The Literary Heroes of Teen Benjamin Franklin
From Socrates to The Spectator
The perils of the ocean were all too plain to see in the fall of 1718, a season of storms and piracy. Eight miles out from Boston, on a slice of rock above the sandbanks, George Worthylake and his family tended the lighthouse that marked the way into the harbor. They were pious souls. On the first Sabbath day of November, they came into town to hear their pastor preach, only to capsize on their journey home. It was, said The Boston News-Letter, “an awful, lamentable Providence,” the loss of six people by drowning, but the accident caught the journalistic eye of James Franklin.
His youngest brother had been writing verses since his infancy. So James set Benjamin to work to tell the lighthouse story in a ballad—“wretched stuff,” Franklin recalled, but good enough to make some money—and then sent him out to hawk the printed version in the street. The ballad sold very well; and in March of 1719, the brothers tried to do the same again. Off the Carolina coast, two sloops of the Royal Navy had caught up at last with Blackbeard the pirate. With swords and pistols, they fought it out, killed Blackbeard, sliced off his head, and carried it home to claim their reward. When the news reached Boston, here was another story too good to miss.
Benjamin wrote a sea shanty about the incident, and it was printed too. But neither this nor the grievous tale of the Worthylakes met with his father’s approval. At the time, the devout Josiah was hoping to be chosen as a deacon at the Old South—the ballot was in April, when he lost by a mile, polling only 10 votes out of 41—and he did not care to see his youngest son indulge in vanity. Poetry was a waste of time, and men who followed that calling were usually beggars, Josiah told the boy. Doubtless he had in mind the tiresome old poet Uncle Benjamin, who was still intruding on his hospitality. However that may be, this was the moment—when he had just turned 13—at which young Franklin turned his back on a poetic career, after heeding his father’s advice. Or so he claimed in his autobiography.
As so often with his streamlined version of events, Franklin’s memoirs make things sound rather simpler than they were. He never shared his father’s contempt for poetry. Far into his thirties he remained an avid consumer of the best of English verse. It was only when electricity became his passion that he ceased to keep up with the latest poems from London. Although he did not hope to be a professional maker of rhymes, until then in his hours away from the printing press he would turn for relaxation to Milton, Pope, and Dryden and their followers.
Because nobody reads their work today, except when forced to do so for a college grade or seminar, it is hard to conceive how much these poets meant to Americans in the 18th century. Not only were they seen as masters of rhythm, meter, and the purity of diction; they were also regarded as fountains of wisdom and enlightenment. In Milton, his readers beheld a poet who had clung to his vocation, even when laid low by poverty and blindness. And so women and men in the colonies, including Franklin, would make extracts from Paradise Lost or better still Pope’s An Essay on Man, when it appeared in the 1730s, and compile them to form a personal philosophy, sometimes as a substitute for the Bible.
This kind of thing became a habit with Franklin, almost from the moment that he entered his teens. He began to live a double life, on the waterfront and in a small room lit by the candles his family had fashioned. By day, he was the printer’s boy or the athlete, swimming in the Mill Pond and learning how to box. By night he was a scholar. Making friends with the bookstore apprentices, he could borrow what he wanted, so long as he returned the books by store opening time.
Ashamed of his poor start with sums at school, he pored over the standard English textbook, Edward Cocker’s Arithmetic, and rapidly absorbed what it contained. Still in love with the sea, he studied books of navigation, picking up some geometry but never fully mastering its puzzles. Meanwhile, at the printing shop on Queen Street, between a schoolhouse and the Boston jail, James Franklin had assembled a coterie of friends who included a tanner by the name of Matthew Adams. Another member of the church in Brattle Square, Adams loved books, and he shared them with his protégé, the young Benjamin.“By day, he was the printer’s boy or the athlete, swimming in the Mill Pond and learning how to box. By night he was a scholar.”
From his reading, from Mr. Pemberton’s sermons, and from the talk around Josiah’s supper table, the boy picked up the Boston habit of controversy. He also acquired a new acquaintance, John Collins, talkative, eloquent, and especially good at mathematics. Together they pondered the lofty questions that fascinate boys at puberty. Was it right that women and girls should be given an education? As their curiosity deepened about the females who surrounded them, the two boys debated the issue with enthusiasm. Girls were incapable of study, said Collins, and so sending them to school was wasteful and improper. Franklin argued the opposite; and as a way to hone his arguments, he wrote them down.
