Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin : his autobiography : with a narrative of his public life and services online

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imperfection in the art of ship-building, that it can
never be known, till she is tried, whether a new ship
will or will not be a good sailer ; for that the model
of a good-sailing ship has been exactly followed in
a new one, which has been proved, on the contrary,
remarkably dall. I apprehend that this may partly
be occasioned by the different opinions of seamen
respecting the modes of loading, rigging, and sailing
of a ship; each has his method; and the same ves-
sel, laden by the method and orders of one captain,
shall sail worse than when by the orders of another.
Besides, it scarce ever happens that a ship is formed,
fitted for the sea, and sailed by the same person.
One man builds the hull, another rigs her, a third
loads and sails her. No one of these has the ad-
vantage of knowing all the ideas and experience of
the others, and, therefore, can not draw just conclu-
sions from a combination of the whole.

Even in the simple operation of sailing when at
sea, I have often observed different judgments in the
officers who commanded the successive watches, the
wind being the same. One would have the sails
trimmed sharper or flatter than another, so that they
seemed to have no certain rule to govern by. Yet



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I think a set of experiments might be institated, first,
to determine the most proper form of the hull for
swift sailing; next, the best dimensions and most
proper place for the masts; then the form and qaan-
tity of sails, and their position, as the winds may be ;
and, lastly, the disposition of the lading. This is an
age of experiments, and I think a set accurately
made and combined would be of great use.

We were several tunes chased in our passage, but
outsailed every thing, and in thirty days had sound-
ings. We had a good observation, and the captain
judged himself so near our port, Falmouth, that, if
we made a good run in the night, we might be off
the mouth of that harbor in the morning, and by
running in the night might escape the notice of the
enemy's privateers, who often cruised near the en-
trance of the Channel. Accordingly, all the sail was
set that we could possibly carry, and the wind being
very fresh and fair, we stood right before it, and
made great way. The captain, after his observa-
tion, shaped his course, as he thought, so as to pass
wide of the Scilly Rocks; but it seems there is
sometimes a strong current setting up St. George's
Channel, which formerly caused the loss of Sir
Cloudesley Shovel's squadron in 1707. This was
probably, also, the cause of what happened to us.

We had a watchman placed in the bow, to whom
they often called, " Look well out before there" and
he as often answered, " Ay^ ay ;" but perhaps had
his eyes shut, and was half asleep at the time, they
sometimes answering, as is said, mechanically ; for



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN.



he did not see a light jast before as, which had been
hid by the studding-sails from the man at the helm,
and from the rest of the watch, but by an accidental
yaw of the ship was discovered, and occasioned a
great alarm, we being very near it, the light appear-
ing to me as large as a cart-wheel. It was mid-
night, and our captain fast asleep; but Captain
Kennedy, jumping upon deck, and seeing the dan-
ger, ordered the ship to wear round, all sails stand-
ing; an operation dangerous to the masts, but it
carried us clear, and we avoided shipwreck, for we
wore running fast on the rocks on which the Ught
was erected. This deliverance impressed me strong-
ly with the utility of light-houses, and made me re-
solve to encourage the building some of them in
America, if I should live to return thither.

In the morning it was found by the soundings
that we were near our port, but a thick fog hid the



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN.



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land from oar sight. About nine o'clock the fog
began to rise, and seemed to be lifted op from the
water like the curtain of a theater, discovering un-
derneath the town of Falmouth, the vessels in the
harbor, and the iSelds that surround it. This was a
pleasing spectacle to those who had been long with-
out any other prospect than the unifonn view of a va-
cant ocean, and it gave us the more pleasure, as we
were now free from the anxieties which had arisen.*
I set out immediately, with my son, for London,
and we only stopped a little by the way to view
Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and Lord Pem-
broke's house and gardens, with the very curious
antiquities at Wilton. We arrived in London the
27thof July, 1757.

* In a letter from Dr. Franklin to his wife, dated at Falmouth, the 17th
of July, 1767, after giving her a similar account of his voyage, escape,
and landing, he adds : ** The bell ringing for church, we went thither im-
mediately, and, with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to
God for the mercies we had received. Were I a Roman Catholic, per-
haps I should, on this occasion, vow to build a chapel to some saint ; but
as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-htmaey



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266



LIFE OF FRANKLIN.



