Here to return to
THE Boston over which the Mathers reluctantly relinquished ascendency was, in its outward aspect, pretty much that which Franklin has described for all time in his matchless Autobiography. Their reign had covered a period of many changes. When Increase Mather had been at the height of his power the taxable polls of the town numbered a little less than nine hundred and the estates were valued (in 1680) at about £23,877. By 1722 there were more than eighteen thousand inhabitants in Boston.
To be sure this estimate of the earlier date followed closely two pretty serious fires. That of November, 1676, was thus described by a contemporary writer: "It pleased God to alarm the town of Boston, and in them the whole country, by a sad fire, accidentally kindled by the carelessness of an apprentice that sat up too late over night, as was conceived [the lad was rising before daylight to go to his work and fell asleep while dressing, the result being that his candle set the house on fire]; the fire continued three or four hours in which time it burned down to the ground forty-six dwelling houses, besides other buildings, together with a meeting-house of considerable bigness." This meeting-house of "considerable bigness" was the Second Church, the church of the Mathers, the first sermon in which had been preached in June, 1650. Rebuilt on its old site immediately after this fire, the edifice stood at the head of North Square until the British soldiers, in 1775, pulled it down for firewood. Mr. Mather's dwelling was destroyed in the same fire which deprived him of his parish church, "but not an hundred of his books from above a thousand" were lost. The town did not yet possess any fire-engine, but this great conflagration hastened the acquiring of one, and, two years later, Boston had its first organized fire company.
Then, on August 7, 1680,
there came another "terrible fire," which raged about twelve hours.
Capt. John Hull, who kept a diary, records that this fire began "about
midnight in an alehouse, which by sunrise Consumed the body of the
of the Towne; from the Mill creek to Mr. Oliver's house, not one house
warehouse left; and went from my warehouse to Mrs. Leveret's hence to
Usher's, thence to Airs. Thacher's thence to Thomas Fitch's." Another
contemporary manuscript account adds that "the number of houses burnt
77 and of ware houses 35." This fire was believed to have been of
origin, and one Peter Lorphelin, who was suspected of having set it,
to jail and then "sentenced to stand two hours in the Pillory, have
ears cut off, give bond of £500 (with two sureties), pay charges
prosecution, fees of Court, and to stand committed till the
After this fire the burnt district was rebuilt with such rapidity that lumber could not be had fast enough for the purpose and an attempt was made to prohibit, temporarily, its exportation. One of the buildings then erected survived until 1860 and was long known as the Old Feather store. It stood in Dock (now Adams) Square so close, in early days, to tidewater that the prows of vessels moored in the dock almost touched it. The frame was of hewn oak and the outside walls were finished in rough-cast cement, with broken glass so firmly imbedded in it that time produced no effect. The date 16$0 was placed upon the principal gable of the westerly front. For many years the store on the ground floor was used for the sale of feathers, though, from the building's peculiar shape, it was quite as often called The Old Cocked Hat as The Old Feather Store.
The menace of fire had come to be a very serious one in a town having so many wooden buildings. Accordingly in the June, 1693, term of the General Court there was passed an "Act for building of stone or brick in the town of Boston and preventing fire." It was here ordained that "hence forth no dwelling house, shop, warehouse, barn, stable, or any other housing of more than eight feet in length or breadth, and seven feet in height, shall be erected and set up in Boston but of stone or brick and covered with slate or tyle," except in particular cases and then not without license from the proper authorities. Six years later the possible exceptions were greatly curtailed.
Yet in October, 1711, there
was another shocking fire which "reduced Cornhill into miserable ruins
made its impression into King's street [now State street], into Queen's
[now Court street] and a great part of Pudding-lane [Devonshire
these ruins were two spacious Edifices, which until now, made a most
considerable figure, because of the public relations to our greatest
solemnities in which they had stood from the days of our Fathers. The
the Townhouse; the other the Old Meeting-house. The number of
houses, and some
of them very spacious buildings, which went into the fire with
computed near about a hundred." Those not burned out in the fire
contributed about seven hundred pounds through the churches of Boston
families that had suffered loss. The immediate effect of this
the appointment of ten officers called Fire wards in the various
parts of the
town who were "to have a proper badge assigned to distinguish them in
their office, namely a staff of five feet in length, coloured red, and
with a bright brass spire of six inches long." These functionaries had
full power to command all persons at fires, to pull down or blow up
to protect goods.
Among the small boys interested, as boys have ever been, in the havoc wrought by this fire of 1711, there would very likely have been found the five-year-old son of Josiah Franklin, tallow-chandler. Franklin had been a dyer in England but, upon reaching Boston, had set up in the business of chandlery and soap boiling. In 1691 he had built — near the south meeting-house — on what is now Milk street, a dwelling for his family, and there on Sunday, January 17, 1706, his child Benjamin was born. Soon afterwards, Josiah Franklin removed to a house at the corner of Hanover and Union streets where he lived the rest of his life. Here he hung out, as a sign of his trade, the blue ball, about the size of a cocoanut, which now reposes in the old State House, Boston.
