A man who is self-made and by his own exertions and untiring industry becomes a great man, often excels the mere student of the college in mental vigor as much as the hard fisted mechanic excels him physically.
The former, usually without the means and often without the advantages of paternal or maternal care, is compelled to become familiar with men and things, without a knowledge of which, the classics are a mere toy and the high branches of science only an ornament. With the never ending every day concerns of life where usefulness holds her dominion they have little to do.
A man of letters who is unacquainted with the routine of business transactions is incapable of protecting his own interests--of course he cannot be useful to community until he goes through another and more important course of study. A great change is necessary in most of our colleges to make full men of students. Hence the blasted hopes of many a fond father who is led astray by the popular error--that colleges mould all their students into MEN. A large majority of the most useful citizens of our country, from its first settlement to the present time, never enjoyed a collegiate education. Especially was this the case with many of the sages and heroes of the Revolution whose memory we delight to honor and perpetuate.
Such was the case of Benjamin Franklin, born at Boston on 17th of January 1706--exactly ninety years before the writer. His father was among the Puritans who fled from persecution and sought repose in the wilds of Massachusetts. His parents were poor but honest and respectable. This may seem paradoxical to the aristocracy of the present day--but is unquestionably true. The time _was_ when poverty was not a _crime_ nor wealth a mask for corruption. Honesty and industry were _formerly_ the brightest stars on the escutcheon of fame.
At an early age Benjamin Franklin exhibited a mind of superior cast and a strong desire for improvement. His pious parents advanced his education as far as their limited means would enable them being anxious to see this son prepared for the pulpit. At the age of ten years his father was compelled to take him from school to aid him in the chandler business. This did not arrest the onward course of his genius. Original in every trait of his character, eccentric in his manner, the child of bold experiment, he commenced the study of natural philosophy in the midst of candle wicks, tallow and soap. He first ascertained the precise quantity of sleep and food requisite to sustain nature and the kind of aliment most conducive to health. At that early age he adopted a system of temperance, frugality and economy, worthy the imitation of men. He accustomed himself to meet every disappointment without a murmur. He continued to improve his mind by reading during every hour he was not at labor. Nothing passed by him unnoticed. His expanding intellect drew philosophy from nature, things and men. He reasoned, analyzed, moralized and improved from everything he saw. Hence the vast and rapid expansion of his towering genius that ultimately commanded the awe of kings and the admiration of the world--comprehending the philosophy of mind, nature, science, art, government--all the relations of creation from the dust under his feet--the myriads of animalculæ in a drop of water, up to the bright seraphs in the skies and up to Nature's God.
A mind like his would not long be confined in a chandler shop. Open and honest at all times and under all circumstances, he apprised his father of his wish to change his occupation. He was bound to his brother to learn the art of printing. His industry enabled him to master his profession rapidly. All his leisure moments were employed in study, thus preparing himself for a useful and glorious career through future life--leaving a bright example worthy the imitation of every apprentice in our country.
So intently bent on the acquisition of knowledge--he often preferred his book to his meal and studied whole nights--defying the commands of Morpheus. He was paid a weekly sum for his board and adopting a simple vegetable diet was enabled to save money for the purchase of books. He selected them with reference to substantial usefulness. He studied with enthusiasm the Memorabilia of Xenophon and found a model in Socrates which he delighted in imitating.
About this time he was seized with the scribbling mania. Committing the usual error of youthful authors--he offered his first sacrifice to Calliope the goddess of heroic poetry. The production was applauded but his father turned his rhyming propensity into ridicule and encouraged him to write prose. Fearing the shafts of criticism, he had several articles published in the paper edited by his brother, in so clandestine a manner that the author was not suspected. Finding that they were admired, he says his vanity did not long keep the world ignorant of the writer.
