklin’s father reconsidered sending Franklin to school, however, because of the expense of college education. He transferred Franklin to a school for writing and arithmetic kept by a famous man, George Brownell. Franklin began to write well, but failed in arithmetic.
Noting that, unlike his brothers, he was set aside for a literary, religious, and language education, Franklin describes the small portion of his learning history that was not self-driven. Franklin may have derived some personal motivation from the fact that his father briefly set him aside for an intellectual vocation.
At the age of ten, Franklin was removed from school to assist Josiah who was a “Tallow Chandler and Sope-Boiler” (a candle and soap maker). Franklin was employed at various small tasks around his father’s shop. He disliked the trade and wanted to become a sailor. He taught himself how to swim well and manage boats. He says he was a leader among the boys his age.
Franklin suggests to some extent that his future leadership was prefigured in his earliest childhood. This idea stands at odds with the ideas of self-actualization and improvement expounded later in the book, though, it might be said, there are many leaders among boys who do not go on to become leaders among men.
Franklin relates an anecdote from his boyhood because he says it “shows an early projecting public Spirit” though, he says, improperly applied. He directed a group of boys his age to steal a large number of cobblestones from workmen building a house in Boston so that they could build a small wharf on the salt marsh where they liked to fish for minnows. The boys were caught and reprimanded, and, though Franklin pleaded with Josiah that the work he and the boys had done was useful, his father taught him that nothing is useful which is not done honestly.
Civic-mindedness was an element of Franklin’s character from his earliest youth, and, if his method of approach was unlawful or dishonest, it may simply have been because no proper avenue existed (or exists) for children to contribute in matters of public improvement. Of course, this wasn’t Franklin’s father’s opinion. Franklin demonstrates how Josiah held him to the highest moral standards.
Franklin thinks William might like to hear more about Josiah, who, Franklin says, had a strong physical build, was of average height, could draw well, sing prettily, and practiced music on his violin in a way that was very pleasing. He had a mechanical genius and would borrow other tradesmen’s tools to do small tasks. But, Franklin says, his father’s greatest attribute was his sound judgment, which led other to seek his advice on issues large and small.
Franklin takes pride in the sturdiness, ingenuity, and creative inclinations of his stock. Once again it seems Franklin makes no overt claims for self-determination over genetic predisposition, and instead, as he states in the opening pages, seems to share any detail that serves to satisfy his vanity or seems as if it may have set him up for his later advantages.
Josiah liked to invite friends and neighbors over for dinner and chose ingenious topics of conversation in order to improve the minds of his children. Franklin said his interest in the conversations kept him from being a picky eater because his attention was always directed away from the food. This was very convenient for him in his later travels abroad.
Once again, Franklin gives credit to his father as a nurturer of his intellect and his sense of both morality and justice. What’s more, he explains how he derived his pragmatism (practicality) and adaptability to Josiah’s judicious parenting.
Franklin goes on to describe his mother, Abiah. She too had a strong bodily constitution. He says he never knew her or his father to have any sickness except those which killed them, he at 89 years of age and she at 85. They are buried together at Boston, Franklin says, and he placed a marble tombstone at the site with a loving inscription that he includes in the Autobiography.
Franklin seems to argue not just that his parents were well made, but that their industriousness and frugality contributed to their long life and good health. He pays them respect and homage in his poetic epitaph, perhaps even as an effort to atone for his long absence from the family after he moved away from Boston.
Franklin says he can tell he’s grown old because of his rambling digressions. He returns to his story, saying that he continued as an assistant to Josiah until the age of twelve. Because he did not like his father’s trade and his father feared that, if Franklin were apprenticed to it, he would run away and go to sea, his father began to search for a new trade in which to apprentice Franklin. He took Franklin to watch different tradesmen at work, which, Franklin says, led him to watch and learn how good workmen handle their tools. Later, from this natural curiosity, he was able to construct little machines for his scientific experiments on his own.
Now Franklin describes his curiosity in craftsmanship and appreciation for industriousness in all of its many spheres, large and small. It is one thing to acquire a skill through years of apprenticeship, but to learn tasks, even small ones, from a few hours of observation takes a keen wit and a knack for improvement through imitation, two features Franklin constantly demonstrates throughout his work.
Franklin was briefly apprenticed to his cousin Samuel, a cutler, but, because Franklin’s father wouldn’t pay a fee for Samuel to take Franklin, Franklin was brought home again. Then Franklin describes his love for reading, which he cultivated from an early age. Some of his favorite books, those most influential on him, he says, were Plutarch’s Lives, Daniel Defoe’s Essay on Projects, and Cotton Mather’s Essay to do Good.
A cutler is one who makes, deals, or repairs cutlery and kitchen utensils—it comes as no surprise that Franklin (who later describes how he prided himself in eating with a pewter spoon from a wooden bowl) didn’t fight for his apprenticeship to a cousin in this profession. He wanted, he implies, a trade that could facilitate his love for reading and position him for self-improvement.
His “bookish inclination” caused his father to apprentice Franklin to his brother James, a printer. Franklin signed the indentures (binding agreements for a term of service) to serve James from the ages of 12 to 21 and left his father’s house to live with James. He learned the trade quickly. The apprenticeship gave him access to better books and he sat up most of the night reading.
At last Franklin and his father came upon a suitable trade for Franklin’s enterprising and upward-aspiring spirit. The printer’s trade allowed Franklin to practice his composition and gave him access to the books that would be the primary means for his self-education and improvement.
Franklin took a fancy to poetry and wrote a few pieces of it. James found out and encouraged Franklin to pursue it. Franklin wrote two occasional poems, one called the “Light House Tragedy” and one that was a sailor song on the “Taking of Teach or Blackbeard the Pirate.”
Franklin shares how his creative energy led him to pursue poetry early on. He did not yet see it as a time-squandering pastime, and took it upon himself to write some occasional poems based on recent events in the colonies.
Franklin says the poems were wretched but the “Light House Tragedy” sold well, which flattered his vanity. Josiah ridiculed his verses and told him that poets were generally beggars, so Franklin escaped being a poet. Prose writing, however, he says, was very useful to him and was a principle means of his advancement. He says he will tell about how he acquired his abilities as a prose stylist.
Franklin’s early success with poetry allowed him to fancy himself a writer, but his father’s advice that poetry wouldn’t provide a stable financial future made Franklin question its utility, except as a tool for improving one’s prose writing. Prose writing, beyond being more marketable, was also an essential skill for a statesman at that time.
Franklin recounts how he had a bookish friend, John Collins. The two of them liked to debate each other and argue. Franklin describes such disputatiousness (argumentativeness) as a nasty habit, one best to be avoided, but suggests he didn’t know any better at the time. He and Collins started a debate about the appropriateness of educating women. Collins argued it was improper and Franklin, “perhaps a little for Dispute sake,” took the opposing view.
Once again Franklin describes a hardheaded bad habit he developed early on, a habit he was able to break himself of by assiduously applying his effort and will. We see Franklin acknowledge that he took up the cause of educating women perhaps more for the sake of debate than because he actually supported it.
Collins was more fluid and eloquent than Franklin in his arguments. The two were to be apart for some time, so they exchanged letters on the subject. Josiah found the letters and showed Franklin how he lacked Collin’s elegance of expression. Franklin saw that his father was right, and took it upon himself to improve his manner of writing.
Franklin, with his father’s help, was able to see the difference in ability between himself and a peer, but, as with all of his natural limitations, Franklin did not take this as a prohibition but as a challenge to improve himself. Perhaps with each improvement to his character, Franklin was better able to gratify his vanity.
Franklin found a volume of Samuel Johnson’s The Spectator and tried to improve his writing by rewriting and imitating Johnson’s style. Then he translated the prose into verse, and from verse back to prose. Eventually, he saw a few small points of expression in which, he thought, he had improved upon the original. Franklin did these writing exercises and his reading at night after work, before work began in the morning, or on Sundays, when he skipped church services.
Here we see Franklin improve and educate himself through imitation. Naturally, when he compared his work to the esteemed Dr. Johnson and found, as he says, that he had improved upon the original, Franklin swelled with pride. A lacking transformed into a skill, for Franklin, was akin to an error corrected, and Franklin’s industriousness was such that even his “leisure” time was devoted to intellectual productivity.
At the age of 16, Franklin read a book by a man named Tryon that recommended a vegetarian diet. He immediately adopted one. His vegetarianism was inconvenient for James, so he acquainted himself with some of the recipes in Tryon’s book and made an arrangement to get half of the money his brother spent on food for him each week so that he could buy and prepare his food himself. He was able to save half of what his brother paid him and used the savings as a fund for buying books.
We see how Franklin’s future humanitarianism is prefigured by an incredible empathy (uncommon in Western civilization at the time) for all animal life. This moral decision became a practical principal; not only did he consider it the “correct” thing to do, it saved him money, gave him time to dedicate to his education, and improved, or so he claims, both his clarity of mind and physical constitution.