CHAPTER XIII.

So far we have followed Franklin's own account
of himself. His autobiography has not improperly
been styled one of the most charming performances
of the kind ever written. That it merits this en-
comium is evident from its popularity. Ease and
simplicity of narrative will always find approval with
the reader ; and many such performances as this of
Dr. Franklin's, making much more pretension, have
been received with a great deal less favor. Many
have been consigned to the upper shelves of public
libraries and the collections of the curious, to be
drawn forth only when some industrious compiler
disturbs the dust Many more, though their subjects
made noise enough in their day, having had their
facts sifted out, have passed into the oblivion to
which impartial Time dooms such performances as
have their chief importance in the egotism of the
author.

Perhaps a key to the charm of Dr. Franklin's
autobiography may be found in the fact that it is
uniformly and consistently written to one person.
It has, therefore, the character of a familiar conversa-
tion with a single reader, who can not fail, for the
nonce, to put himself in the place of the person ad-
dressed. It appears like a personal intercourse with



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN. 267

the venerable sage to read thus what has all the ap-
pearance of an unreserved confession of his secret
thoughts, and a free declaration of his motives and
impulses. But we must, in following the doctor
through his. narrative, be careful that we do not give
too implicit credit to his seeming ingenuousness.
No man ever commenced so elaborate an account
of himself without a suspicion that it would eventual-
ly reach the public eye ; and whatever may be said
of the first portion of the work, we know that the
part written at Passy was prepared at the solicita-
tion of friends who had seen a manuscript copy of
the beginning. The concluding portion, written at
Philadelphia, Franklin thus speaks of in a letter to
Benjamin Vaughan, under date of Philadelphia, Oc-
tober 24, 1788.

" I am now recovering from a long-continued gout,
and am diligently employed in writing the History
of my Life, to the doing of which, the persuasions
contained in your letter of January 31, 1783, have
not a little contributed. I am now in the year 1756,
just before I was sent to England. To shorten the
work, as well as for other reasons, I omit all facts
and transactions that may not have a tendency to
benefit the young reader, by showing him, from my
example, and my success in emer^ng firom poverty,
and acquiring some degree of wealth, power, and
reputation, the advantages of certain modes of con-
duct which I observed, and of avoiding the errors
which were prejudicial to me. If a writer can judge
properly of his own work, I fancy, on reading over



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268 LIFE OF FRANKLIN.

what is already done, that the book may be found
entertaining and usefal, more so than I expected
when I began it. If my present state of health con-
tinues, I hope to finish it this winter : when done,
you, shall have a manuscript copy of it, that I may
obtain from your judgment and friendship such re-
marks as may contribute to its improvement"

Dr. Franklin appears to have been in the habit of
permitting his friends to read his narrative. To
this circumstance, it is stated, that the world owed
the first edition of the autobiography. A friend in
France held the manuscript long enough to make a
translation, which was issued from the press in Paris
soon after the death of the author. A translation of
the French work appeared in London ; and edition
after edition of the translation, and also of th^ orig-
inal, have appeared in this country.

Autobiographies are usually apologies. As Dr.
Franklin performed no act of his life, however ap-
parently trifling, without a thought as to its ultimate
influence and tendencies, it is evident that his "Life
by Himself" can not be excepted from the definition
of "An Apology for Himself." There are in it many
direct pleas in defense of his acts. We can not, in-
deed, forbear the regret that a man who has so hon-
estly confessed his errors has so skillfully defended
them; or, perhaps we should say, that in the de-
fense he has so dexterously made it appear that the
errors were no such important transgressions, after
all. The young, especially, in reading the Life of
Franklin, need to be carefully upon their guard lest



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN. 269

they derive a wrong impression from the author^s
self-complacent declaration that on sach and sach
occasions he " repaired" the errors of his life. 'Good
and evil are not to be kept in account with each
other, like debtor and creditor ; and especially should
we beware of the latent hint, that at the outset in
life faults may be indulged in, and a debit account
set down to virtue, with the reserved purpose of bal-
ancing it on the credit side by-and-by. In this re-
gard, we can not help thinking that the doctor, while
striving to do himself justice, has done himself a
discredit. Though we are far from thinking that
Franklin designedly borrowed the privilege of trans-
gressing with the purpose of paying by reparation,
yet he undoubtedly shared the common feeling of
humanity in consoling himself with prospective re-
pentance for present error; and what we would
guard against is the apparent impression that he
succeeded in "striking the balance." Nor would
we even charge that he intended all that, in this re-
spect, his narrative seems to convey. The weak-
ness of his character was too blind, or perhaps we
should say too keen, a pursuit of expediency ; and
yet, without this characteristic, he would not have
been Franklin.

