Benjamin Franklin Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(Colonial America: Primary Sources)

An illustration of Philadelphia in the 1700s. Benjamin Franklin came to Philadelphia to escape working as his brother's apprentice. Reproduced by permission of The Granger Collection. An illustration of Philadelphia in the 1700s. Benjamin Franklin came to Philadelphia to escape working as his brother's apprentice. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of The Granger Collection.
A young Benjamin Franklin working as a printer's apprentice. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc. A young Benjamin Franklin working as a printer's apprentice. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

Excerpt from Benjamin Franklin: A Biography
in His Own Words

Reprinted in In Their Own Words: The Colonizers

Published in 1998

Edited by T. J. Stiles

". . . I found myself in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17, without the least recommendation to or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket. . . ."

In the eighteenth century the Enlightenment (a movement that stressed rational analysis and observation) was sweeping Europe, and influential thinkers were looking at the world in a different way. The Enlightenment had an impact on science, religion, philosophy, politics, and the arts, as traditional views were being questioned and replaced with radically new theories. One of the most important changes was the idea that God was not an all-powerful force that controlled every aspect of human life. This insight was introduced by scientists and then adopted by theologians (religious philosophers), who began to teach that God had given humans the ability to understand their environment through reason.

Upper-class, educated American colonists were especially intrigued by the latest innovations coming from Europe. Full of enthusiasm, they welcomed these theories, which ideally suited their own social experiment in the New World (the European term for North America and South America).

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was emerging as the center of scientific thought and experimentation in the colonies. This was a logical development because Pennsylvania was founded by

Quakers, who believed that God had granted humans the gift of intellect so they could understand the world around them. (Quakerism, or the Society of Friends, was a branch of Puritanism that stressed direct communication between the individual and God through an "inner light.") The American Philosophical Society, the first scientific institution in the colonies, was established in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, in 1743. Among the mostly Quaker founders of the society was a famous non-Quaker, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Franklin moved to Philadelphia in 1723, and by the 1740s he had gained international recognition for his experiments and writings on electricity.

Franklin pursued a wide range of interests during his long life. A printer, writer, civic leader, inventor, politician, and ambassador, he was also the best-known scientist of the eighteenth century, in both Europe as well as America. Before he conducted his experiments, electricity was considered a bizarre force that was of interest mainly for entertainment. As a result of his discoveries, the study of electricity was established as a valid scientific pursuit.

A native Bostonian, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia at the age of seventeen. He started his own printing business and retired a rich man in 1748. His annual Poor Richard's Almanack provided a wealth of information about stars and planets, advice about medicine, weather predictions, and rhymes and witty sayings for the teaching of morals. In 1771, after he had embarked on a career as a statesman—which would lead to his becoming one of the"founding fathers" of the United States—he began writing his life story. Franklin's autobiography is considered one of the greatest personal narratives ever written in the English language.

Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words:

  • The excerpt below covers the first seventeen years of Franklin's life. Because his family was poor—there were seventeen children altogether—the young Franklin did not receive a proper education. For instance, he attended the Boston Grammar School for only one year because his parents could not afford the tuition (instruction fees). Later he spent a year at George Brownell's English School, where he failed arithmetic. Luckily, because Franklin's parents encouraged reading, thinking, and discussion, he grew up in an educational environment. At the age of ten, he began working as an apprentice (one who learns by practical experience) in his father's chandlery shop (a place where candles are made).
  • Since Franklin enjoyed reading, his parents eventually decided he should enter the printing trade. Therefore, at the age of twelve, he became an apprentice for his brother James, who ran a Boston newspaper, The New England Courant. James's printing shop was a center of social activity, which provided the young Franklin with a constant flow of new ideas. Customers would often linger to discuss politics or religion, and they also brought books for him to borrow. During this time the ambitious young man improved his writing and editing talents. At the age of seventeen Franklin left Boston to seek his fortune in Philadelphia.