There was another advantage to Franklin of preparing his own meals, namely that he remained in the printing house alone when his brother and the others left for their longer, heavier meals. This gave him additional time for study. He says that his temperance in eating and drinking gave him clearness of head and quicker apprehension, so he was able to progress more in his studies. He took the extra time to teach himself the arithmetic he had failed to learn in school.
Franklin’s newfound leisure time allowed him to dedicate more time to reading and improving his prose styling , but, not content with improving just this one aspect of his knowledge and intelligence, Franklin also took it upon himself to correct the error of having previously failed to learn arithmetic from his instructor by teaching it to himself.
Still intent on improving his language and writing, Franklin studied from an English grammar book that concluded with two sketches on the art of rhetoric and logic with an example of a dispute in the Socratic Method (a way of proceeding through arguments with questions rather than claims).
Franklin further elaborates how he was able to stamp out the habit of disputatiousness and reveals where he found his life-long admiration of the Greek philosopher Socrates. Franklin speaks of the Socratic Method often—perhaps a sign that he feared his son, William, was too disputatious himself.
Franklin loved the Socratic Method, became less argumentative and contradictory, and took on the air of the “humble Enquirer and Doubter.” He practiced it and found it very useful. He eventually retained only the habit of expressing himself modestly and using expressions like “it appears to me” or “if I am not mistaken” rather than “certainly” or “undoubtedly.”
Franklin says that what he learned from the Socratic Method—his reserved style—was very helpful to him later in persuading men into measures he was promoting. He wishes other men would adopt this style of communicating, because a “dogmatical” (self-assured) manner can provoke contradiction. He quotes some lines of the poet Alexander Pope to illustrate his point, not without proposing an emendation (edit) to one of the lines.
Franklin employs prolepsis (foreshadowing) to tell how the Socratic Method was useful to him in his future civic career. Once again, it’s possible that by “other men” Franklin means William in particular, who, at the time of the writing of Part One of the Autobiography, had his own civic career as Royal Governor of New Jersey.
Franklin’s brother, James, began to print a newspaper, The New England Courant, in 1720 or 1721. It was the second newspaper to appear in America. James’s friends tried to dissuade him because one newspaper was “enough for America.” Franklin points out that at the time of his writing (1771) there are more than 25. Franklin was employed by James to carry the newspaper through the streets to customers.
Franklin takes an amazed moment to consider the progress of printing and access to information in the rapidly expanding American colonies. He also notes and shuns the foolishness of naysayers. For Franklin it is always a better idea to say yes to an enterprising idea. One can always make up for a lack of space in the market by producing a superior product.
Franklin says James had skilled and intelligent friends who composed short pieces for his paper. Franklin listened to their conversations and the talk about their writings and decided to try his own hand at writing for the paper. He was still a boy and thought his brother would object to printing anything of his in the paper, so he disguised his handwriting and put an anonymous piece of writing under the door of the printing house one night.
Again, Franklin’s precociousness as a young man of talent, intellect, and skill with little formal education takes center stage. Not only was Franklin precocious, however, his vanity made him ambitious. No piece of writing would be published if authors lacked the vanity to try.
James and his friends read Franklin’s anonymously submitted essay and, within Franklin’s hearing, said how much they liked it. They guessed at the author, naming only men of “some character… for learning and ingenuity,” and James published it in his newspaper. Encouraged, Franklin wrote and submitted several more papers, which were, likewise, approved of and published. At last, Franklin revealed to his brother and brother’s friends that he was the author of the anonymous papers. His brother thought he was being boastful and vain, which, Franklin said, led to some of their differences and disagreements.
Franklin finds his vanity flattered by the talk and false guesses of his brother’s friends, but Franklin’s vanity, this time, may have extended too far. The way in which he reveals the authorship of his anonymous papers aggravates his brother, James, and gave James a sense that he had to knock the chip off his brother’s shoulder. If Franklin had stuck to his plan of seeming humble, perhaps he could have avoided the mistake of disputing with his brother.
Franklin and James often took their disputes before Josiah and, Franklin says, either he was generally in the right or a better pleader than James because his father often sided with Franklin over his brother. His brother often physically beat him, and Franklin sought a way to get out of his apprenticeship.
In humble gesture, Franklin acknowledges that the success of his cause before his father may only have been due to his skill in pleading, not due to the correctness of his opinion. Perhaps, also, Josiah was partial to his youngest son.
One piece published in James’s newspaper offended the Assembly (the governing body in Boston). James was brought to court and imprisoned for a month because he would not reveal the author of the offending paper. Franklin went unpunished. When James was released the Assembly ordered that “James Franklin should no longer print the paper called the New England Courant.”
Franklin begins the unusual tale of how he was able to escape his brother’s employ, unusual perhaps because of the strange legal phrasing used by the Assembly in its order. It’s likely that the Assembly wanted to censure James without completely prohibiting the publication of his paper.
Some of James’s friends suggested changing the name of the paper to evade the order, but James thought it would be better if the paper kept its name but was published instead under the name Benjamin Franklin. Accordingly, Franklin was released from his apprenticeship so that the assembly couldn’t censure him for escaping their order by publishing under the name of an apprentice. Franklin signed new indentures (agreements to serve as an apprentice) for the remainder of the term, which were to be kept private.
James could have avoided his troubles with his brother had he simply changed the name of his paper, but its likely that he wanted to challenge the authority of the Assembly members who would likely be startled or aggravated to see that The New England Courant was still in circulation. In other words, Franklin was able to escape his brother’s service because of his brother’s hubris (swollen pride).
Soon, another quarrel arose between Franklin and James, and Franklin, guessing that his brother wouldn’t produce the private contract for fear of being punished for his evasion of the Assembly’s order, decided not to remain apprenticed to his brother. When James found out, he spoke to all the other printers in Boston to prevent Franklin from getting employment there. Franklin decided to go to New York City as it was the closest place with another printer and because he had offended some of the members of the Assembly in Boston with his publications in James’s paper.
Franklin made a rare, imprudent decision by escaping his brother’s printing house, imprudent because his brother had the legal authority to capture him as a runaway and because Franklin could have been further censured by the assembly and even subjected to fines for the services he failed to render. However, Franklin imprudence in this situation was tempered by his understanding of his brother’s character, and the odd double-bind his brother had gotten himself into.
Josiah sided with James in the dispute, so Franklin decided it was best if he ran away without telling anybody. His friend, Collins, helped him to get passage on a boat to New York by inventing a story about how Franklin had gotten a “naughty girl” pregnant and needed to escape before her friends forced him to marry her. He sold some books to pay for the journey and, at the age of 17, reached New York in three days time without any friends or recommendations and with very little money.
Contrary to his habit, Franklin’s father sided with his brother, so Franklin had to escape like a convict (which, in some sense, he was). But, as in the anecdote of the pier he constructed with his boyhood friends, Franklin’s dishonesty only serves to highlight his remarkable capacity. At a tender age, he was able not just to leave home, but to forge a new life with no recommendations or money.
Franklin offered his services to the printer in New York, a man named William Bradford, who had no employment to offer him. Bradford, however, told Franklin that his son in Philadelphia had lost his main workman, Aquila Rose, to death. Franklin set out for Philadelphia in boat bound for Amboy, New Jersey, leaving his chest and things to be shipped after him. His boat lost its sails in a squall.
Franklin’s decision to move to Philadelphia, like his earlier decision to leave for New York because it was the closest city to Boston with a printing house, was a matter of coincidence. It is striking to the modern reader that the journey between these cities, now a matter of a few hours, was then a multi-day affair subject to many trials and tribulations.
A drunken Dutchman fell overboard during the storm. Franklin reached into the water and drew the man back into the boat. The man sobered up a little from falling in the water and asked Franklin to dry his book for him, a Dutch copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Franklin’s favorite author. Franklin comments on Bunyan’s novelistic technique of mixing dialogue and narration, and remarks that Daniel DeFoe and Samuel Richardson copy the method in some of their books.
Perhaps Franklin masks his act of heroism—his saving a man’s life—with the anecdote that the Dutchman he saved was also an admirer of John Bunyan. Franklin interrupts his narrative to describe the technique of prose narrative itself—dialogue mixed with exposition—that was pioneered by Bunyan, Defoe, Richardson, and others—and we see some of Franklin’s literary influences revealed.
The boat neared Long Island and couldn’t find a place to land, so they dropped anchor and swung around toward the shore. People came down to the shore and shouted hello, but the wind and surf were so loud that neither party could hear or understand the other. Franklin’s party made signs that the party on shore should fetch them in canoes but they either didn’t understand or decided against it and went away. Franklin and the other slept on the boat as best they could with the wet Dutchman and the spray leaking through to them.
Following his description of the prose narrative technique, Franklin tells a story straight out of an adventure novel—failed communication in the midst of natural calamity. Perhaps the communication that fails between the passengers and Franklin can be symbolically taken to represent an absence of the narrative technique described; in the Autobiography, practically all characterization occurs in exposition, not in dialogue—this might be a symptom of Franklin’s committing himself to what “really happened.”
