A Tale of Benjamin Franklin's Family
In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution
Ship similar to the Pennsylvania Packet
I have just received a big, fat diary, with instructions to write down what is happening in my life. Because, it seems, I am about to witness historic events and some day it will be of great interest to myself, my descendants, and perhaps others to learn about those events through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy.
Come to think of it, that is the only thing I know about myself, that I turned fifteen a few days ago. At least the headmaster of my boarding school in London said so, and the old gentleman who just gave me this diary also said it. We have been at sea, on the Pennsylvania Packet for twelve days now, the old gentleman and I, three of which I spent being seasick while he was happily up on deck measuring the temperature of the water, his favorite occupation, and writing page after page of a mysterious something, his next favorite occupation.
Strange to say, I know much more about him than I do about myself. I have never seen my father, or my mother, or my brothers and sisters, if I have any. Nobody has ever written to me. At school they call me Billy. Only the headmaster, Mr. Elphinston, calls me William Temple, but the boys snicker when he does that. They say that it is a made-up name, not my real name, and that I don't have a real name because my father never married my mother. So that I am illegitimate, what is known as a natural child, in plain English — a bastard.
Maybe all my kin are dead, which would make me both an orphan and a bastard. I don't quite believe that because my school is expensive, so that somebody has to send money for my tuition. Would I happen to be a rich orphan bastard? My best friend, Caldwell, maintains I am an Oriental prince — but then, Caldwell is a dreamer.
I used to mind all that terribly when I was small, especially the mother part, when the other boys spoke about the way their mothers would tuck them into bed at night. From the way they talked it must have been quite something, that tucking in. When lights were out I used to cry in bed, praying my mother would appear, but now I hardly care anymore and the boys have stopped teasing me. There is no point in asking Mr. Elphinston who I am because he would just pat me on the head and say, "All in good time, my dear boy."
But the old gentleman, my traveling companion, do I ever know about him! The first time he appeared at the school, — I must have been around six — there was a special kind of hubbub. The headmaster, delirious with pride and joy, showed us off as so many "young geniuses" as he puts it. My old gentleman's name is Franklin. Benjamin Franklin. Doctor Benjamin Franklin. And I still don't understand why he always came to see me in particular.
I say I know him, but he is mysterious in many ways. Take his title of Doctor for instance. I asked him once if, being a doctor, he would please take care of my sore throat. "Oh no," he said, that was not the kind of doctor he was, not a medical doctor. He bore the title of Doctor because the University of St. Andrews in Scotland had made him an honorary Doctor of Law. Oh, he was a lawyer, then? No, not at all. I have passed the age, now, of asking question after question, but at that time I must have been about nine and I could not resist. "Of what are you a doctor, Sir?" He said the title was meant to honor the accomplishments of his whole life, and then he proceeded to tell me about plenty of those accomplishments.
We were walking along the streets of London and I was hoping for the little bag of sweets that he sometimes bought me after those expeditions, so I trotted alongside him, two of my steps for every one of his, as polite as I could be. First of all, he reminded me yet again that I was such a lucky boy to be receiving a good education without having to struggle for it. How different it had been in his case!
Franklin Family House on Milk Street, Boston
He had been born across the sea, in Boston, in our colony of Massachusetts Bay, the fifteenth of seventeen children, the tenth and last boy. Sixteen brothers and sisters, thought I, what fun that must have been! His father was a hard-working soap- and candle-maker and there wasn't much money to go around, so that he was taken out of school at the age of ten. Better and better! I would be almost out of school by now, I figured, free to sleep late, roam, do as I pleased. No wonder he is almost always in a good mood. He was the lucky one.
By the time I pulled out of those pleasant daydreams, my companion was saying: "At twelve I was apprenticed to my older brother James, a printer. Hard work, heavy work, and James was a bully, quick to hand out a slap or worse. On the other hand, James had gone to London and brought back lively books and magazines, all very different from the religious tracts that were the only reading matter in our Boston home. And you know what I did, Temple? I taught myself how to write good English by memorizing parts of those books. Then I had another idea. I begged my brother to give me the money to buy my own food. By eating very little and turning vegetarian I could buy more books to read! I stayed up late into the night, and loved it."
I was amazed as I listened to old Dr. Franklin, not a bit vegetarian and quite plump, tell me about young Ben Franklin. Never would I dream of doing what he did. And that was just the beginning.
When he reached sixteen, he continued, "I felt that I could write well enough to fool my brother and the group of young men who helped James bring out a newspaper. I invented a character, that of a middle- aged widow called, of all things, Silence Dogood, a very outspoken woman of broad-minded views. She became my pen-name. Once a week, at dawn, I would slip an essay under the printshop's door and have a wonderful time listening to James and his friends puzzling over the identity of such a clever and witty writer. I kept my secret. After fourteen essays, Mrs. Dogood and I ran out of ideas. James would have been terribly angry if he had found out who she really was."
"And what did this Silence Dogood write about, Sir?" I asked, while trotting full speed beside him. "She wrote about giving girls an education," he said. "Most girls were not even sent to school in my day and that was a great pity. And I also made fun of, or rather Mrs. Dogood made fun of our famous college in Boston, called Harvard. You see, Billy, I was dying to go there myself but I was far too poor ever to attend, so the next best thing was to make those students look silly, unfit for real life."
How happy, how young the old gentleman looked when he told me all this! During our walks he was generally trying to teach me things about the natural world — thunder, rivers, fish, whatever. I could not always grasp what he meant. But that day it was so much fun to hear him tell the story of his life that I forgot all about the sweets. He remembered, though, and bought me a larger bag than usual.