Although there were so many
children swarming in that little house on Hanover street, with its
dining room close behind the shop, it was not a bit too crowded.
his Autobiography records that he well remembers "thirteen sitting at
time at his father's table who all grew up to be men and women and
married." There were many visitors, too, in the living-room back of the
shop, because Josiah Franklin had sturdy commonsense and so was sought
"leading people who consulted him for his opinion in the affairs
town or the church he belonged to and showed a good deal of respect for
judgment and advise."
The life led by the Franklins we may well enough take to be a type of that lived in hundreds of self-respecting families of that day. There was a great deal of work, a great deal of church-going and considerable hardship of a healthy kind. But there were pleasures, too, chief among them being that of hospitality: "My father," Franklin tells us, "liked to have at his table, as often as he could, some sensible friend or neighbour to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just and prudent in the conduct of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table,... so that I was brought up in such a perfect inattention to those natters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me, and so unobservant of it to this day, that if I am asked I can scarce tell a few hours after dinner what I dined upon." We can the more readily, after reading this, accept as authentic an anecdote told by the grandson of Franklin to the effect that, one day, after the winter's provision of salt fish had been prepared, Benjamin observed, "I think, father, if you were to say grace over the whole cask once for all, it would be a vast saving of time."
Josiah Franklin, like every other good Christian of his day, wished to give at least one son to the order of the sacred ministry, and Benjamin, being his tenth child, was singled out for this distinction. The boy was, therefore, sent at the age of eight to the grammar school, where in less than a year he had risen gradually from the middle of the class in which he entered to the head of the class above. But business at the sign of the blue ball was now less brisk than heretofore and Father Franklin began reluctantly to confess that he could see no chance of providing a college training for the boy. A commercial education would bring quicker returns than that provided by the grammar school. Accordingly, the lad was placed in an institution especially designed for the teaching of writing and arithmetic. Here Franklin "acquired fair writing pretty soon" but failed in arithmetic. So, since the family fortunes would not permit of his being a clergyman and failure in arithmetic made it impossible for him to be a clerk, Benjamin was "taken home at ten to assist in the business." This occupation be utterly loathed and, in truth, cutting candlewicks and filling candle-molds with tallow must have been sad drudgery to this imaginative book-loving lad of twelve.
Besides, he longed to run away to sea. Born and bred in a seafaring town, and accustomed from earliest childhood to rowing and sailing, nothing delighted him so much as adventures smacking of the salt water. One Franklin boy already had run away to sea, however, and been cut off, as a result, from the family home and hearth. Josiah Franklin determined that, if he could help it, he would not lose his youngest son in the same way. Accordingly, when he found that nothing would make the lad reconciled to soap-making, he set about fitting him to another calling.
After a round had been made of the various shops, it was settled that Ben be apprenticed as a printer to his elder brother James, who had then (1717) just returned from learning this trade in London. With this idea Benjamin fell in the more readily by reason of his already great fondness for books.
"From a child," he tells us in the Autobiography, "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 afterward sold them to enable me to buy R. Burton's historical collections. They were small chapmen's books, and cheap, forty or fifty in all.... Plutarch's 'Lives' there was, in which I read abundantly, and I still think that time spent to great advantage.
"This bookish inclination at last determined my father to make me a printer.... I stood out some time, but at last was persuaded, and signed the indentures when I was yet but twelve years old. I was to serve as an apprentice till I was twenty-one 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 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.
"And after some time an ingenious tradesman, Mr. Matthew Adams, who had a pretty collection of books, and who frequented our printing-house, took notice of me, invited me to his library, and very kindly lent me such books as I chose to read. I now took a fancy to poetry and made some little pieces. My brother, thinking it might turn to account, encouraged me, and put me on composing occasional ballads. One was called 'The Lighthouse Tragedy,' and contained an account of the drowning of Capt. Worthilake with his two daughters. The other was a sailor's song on the taking of Teach (or Blackbeard) the pirate. They were wretched stuff, in the Grub-Street-ballad style; and, when they were printed, he sent me about the town to sell them. The first sold wonderfully, the event being recent, having made a great noise. This flattered my vanity; but my father discouraged me by ridiculing my performances, and telling me verse-makers were generally beggars. So I escaped being a poet, most probably a very bad one." But he taught himself to write excellent English prose by modelling his style upon that of Addison and Steele.
"About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.
"Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses, since the continual occasion for words of the same import, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collection of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavoured to reduce them into the best order, before T began to form the full sentences and complete the paper.
This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts.
"By comparing my work afterward with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think that I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious. My time for these exercises and for reading was at night after work or before it began in the morning, or on Sundays, when I contrived to be in the printing-house alone, evading as much as I could the common attendance on public worship, which my father used to exact of me when I was under his care, and which, indeed, I still thought a duty, though I could not, as it seemed to me, afford time to practise it."
