A Tale of Benjamin Franklin's Family
In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution
We're still at sea, on our way to Philadelphia. Not the slightest event of historic importance for me to witness or record, only some leaping dolphins and idle chatter with our fellow passengers and the crew. My mysterious elderly companion is still scribbling furiously. He was happy to hear that I, too, was scribbling in my diary, and he promised never to read it without my permission. Still, he wondered if I would tell him, in a very general way, what I was writing about.
"About you, Sir," I said, "since I don't know anything about myself." He smiled at that and looked at me for a while, in that peculiar way he sometimes has of examining my face. "In a few days, Temple," he finally said, "you and I are going to have an interesting conversation that will give you plenty to write about. Just be patient."
Meanwhile, I'm going to relate another story that he told me during another of our London walks. I think it is the best one of all. "What did you do after those fourteen Silence Dogood essays?" I asked. What followed, he said, was a tumultuous year, because his brother's paper ran into serious trouble. The authorities in Boston were enraged because James Franklin often made fun of them.
— "Boston, you see, was very puritanical, very narrow-minded and humorless," he began. "Eventually James was thrown in jail, and to save his newspaper he had to pretend that I, the younger brother, was now the publisher. Our apprenticeship contract was supposedly annulled, but I knew well enough that James would never agree to such a thing once he was freed. Anyway, all of sixteen at the time, I enjoyed my new title, did my best, and managed to keep the New-England Courant afloat."
— "And when James came out of jail?"
— "Instead of thanking me for the good work I had done, he roughly reminded me that I was nothing more than his humble apprentice. The tension between us became unbearable. I must admit, Temple, that I was very uppity. I even managed to irritate the city authorities so much by my impertinent attitude that I decided to flee. In those days, for an apprentice to run away before the end of his contract was an extremely serious offense, but I wanted to take my chance anyway. I sold my books, did not mention my plan to anybody and embarked on a boat for New York where I hoped to find work, but I was disappointed. The only printer in town did not need any more help than he already had. He advised me to go way down South, all the way to Philadelphia where there might be a chance for employment, Philadelphia being the largest city in the colonies."
— "But isn't Philadelphia very far from New York?"
— "Very. And I was almost out of money. But I got back on another boat only to be caught in a light squall right in New York Harbor — this was late September, hurricane season. Luckily for me there was a Dutchman among the passengers, so drunk that he fell overboard and was about to drown. I managed to fish him out and received a few coins for my pains. Before falling asleep, this Dutchman took a book out of his pocket and asked me to dry it for him. Imagine my amazement and delight when I saw it was a translation into Dutch of the first book I had ever bought with my first few pennies: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress."
Dr. Franklin interrupted his story to tell me how well printed this Dutch edition was, on nice paper with copper engravings. He will never stop surprising me, this man. In the midst of a squall, hungry, almost penniless, soaking wet, turned down for a job in New York, he ignores his surroundings to admire that book — and after so many years, he still remembers that moment with glee and takes the time to inform me that Bunyan was the first author to mix story-telling with dialogue. Incredible! We did read Bunyan in my school some years ago. To me it was an old book, by a Puritan preacher, published in 1678 or thereabouts, but for Dr. Franklin, no. For him it was a lifelong friend, suddenly found in the midst of a catastrophe.
— "Did you dry off during the night?" I asked.
— "We began sailing down the New Jersey coast, but the weather turned so awful that the boat could not even approach the shore. So we lay at anchor all night pelted by a furious rain. The next morning the wind was against us, making it impossible to sail further south. I had a high fever that I took care of by drinking a lot of water, as my mother used to advise. I decided to proceed on foot, leaving my things on the boat, to be picked up, I hoped, when it reached Philadelphia. Brought to shore in a rowboat, I began heading west. I walked and walked. I wished more than once that I could be back home with my family, but there was no turning back. My main concern was not to attract attention by looking too untidy, too much like a runaway. That would have led me straight to jail."
— "Straight to jail...?"
— He nodded. "Yes. It took me three days, that walking across New Jersey. Finally, I arrived at a place called Burlington, on the Delaware river. I called to some people passing in a rowboat, and asked where they were going. 'Philadelphia,' they said. I offered to help with the rowing, and hopped on board. We went ashore as soon as it got dark, for fear of going too far and missing the city."
I could not help thinking, though I did not tell him so, that nobody would bypass London in the dark. It must be no more than a sleepy village, this "large" Philadelphia he talks so much about.
— "It was a cold night," he continued. "Luckily we were able to make a fire out of the rails of an old fence. The next morning we landed at the Market Street wharf. This was Sunday, October 6, 1723."
Peter Cooper, The Southeast Prospect of the City of Philadelphia. Oil on canvas, ca. 1720
Arriving in Philadelphia was the best thing that ever happened to him, he said. From the first, he breathed the air of tolerance and freedom. At seventeen, he was a new man, and on the very day of his arrival he caught a glimpse of the girl he would marry a few years later. She was standing on her doorstep as he passed, and she told him later that she had giggled because he looked awkward with his pockets full of socks. As I am writing down this story the way he told it to me, I remember what I was thinking at the time — that I would never know how to survive three days in London by myself, let alone cover so many miles while hiding from the police. I was thinking that all I had studied in my fancy boarding school was of no use in real life and that I did not possess any skill worth a shilling. A chilling thought. I was also horrified to learn that for many months he never let his family know whether he was dead or alive. He who was so lucky to have a family!
But now that I am fifteen, my thoughts are quite different and I see my friend Dr. Franklin in a different light. He is no longer just a clever, clever boy who always manages to get his way, but a man who repeatedly rebels against authority when he believes authority is wrong. He rebelled at great risk against his brother James, his master at the time.
When he found out that lightning is really made of electricity — this at a time when it was believed that lightning was God's punishment for men's misdeeds — he invented the lightning rod to protect houses. Before him, the only recourse that people thought they had was to ring church bells during thunderstorms which, needless to say, did not help at all. I won't go as far as to assert that his experiments were a rebellion against God, but he certainly defied the forces of nature. And now I fear he is defying our King and Parliament, no less, because he is the agent of four of our colonies in North America and they are most dissatisfied with the way we Englishmen rule them.
But this time, I fear, he is going too far.