The wind let up the next day and Franklin’s party decided to make for Amboy before night, having already been thirty hours on the water without food or anything to drink but dirty rum. In the evening, Franklin took with fever, but, having read somewhere that drinking plenty of cold water was good for a fever, he drank a lot of water and felt better by the next morning. Franklin was told that he would find boats the rest of the way to Philadelphia in Burlington, and so made his way the 50 miles from Amboy to Burlington on foot.
Given our modern understanding of illness and disease—the fact that Franklin was most likely suffering symptoms of severe dehydration—it is somewhat staggering that the importance of staying hydrated when sick was not, at the time, common knowledge, and also significant to note the extent to which Franklin was able to improve his circumstances with access to books and frequent reading.
It rained the whole day of Franklin’s journey and he stopped to spend the night at an inn where he wished he had never left home. People there suspected him of being a runaway. The next day he made it to an inn eight miles from Burlington kept by a Dr. Brown, who was very sociable and friendly to Franklin once he discovered that he was well read. Dr. Brown knew all the cities in Europe and, some years later, undertook to parody the Bible in doggerel verse. Franklin says he is glad Brown never published his parody, as it might have hurt weak minds.
In retelling people’s suspicion that he might be a runaway, Franklin almost seems to forget the fact that he was one. Franklin pays particular attention to all the literary or learned friends that he made in the autobiography—perhaps these friends took a special significance for him because of his commitment to self-education and improvement. It may also work to reveal something of Franklin’s (at this point) buried intention that the work be used for the improvement and education of others.
Franklin spent the night at Dr. Brown’s inn and reached Burlington in the morning only to find that the boats for Philadelphia had left just before his arrival. It was a Saturday and no boats were expected to leave until Tuesday. An old woman from whom Franklin bought gingerbread offered to house him until he could catch a boat. She was hospitable and fed him well. However, when he was walking by the river in an evening, he found a boat going to Philadelphia and they took Franklin on board.
Once again the Autobiography takes one of its more narrative bents. Perhaps the description of an act of travel alone is enough to make a piece of writing take on a novelistic air. Dr. Brown and the woman Franklin describes have no future place in the Autobiography. These were one time encounters, remembered vividly, perhaps, because it was Franklin’s first time travelling.
Franklin’s new boating party rowed until midnight when some men in the party said they thought they had passed Philadelphia and would row no farther. They went into a creek and made a fire out of an old fence. In the morning, one of the company knew the creek to be Cooper’s Creek, a little above Philadelphia, which they saw as soon as they got out of the creek’s mouth. They arrived about eight or nine o’clock Sunday morning and landed at the Market St. Wharf.
The travel narrative continues and Franklin includes rich sensory, novelistic details—like that the fire was made from the planks of a rotten fence. Dawn brings with it a quelling of the travel’s difficulties—the unknown night landscape, in the morning, is transformed into a name. What’s more, not only had the party failed to reach Philadelphia, they had stopped and spent an uncomfortable night only a short way from their destination.
Franklin addresses William, saying he has been so detailed in this account of his journey so that William can compare what he was then with what he has become. Franklin was dirty and his pockets were stuffed with clothes and stockings. He had only a Dutch dollar and a shilling in copper to his name and gave the shilling to the boatmen for his passage. They refused because Franklin had rowed, but Franklin insisted, remarking that sometimes a man with little is more generous because he doesn’t want others to think he has nothing.
It is likely that Franklin first lost himself in the recollection of this formative period of his life and only afterwards sought to justify it with the explanation he offers here. Franklin seems uncomfortable with the idea that a story might be a pleasure simply to tell or that a work might offer pleasure first and foremost rather than instruction, or, alternatively, he may fear that, though his story has been a pleasure for himself to recollect, the pleasure of his reader(s) may not equal it.
Franklin walked up Market St. until he met a boy with bread and asked him to point out the baker’s. He bought three large rolls from the baker of 2nd St., tucked one under each arm and ate the third as he walked up Market St. where he passed by the door of Mr. Read, his future wife’s father.
Franklin likely tells this anecdote to emphasize the lowliness and absurdity of his condition when he was but a dirty boy carrying three gigantic rolls.
Standing at Mr. Read’s door, Ms. Read saw him and thought he made a ridiculous appearance. He turned down Chestnut St. and part of Walnut St. eating his roll the whole way. Eventually, he found himself back at the Market St. Wharf where he gave his two extra rolls to a woman and child who had come down on the boat with him.
Perhaps there is something to Franklin’s doctrine of seeming humility because, in this passage, he manages to describe a simple act of kindness in such a way that it seems not to demonstrate his own beneficence but merely to relay the kindness as one fact among many on the day of his arrival.
Refreshed, Franklin walked up the street again. He joined the well-dressed people of the town and followed them into the Quaker meeting-house. He sat down among them, looked around awhile, heard nothing said, and fell sound asleep. Someone woke him up at the end of the meeting.
This passage concerning Franklin’s falling asleep in a Quaker meeting house is indicative of Franklin’s attitude toward both Quakerism and organized religion in general.
Franklin went back out on the street and met a young Quaker man he liked. He asked the man where he might find lodging. He showed him a house called the Three Mariners, but said it was a house of ill-repute and invited Franklin to follow him to another house, the Crooked Billet on Water St. Franklin ate dinner there and responded to the inquiries of people who suspected he was a runaway.
Franklin, once again, mentions his being suspected as a runaway seeming to forget that he in fact was one. He seems to relish the opportunity to include the names of streets and houses in Philadelphia, the city that became his home, a city he would improve with institutions that endure to the present day.
After his meal, Franklin grew weary once more, went to his room and slept until 6:00 in the evening when he was called to supper, went to bed again very early and slept soundly until morning. He made himself as presentable as possible and went to Andrew Bradford the printer’s. Bradford’s father, William Bradford, the printer in New York, was there. He had arrived before Franklin on horseback.
Naturally, Franklin was exhausted after the trials and tribulations of his journey. Revealing his literary mind, Franklin seems to appreciate the irony that William arrived in Philadelphia before him despite taking a means of transit typically less than half as fast.
William Bradford introduced Franklin to his son, who gave Franklin breakfast but told him he had no employment to offer him because his open position had already been filled. He directed Franklin to a Mr. Keimer who had lately set up a competing press in the town.
Continuing a string of fortuitous coincidences, Franklin’s longtime employer and sometime friend, Mr. Keimer has just begun a competing printing house in Philadelphia at the moment of Franklin’s arrival.
William Bradford took Franklin to Keimer’s. Keimer asked Franklin some questions and gave him a task to see how he worked and, at last, said he would employ Franklin soon but had nothing for him to do at that moment. Keimer took Bradford to be one of the townspeople that had good will for him and spoke to him about his projects while Bradford kept it a secret that he was Keimer’s chief competitor’s father. Bradford baited Keimer into revealing all his business secrets while Franklin watched and learned from the crafty old man. Keimer was greatly surprised when Franklin told him who the old man was.
For Franklin, the key illustration performed by this passage concerning Keimer’s credulity is not, as it may seem at first, performed merely to illustrate the credulity and wrong-headedness of Keimer himself, but instead to extol the craftiness of the wizened veteran, the elder Bradford. Franklin appreciates all men with a knack for learning, and, as he eventually spells out more explicitly, silence is a virtue he appreciates.
Keimer had only an old, broken press and one worn-out font with which he was then composing an elegy on the deceased printer’s apprentice, Aquila Rose, who was much respected in the town and who had been considered a promising poet. Keimer composed the elegy in the types without first writing it down, so Franklin couldn’t help him. Franklin got Keimer’s press, which had not yet been used, into order. He went back to Andrew Bradford’s where he was given a little job to do for the present. He lodged and ate there.
Aquila Rose, for a virtually unknown printer’s apprentice who died before Franklin’s arrival in Philadelphia, makes a remarkable number of appearances in the Autobiography. Perhaps, having heard the story of Rose’s talents and capacities, Franklin was more than typically affected by Rose’s untimely death, seeing in him an analog for his own early condition, and a reminder of what just as easily might have been.
A few days later, Keimer sent for Franklin to print off the elegy for Aquila Rose. In the meantime, Keimer had gotten another set of cases and a pamphlet to reprint on which he set Franklin to work. Franklin found both Bradford and Keimer to be poor printers, Bradford because he was poor writer and speller and Keimer because he knew nothing of presswork. Keimer had no religion, but professed to elements of each, according to Franklin, depending on the occasion.
Franklin criticizes both Bradford and Keimer for their abilities as printers, one gets the sense, less out of a desire merely to criticize, but more as a lament. One almost feels that Franklin wishes they had been better printers, despite the fact that, if either had been more capable, he may never have gotten the opportunity to set up his own shop and may not have achieved such incredible success.
Keimer did not want Franklin lodging at Bradford’s while Franklin worked for him, but his house was without furniture so he could not lodge him. Keimer got Franklin a lodging at Mr. Read’s (Franklin’s future father-in-law’s). Franklin’s clothes and belongings had since arrived in Philadelphia and he cut a more respectable appearance for Ms. Read, his future wife. Franklin began to make friends with some of the young literary men in Philadelphia.