Additional time — and additional money, too — for the indulgence of his love of books came to Franklin about this time through his adoption of a vegetarian diet. Meat had always been rather disagreeable to him, so he proposed to his brother that he should give him. weekly half the money paid for his board, and let him board himself. His brother agreeing, he had opportunity, while the others were at meals, to be alone in the printing-house with his books.
"Despatching presently my light repast, which often was no more than a biscuit or a slice of bread," he writes, "a handful of raisins or a tart from the pastry-cook, and a glass of water, I had the rest of the time for study, in which I made the greater progress from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking."
Sixteen years before that Sunday morning when the baby Benjamin was born the first American newspaper had been printed in Boston. It was a sheet of four pages, seven inches by eleven, with two columns on a page, and at the top of the first page the words, "Publick Occurrences, both Foreign and Domestic," printed in large, letters. It was designed to be published once a month, or oftener, "if any glut of occurrences happened."
By reason of an unfortunate allusion in the first number to a political misunderstanding between those in high authority, Publick Occurrences died, immediately after its initial issue. No successor appeared until 1704, when John Campbell, postmaster of Boston, a dull, ignorant Scottish bookseller, began to put out a weekly sheet called the Boston News-Letter, which was for many years the only newspaper in America.
Newspapers went free of postage in those days. It was quite natural, therefore, that the publishing privilege should fall into the hands of postmasters. Usually when a postmaster lost his office be sold out his newspaper to his successor; but when John Campbell ceased to preside over the Boston mails, he refused to dispose of his paper, a fact which induced his successor, William Brocker, to set up, in December, 1719, a sheet of his own, the Boston Gazette. This paper James Franklin was employed to print.
Postmasters in those days were, of course, appointed from England, and before Brocker had been in office many months, he found himself in turn superseded. James Franklin, however, having incurred some expense for the sake of printing the Gazette and being enamoured of publishing, determined that he would now start a paper of his own. It thus came about that on August 7, 1721, appeared the first number of the New England Courant.
The papers previously published in the colony had been either very dull or very pious.
But this journal, from the beginning, showed the trenchant pen and free mind which appears to have been a Franklin habit. The Mathers did not at all approve of it, and the boy Benjamin probably had no need to stop at their door when he "carried the papers through the streets to the customers," after having set up the type with his own hands and printed the sheets from the old press now in the possession of the Bostonian Society.
The fortunes of this paper, and of Franklin while connected with it, have been better told by the person chiefly concerned than I could ever tell them. Hear him then: "My brother 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, and, writing an anonymous paper, I put it at night under the door of the printing-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 then 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 it, when I began to be considered a little more by my brother's acquaintance, 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 began to have about this time.
"Though 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 things 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 favour. But my brother was passionate, and had often beaten me, which I took extremely amiss; and, thinking my apprenticeship was very tedious, I was continually wishing for some opportunity of shortening it, which at length offered in a manner unexpected. (I fancy his harsh and tyrannical treatment of me might be a means of impressing me with that aversion to arbitrary power that has stuck to me through my whole life.)
"One of the pieces in our newspaper on some political point, which I have now forgotten, gave offence to the Assembly. He 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, though I did not give them any satisfaction, they contented themselves with admonishing me, and dismissed 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 in it, which my brother took very kindly, while others began to consider me in an unfavourable light, as a young genius that had a turn for libelling and satire. My brother's discharge was accompanied with an order from the House (a very odd one) that 'JAMES FRANKLIN SHOULD NO LONGER PRINT THE PAPER CALLED THE "NEW ENGLAND COURANT," EXCEPT IT BE FIRST SUPERVISED BY THE SECRETARY OF THIS PROVINCE.'
"There was a consultation 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 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. very flimsy scheme it was. However, it was immediately executed, and the paper went on accordingly under my name for several months."
The next number of the Courant announced that "the late Publisher of this Paper, finding so many Inconveniences would arise by his carrying the Manuscripts and publick News to be supervis'd by the Secretary as to render his carrying it on unprofitable, has intirely dropt the Undertaking."
Possibly the display of his own name in big type as publisher of a newspaper bred in Benjamin something more of self-importance than he had hitherto had. In any case, he and his brother got on very badly after this. There were knocks and cuffs and general unbrotherly treatment, which Benjamin, as a high-spirited lad, soon found unendurable. These blows had the effect, too, of inspiring in the younger Franklin a determination to be tricky, — just as his brother had been with the authorities. So "a fresh difference arising between us two 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 under the impressions of resentment for the blows his passion too often urged him to bestow upon me, though he was otherwise not an ill-natured man. Perhaps I was too saucy and provoking.
"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.... My friend Collins, therefore, undertook to manage a little for me. He agreed with the captain of a New York sloop for my passage. 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 three hundred miles from home, a boy of but seventeen, without the least recommendation to or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket."
Franklin had now left for ever the Boston of his boyhood. Not many times in his life, indeed, did he return there. But, when a famous man, he wrote, to be placed over the graves of his parents in the old Granary burying ground, this epitaph which touchingly connects, for all time, his talents with the city of his birth:Josiah Franklin and Abiah, his wife,