Flattery from others caused him to assume an air of importance that soon resulted in an open rupture between him and his brother. For some time he endured a course of harsh treatment and at length resolved to free himself from the chains of bondage. He embraced the first opportunity for New York. Not being able to obtain business there he proceeded to Philadelphia on foot and alone. On his arrival he had but one dollar--was a stranger only seventeen years of age and knew not where to go. On entering Market street his eccentric appearance excited the gaze of the multitude as much as his gigantic talents subsequently did the gaze of the world. He had a roll of bread under each arm and proceeded to the margin of the Delaware river and partook of his bread and pure water. His pockets were enormously enlarged with the various articles of his wardrobe rendering him a fair representation of old Boniface.
There were then but two printing offices in Philadelphia. In one of these he obtained the situation of compositor. He now reduced his theories of economy to successful practice maintaining himself at a trifling expense--pursuing a correct and industrious career which gained for him the esteem of all his acquaintances. Among others, his talents attracted the attention of Sir William Keith, then Governor of the province, who invited him to his house and treated him with great kindness. The Governor was a man whose liberality in _promises_ went beyond the dust in his purse. Anxious to see his young friend placed in more prosperous circumstances by his benefaction he proposed to set him up in business. He at once gave him letters to London. On his arrival there, Franklin found that no pecuniary arrangements had been made for him by his _tongue_ benefactor. He was in a strange land, without money to pay his return passage. He took a new lesson in the school of experience in which he delighted to study. Disappointment did not deject him. He soon obtained employment and gained the confidence and esteem of his new acquaintances. At the end of eighteen months he embarked for Philadelphia. On his passage he digested a set of rules for future action substantially as follows. I resolve to be frugal--to speak truth at all times--never to raise expectations not to be realized--to be sincere, industrious, stable--to speak ill of no man--to cover rather than expose the faults of others and to do all the good I can to my fellow man.
Upon this foundation, formed of the unadulterated materials of _primitive_ Christianity, he raised a superstructure, more beautiful and as enduring as the proudest memorials of Greece and Rome. When the whole human family shall adopt and fully exemplify these rules, we may hope to see millennial glory eclipse the meridian sun and cover the earth with one broad sheet of celestial light.
He arrived at Philadelphia on the 11th of October 1726 and became the clerk of the merchant who owned the goods brought over by the ship in which he took his passage. His proverbial industry made him as successful in the counting house as at the press--showing a rare versatility of talent. His future prospects in this new sphere of action brightened as time rolled on but were suddenly blasted by the death of his employer. He then returned to the types--worked a few months for his old patron where he found a partner with more money than skill and with him commenced a lucrative business. His industry and artistic talents were now put in full requisition. He manned his wheel-barrow in collecting material for business--put nature on short allowance and by punctuality and perseverance gained many valuable friends and money enough to purchase the interest of his partner who had become worthless and embarrassing to the firm.
Up to this time Franklin had been fortune's foot-ball. His life had been a complete checker board of changing vicissitudes, blasted hopes and keen disappointments. Amidst all the stormy trials that had tossed his youthful bark on the surges of misfortune--surrounded by the foaming breakers of vice in all its delusive and borrowed forms--he never became tarnished by corruption or the commission of a bad or mean action. The moral and religious principles deeply planted in his mind during childhood by parental instruction--were as lasting as life--a happy illustration of the faithfulness of parents towards their children. Fathers and mothers think of this and govern yourselves accordingly.
Having become liberated from his business partner, he felt the necessity and propriety of choosing one that would fill up the vacuum in his side and share with him the joys and sorrows flesh is heir to. In 1730, he entered into partnership for life with a widow lady whose maiden name was Read, for whom he had contracted an attachment previous to her first marriage. In him she found a kind husband--in her he found an agreeable and discreet companion.