We get a sense, in this passage, of how temperamental Keimer was as an employer—though it seems, at least, Keimer did not share James’s habit of physically beating Franklin. We also see how Franklin prudently and pragmatically, unlike certain friends of his, sought employment out first when he moved to a new city, rather than recreation.
Franklin made some money due to his industry working for Bradford and Keimer and so lived “very pleasantly,” trying not to think of Boston. Soon, Franklin’s brother-in-law, Robert Holmes, who traded between Boston and Delaware, heard that Franklin was in Delaware and wrote him a letter urging him to go back to Boston and address the concerns of his friends and family who had no idea where he was. Franklin responded and gave Holmes his reasons for leaving Boston, somewhat convincing him that he was not so much in the wrong as Holmes had suspected.
At the age of seventeen, with almost no formal education, Franklin seems to have been more than capable of succeeding on his own. There is little doubt his fortune would have been much different if he had never returned to Boston. It also seems he would have avoided the trip until much later had his brother in law Holmes not urged him to it. Capable of existing as an adult, Franklin was still subject to the moods and attitudes of a child, and was, perhaps, still harboring anger for his father and brother.
Sir William Keith, Governor of Pennsylvania, was then at Newcastle where Holmes received Franklin’s letter. He spoke to Keith of Franklin and showed him the letter. Keith read it and was impressed with Franklin’s writing, especially when he was told Franklin’s age (17 or 18). Keith saw Franklin’s potential, knew the printers in Philadelphia to be as poor as Franklin saw, and thought that Franklin should be encouraged. He decided to take Franklin under his wing.
Franklin’s capacities didn’t go unnoticed in his own day. This is the first time news of Franklin’s abilities reached a governor. In future days, he would stand in the presence of and even dine with kings, but perhaps Franklin appreciated Keith’s noticing him merely because Keith was the first man in a position of power to do so.
One day, Keimer and Franklin were working together (Franklin, as yet, knew nothing of the governor’s interest in him) when they saw Keith and a famous man named Colonel French come across the street and knock at the door. Keimer ran down, thinking the two illustrious men were visiting him and was shocked when they asked after Franklin, his workman.
Franklin probably found this anecdote to be a fun yarn as it shows his vain and temperamental employer, Keimer, in the kind of state—befuddlement tinged with humiliation—he most liked to pretend he was immune to. Many of Franklin’s most humorous stories in the Autobiography involve Keimer.
Keith was very kind to Franklin and asked why Franklin hadn’t made himself known to him when he first arrived in Philadelphia. Keith invited Franklin to join him and French for some Madiera wine at the tavern. Keimer was shocked.
Perhaps the finest gift that Keith and French gave Franklin was not the conversation or the wine, but Keimer’s shock and surprise. Franklin always loves to exceed the expected constraints of his social position.
Franklin, Keith, and French went to a tavern on the corner of 3rd St. and Keith proposed to Franklin that Franklin should set up his own printing business. Keith promised his support and offered to write Josiah a letter stating as much. They concluded that Franklin should return to Boston on the next available ship with Keith’s letter in order to propose the idea to Josiah.
Keith’s character, at this time, was unknown to Franklin. He had no idea what kind of man or governor Keith might be, but, nonetheless, and unsuspectingly, he appreciated Keith’s attention and favors. Perhaps Keith’s role in getting Franklin back to Philadelphia (with an eye to setting up Franklin’s own business) was more instrumental in getting the young Franklin back to Boston than the urgings of Holmes, his brother-in-law.
A ship was setting out for Boston at the end of April 1724 and Franklin took it with Keith’s letter in hand. The ship struck a shoal and sprung a leak and the passengers and crew had a difficult time at sea. They arrived safely, however, in about two weeks time. Franklin had been gone seven months. No one had heard any news of him because Holmes had not yet returned from Newcastle and had not written. Franklin’s appearance surprised his friends and family.
At this point, Franklin seems bemused by his first poor luck traveling, but he defers from giving as detailed an account of the passage as he gave of his first journey. It is somewhat surprising that Franklin was employed and had already appeared on the public stage in Philadelphia, a few hundred miles from Boston, without word reaching his family. Though news did travel differently in the 18th century, Franklin does not mention that his family would have heard from him had he simply written home.
Everyone was glad to see Franklin except his brother James. Franklin visited James’s shop in a new, elegant suit. James received Franklin coldly and turned back to his work. James’s workers were curious where he’d been and he told them about Philadelphia, praising it highly.
Franklin shows how he continued to act arrogantly around his brother James, perhaps out of spite for the way James had treated him when he was James’s apprentice.
Franklin showed James’s workmen the silver money that they used in Philadelphia at the time, and it greatly impressed them. Then he showed off his new watch, gave them some money for drink, and took his leave. James was very offended by what he saw as Franklin’s pompous manner.
It seems, when it came to his early dealings with James, Franklin’s vanity consistently got the better of him. It may be that these many errors, this general attitude, not just Franklin’s escaping his brother’s service, wove themselves into his true erratum.
Franklin’s father, Josiah, was very surprised at Governor Keith’s letter and, when Holmes returned, asked him about Keith’s character, adding that he must be a man of small discretion to want to set up a boy not yet of age in a business of his own. Holmes was in favor of the project, but Josiah gave a flat denial, writing a civil letter to Keith rejecting the proposal.
Here we get a window into the discerning mind of Franklin’s father, Josiah, who was right, not just to be pleased at the attention being paid his son and not just to suspect Keith of having a suspicious character, but to believe that Franklin himself was still a boy, unready to own and operate his own business.
Franklin’s friend Collins was working as a post office clerk and, being pleased with Franklin’s description of Philadelphia, resolved to move there with him. Collins set out, leaving his books with Franklin, and proposed that Franklin meet up with him in New York. Josiah, though he rejected Keith’s proposal, was still happy at the attention that was being paid his son and gave his consent for Franklin to return to Philadelphia.
At times, Franklin’s world seems to be populated by characters familiar from Russian novels, lazy intellectual in petty state employments; wise, almost superhumanly insightful fathers—Franklin, as we shall see, had more luck in his upbringing than he had in choosing friends.
Josiah advised Franklin to be well-behaved and respectful and to gain the esteem of the people in Philadelphia. He told Franklin to pursue steady industry and prudent parsimony (wise spending), adding that if Franklin came close to saving enough to set up his own shop by the time he was 21, he might supply him with the rest.
Josiah’s advice to Franklin is so proper that it reads like a section of monologue from Shakespeare’s Polonius. Unfortunately, Franklin’s description of Josiah lacks Shakespeare’s irony and satire. Franklin seems to have respected and imitated his father, especially at the time of writing.
Franklin set out again in a sloop that stopped in Newport, Rhode Island where he visited his brother John. A friend of John’s, Vernon, asked Franklin to pick up some money (thirty five pounds) that was owed him in Philadelphia and to hold on to it for him. He gave Franklin a money order. Seeing after such a quantity of money later caused Franklin a good deal of anxiety.
Here, Franklin sets the stage for his second great erratum (dipping into Vernon’s money to support Collins). We see how the darker side of capitalism (debt) can present itself as innocuously as any small favor to the friend of a relative or friend of a friend.
At Newport, a number of passengers joined the ship, including two young women and grave, matron-like Quaker woman. Franklin did the Quaker woman some good deeds and she advised him to avoid the company of the two young women. She managed to convince him they were bad women and he avoided them.
Franklin’s natural generosity seems to have won him the respect of the well-meaning Quaker matron. Franklin’s stated capacity to receive, accept, and employ good counsel seems unique in the history of mankind.
When the sloop arrived at New York, the women invited Franklin to where they lived, but he turned down the offer. It was discovered that a silver spoon and some other items of the captain’s had gone missing. A warrant was drafted and the things were discovered in the women’s apartment. Thanks to the Quaker woman, Franklin narrowly avoided being implicated in the crime.
Lo and behold, the Quaker woman was right—the young women were thieves. If Franklin had followed his own inclinations to associate with the young women, he could have gotten into serious trouble. It seems some errors can be corrected before they occur.
In New York, Franklin found his friend Collins. The two had read many of the same books but Collins had skills in mathematics that outstripped Franklin’s. Unfortunately, Franklin discovered that Collins had taken to drink and found out from others that Collins had been drunk every day since his arrival in New York. Franklin paid for his lodging in New York and (later) supported Collins monetarily when they arrived in Philadelphia, much to his inconvenience.
So begins the history of Franklin’s difficult friendships with drunks and scoundrels. Perhaps Franklin’s shrewdness in judging character was limited by his appreciation for intellect and literary skill. Collins possessed great quantities of both, but drowned them in debts and alcohol.
The governor of New York, Burnet, heard from the captain that one the young passengers had a great deal of books and asked after the boy (Franklin). Franklin went to visit him and Burnet treated him with great civility. It was the second governor who had taken an interest in him.
