Benjamin Franklin: the art of self-education
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN WAS A GENIUS of many gifts. He was a scientist, an inventor, a printer, a writer, a patriot and diplomat. However, he did not allow all these pursuits to keep him from being a devoted family man, taking keen delight in his wife and children and grandchildren, as well as numerous nieces and nephews and cousins. There was never anything the least remote or solitary about him; he always loved company, both masculine and feminine. He had an extraordinary gift for friendship, and, up to the end of his life, was never too busy to write scores of letters to his men and women friends, old and young, famous and not-so-famous.
Franklin was not a conventionally handsome man, nor a glib talker, but he was always fascinating to women of all ages. One reason was that he was practically the only man of his day to treat women as if they had any intelligence. As one of his biographers observes, "Always a person himself, Franklin treated every woman as if she were a person, too, and made her feel more truly one than ever. Because he loved, valued, and studied women, they were no mystery to him, and he had no instinctive fear of them. Statesman and scientist, profoundly masculine, he took women into account as well as any other force of nature."
Franklin's career as a patriot and diplomat is familiar. Franklin as a friend and family man is less well known—yet, it is important to become acquainted with Franklin's genius in human relationships, because home and family and friendship, mutual trust and affection, form so large a part of the truly democratic way of life. There has never been any other notable figure in American history whose human relationships were so warm, so interesting, so varied.
Franklin was one of fifteen children. His father was a tallow-chandler, his mother a typical hardworking housewife in a house that was small and inconvenient. In his autobiography, Franklin tells little of his early years except to say that, when he was seven years old, all his family tried to keep him from making so much noise around the house with a penny whistle.
Josiah Franklin, candle maker and father of Benjamin Franklin
Even after Franklin became world famous, he never lost touch with that large bustling household. He sent his brothers and sisters money; he took nieces and nephews into his own home and saw to their education; he always took the time to write long letters to his mother, letters about the things she would like to hear, his simple everyday life, rather than his political or scientific activities. Once he wrote to her, "I would rather have it said of me, 'He was useful,' than, 'He died rich.' " And she, the mother of a man whom the world delighted to honor, sent him a few loving misspelled letters in return.
Franklin had very little formal education, two years, in fact. He learned wherever and whatever he could, and he, the future scientist, failed in arithmetic. But he was the sort of boy who would have educated himself in a desert, because he had curiosity and boundless energy and, soaring ambition. One of his ambitions was to improve his character. In his early teens, he drew up a very solemn and earnest list of the virtues he wished to practice: Temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
This imposing program does not seem to have daunted him. He kept a little account book where he recorded his successes and failures with the virtues, and he did not try to practice them all at once, but practiced each one separately for a week. Since he wanted thirteen virtues, and there were fifty-two weeks in a year, he hoped to practice each virtue four times a year! He seems to have found humility easiest, and in his own words, orderliness, the hardest. We know that he practiced frugality, because he became a vegetarian and teetotaler, in order to save money. He was always cleanly. Long afterward, when he was Ambassador to France, the French newspapers commented often on the special whiteness of his linen.
In spite of all these virtues, Franklin was no prig. He liked a good time as much as any boy, and became an expert swimmer. He even learned to swim and fly a kite at the same time, being drawn along the surface of the water by the power of the kite. He fell in and out of love, like any other adolescent, and, to his family's horror, ran away to Philadelphia. When he landed in that city, having rowed part of the way, he was tired and dirty and the pockets of his homespun suit were stuffed out with shirts and stockings. His first thought was food. He bought three loaves of bread and walked down the street, a loaf under each arm, eating the third loaf. That was when his future wife, Deborah Read, saw him first, as she stood in the doorway of her father's house and laughed heartily at the spectacle he made. She was a handsome healthy high-colored girl, and young Benjamin Franklin must not have been discouraged by her laughter, because he took lodgings with her family and set about the business of courting his Deborah. However, her family thought the lovers were far too young and the lovers parted with many vows to be faithful forever.