Philanthropy predominated in the heart of Franklin. To better the condition of his fellow men gave him exquisite pleasure. The rules governing the "Junto" formed by him and now merged in the "Philosophical Society," exhibit a superior knowledge of human nature--illustrating clearly the duty of man to the creature and Creator. They breathe universal charity, kindness, benevolence and good will to all mankind. Among them is one for the suppression of intemperance--a prophetic prelude to the exertions of the present day in this noble cause. He had profited by the experience of the past which enabled him to steer clear of the rocks and quicksands of error on which many are ruined and lost. His bark had outrode many a storm--prosperity was his future lot. His new partner smiled upon him, his friends esteemed him, a life of usefulness was before him--in the pleasures of the present, past pains were lost.
In 1732 he commenced the publication of the "Poor Richard's Almanac" which he continued up to 1737, circulating 10,000 copies annually. Although under a humble title it was a work of great merit and usefulness--being replete with maxims and rules calculated for everyday use in the various relations of life--rules and maxims of the highest importance to be known and practised but not learned in high seminaries. So highly was it prized in Europe that it was translated into several languages. He also commenced the publication of a newspaper which was conducted with great ability--free from all personal abuse and scurrility--a messenger of truth and wholesome instruction. Would to God the same could be said of _all_ the present public prints.
Franklin continued to pursue his studies--mastering the French, Italian, Spanish and Latin languages. By the "Junto" a small library was commenced which was the nucleus to the present large collection in the city of Philadelphia. He wrote and published a highly interesting pamphlet on the necessity of paper currency. He added to his literary fame by the production of essays on various subjects written in his peculiar style. He filled successfully the office of state printer, of clerk to the Assembly and of post-master in Philadelphia. He used unwearied exertions to perfect the municipal regulations of the city. He was the father and patron of the Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania University and Hospital. All the enterprises in the city and province, of that time, were either originated by him or were advanced by his wisdom and counsel.
In 1741 he commenced the publication of a General Magazine filled with much useful matter but less acceptable than his former productions to many--probing, as it did, litigated points in theology. It was too universal in its charity to suit sectarians. Let these barriers be removed--then the gospel will have free course-run and be glorified.
The mechanic arts were also improved by him. He brought to their aid philosophy, chemistry and a combination of science, economy and the laws of nature. He improved chimneys--constructed a stove and proposed many useful and economical corrections in domestic concerns from the cellar to the garret--from the plough to the mill. Science bowed to his master spirit, the arts hailed him as a patron, the lightning obeyed his magic rod and nature was proud of her favorite son.
In 1744 he was elected to the Assembly and continued a member for ten consecutive years. Although not a popular speaker, his clear conceptions of correct legislation and the duties of a statesman gave to him an influence over that body before unknown. In all his propositions he was listened to with profound attention.
During the period he was serving his province in the Assembly he explored the fields of experimental philosophy--explaining many of the mysterious phenomena of nature which spread his scientific fame to the remotest bounds of the civilized world. His discoveries in electricity were sufficient to have immortalized his name. He is the first man on record who imparted magnetism to steel--melted metals--killed animals and fired gunpowder by means of electricity. He was the first who reduced to practice the method of conducting the electric fluid from the clouds to the points of steel rods and by them harmless to the ground. All the elements--fluids, air, sea and land with their millions of various substances, passed in review before him.
In 1753 he was sent to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to conclude a treaty with the Indians. In 1754 he was a delegate to the Congress of Commissioners which met at Albany to devise means of defence against the anticipated hostilities of the French and savages. He then submitted a plan that was unanimously approved by the Congress but was too republican for the creatures of the king.
On the decease of the Deputy Postmaster-General of America, Franklin was appointed to fill the vacancy and raised the department from embarrassment to a fruitful source of revenue to the crown.
Difficulties arose between the proprietaries and government of the province of Pennsylvania, which were referred to the mother country for adjustment. Dr. Franklin was sent by the province to guard its interests and embarked for England in June 1757. He executed the duties of his mission with his usual ability and address--the difficulties were settled and in 1762 he returned. He was then variously employed--regulating the Post-Office Department--making treaties with the Indians and devising means of defence on the frontiers.