For the second time, a royal governor took special interest in Franklin’s enterprising manner. Being literate as well as literary was much more of a rarity in the 18th century and was enough, it seems, to get attention.
The sloop proceeded to Philadelphia where Franklin received Vernon’s money. Collins was unable to find work due to his obvious alcoholism and continued to stay and eat with Franklin at Franklin’s expense. Knowing Franklin had Vernon’s money, Collins was continually borrowing from him and promised to repay as soon as he found work.
Collins exploited Franklin’s soft spot for his friends, living off of Franklin and even driving him into debt. Some errors, even when they are clearly foreseen (as this one for Franklin surely was) cannot seem to be avoided.
Collins drinking continued and Franklin and he sometimes quarreled about it. Franklin tells an anecdote about throwing Collins overboard on a boat on the Delaware River when Collins refused to row in his turn. The boys rowed away from Collins whenever he swam near the boat to punish him for his haughty manner. It was the end of Franklin and Collins’ friendship. Collins went to Barbadoes to serve as a tutor for a rich gentleman. Franklin never heard from him after and was never repaid the money he’d lent.
It seems that along with being a drunk and good-for-nothing, Collins was also pompous. This surely miffed the egalitarian Franklin, who consistently strove for equity and fairness in his dealings between men. Whether the others were as angry with Collins or if they were, like the boys who helped him to construct the pier, just following Franklin’s lead, is a matter of speculation.
Franklin calls dipping into Vernon’s money one of the first great errata of his life and adds that Josiah was right that he was too young to manage the affairs of a business. Governor Keith said Josiah was too cautious, however, and that, since Franklin’s father would not set him up, he would set Franklin up in business himself. Keith told Franklin to tell him the things he would need from England and Franklin did not doubt Keith’s sincerity. Franklin says he was unaware at the time that Keith often made promises he did not keep.
It is interesting to note that Franklin considers his error to be spending Vernon’s money, not failing to help his friend Collins. Though, as we have seen, Collins wasn’t exactly making it easy for him. Not only was Josiah right that his son was unready for his own business, he seems also to have predicted that Keith was a man of great talk and small action. Franklin, however, was more naïve.
Franklin presented Keith an inventory of the things he’d need, amounting to one hundred pounds sterling. Keith and Franklin decided it might be better if Franklin went to England to get the things himself. Keith told Franklin to prepare to sail with Annis, the annual ship from Philadelphia to England. Annis left months later, so Franklin continued to work for Keimer and kept fretting over Vernon’s money.
Even when his prospects seemed best, the idea of being in debt was an incredible burden on Franklin’s conscience. It is difficult, even in hindsight, to fathom Governor Keith’s mind—surely Keith knew his promises were empty, so why go through the trouble of getting Franklin passage on a ship to London?
Franklin says he believes he forgot to mention that he had ended his vegetarian diet and tells an anecdote about how, on his first voyage from Boston, the people on board his boat caught a great many cod. When he saw that the cod had other fish in their stomachs, he allowed himself to eat the fish because he saw that they eat each other. “So convenient,” he says, “a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
Franklin’s statement that being a reasonable creature is remarkably convenient because one can “make a reason for anything one has a mind to do” is one of the most memorable in the Autobiography and typifies the wit and wisdom that Franklin popularized and disseminated in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Before Franklin’s voyage to England, Franklin and Keimer got along well together because Keimer didn’t know Franklin planned to set up his own press. They did however argue and dispute often over ideas. Franklin used his Socratic Method to draw Keimer into contradictions and befuddle him. Keimer grew cautious to answer any of Franklin’s questions and seriously proposed to him to join him in setting up a new religious sect. Keimer was to preach, and Franklin was to confute opponents.
Though not a secretive man in his general dealings, it seems Franklin found it necessary to keep business ventures close to the vest. We see Franklin return to talk about the skill he had with the Socratic Method, and we also see something of the religious zealotry that existed in America at the time. It seems every other man Franklin talks to has an idea for or has actually founded his own religion.
Keimer wore his beard long because of a passage in the Bible saying “Thou shalt not mar the corners of thy beard,” and he kept the seventh day (Saturday) as the sabbath. He thought these should be tenants of their new sect. Franklin disliked both of these points, which were essential to Keimer, but he agreed to adopt them if Keimer accepted a vegetarian diet as part of their doctrine. Keimer thought his constitution wouldn’t bear it, but Franklin insisted it would.
One gets the sense in reading that Franklin was less inclined to start a new religious sect than he was to watch the meat-loving Keimer try to live as a vegetarian. It’s unlikely Franklin would have agreed to the enterprise if he didn’t think he could transform the experience into a good laugh, and, perhaps, Franklin gratified his vanity by showing Keimer up.
Franklin and Keimer lived by the tenants of their new faith for three months. Franklin faired well, but Keimer suffered, tired of the project, and ordered a roast pig. He invited Franklin and two women to dine, but ate the whole pig before they arrived.
Keimer, though a harmless and generally well-meaning man, lacked Franklin’s resolve. It is not difficult to see why, later, Keimer’s business failed while Franklin’s thrived.
Franklin had been courting Ms. Read, but because he was soon to travel and they were both so young, Mrs. Read prevented their marrying. His best friends were Charles Osborne, Joseph Watson, and James Ralph. Osborne and Watson were clerks for the scrivener Charles Brogden. Ralph was a clerk to a merchant. They all loved reading. Osborne was too much of a critic and Ralph was an ingenious writer. They all went on walks together in the woods near Schuylkil.
Once again, we see a prudent parent prohibit the over-zealous ideas of a child and watch as Franklin surrounds himself with young men inclined toward literary and intellectual pursuits. In some ways this early, natural circle of friends became Franklin’s model for the later intellectual club he established in Philadelphia, the Junto.
Ralph wanted to be a poet, but Osborne criticized him and his poetry. One day, the four friends decided to each compose a piece for their next meeting. Franklin failed to produce one and Ralph suggested he take his (Ralph’s) and pretend it was his own. Osborne praised what he thought was Franklin’s composition highly, showing that really he was prejudiced against Ralph, not Ralph’s writing. Osborne was laughed at when the trick was revealed.
Perhaps the opinion Franklin expressed earlier in the Autobiography, about the inutility of poetry, derived from these and later dealings with Ralph. Franklin seems to delight in situations where the subjectivity of men in their dealings with men is foregrounded and, in the process, he calls into question the capacity of men to be rational, objective beings.
After the trick, Ralph resolved to become a poet (which he failed at) but eventually became a good prose writer. Watson, Franklin adds while he has space and time, died in his arms a few years later. Osborne went to the West Indies where he became a notable lawyer and made money, but died young.
These few lines on the lives and deaths of his boyhood friends are among the most touching in the Autobiography. There isn’t much space given to emotion without some practical, educational point attached, but, if there is an education offered by this passage, it is an emotional one.
Governor Keith had Franklin to his house frequently and set up a plan to give Franklin letters of recommendation to his friends in England as well as a letter of credit to get him the money he would need to by his press type and paper. When Franklin called to take leave for England, Keith’s secretary, Dr. Bard, told him Keith was busy writing but would be at Newcastle before the ship left to give him the letter.
Why Keith ingratiated himself so thoroughly to a boy of 18 is unclear, perhaps he genuinely liked Franklin and his company and genuinely sought to do him a good turn without being able to acknowledge to himself that he was incapable of setting Franklin up in his own business.
Ralph, though married and with a young child, decided to go with Franklin on the journey. Franklin discovered only afterward that Ralph intended to (and did) abandon his wife and child. Franklin left from Newcastle after having exchanged letters with Ms. Read. Dr. Bard came to Franklin and told him Governor Keith would send the letters to him while he was on board.
Again, we see the questionable moral character of Franklin’s friends. Franklin himself admits to exchanging promises and letters with Ms. Read, but, as we soon see, he himself fails (temporarily) to make good on them.
Also on board the ship were Andrew Hamilton (the famous lawyer), his son James Hamilton who later became governor, and a Quaker Merchant called Mr. Denham with whom Franklin later became good friends. Andrew Hamilton was called to plead a case just before the ship sailed, and left the rest of the company his supplies.
This passage is mostly logistical, setting us up for future friendships and associations that would be valuable to Franklin as well as setting the stage for Franklin’s “upgrade” (so to speak) into the cabin.
Then Franklin’s friend Colonel French came on board and invited Franklin and Ralph into the first class cabin because of the vacancy left by Andrew Hamilton. Franklin understood that French had brought Keith’s letters, but the captain told him that all the letters had been placed together so Franklin would have to wait before getting his. The company in the cabin was very sociable and got along well, but the weather on the voyage was poor.
Here we see Franklin’s boyhood credulity in its most extreme light. To trust a man’s promise is one thing, but to undertake a month long passage without the money for return faire based solely on someone’s seemingly good intentions is another matter entirely. Once again Franklin excises the narrative of his travel.