Excerpt from Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words

Josiah, my father, married young, and carried his wife with three children unto New England, about 1682. . . . By the same wife he had four children more born there, and by a second wife ten more, in all 17, of which I remember 13 sitting at one time at his table, who all grew up to be men and women, and married. I was the youngest son [born in 1706], and the younger child but two, and was born in Boston, N. England. My mother, the second wife, was Abiah Folger, a daughter of Peter Folger, one of the first settlers of new England. . . .

My elder brothers were all put apprentices to different trades. I was put to the grammar school at eight years of age, my father intending to devote me as the tithe of his sons to the service of the Church [of England]. My early readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read) and the opinion of all his friends that I should certainly make a good scholar, encouraged him in this purpose of his. My uncle Benjamin too approved of it, and proposed to give me all his shorthand volumes of sermons, I suppose as a stock to set up with, if I would learn his character [shorthand].

I continued however at the grammar school not quite one year, tho' in that time I had risen gradually from the middle of the class of that year to be the head of it, and farther was removed into the next class above it, in order to go with that into the third at the end of the year. But my father in the meantime, from a view of the expense of a college education which, having so large a family, he could not well afford, and the mean living many so educated men were afterwards able to obtain, reasons that he gave to his friends in my hearing, altered his first intention, took me from the grammar school, and sent me to a school for writing and arithmetic kept by a then famous man, Mr. Geo. Brownell. . . . Under him I acquired fair writing pretty soon, but I failed in the arithmetic, and made no progress in it.

At ten years old, I was taken home to assist my father in his business which was that of a tallow chandler and soap boiler. A business he was not bred to, but had assumed on his arrival in New England and on finding his dying trade would not maintain his family, being in little request. Accordingly I was employed in cutting wick for the candles, filling the dipping mold, and the molds for the cast candles, attending the shop, going of errands, etc.

I disliked the trade and had a strong inclination for the sea; but my father declared against it. However, living near the water, I was much in and about it, learned early to swim well, and to manage boats, and when in a boat or canoe with other boys I was commonly allowed to govern, especially in any case of difficulty; and upon other occasions I was generally a leader among the boys, and sometimes led them into scrapes. . . .

To return. I continued thus employed in my father's business for two years, that is till I was 12 years old; and my brother John, who was bred to that business, having left my father, married and set up for himself at Rhode Island. There was all appearance that I was destined to supply his place and be a tallow chandler. But my dislike to the trade continuing, my father was under apprehensions that if he did not find one for me more agreeable, I should break away and get to sea, as his son Josiah had done to his great vexation. He therefore sometimes took me to walk with him, and see joiners, bricklayers, turners, braziers, etc., at their work, that he might observe my inclination, and endeavor to fix it on some trade or other on land. . . .

From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books. Pleased with the Pilgrim's Progress, my first collection was of John Bunyan's works, in separate little volumes. I afterwards sold them to enable me to buy R. Burton's Historical Collections; they were small Chapmen's Books, and cheap, 40 or 50 in all. . . . This bookish inclination at length determined my father to make me a printer, tho' he had already one son (James) of that profession.

In 1717 my brother James returned from England with a press and letters to set up his business in Boston. I liked it much better than that of my father, but still had a hankering for the sea. To prevent the apprehended effect of such an inclination, my father was impatient to have me bound to my brother. I stood out some time, but at last was persuaded and signed the indentures, when I was yet but 12 years old. I was to serve as an apprentice till I was 21 years of age, only I was to be allowed journeyman's wages during the last year.

In a little time I made great proficiency in the business, and became a useful hand to my brother. I now had access to better books. An acquaintance with the apprentices of booksellers enabled me sometimes to borrow a small one, which I was careful to return soon and clean. Often I sat up on my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted. . . .

My brother had in 1720 or 21 begun to print a newspaper. It was the second that appeared in America, and was called The New England Courant. The only one before it was The Boston News Letter. I remember his being dissuaded by some of his friends from the undertaking, as not likely to succeed, one newspaper being in their judgment enough for America. . . . He went on, however, with the undertaking, and after having worked in composing the types and printing off the sheets I was employed to carry the papers thro' the streets to meet customers.