His remarkable prudence, both in his private af-
fairs and in the public trusts which he had held in
the colony, caused his appointment, as stated in the
last chapter, as agent of the Assembly, to proceed to
England with a remonstrance addressed to the pro-
prietaries. As the colony had increased in popula-



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270 ' LIFE OF FRANKLIN.

tion, in drade, and in wealth, a diversity of interests
and of opinions had grown up, which were incom-
patible with harmony under the apparently simj^,
bat really complex system established by William
Penn. The charter from the crown asserted politi-
cal rights most ample ; the Bill of Privileges granted
by Penn established universal toleration in religion ;
the Legislature was elective, and the laws of the col-
ony were left, in their conception and enactment,
with the people. But the anomaly of a governor
appointed by the proprietors, and, in fact, acting as
their agent, his real council being the proprietaries
in England, jarred with and defeated the apparent
liberality of the system. Thus, while obvious polit-
ical justice directed that all property holders should
be taxed alike, the governors refused their assent to
bills for revenue which did not exempt the proprie-
tary domain from taxation ; and while all religious
creeds and professions were declared to be on an
equality, the executive could refuse assent to laws
which conflicted with the peculiar tenets of the So-
ciety of Friends. In relation to the defense of the
colony, as the reader has already noted, evasion and
management were resorted to to save the frontiers
in the peril of invasion. An empire within an em-
pire, such as Penn's original draft seemed to indi-
cate, could only exist by the perfect obedience of
the people, and their harmony with the proprie-
taries. The difficulties and embarrassments neces-
sary to conflicting interests, and conflicting powers
and rights, became so evident and harassing during



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN. 271

the lifetime of the founder of the colony, that Penn
himself was on the point of sarrendering a jurisdic-
tion, fruitful principally in vexation, to the crown,
reserving to his family only the right in property
which the royal charter conferred. But this was
not done ; and the difficulties, irksome in the days
of the father, were doubly so in the hands of the
sons. Their deputy governors were placed in a
most awkward relation. In conciliating the people,
they offended the proprietaries, and were recalled ;
or their instructions were so pointed as to leave
them no discretion, and their weary terms of ser-
vice were spent in fruitless altercations with the As-
sembly.

No law was considered as finally enacted in Penn-
sylvania until it had received the royal sanction.
By the terms of the original charter, all enactments
were to be sent to Great Britain, and if, within five
years, they were not disapproved of by the king,
their approval was presumed. Subsequently, how-
ever, the terms of the charter were interfered with
by instructions from the crown, that such acts as
were supposed to afiect the royal prerogative, or to
involve points in dispute between Parliament and the
colonies, should not be passed without a clause de-
ferring their operation until they had received the
royal sanction. The rfethod in which a la^w was
discussed in London was sufficiently humiliating to
the pride of the Assembly ; and as we review the
process now, the wonder is that the tedious and dil-
atory proceedings did not sooner urge the provincial



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272 LIFE OF FRANKLIN,

Assembly into rebellion. An act of the provincial
Assembly was first laid before the Board of Trade,
as if the primary consideration in relation to the col-
ony was a matter of pounds and pence ; and the main
object to be secured was that the Americans should
not make any movement, unwatched, in which the
interests of the British merchants and factors, and
the revenue of the crown, should not be consulted.
To make the colonies dependencies of the Board
of Trade was a fatal error of the British crown ;
and in many of the revolutionary papers, and the
writings which preceded the war of separation, we
find evidences of the keenness with which the col-
onists felt and resented the insult; for such they
considered it The pecuniary bearing of the bill,
if any it had, being ascertained and corrected, if it
was deemed to need amendment, it went next to the
king's soHcitor, that the prerogative might be de-
fended from encroachment. Thence it came back
to the Board of Trade, and that body having acted
upon it, it went before the king's council for final
action. While these steps were in progress, the
proprietaries kept an agent employed to watch the
bill, and, if they took exceptions to it, to argue them
before the Board of Trade. The Assembly was
compelled, also, to appear before the Board by an
agent; and thus, for every important act done by
their representatives, the colony was, in effect, put
upon trial. Franklin's mission was more compre-
hensive than had been intrusted to any previous
agency. It was not only the reconciliation of a



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN.