When the ship arrived in the British channel, the captain let Franklin examine the bag of letters. Franklin found none put under his name, but six or seven that looked like Keith’s, some of them addressed to printers. After the ship arrived in London the 24th of December 1774, Franklin delivered one to a printer named Basket. Basket said it was from someone named Riddlesden who was a scoundrel he would have nothing to do with. Then he turned his back on Franklin.
As Franklin has already done much to foreshadow, Governor Keith was full of empty promises. Keith failed to write Franklin any letters or provide him any credit, and Franklin coincidentally ended up with the letters of another scoundrel he knew. This was a major turning point for Franklin as a judge of human character, a coming of age moment.
Perplexed and frustrated, Franklin found and confided in his friend Denham, who told him that there wasn’t the slightest possibility Keith had written him letters. Keith, he said, was totally undependable and couldn’t give Franklin credit because he had no credit to give. Denham advised Franklin to improve himself with the printers in England and so be improved for life and business in America.
Franklin’s friend Denham confirms Franklin and Franklin’s father’s suspicions concerning Governor Keith. It was the end of one of Franklin’s important friendships, but the beginning of another. Franklin, with Denham’s advice, set out to turn his misfortune into yet another opportunity for self improvement.
Ralph and Franklin were inseparable at first. They lodged together in the district called Little Britain and Ralph told Franklin his intention to remain in London and thus abandon his wife and child. Ralph borrowed from Franklin while he was looking for work. Ralph wanted to become an actor but was dissuaded by the company master to whom he applied. He could not find work as a writer either.
Franklin, on the one hand a poor judge of character in his friends, on the other hand was a remarkably generous and compassionate companion. He seems to have been capable of forgiving and understanding a great deal that others in his position would dismiss as misconduct.
Franklin found work immediately at a printer’s called Palmer’s in Bartholomew Close (a neighborhood) where he worked for a year. He worked and earned but spent much of his money (including what he had brought with him) going to plays with Ralph. Franklin forgot his engagement to Ms. Read, which he calls another of the great errata of his life. He was unable to save enough money for passage back to Philadelphia because of his liberal spending.
Here we get our first and only glimpse of Franklin behaving imprudently with his earnings. It seems that his wise financial dealings came half-naturally to him and were half-learned after his stay abroad. More than sympathize with Ralph, Franklin went on to emulate him when he made the error of forgetting Ms. Read.
In response to a piece he set at Palmer’s, Wallaston’s “Religion of Nature,” Franklin wrote a philosophical piece called “A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain” which he dedicated to Ralph. Afterward, Palmer considered Franklin a man of some ingenuity, but disagreed with the ideas Franklin expressed in his pamphlet. Franklin considers printing the pamphlet another of his errata.
As a young man, Franklin’s religious or, perhaps, anti-religious ideas were more extreme than the one’s he puts forth in the Autobiography. He, repents, then, the decision to publish his pamphlet for no other reason than that his religious convictions, or at least the way he felt about expressing them, changed.
While in Little Britain, Franklin made friends with a Mr. Wilcox, who had a considerable library and allowed Franklin to borrow his books. Franklin’s pamphlet got into the hands of surgeon named Lyons who’d written a book called “The Infallibility of Human Judgment.”
Now we see Franklin behaving as we’ve come to expect. He cultivates literary relationships with learned man, relationships he uses to further his education and enact his own advancement.
Franklin and Lyons became friends and Lyons introduced franklin to Dr. Mandeville, author of “Fable of the Bees,” who had a club in Cheapside, and also to a man named Dr. Pemberton, who promised to give Franklin a chance, which Franklin deeply desired, to see Sir. Isaac Newton, but it never happened.
Franklin’s literary relationships multiply, like money, seemingly of their own accord, and we learn for the first time of his admiration for the greatest scientific and mathematical mind of the preceding generation, Sir. Isaac Newton.
Franklin had brought with him several “curiosities” including a purse made of asbestos, which, he says, “purifies by fire.” One Sir Hans Sloane came to see it and Franklin and invited Franklin to see all of his curiosities at his house in Bloomsbury Square. Franklin sold him the purse.
These “curiosities” of Franklin’s, which are mentioned more or less in an aside and with little detail, are one of our first clues concerning his scientific interests, which take a back seat throughout the book to his daily moral concerns.
A young woman, Mrs. T—, a milliner, lived in the same house as Franklin and Ralph. Ralph read her plays in the evening. They became intimate and moved in together. Ralph, still out of work, decided to become a teacher at a country school. Franklin later discovered that Ralph had begun using the name “Benjamin Franklin” because he felt his career ignominious (unworthy).
Ralph’s romantic exploits finally force him into taking a career and earning money to provide for his mistress and her child. Franklin, with the clarity of hindsight, laughs that Ralph, not wanting to besmear his own name, besmirched one that, in the years and centuries to come, would shine far brighter than Ralph’s own.
Ralph wrote Franklin frequently, including excerpts from an epic poem he was writing. Franklin tried to discourage him from pursuing poetry. Ralph asked Franklin to look in on Mrs. T— and Franklin grew fond of her and made advances (another erratum). She refused him, told Ralph, and it was the end of Franklin and Ralph’s friendship. He never got the money Ralph owed him.
Franklin’s understanding of Ralph’s licentiousness, we see, may have derived from Franklin’s being licentious himself, perhaps even more so than the Autobiography lets on. He seems concerned with his mistake not because of general moral qualms, but because it caused a rift between him and his friend.
Franklin left Palmer’s to work at a printer called Watts’s near Lincon’s Inn Fields where he continued the rest of his stay in London. Franklin saved a good deal of money and kept himself healthy by drinking water at work (all the other workmen drank beer). Franklin was moved from the press room to the composing room by Watts and was asked to pay in for beer (which he didn’t drink), he held out paying and the other workers played tricks on him until he, at last, conceded to the fee.
We get some secondary sight of what must have been Franklin’s aptitude for the printing trade when we learn how he was quickly and almost effortlessly able to obtain employment and promotion at two of the major London printing houses. His private life excesses seemed not to have affected his temperance, and he seems to have quickly returned to his natural frugal lifestyle.
Franklin reached good standing with the other men and proposed some alterations to their chapel (printing-house) rules. Following Franklin’s example, many of the other workmen gave up beer and switched to more frugal breakfasts. Franklin’s being a good riggist (verbal satirist) endeared him to the men. His industriousness made him valuable to the master, so he got on very agreeably.
Franklin’s wit and humor, which he made famous in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, seems to have won him many friends among his fellow workmen, but his workplace jokes didn’t detract from his wisdom with money or industriousness, so he was in the rare position of being liked by both his coworkers and boss.
Franklin moved from Little Britain to Duke St. The landlady was an elderly widow and Franklin got along very well with her. Eventually, after Franklin proposed moving to a cheaper apartment closer to his workplace, she liked him so much she reduced his rent to keep him around.
Once again Franklin receives patronage of a kind from a well-disposed elder. He seems, from these anecdotes, to have been able to win over people from all walks of life without necessarily trying to win them over. This nature of his character surely contributed to his later roles in the formation of the United States of America.
Franklin’s landlady told him about the maiden woman of 70 who lived in the garret. She, though not a nun, lived as one. She ate only water gruel and gave all her other money to charity. A priest visited to give her confession everyday. Franklin asked her, living as she did, why she needed to confess daily. She said, “Oh, it is impossible to avoid vain thoughts.” He visited her once and was amazed at how human beings are able to survive with so little.
Franklin hears the story of what he surely sees as the maiden woman’s impressive temperance, and then is amazed to find out that the woman finds herself vain. Surely he sympathizes, given his decision to “exercise his vanity” in the autobiography, with the woman’s ideas about the persistence of vain thoughts even in an incredibly humble lifestyle.
At Watts’s, Franklin became friends with a young man named Wygate whom he describes as ingenious. Wygate spoke Latin and French, and Franklin taught him to swim. At the request of a company of men Wygate introduced to him, Franklin displayed his great capacities as a swimmer. He says he learned the his swimming techniques by studying Thernov’s book on motions and positions. Wygate proposed to Franklin that they should travel all about Europe making money by holding swimming lessons, but Denham dissuaded him.
After losing Ralph, Franklin cultivates another literary friendship with an ingenious young man. Franklin, finding himself in some ways the intellectual inferior of his new friend (he was, as yet, unable to speak Latin or French), he was able to trade a physical skill for Wygate’s intellectual guidance, and, for a moment, it seems Franklin seriously considers pursuing a life as a swimming instructor.
Franklin tells how Denham accrued debts years previously in England, moved to the United States and eventually paid back all his debts with interest. He calls it an admiral aspect of his character. Franklin visited Denham and Denham told him he was about to return to Philadelphia and proposed to take Franklin as his clerk. Franklin agreed and thought himself to be giving up the printing trade forever. Franklin assisted Denham in buying wears for his store and then had a few days of leisure before departure.
Denham, because of his ability to right the errata of his early life, especially given that they were errors concerning money, which seems always to have been a great source of anxiety for Franklin, became one of Franklin’s chief role models and mentors. Franklin himself was still, at this time, in debt to Vernon. Perhaps out of desire to emulate Denham, Franklin attached himself to the merchant as his clerk.