The disappointed suitor took a boat for England where he became apprentice in a London printing shop. He wrote Deborah only one letter all the while he was away, a mistake he was to regret bitterly. Deborah, thinking he had forgotten her, married a ne'er-do-well, with whom she was never happy, and from whom she parted as soon as she discovered he had another wife living. On his return from London, Franklin found Deborah remorseful and despondent. Franklin said it was all his fault for having left her, and what did the past matter, since they still loved each other. They were married.
Franklin had always believed in marriage, and, all his life, advocated young marriages. Often he said that reasonable friendship, rather than blind emotion, should be the basis for marriage. His and Deborah's marriage had friendship and emotion, too. As Franklin said, "We throve together and have ever mutually endeavored to make each other happy." He set up a little shop in part of his house, in connection with his printing shop, where Deborah sold books and stationery and his mother-in-law sold salves and ointments she had made. Their first customer was a farmer who, to their intense delight, bought five shillings worth. There, in a room over the shop, Franklin's son, Francis, was born, who died of smallpox at the age of four. Long afterward, Franklin wrote to his sister . . . "though it is thirty-six years since Franky died, I cannot think of him without a sigh."
Shortly before Deborah died, in her seventies, Franklin wrote her: "It seems but the other day since you and I were ranked amongst the boys and girls, so swiftly does time fly. We have, however, great reason to be thankful that so much of our lives has passed so happily." Franklin, much more than most husbands of his day, was anxious to make his wife's domestic work as easy as possible.
He invented, for better household heating, the Franklin Stove, which he called the Pennsylvania Fireplace. When he put it on the market, he cleverly addressed his advertising to women. He said that, on account of imperfect heating systems, women got "colds in the head, rheums, and defluxions, which fall into their jaws and gums, and have destroyed many a fine set of teeth in these northern colonies. Great and bright fires do very much contribute to damage the eyes, dry and shrivel the skin, and bring on early the appearance of old age." Naturally his stove sold very well indeed. To make his home safe from lightning, Franklin invented the lightning rod, which led to all his further experiments with electricity.
Franklin always paid a great deal of attention to dress, both his own and women's. He was far from being a fop, but he was always appropriately dressed. In France, for instance, he at first wore a coonskin cap, because he knew the French liked to think of him as a man out of the wilderness. When he appeared at the French Court after the treaty of aid and friendship between France and the United States, he wore no wig or sword, but simple brown velvet, white hose, his hair hanging loose, and a white hat under his arm. "He was much the most conspicuous among the envoys," a spectator said.
Though Franklin was affectionately devoted to Deborah all her life, he had numerous friendships with women, and, the older he became, the more fascinating to women he was. When he was Ambassador to France in his seventies, his picture was on thousands of miniatures, medallions, statuettes, rings, watches, vases, handkerchiefs and dishes, all eagerly purchased by the fair sex. Past seventy, after Deborah's death, he proposed marriage to a French lady who turned him down, but her refusal did not disturb their friendship. Years later he wrote her, "Often in my dreams I have breakfast with you, I sit beside you on one of your hundred sofas, I walk with you in your beautiful garden."
Franklin could not have occupied such important diplomatic posts, in America, in England, and in France, had he not known how to handle men with consummate tact and wisdom. One of his greatest pleasures was organizing clubs for men, and, almost everywhere he went, he founded one. The most famous was the Junto Club, which he organized in his youth in Philadelphia. Its purpose was to discuss questions of the day, questions such as: "Have you observed lately any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?" The Club met in a tavern, and between questions, drank a mild glass of wine. Many young men have organized clubs for discussion, but Franklin is the only man to have kept such a club alive for almost half a century.
This presentation of the less familiar side of Benjamin Franklin's life cannot, in such a brief time, give more than a glimpse of him as a friend and family man. His character was so complex, his activities so multiple, that whole books could be written on any one of his interests. However, we cannot leave this glimpse of Franklin without saying that Franklin, all his life, was filled with an abiding faith in a God. Just a few weeks before his death, he wrote to the President of Yale: "You desire to know something of my religion. . . . Here is my creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That He ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render Him is doing good to His other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this."
SOURCE: WISDOM MAGAZINE, March 1958 "Benjamin Franklin the very human philosopher"