New troubles arose between the proprietaries and assembly and in 1764 Dr. Franklin again sailed for England, with instructions to obtain the entire abolishment of proprietary authority. On his arrival he was called upon to perform more important and perilous duties. The plan for taxing the colonies had been long agitated and was now matured by the British ministry. This project he had boldly opposed at the threshold and was now arraigned to answer numerous accusations brought against him by the enemies of liberty.
On the 3d of February 1766, he appeared before the House of Commons to undergo a public examination. He was found equal to the task--his enemies were astounded at his boldness, logic, dignity and skill, whilst his friends were filled with admiration at the able manner he confuted every accusation and defended the rights and interests of his native country. Amidst the attacks of artifice and insolence of power he stood unawed--unmoved--firm as a granite rock. He remained in England eleven years as the agent of the colonies, opposing the encroachments of the ministry upon the rights of Americans. During the whole time the combined efforts of flattery, malice and intrigue could not intimidate or ensnare him. He well understood the etiquette, corruptions and devices of diplomacy. He never bowed his knee to Baal or kissed the hand of a king.
The relations between the two countries had now arrived at a point so significant that Franklin returned to his long neglected home. His person was not safe in England--his services were needed in his now suffering country. He arrived in Philadelphia early in May 1775. He was received with great enthusiasm and immediately elected to the Continental Congress. To this august body he added fresh lustre and dignity. In England he had exhausted every source of prospective reconciliation between the two nations. He feared the colonies were too weak to achieve their Independence but his course was right onward with his colleagues--resolved on LIBERTY OR DEATH.
The talents of Franklin were put in constant requisition. He was always selected to meet the agents of the crown who were at various times commissioned to offer terms of inglorious peace. He always proved himself the uncompromising advocate of Liberty--the shrewd and wary politician--the bold and zealous defender of the rights of his bleeding country--the unflinching friend of universal FREEDOM.
The disasters of the American army during the campaign of 1777, induced Congress to apply to France for aid. All eyes were turned on Franklin to execute this important mission. In October 1777 he embarked to perform this delicate embassy and succeeded in concluding a treaty of alliance with that nation on the 4th of February 1778, to the great joy of himself and his suffering countrymen. When the news of the alliance reached England, the ministry was much alarmed and despatched messengers to Paris to endeavor to induce Franklin to enter into a compromise with Great Britain. The terms rendered the effort too abortive to make him the bearer of even a message to Congress. To Mr. Hutton and others who came to him with the olive branch of peace, wreathed with scorpions, he replied--"I never think of your ministry and their abettors, but with the image strongly painted in my view of their hands red and dropping with the blood of my countrymen, friends and relations. No peace can be signed with those hands unless you drop all pretensions to govern us--meet us on equal terms and avoid all occasions of future discord."
He met all their intrigues at the threshold and convinced them that the hardy yoemanry of America could not be dragooned, flattered or driven from the bold position they had assumed. During the several interviews he had with these commissioners, Franklin was cautioned by Mr. Heartley to beware of his personal safety which had been repeatedly threatened. He thanked his friend and assured him he felt no alarm--that he had nearly finished a long life and that the short remainder was of no great value and ironically remarked--"Perhaps the best use such an old fellow can be put to is to make a martyr of him."
If it required all the skill and energy of a Franklin to _negotiate_ a treaty of alliance with France, it required the combined skill of all Congress to preserve it. The French is the most effervescent nation known to history. A republican form of government is ever repugnant to kingly power. That the French officers and soldiers in the American army would drink freely at the fountain of liberal principles no one could doubt. That the thrones of Europe would be endangered on their return was truly predicted. By this very natural course of reasoning the British ministry exerted a powerful influence against the continuation of the alliance. Franklin and his colleagues anticipated all their dark intrigues--penetrated and frustrated them up to the time Great Britain was compelled to comply with the terms of an honorable peace and acknowledge the Independence of the United States of America by a definitive treaty of peace concluded at Paris on the 3d of September 1783.
