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This Day in History: Benjamin Franklin

On this day in 1790, Benjamin Franklin passes away. “[P]erhaps no person in American history has taken on such emblematic and imaginative significance for Americans as has Franklin,” historian Gordon S. Wood once observed.


You may know Franklin the diplomat, Franklin the inventor, and Franklin the intellectual, but do you know about this American icon’s humble beginnings?


Franklin called his own childhood the “poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred,” noting that he was the “youngest Son of the youngest son for 5 Generations back.” At least one of his biographers found that statement a bit melodramatic, but Franklin’s childhood was certainly a modest one.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, by David Martin

Benjamin’s father Josiah initially thought his youngest son could serve the church. That thought didn’t last long, given the expense of a college education. Or did Josiah mostly find Benjamin too irreverent to be a minister? Either way, by the time he was 10, Benjamin’s schooling was over.

He helped with his dad’s business instead.

Josiah was a candle and soap maker, which Benjamin found extremely boring. He wanted to leave. “[I] had a strong inclination for the sea,” he remembered, “but my father declared against it.”

Things took a turn for the better about the time Benjamin turned 12. His older brothers had been apprenticed to different trades, and Josiah decided that Benjamin should do the same. He still worried that Benjamin would go to sea if he didn’t find something to interest the boy.

Thus, Benjamin found himself indentured to his brother James, a printer. The young boy made the most of it. His new position gave him access to books, and he read voraciously. He took notes and, by study and sheer force of will, turned himself into a good writer. It was a valuable skill in that day and age, as so many could not afford a good education.

Things changed again in 1721 when James decided that he didn’t want to print other people’s papers—he wanted to publish his own! His new paper, the New England Courant, would differentiate itself from its competition.

“The [Boston] Gazette boasted that it was published ‘by authority,’” historian  H. W. Brands explains, “it read as though it were published by the authorities. James Franklin thought Boston deserved better . . . . [The Courant] would be lively, opinionated, and not averse to challenging the establishment.”

Franklin was 16 by then, and he wanted to contribute, too.

“[S]uspecting that my brother would object to printing anything of mine in his paper if he knew it to be mine,” Franklin later explained, “I contrived to disguise my hand, and writing an anonymous paper, I put it in at night under the door of the printing-house.”

He’d used an alias, Mrs. Silence Dogood. The first essay, Franklin biographer Nick Bunker writes, “carried a sharp edge of satire aimed at the pious heart of Boston.” The editorial staff liked it and published it, little knowing that the 16-year-old among them was the author.

Franklin would ultimately write fifteen of these essays. “Had they come from the pen of a mature writer,” Brands concludes, “the Dogood letters would deserve to be considered a delightful example of social satire. Coming as they did from the pen of a mere youth, they reveal emerging genius.”

Matters soon took a surprising turn when James landed in legal trouble for something he’d published. Franklin ended up in charge of his brother’s paper for a time—or, at least, he was until the two had a falling out and he ran away.

At that point, Franklin was effectively a fugitive because he’d run away before his apprenticeship was finished.

Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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