He had some ingenious men among his friends who amused themselves by writing little pieces for this paper, which gained it credit, and made it more in demand; and these gentlemen often visited us. Hearing their conversations, and their accounts of the approbation

their papers were received with, I was excited to try my hand among them. But being still a boy, and suspecting that my brother would object to printing anything of mine in his paper if he knew it to be mine, I contrived to disguise my hand [handwriting], and writing an anonymous paper I put it in at night under the door of the print ing house.

It was found in the morning and communicated to his writing friends when they called in as usual. They read it, commented on it in my hearing, and I had the exquisite pleasure of finding it met with their approbation, and that in their different guesses at the author, none were named but men of some character among us for learning and ingenuity. I suppose now that I was rather lucky in my judges, and that perhaps they were not really so very good ones as I them esteemed them.

Encouraged however by this, I wrote and conveyed in the same way to the press several more papers, which were equally approved, and I kept my secret till my small fund of sense for such performances was pretty well exhausted, and then I discovered [revealed] it; when I began to be considered a little more by my brother's acquaintances, and in a manner that did not quite please him, as he thought, probably with reason, that it tended to make me too vain.

And perhaps this might be one occasion of the differences that we frequently had about this time. Tho' a brother, he considered himself as my master, and me as his apprentice; and accordingly expected the same services from me as he would from another; while I thought he demeaned me too much in some he required of me, who from a brother expected more indulgence. Our disputes were often brought before our father, and I fancy I was either generally in the right, or else a better pleader, because the judgment was generally in my favor. But my brother was passionate and had often beaten me, which I took extremely amiss; and thinking my apprenticeship very tedious, I was constantly wishing for some opportunity of shortening it, which at length offered in a manner unexpected.

One of the pieces in our newspaper, on some political point which I have now forgotten, gave offense to the Assembly. He [Franklin's brother] was taken up, censured, and imprisoned for a month by the Speaker's Warrant, I suppose because he would not discover his author. I too was taken up and examined before the Council; but tho' I did not give them any satisfaction, they contented themselves with admonishing me, and dismissed me; considering me perhaps as an apprentice, who was bound to keep his master's secrets.

During my brother's confinement, which I resented a good deal, notwithstanding our private differences, I had the management of the paper, and I made bold to give our rulers some rubs with it, which by brother took very kindly, while others began to consider me in an unfavorable light, as a young genius that had a turn for libelling and satire. My brother's discharge was accompanied with an order of the House (a very odd one) that James Franklin should no longer print the paper called the New England Courant.

Although he was the best known scientist of the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin was also a printer, writer, inventor, politician, and ambassador. Reproduced by permission of The Library of Congress. Although he was the best known scientist of the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin was also a printer, writer, inventor, politician, and ambassador. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of The Library of Congress.

There was a consideration held in our printing house among his friends what he should do in this case. Some proposed to evade the order by changing the name of the paper, but my brother, seeing the inconveniences in that, it was finally concluded on as a better way, to let it be printed for the future under the name of Benjamin Franklin. And to avoid the censure of the Assembly that might fall on him, as still printing it by his apprentice, the contrivance was that my old indenture should be returned to me with a full discharge on the back of it, to be shown on occasion; but to secure to him the benefit of my service I was to sign new indentures for the remainder of the term, which were to be kept private.

A very flimsy scheme it was, but however, it was immediately executed, and the paper went on accordingly under my name for several months. At length a fresh difference arising between my brother and me, I took upon me to assert my freedom, presuming that he would not venture to produce the new indentures. It was not fair in me to take this advantage, and this I therefore reckon one of the first errata of my life. But the unfairness of it weighed little with me. . . .

When he found I would leave him, he took care to prevent my getting employment in any other printing house of the town, by going round and speaking to every master, who accordingly refused to give me work. I then thought of going to New York as the nearest place where there was a printer; and I was rather inclined to leave Boston, when I reflected that I had already made myself a little obnoxious to the governing party; and from the arbitrary proceedings of the Assembly in my brother's case it was likely I might if I stayed soon bring myself into scrapes; and farther that my indiscreet disputations about religion begun to make me pointed at with horror by good people, as an infidel or atheist.