Like warring academics, he and Collins exchanged letters seeking to demolish each other’s reasoning. Josiah read one of his son’s, and he offered a critique of its prose. As a printer, Benjamin could spell and punctuate to perfection—throughout his life even his briefest, most casual notes were never slovenly—but he had yet to master the finer points of style. Franklin recalled that his father told him that he “fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity.”
If these were Josiah’s exact words, they were highly revealing. These were the very qualities—“perspicuity,” and “method”—that Pastor Colman had singled out for praise in his eulogy of Mr. Pemberton. The Franklins had clearly been listening carefully. Josiah had intended his son for the church, and if he could not go to Harvard and become a minister at least he could speak or write like one. Here was the point that Josiah intended to make: that style, correct and orderly, could serve as an emblem of gentility. At Ecton and Banbury, the Franklins had yearned to be gentlemen, and—briefly, before the death of Thomas Junior—they had attained their goal. In America, they hoped to do the same: to be rightfully seen as the gentlemen they were, with their cleverness and their powers of application. And just at this moment, the young Benjamin Franklin discovered an author who could show him precisely what it meant to be polite.
Somehow—presumably, by way of Matthew Adams—he came upon the writings of Joseph Addison, some of whose essays Franklin knew almost by heart. There was a time, which persisted until the age of Little Women, when every schoolchild in America was supposed to know the work of Addison, because he was regarded as a model of good taste. You could not do better, or so it was thought, than the style of The Spectator, where Addison displayed his skills at their finest. It began as a daily magazine, founded in 1711 by Addison and his friend Sir Richard Steele, but soon their articles were bundled up into bound volumes, one of which Franklin read in Boston.
Franklin adored The Spectator. In its pages the boy discovered a flexible style that could lift him out of provincial life and make him an elegant man of letters and wisdom. Although it was a London paper, The Spectator had little else in common with the buccaneer journalism that James Franklin had seen in the empire’s capital. While Nathaniel Mist and his weekly rivals were fiercely partisan, slugging away at each other with satire and invective, The Spectator posed as a journal of intelligent neutrality. As the title suggested, Addison and Steele pretended to rise above the din of party strife. Like people with the best seats in a theater—Addison also wrote for the stage—they surveyed the foibles of mankind from a vantage point of calm, good-humored objectivity. The Spectator claimed to be the voice of reason. It aspired to be urbane and civilized, always up-to-date with the latest affairs but never once succumbing to fads and foolishness.
Of course, the pose struck by The Spectator contained an element of make-believe. Far from being neutral, Addison belonged entirely to the Whigs; indeed, in 1716 the king appointed him as one of the realm’s two secretaries of state. His politics were those the Franklins shared. Addison owed his political career to the Junto, the club of Whig grandees led by Charles Montagu, the Lord Halifax who had been the patron of Franklin’s uncle Thomas. Later, in Philadelphia, the young Benjamin would borrow the name of Montagu’s cabal and apply it to his own Junto, the club he founded for ambitious tradesmen.
However, Addison’s politics were not the thing that most appealed to the boy. What Franklin admired was his style, his method, and his metropolitan tone of skepticism and cool self-assurance. “There is nothing,” wrote Addison, in the volume that Franklin read, “in which men more deceive themselves than in what the world calls Zeal.” A man who was born to be a newspaper columnist, Addison could take an idea such as this—not very new, and really quite banal—and make it sound like the deepest of philosophy.
Addison would come at his subject from all angles, using all the weapons of irony and paradox. Throwing in anecdotes from history, Greek and Latin tags or lines of verse—most often from Milton or Dryden—he would display just enough scholarship to lend him authority but not so much as to be pedantic. Best of all, from Franklin’s point of view, Steele and Addison would fill their pages with fictitious characters with names like Abraham Thrifty, Jack Modish, or Rebecca Nettletop. With a London accent, but in the different dialects of coachmen, milliners, jilted fiancées, and gentlemen of leisure, these invented citizens staged their own controversies. Addison made them nag away at the meaning of virtue, or the merits or the evils of ambition. They also had things to say about sex. Endlessly his characters talked about the rights and wrongs of chastity or wenching, the vagaries of gender, and the oddities of marriage.