On one of his days off, Franklin was sent for by a man named Sir William Wyndham. He had heard of Franklin’s abilities as a swimmer. He wished to have his children taught swimming. Franklin, of course, had to refuse because of his impending departure, but, he reflects, had things gone differently in his life, he might have set up as a swimming instructor in London and gotten on quite nicely.
Once again we see Franklin called back to a life of the body, to explore physical exercise or athleticism rather than a more mercantile or semi-intellectual profession (like printing). It is easy for Franklin to imagine that he could have passed his life happily as a swimming teacher, considering there was only an imagined possibility of it happening.
In total, Franklin says, he spent 18 months in London, mostly working at his business, sometimes seeing plays, and reading books. His friend Ralph had kept him poor. They sailed from Gravesend on the 23rd of July 1726. Franklin tells William to look in his journal for an account of the journey. The most important thing that happened on it, he says, was that he conceived his plan for regulating his future conduct in life (the plan he gives the reader in Part Two). They landed in Philadelphia on the 11th of October.
Franklin summarizes his trip to London and gives additional credence to his claim that his true, intended audience was just his son William by pointing William toward documents unavailable to the contemporary or general reader of the Autobiography. He reveals for the first time his “practical” plan to achieve moral perfection.
Keith was no longer governor; he had been replaced by Major Gordon. Franklin saw Keith in the street one day and Keith turned away in shame. He said he would have been as much ashamed seeing Ms. Read, but found out that she had married another man, Rogers, a potter, who treated her poorly. She left him because it was said he had another wife. Keimer had gotten a new shop and types and a number of new though poorly skilled workmen.
Franklin arrives back in Philadelphia and finds that life has gone on in his absence, that his sometime friend governor Keith recognizes how he mistreated him, but is unable to account for that mistreatment. Franklin at once feels absolved for the way he behaved toward Ms. Read and responsible for her unfortunate plight.
Mr. Denham took a shop on Water St. Franklin attended business diligently, studied accounts, and grew expert at sailing. Franklin tells how much he loved Denham and then how the two of them took sick in February of 1726 or 27. Franklin, after preparing himself for death, recovered; Denham died. He left Franklin some money. Franklin’s brother-in-law, Holmes, advised him to return to business and Keimer offered him high wages to oversee his shop.
Practicing many pursuits, Franklin’s industriousness was in full fledge while he was in Mr. Denham’s employ. Keimer’s success or, at least, growth, while Franklin was away in London, proved to be advantageous to Franklin in the short term after Denham’s death and the sudden dissolution of Franklin’s new prospects.
Franklin accepted and began to oversee workmen Hugh Meredith and Stephen Potts, who were employed at lower wages until they learned the trade, “a wild Irishman” named John who soon ran away, a boy with an Oxford education named George Webb who’s service Keimer had purchased for four years, and a country boy, David Harry whom Keimer had taken as an apprentice. Franklin saw that Keimer wanted to employ him only to teach his men and then cut him loose.
Finally, Franklin found himself in the position he’d long been ready for as an overseer of employees in a printing house. Keimer, being an interesting character, filled his shop with characters no less colorful. Franklin quickly apprehended Keimer’s plan for his (Franklin’s) service and began to think of ways to counteract it while still fulfilling his duties.
Franklin found it remarkable that the Oxford scholar Webb (a boy of 18) was there and gives an account of Webb’s origins and skill as an actor. He skipped out on his debts to become an actor in London, became destitute, and bound himself to service in America. Franklin admired his intelligence and liveliness but says he found him idle and imprudent as well. Franklin lived agreeably and got on well with the rest of the men.
Men of literary accomplishment, like Webb, are always fascinating to Franklin above the “country boys” he encounters, perhaps because Franklin thought they (the literary men) had something to offer his intellectual pursuits and his mission of self-education and personal moral fulfillment/accomplishment.
Because there was no place to cast types in America, Franklin contrived a mold to do some himself. He engraved on occasion and even made the shop’s ink. Because of the growing proficiency of the other workmen, after two pay cycles Keimer tried to get Franklin to take a pay cut. Franklin refused and they began to not get along. Franklin quit after Keimer gave him a quarter’s notice after catching him looking out on the street after hearing a loud noise. The workman Meredith agreed to bring Franklin’s things to him later that night.
We see Franklin’s entrepreneurship and ingenuity at work, as well as the application of the lessons he describes learning from watching other craftsman at work before he was apprenticed to James. Franklin’s predictions concerning Keimer’s shop proved to be accurate, and Keimer threatened to dismiss him at a whim rather than because of any actual wrongdoing on Franklin’s part.
Meredith loved Franklin and didn’t want him to leave. Meredith spoke to Franklin of Keimer’s debts, told him his father had some money, and suggested that when Keimer inevitably failed as a printer, Franklin and he could become partners and set up their own shop. Franklin agreed. They purchased inventory from England and they kept the deal a secret.
Meredith and Franklin hatch a plot to start their own business. They’re uniquely positioned to understand Keimer’s weaknesses. Meredith is well acquainted with Franklin’s skill and industriousness and willing to back his faith in Franklin with capital. Franklin had long been awaiting this opportunity for advancement.
While Franklin and Meredith waited for their capital to arrive, Keimer got a prospect to print some paper money, which he couldn’t do without Franklin. Keimer apologized and hired Franklin back. He got the job to print money, Franklin went to Burlington to execute the job, and Keimer made a good sum from it. The men in Burlington who oversaw the printing of the money found Franklin to be well-read and well-spoken. They stayed in Burlington three months and Franklin made great friends with the influential men there.
Keimer, an unskilled printer, unwisely dismissed his best employee. There was much he was incapable of doing without Franklin, and he prematurely cut off his ability to expand his business to the best jobs, like money-printing. Franklin’s literary abilities, skill, and wit continued to earn him friends wherever he went, and, Franklin, though he needed the work Keimer had to offer him, was surely troubled to improve Keimer’s prospects with the sum.
Franklin digresses to tell about his principles and morals before going on to narrate his public appearance in business. He says that he became a Deist early on as a boy, and persuaded his friends Collins and Ralph to it. They had treated him badly and he had treated Ms. Read poorly, so he decided that this doctrine, though perhaps true, wasn’t useful. He grew convinced that truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between men were of the utmost importance and formed written resolutions to practice virtues while he lived (given in Part Two).
One gets the impression from the Autobiography that Franklin’s early religious beliefs were somewhat less conservative than the one’s he later espoused when writing the Autobiography, which were still, though common among intellectuals during the Enlightenment, radical. Why else would he describe printing his pamphlet in London as an erratum? Was Franklin wrong to seek pragmatism from his spiritual convictions?
Franklin says, for the most part, his constitution was suited toward treating others well and that he began in life with a fairly good character, for which he can thank God’s providence.
Once again Franklin acknowledges that there were qualities he possessed that were innate and perhaps, though they could be improved, could not have been wholly acquired had he not been born with them.
Franklin wasn’t back in Philadelphia long before Meredith and his types arrived from London. The two of them settled with Keimer and left his service before he heard about their having acquired types. They rented a house near the market and, to lessen the rent, took on a family of boarders. They had hardly opened the letters and put their press in order before George House, an acquaintance of Franklin’s brought a customer to him. The man’s five shillings was their first earnings.
Finally, with Meredith’s help, Franklin was able to set up his own shop. He seems not to have found it duplicitous to keep his plan with Meredith from Keimer, but given Keimer’s capricious dismissal of Franklin and generally bad intentions for Franklin’s service, perhaps Franklin never considered that he was indebted to Keimer, or that the debt had long since been paid off.
Franklin tells of an old man with a wise look and grave manner who was constantly foretelling the fall of Philadelphia. The man told Franklin it was too bad he had just opened a new shop in a sinking country, but Franklin later laughed to see that the man eventually bought a house which he could have had for five times less if he hadn’t refrained because he thought the city would soon meet its end.
It is little wonder that Franklin, a die-hard pragmatist, found his neighborhood apocalyptic prophet to be something of a clown. In the perfect hindsight of history, even the history of Franklin’s own life, it seems Franklin’s pragmatism was vindicated.
Franklin pauses to tell how, the autumn of the previous year, he formed his friends into a club called the Junto. They took turns delivering speeches on morals, politics, and natural philosophy on the pre-agreed specific topics of their desire. The first members were Joseph Bretnal, Joseph Godfrey, Nicholas Scull, William Parsons, William Maugridge, Hugh Meredith, Robert Grace, and William Coleman.
Franklin’s faith in collective institutions, community, and parties of men is demonstrated by his desire to organize his literary and intellectual friends into a club. Franklin’s pragmatism ensured that the club would have a charter and rules, and these formal elements of the clubs meeting probably increased the club’s intellectual yield.
Franklin says he mentions the club because it was among the numerous interests he had that brought him business. Bretnal in particular got them jobs from the Quakers, including a forty page history. Franklin did a sheet of it per night, and, one night, one of the forms he set out was broken. He composed and it over again before going to bed. This industry, he says, gave him and Meredith character and credit with their neighbors.