I determined on the point; but my father now siding with my brother, I was sensible that if I attempted to go openly, men would be used to prevent me. My friend Collins therefore undertook to manage a little for me. He agreed with the captain of a New York sloop for my passage, under the notion of my being a young acquaintance of his that had got a naughty girl with child. . . . So I sold some of my books to raise a little money, was taken on board privately, and as we had a fair wind in three days I found myself in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17, without the least recommendation to or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket. . . .

I offered by service to the printer of the place, old Mr. William Bradford (who had been the first printer in Pennsylvania, but removed from thence upon the quarrel of [Governor] George Keith). He could give me no employment, having little to do, and help enough already. But, says he, my son at Philadelphia has lately lost his principal hand, Aquila Rose, by death. If you go thither I believe he may employ you. . . .

[I] arrived there [in Philadelphia] about 8 or 9 o'clock, in the Sunday morning, and landed at the Market Street wharf. . . . I was in my working dress, my best clothes being to come round by sea. I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings; I knew no soul, nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with travelling, rowing, and want of rest. I was very hungry, and my whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar and about a shilling in copper. The latter I gave the people of the boat for my passage, who at first refused it on account of my rowing; but I insisted in their taking it, a man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro' fear of being thought to have but little.

Then I walked up the street, gazing about, till near the Market House I met a boy with bread. I had made many a meal on bread, and inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the baker's he directed me to in Second Street; and asked for biscuit, intending such as we had in Boston, but they it seems were not made in Philadelphia. Then I asked for a three-penny loaf, and was told they had none such; so not considering or knowing the difference of money and the greater cheapness nor the names of his bread, I bad him give me three penny worth of any sort. He gave me accordingly three great puffy rolls. I was surprised at the quantity, but took it, and having no room in my pockets, walked off, with a roll under each arm, and eating the other. . . .

Thus refreshed I walked again up the street, which by this time had many clean dressed people in it who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great Meeting House of the Quakers near the Market. I sat down among them, and after looking round a while and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro' labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell asleep, and continued to till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was therefore the first house I was in or slept in, in Philadelphia. . . .

I began now to have some acquaintance among the young people of the town, that were lovers of reading, with whom I spent my evenings very pleasantly. And gaining money by my industry and frugality, I lived very agreeably, forgetting Boston as much as I could. . . .

What happened next . . .

Franklin finally settled in Philadelphia in 1726. Three years later he purchased a failing newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, which eventually reached a high circulation. In 1733 he also began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack, a collection of witty sayings and pieces of advice that he wrote under the pseudonym (pen name) of Richard Saunders.

During the 1730s Franklin branched out into other projects. In 1736 he founded the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. The industrious young man also started a police force and promoted the paving and lighting of city streets. Reflective of his lifelong love of reading, Franklin founded what was probably the first circulating library in America. Established in 1731, it was originally a subscription library to which members contributed an annual fee in return for the full use of books and pamphlets. In 1736 Franklin was appointed clerk (official in charge of records) of the Pennsylvania Assembly (legislative body), where he gained valuable political experience over the next fifteen years.

During the 1740s scientists around the world were investigating static (accumulated) electricity. Franklin first witnessed this new force in a demonstration of the Leyden jar (a device used for producing electrical energy) in 1743. Franklin was so inspired by the Leyden jar that he conducted his own experiments, thus beginning his career as an amateur scientist.

Through further experiments, Franklin discovered that electricity is an independent force, which he called "electrical fire." The idea that the overall electrical energy in a system does not increase or decrease is now a fundamental law in science. Franklin introduced many other terms that still pertain to electricity, including battery, conductor, charge, and discharge. He also invented the lightning rod (a metallic rod with one end embedded in the ground, which diverts electricity to the earth and protects buildings against fire caused by lightning). By 1782, there were four hundred lightning rods in Philadelphia.

While waiting for the lightning rod to be installed on Christ Church, Franklin came up with an idea for a faster way to get a conductor into the sky. He made a kite by tying a large silk handkerchief to two crossed wooden sticks. Next, to the kite he attached a long silk thread that had a metal key tied at the end. Then he waited for a thunderstorm. During the storm the rain soaked the thread, making it an excellent conductor (an item that permits flow of electric current) that transmitted a static charge from the sky down to the key. When Franklin touched his knuckle to the key, a spark jumped from the key to his hand, thus proving the existence of electricity in the sky.