Reading The Spectator, Franklin learned how to write with a flair that Pemberton or the Mathers could never manage. An exercise in ventriloquism, The Spectator showed him how to take the messy, mundane realities of life in Boston and make them into sparkling prose. In the miffy little world of the Franklins, there were incidents for a young writer to explore. One such occurred in the March of 1720—the boy was just 14—when his half-brother Samuel passed away. Born in Banbury, and raised as the last blacksmith in the clan, Samuel Franklin died in Boston at only 38. He left behind him four children, his widow, Elizabeth, and a sordid narrative of marital woe.
Only six months earlier, Uncle Benjamin had finally quit the Blue Ball. In the elegy he wrote for the blacksmith, the old man heaped abuse on Elizabeth, calling her a feckless gossip—“careless, sluttish, lazy and unfaithful”—and he implied that Josiah was to blame for his son’s poor choice of a spouse. Like the saga of the Worthylakes, Samuel’s early death was a tragedy; but in this family tale of adultery the young Franklin found excellent material. When the moment came, he would invent characters like Addison’s and make them play the parts of Elizabeth and Samuel in his own first forays into journalism.“Gradually, [Franklin’s] reading opened a rift between the boy and his family. It grew still wider with the years and could never be entirely closed while his parents were alive.”
In the meantime the boy had to perfect his style. He took items from The Spectator, and read them over and over again. He made brief notes and then—after a gap of a few days—he rewrote each one, comparing his effort with the original. “This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts,” Franklin remembered. As a way to extend his vocabulary he did it all again in verse, which called for a wider supply of words to fit the meter and the rhyme.
In its own way, it was a discipline as rigorous as mathematics, but the young Franklin did not make do with Addison alone. In search of new ways to win debates, he fell in love with Socrates as well as The Spectator. From the Greek thinker, he could learn how to trounce an opponent like John Collins without ruining a friendship with a show of bad temper. Some 50 years later a young admirer in England, the daughter of an Anglican bishop, would pay him a supremely flattering compliment, when she looked up from her book and exclaimed, “Mama! Socrates talks just like Dr. Franklin!” She had been reading Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates, filled with examples of the Socratic method of crushing the other party to a dispute by gently asking questions until the flaws in his reasoning are plainly disclosed.
It was the very same book that Franklin studied in his teens, as he strove to master the Socratic technique for politely coming out on top. As he told his French friend Cabanis, “it was Socrates he wanted most to resemble,” not only as a thinker but also as a human being. He aspired to be wise, modest, and generous, full of intellectual finesse and yet devoid of arrogance. Even in Paris, at nearly 80, these were virtues Franklin did not always exhibit: he could also be devious and disorganized, and he tried to seduce other men’s wives. And in his boyhood he irritated his neighbors almost as much as Socrates upset the Athenians.
Gradually, his reading opened a rift between the boy and his family. It grew still wider with the years and could never be entirely closed while his parents were alive. Reading obsessively, Franklin came to inhabit a world of blasphemous ideas about God and the cosmos that would horrify even the liberal clergymen at Brattle Square. In the eyes of Abiah and Josiah, these ideas would have been still more alarming— the stuff of mortal sin—if they had known precisely what their son believed, and where the logic of Socrates had led him.
In his sermons at the Old South, Pemberton had told the boy that religion had to measure up to reason. With his diluted form of Puritan belief, the pastor had dissolved old certainties; and so, following his advice, Franklin put the Christian God to the test of dialectic. He convicted God of failure. Full of what he read and bursting with intelligence, he chose to discard Josiah’s Presbyterian creed.
In middle age, Franklin would find this aspect of his early life deeply embarrassing. As a man of substance, admired in America but increasingly at odds with the British, Franklin did not wish to be perceived as a libertine. For political reasons, he could not afford to be seen as a man who did not care for faith or conventional morality. And so he tried to suppress any evidence that at one time he had been so skeptical.
Even posthumously, in the pages of his memoirs where he dealt with the subject, Franklin preferred to be evasive about it. But when all the evidence is gathered in—and this is not an easy task—there can be no doubt about the truth. By the time he was 19, and working as a printer in London, Benjamin Franklin had become a defiant atheist. Later he changed his mind, acquiring in his mid-twenties a new personal religion, including belief in a Supreme Being, which owed a debt to Archbishop Tillotson as well as to the English poets; but he never recovered Josiah’s form of Bible Christianity.
Excerpted from Young Benjamin Franklin by Nick Bunker. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Bunker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.