The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 1

Representing a lifetime of research by the dean of Franklin scholars, this seven-volume biography will give enthusiasts and scholars an important resource for understanding Benjamin Franklin's character and place in American history. This first volume chronicles the early years of Franklin, from his birth to his marriage in 1730.

The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 1
Journalist, 1706-1730

J. A. Leo Lemay

2005 | 568 pages | Cloth $49.95
Biography | American History
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

PART I. BOSTON: YOUTH, 1706-1723
Prologue: Quandary
1. Boston
2. Child to Adolescent
3. Printer's Devil
4. Massachusetts Controversies, 1716-1723
5. Nathaniel Gardner and the Couranteers
6. James Franklin: America's First Newspaperman
7. Silence Dogood in Context
8. "Saucy and Provoking": Franklin Takes Charge
9. Assessing Franklin as a Youth, to Age Seventeen

10. The Runaway
11. The Water American: London Escapades
12. At Sea, 1726
13. Merchant to Master Printer, 1726-1728
14. The Junto
15. Business, 1728-1730, and "Articles of Religion"
16. The Busy-Body
17. Paper Currency
18. Journalist
19. Assessing Franklin, Age Seventeen to Twenty-four

Appendix: New Attributions
Sources and Documentation
List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Prologue: Quandary

In August 1723 seventeen-year-old Franklin found himself jobless and ostracized. He had been working for his older brother, James Franklin, who was now twenty-six. Six months before, when James was forbidden by the authorities to continue printing his newspaper unless it were first supervised by the secretary of Massachusetts, he brought out the newspaper under the name of Benjamin Franklin. Since Franklin was apprenticed to James, the latter returned him the cancelled indenture so that he could, if challenged, show it to the Massachusetts authorities. At the same time, Franklin and James signed another, secret indenture, whereby Franklin agreed to continue his apprenticeship with James. But the brothers often argued, and when they next quarreled, James beat his young brother, and Franklin quit. He could do so, for he knew that James could not produce the new indenture to the authorities and force Franklin to come back to work. Later, in the Autobiography, Franklin ruminated: "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 weigh'd little with me, when under the Impressions of Resentment, for the Blows his Passion too often urg'd him to bestow upon me. Tho' He was otherwise not an ill-natur'd man. Perhaps I was too saucy and provoking" (20).

Franklin knew that he was as fast and efficient a printer as his brother or any Boston journeyman, and he assumed that he could find work at one of the several other Boston printers. He probably first went to Thomas Fleet, a young printer whom he knew well, but Fleet refused to hire him. Since Fleet's business was expanding and since good journeymen printers were rare in Boston, Franklin was puzzled. But when the printers John Allen and Samuel Kneeland also refused to hire him, he began to suspect the truth. Old Bartholomew Green, his father's friend and fellow member of the Old South Church, a person whom Franklin had known all his life, also turned him down. Franklin realized that his brother had told every local printer that Franklin was really still apprenticed to him. No Boston printer would hire him. What was he to do? There were no printers in the surrounding towns, and he could not sail from Boston, for his father and his brother could force him back if he tried to book passage. Besides, he had little money, not enough to pay for a voyage.

Worse, he had become notorious in Boston as an infidel. He enjoyed arguing and practiced a Socratic method of asking questions and having his opponents agree with statements that gradually led them to conclusions they had not foreseen. He confessed in the Autobiography that his "indiscrete Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist" (20). Moreover, he was infamous as a radical, whose newspaper writings insulted the best-known ministers of Boston, Cotton and Increase Mather, and who satirized the old, greatly respected chief justice, Samuel Sewall. The sensitive adolescent found that his writing and his private Socratic arguments had ostracized him from many good people in Boston. Some parents told their children to have nothing to do with him. How did he find himself in this predicament, and how did he make such a mess of his life by age seventeen? And what could he do?