Although Franklin was best known for his work with electricity, he investigated other areas as well. His interest in the weather led him to notice that weather patterns usually travel from west to east. Another of Franklin's interests was the sea. During his diplomatic career he journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean eight times, and on these trips he took notes of his observations of ocean waters. With the help of a sea captain, he created the first chart of the Gulf Stream (a warm current in the Atlantic Ocean). Franklin also devised a method of using a thermometer to gauge water temperature to determine if a ship was on course in the Gulf Stream.

Franklin introduced several innovations in the field of medicine. He was a strong supporter of regular exercise, particularly swimming. He believed in the importance of fresh air for good health, even though at the time many people thought night air and drafts caused disease. Expanding on his electrical studies, he used electric shocks to treat people with paralysis (loss of body movement). He determined, however, that the treatment did not have any permanent benefits. When the smallpox inoculation was first introduced, Franklin warned against the practice. (Smallpox is a highly contagious, often fatal disease. Inoculation is the introduction of the disease-causing agent into the body in order to create immunity.) After his own son died of the disease, however, he reversed his opinion and published a pamphlet on the importance of inoculation.

In 1748 Franklin retired from business and science to devote the rest of his life to politics and diplomacy. Three years later he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. In 1757 Franklin began his diplomatic career when he was sent to England as a lobbyist (one who represents a particular group in attempting to influences public officials). Franklin's experiments with electricity brought him great fame in America and Europe. Not only was he respected by the scientific community, he was popular with the general public. He spread his ideas through a number of writings, including articles in the leading scientific journal of the time, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In 1751 Franklin's papers on electricity were gathered and published in a ninety-page book in London. The Royal Society, a British scientific organization, awarded him the Copley Medal in 1753 for his accomplishments and made him a member of the society in 1756. (In 1744 Franklin had modeled the American Philosophical Society on the prestigious Royal Society.)

Franklin was a member of the Second Continental Congress (the governing body of the Thirteen Colonies). He helped to draft the Declaration of Independence (a document that stated the American colonists' reasons for demanding freedom from Great Britain), which was completed in 1776. Two years later he signed treaties with France that may have helped America win the Revolutionary War (1775–83; a conflict in which the American colonies won independence from Great Britain).

During his lifetime, Franklin began a long union with Deborah Reed, whom he never officially married because she was never divorced from her husband. Franklin already had one son, William, born to an unknown mother, who joined the family. Franklin and Reed also had two children of their own, a son Francis (who died of smallpox) and a daughter Sarah. During the last few years of his life, Franklin lived with Sarah and numerous grandchildren in a large house on Market Street in Philadelphia. He spent his time completing his autobiography (first published in 1868), which became a classic work in American literature. Franklin died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790, at the age of eighty-five. His funeral was attended by approximately twenty thousand people, who came to mourn the passing of a great man.

Did you know . . .

  • One of Franklin's first major inventions was the Pennsylvania fireplace, now known as the Franklin stove, which he developed around 1740. Improving on an existing design, he equipped the stove with a flue (heat channel) that heats the air around it. The stove was highly efficient, and Franklin claimed it made a room twice as warm as other stoves even though it used only twenty-five percent of the usual amount of wood. Another popular Franklin invention was bifocal eyeglasses, in which the lower part of the lens is designed for near vision and the upper for distant vision. Franklin is also credited with creating the rocking chair.

For more information

Benjamin Franklin Citizen of the World. A&E Home Video, 1994. Videocassette recording.

Benjamin Franklin Scientist and Inventor. Living History Productions, 1993. Videocassette recording.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words. Thomas Fleming, ed. New York: Newsweek, 1972.

McFarland, Philip James. The Brave Bostonians: Hutchinson, Quincy, and The Coming of the American Revolution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998.

Rudy, Lisa Jo, ed. The Benjamin Franklin Book of Easy and Incredible Experiments. New York: Wiley, 1995.

Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1998, pp. 314–418.