Although anxious to be discharged from further public service it was not until 1785 that Franklin was permitted to return to his beloved country where he could breathe the pure air of republican FREEDOM--no longer polluted by kingly power. During his stay he concluded treaties of commerce between the United States and the Kings of Sweden and Prussia. On his departure from Europe every mark of respect was paid to him by Kings, courts, _literati_ and by all classes of society whose adulation the loftiest ambition could desire. He was beloved by the millions--his departure was deeply regretted by all. His reputation was the personification of purity.
At the age of eighty years, borne down by disease, he returned to Philadelphia. He was hailed with enthusiastic joy, affection, esteem and veneration by all the friends of liberty--from the humblest citizen up to the illustrious Washington. He had been a pillar of fire to the American cause--a pillar of smoke to the enemies of human rights. As Thurgot truly observed--"He snatched the thunder bolt from Jove and the sceptre from Kings." He stood--the Colossus of Liberty among the monarchs of Europe and wrung from them the homage due to a nation that dared to be FREE.
Notwithstanding his advanced age and his ardent desire for retirement, he was placed in the gubernatorial chair of Pennsylvania and in 1787 elected a delegate to the Convention that formed the Federal Constitution. Many of the bright trails of that important instrument received their finishing touch from his master hand. He was anxious to see his long nursed theory of a republican government reduced to as perfect system as its infancy would permit. He well knew, that for its manhood and old age additional provisions would be required. As necessary as this now is, so sacred has that instrument become that the mass would deem it sacrilege to disturb its long repose. It might be made to meet more fully the wants of an expanding country in some particulars but if once disturbed might be polluted by the apoplectic touch of party spirit and never recover from the shock. Caution is the parent of safety.
Early in 1790, Dr. Franklin was confined to his room by his infirmities but his mental powers remained in full vigor. Some of the strongest and most soul-stirring productions from his pen were written during his confinement. Early in April he began to fail more rapidly. He was fully sensible that he stood on the confines of eternity and that he should soon go to his final rest. On the 17th of April 1790, calm and resigned--cool and collected--peaceful and happy--he commended his spirit to Him who gave it--quitted this vale of tears with a full assurance of rising to a glorious immortality at the final resurrection and slumbered quietly and sweetly in the arms of death with a full assurance that his Lord and Master would rebind him in a new and more beautiful edition fully revised.
By his will he prohibited all pomp and parade at his funeral. He was anxious that the mournful obsequies of his burial should be marked with republican simplicity. He was laid in his grave on the 21st of April. It is in the northwest corner of Christ Church yard in the City of Philadelphia, where a plain marble slab--once even but now below the surface of the earth, shows where his ashes repose. By the side of his moulders the dust of his amiable wife.
His death was deeply lamented throughout the civilized world. Congress ordered mourning to be observed throughout the United States for thirty days. The event was solemnized in France and many eloquent eulogies pronounced. The national Assembly decreed that each of its members should wear a badge of mourning for three days. The sensation produced there by his death was similar to that evinced by our country on the death of La Fayette.
In the recapitulation of the life of this great and good man we are charmed with a versatile richness that has no parallel on the historic page. He filled every sphere in which he moved to the remotest lines of its orbit. No matter how bright the galaxy around him he was a luminary of the first magnitude. He entered upon the stage of notion at a time when the world needed just such a man and continued upon it just long enough to complete all he had commenced. He was found equal to every work he undertook and always stopped at the golden point--when he had finished. He was emphatically the architect of his own fortune. No chartered college can claim him as a graduate--no patron rendered him gratuitous aid. Let the young men of our country imitate his examples that they may become useful--let our public men who have in charge our national destiny imitate them that they may be wise--let old men imitate them that they may be revered--let us _all_ imitate them that we may do all the good we can to our fellow men in life and be happy in death.
Source: Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution, by L. Carroll Judson: Copyright, 1854 Available for download at the Project Gutenberg website.