We see how Franklin’s unquestioning acceptance of the practicality of money-making allows him even to justify his digressions so long as he can tie than back to the success of his business. We see him apply his industry to the early jobs he acquired for his printing house. Perhaps Franklin was right to think that ample money was necessary for his fullest advancement in his other pursuits.
When people predicted Franklin and Meredith would fail, Franklin says, eminent citizens praised Franklin’s industry and said he was sure to succeed. Franklin says he mentions it so that those of his posterity will know the value of the virtue of industry.
Franklin’s industriousness soon culminated in a good reputation, and, as we’ve seen in other passages, Franklin saw the good will and high opinion of his neighbors as eminently practical.
George Webb found a “female friend” who purchased his time of Keimer and he came to Franklin looking for work. Franklin said he couldn’t employ him, but that he planned on starting a newspaper and then might be able to use him. Webb told Keimer Franklin’s plan and proposed to start his own paper with Keimer. Franklin was peeved and started a column in Bradford’s paper to satirize Webb and Keimer.
Not everyone, however, had good will for Franklin, even the young man and scholar Franklin admired, George Webb, went behind his back—though perhaps Webb didn’t do it out of ill will for Franklin but, rather, was motivated by his own self-interest. Franklin found a practical way, albeit somewhat mean-spirited, to make sure his paper would have an opportunity for success.
Keimer started a paper, which, after nine months, had little success. Franklin bought it for “a trifle” and it proved extremely profitable to him. Franklin says he speaks in the singular of business affairs because Meredith was a drunk and hardly contributed to their business. Nonetheless, he says, he was able to make the best of his connection with him.
Franklin’s satire proved effective (or Keimer was simply incapable of producing a good newspaper) and Keimer’s paper failed. Franklin found himself in yet another close relationship with a roustabout, but he had enough experience managing drunkards at this point to profit regardless.
Franklin says his first newspapers looked better than any that had been published in the colonies before. He wrote of a dispute between Governor Burnet of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Assembly that gained him many subscribers. He says leading men, seeing a newspaper in the hands of someone who could write well, encouraged him. Bradford was still the printer for public documents, but Franklin was able to steal away some of the government printing jobs by reprinting an address of the House that Bradford had botched.
Now Franklin undertakes to explain how he met success where Keimer failed. In this case, he said, he simply was able to produce a superior product—and it was better both in form (looks) and content (its articles). Franklin keenly observed his competitors weaknesses and exploited them as a means to show off his industriousness as a printer, to curry favor, and win jobs.
At this time, Vernon wrote to Franklin of his debt. Franklin asked for a little time, then paid the balance with interest, feeling at last that this erratum had been corrected. Mr. Meredith, Hugh Meredith’s father, however, who was to have paid in full for starting the printing house, only advanced 100 pounds (half the total). Franklin was left with the debt. Thankfully, Franklin says, two true friends (William Coleman and Robert Grace) lent him the money and the business was saved. They insisted he split with Meredith who was often drunk in public.
Franklin finally escapes one onerous debt and relieves himself of the burden of Vernon’s money only to acquire a greater one when Meredith’s father reneges on his promise to front the printing house. Franklin justifies his decision to split with Meredith, and the way he discredits Meredith’s contributions to his business with the evidence that his benefactors shared his opinion of Meredith’s character.
Meredith acknowledged to Franklin that he wasn’t fit to be a printer and allowed Franklin to buy him out of his partnership. Meredith went south to become a farmer and sent back reports of the Carolinas that Franklin published in his newspaper. The reports pleased the public. Franklin says this all happened about 1729.
Meredith felt himself ill-suited to the printing trade—at least in Franklin’s account, but it seems, after their split, Franklin and Meredith were able to retain friendly relations, and Franklin was able to print the writings of a man who supported and believed in him.
At that time, the people wanted more paper money. The wealthy opposed any addition, because they worried that the currency would depreciate. Franklin wrote and argued for more paper money, even publishing a pamphlet entitled “The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency.”
Franklin perhaps skirts his true motives for writing in favor of paper money: he’s mentioned many times that printing money was a very profitable job, and it’s likely he felt he could secure the jobs and profit greatly if more paper money were introduced.
Eventually, partly due to the success of Franklin’s pamphlet, the Assembly resolved to print more paper money. His friends in the House gave Franklin the reward of printing the new money. His friend Alexander Hamilton also procured for him the job of printing money in Newcastle and the job of printing the laws and votes there. These money-printing and government jobs were very profitable.
Whether or not Franklin’s conviction that the colony should introduce more paper currency was vested self-interest, the decision to print more, partially advanced through his own writings, profited him greatly.
With these jobs in hand, Franklin opened a stationary shop. A man named Whitemarsh, a compositor Franklin knew in London, came to Franklin in Philadelphia and worked for him. He also took an apprentice, the son of Aquila Rose. Franklin began to pay off the debt he was under for the printing house.
Franklin was able to reinvest his profits into capital and, watching as they accumulated, was able to pay back his debt to his friends and benefactors as well as take on new employees and expand his business—his industriousness began literally paying off.
Franklin took care both to be and seem industrious. Because people saw this, they were more likely to give him business. Keimer’s business suffered and he was forced to sell his printing house. He moved to Barbadoes and lived their some years in poor circumstances.
Franklin reiterates the value he sees in appearances and the analogous proliferations of positive public opinion and money. As Franklin thrived, Keimer’s business suffered, eventually abandoning the colony.
Keimer’s apprentice, David Harry, set up in Keimer’s place. At first Franklin feared Harry as a rival and proposed a partnership which, thankfully for Franklin, Harry refused. Harry lived lavishly and ran up his debt and ended up following Keimer to Barbadoes. Franklin’s only competitor now was Andrew Bradford who was “rich and easy.”
Temperance and industriousness, Franklin demonstrates, coupled with his skill in his trade, were the keys to his success. Without his temperance and even his, at least, seeming humility he could easily have failed like the rich-living Harry.
Because Bradford ran the post office, people thought he got news faster, so his paper got more advertisers. Bradford kept Franklin from getting and sending his newspapers by the post, so Franklin bribed the riders and took care not to repeat Bradford’s meanness when he held the same position.
Bradford’s political positioning increased the worth of his paper in the general estimation and Franklin’s comparative lack (at this time) of political appointments was something with which he recognized he must contend.
The Godfreys, Franklin’s boarders, tried to set Franklin up with one of their relative's daughters, but the proposal failed because they refused to give Franklin, in his eyes, a suitable dowry. The Godfreys moved out after the engagement fell apart and he resolved not to take on new tenants.
Franklin, concerned as usual with his financial affairs, was unwilling to marry without being promised a dowry he felt reflected his position and prospects, and, as a result, his prospects and financial arrangements momentarily suffered.
The affair turned Franklin’s thoughts to marriage, but, because the printing business was thought poor, he felt he couldn’t get a suitable dowry from anyone. This together with “that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth” caused him to get involved with “low women” that cost him money and inconvenienced him, besides “risking [his] health by a distemper… which by great good luck [he] escaped.”
Despite the, one would think, distasteful events with his tenants, Franklin still wished to acquire a wife, not it seems, out of desire for true love or companionship, but because Franklin saw that his youthful debaucheries were unhealthy, impractical, and potentially ruinous.
Meanwhile, a neighborly correspondence had been kept up between Franklin and the Reads. He pitied Ms. Read’s situation, considered himself partially the cause of it, and their affection rekindled. There were difficulties because of Ms. Read’s previous marriage, but they overcame them and married on September 1st ,1730. He says she was a great wife and helper. He corrected another of his great errata.
Once again, partially thanks to good fortune and luck, Franklin was able to correct one of his early errors in life—the decision to break off his engagement with Ms. Read Franklin says very little about the actual traits or personality of his lifelong partner.
The Junto began to meet in a little room of Mr. Grace’s and Franklin proposed that they bring their books in to start a small lending library. The small library lasted about a year before each member took his books home. Thus, Franklin says, he set himself to a public project: setting up a subscription library. He drew up proposals with the scrivener, Brockden, and with the help of the Junto, got 50 subscribers to pay into the library. The company grew to 150 members and obtained a charter. Franklin calls his library “the mother of all the North American subscription libraries.”
Now the Autobiography begins to turn toward Franklin’s public works and community building. In this case the public project started small, and private, but the germ of the idea was there, and Franklin saw its potential for the good of his city, and the potential of similar institutions to improve the American colonies as a whole. He saw in this small collection of a few hundred books the means to build better citizens.
Part One concludes with a memo that says that the first part of the Autobiography was written for family and has bits irrelevant to the public, the next part, he says, was written many years afterward in compliance with the advice contained in the two letters he includes. The American Revolution caused the interruption in his writing.
The bits of the Autobiography that Franklin, in later years, found irrelevant, the kind of personal anecdotes and stories which he largely refrains from including in later sections, may to some readers to have been some of the most interesting and profitable parts in his work.