On Ben Franklin's Birthday: A Crucial Lesson
|By La Greca and Enright|
|Monday, 17 January 2011 18:08|
Born in 1706, the fifteenth child of a Boston candle maker, Benjamin Franklin was our country’s first international celebrity, lauded throughout Europe as the quintessential American. Reportedly, everyone in his era “had an engraving of M. Franklin over the mantelpiece.” A bestseller in the nineteenth century, his Autobiography was as exciting to children then as an adventure is to today’s youth — and more enlightening.
January 17th, his birthday, is a fitting time to ask: Why was Franklin an American icon? What can we learn from his character and achievements?
Let’s examine his Autobiography for answers.
He said that, as a child, a proverb from King Solomon profoundly influenced his life: Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, he shall stand before kings. “I from thence considered industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction.”
Franklin demonstrated his inexhaustible industry early. “I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.” With merely two years of formal schooling, he didn’t wait for someone to hand him student loans and a college education; he educated himself.
At age 12 he was indentured to his brother, a printer. He made the best of his servitude: “I now had access to better books.” Highly respectful of other people’s property, he borrowed books “which I was careful to return soon and clean. Often I sat up in 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.”
At 17, Ben escaped from beatings by his brother and fear of conflict with Boston authorities over his already controversial writings. Alone and poor, he traveled down the coast seeking printing work. He endured a near-shipwreck and a 50-mile walk in torrential storms. Bedraggled and hungry, he arrived in Philadelphia, startling young Deborah Read, who stared askance at his “most awkward, ridiculous appearance.” Deborah later became his wife!
Instead of waiting for help from others, young Ben took initiative. He found work, survived mainly on bread and water, and lodged himself humbly, using his meager money to buy more books. While still a teenager, Ben became so well-read that prominent people, including the governors of two colonies, sought his conversation.
Although misled by a supposed backer and relieved of hard-earned money loaned to unreliable friends, Ben never gave up. He established himself as a printer and publisher, creating the widely read Pennsylvania Gazette, then Poor Richard’s Almanack. By putting enterprising young men into the printing business in other colonies, he created a form of franchising.
Years of toil and frugality paid off. Franklin finally accumulated enough wealth to retire early and explore other interests. His scientific and political feats are legendary. Sometimes called the greatest experimentalist of the eighteenth century, he turned his scientific research into useful inventions — the lightning rod, Franklinstove, and bifocals are just a few. Known as “the first American” for his campaign to unify the colonies, he was the only person to have signed all four documents pivotal to our founding: the Declaration of Independence; the Treaty of Alliance, Amity, and Commerce with France; the Treaty of Peace between England, France, and the United States; and the Constitution.