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present difficulty, but embraced the endeavor to re-
move the causes which impeded the general har-
mony and clogged the prosperity of the colony. To
his discretion, and to his intimate knowledge of all
points of the colonial business, the duty could be
safely confided. The replies to the governor's ad-
dresses, in which the cause of the people was ably
vindicated by the Legislature, were chiefly from his
pen. He was the popular champion during the
many years that he served in the provincial As-
sembly.

These replies, messages, and reports of the As-
sembly were published in London in a work entitled
''An Historical Review of the Constitution and
Government of Pennsylvania." It appeared anony-
mously in London early in the year 1759, and caused
Dr. Franklin to receive a great deal of censure and
abuse as the supposed author. This was, however,
to have been anticipated from the very nature of the
work, a controversial rather than a strictly impartial
one ; the charge against the proprietaries could but
provoke reply from them and their friends ; and the
forcible language in which the oppressions of the
people are depicted, left those assailed no choice but
defense. Franklin never publicly admitted or de-
nied the charge of authorship ; but in an official
letter, referring to the work, he speaks of it as one
which *' w^' have in press, and thus admits that it
was done with his privity. The reports and mes-
sages before alluded to, form a very large portion of
the volume ; other parts Dr. Franklin himself ac-

8



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN.



knowledges in a letter to David Hume, and the
Dedication and Introduction are known to be from
his pen. The Introduction we subjoin, as one of
the happiest specimens of his style :

** To obtain an infinite variety of purposes by a
few plain principles, is the characteristic of nature.
As the eye is affected, so is the understanding ; ob-
jects at a distance strike us according to their di^
mensions, or the quantity of light thrown upon
thenx; near, according to their novelty or familiar-
ity, as they are in motion or at rest It is the same
with actions. A battle is all motion, a hero all glare ;
while such images are before us, we can attend to
nothing else. Solon and'Lycurgus would make no
figure in the same scene with the King of Prussia ;
and we are at present so lost in the military scram-
ble on th^. Continent next us, in which, it must be
confessed, we are deeply interested, that we have
scarce time to throw a glance toward America,
where we have also much at stake, and where, if
any where, our account must be made up at last

" We love to stare more than to reflect, and to
be indolently amused at our leisure rather than com-
mit the smallest trespass on our patience by winding
a painful, tedious maze, which would pay us in noth-
ing but knowledge.

" But then, as there are some eyes which can find
nothing marvelous but what is marvelously great,
so there are others which are equally disposed to
marvel at what is marvelously little, and who cao
derive as much entertainment irom their microscope



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN. 275

in examining a mite, as Dr. — ^ — in ascertaining the
geography of the moon or measuring the tail of a
comet

" Let this serve as an excuse for the author of
these sheets, if he needs any, for bestowing them on
the transactions of a colony till of late hardly men-
tioned in our aAnals ; in point of establishm^t one
of the last upon the British list, and in point of rank
one of the most subordinate ; as being not only sub-
ject, in common with the rest, to the crown^ but
also to the claims of a proprietary, who thinks he
does them honor enough in governing them by dep-
uty; consequently, so much further remov^ from
the royal eye, and so much the more exposed to the
pressure of self-^interested instructions.

*' Considerable, however, as most of them for hap-
piness of situation, fertility of soil, product of valua-
ble commodities, number of inhabitants, shipping,
amount of exportations, latitude of rights and privi-
leges, and every other requisite for the being and
well-being of society, and more considerable than
any of them all for the celerity of its growth, unas-
sisted by any human help but the vigor and virtue
of its own excellent constitution.

*' A father and his family, the latter united by in-
terest and affection, the former to be revered for the
wisdom of his institutions and the indulgent use of
his authority, was the form it was at first presented
in. Those who were only ambitious of repose,
found it here; and as none returned with an evil
tqport of the land, numbers followed, all partook of



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN.



the leaven they found ; the conunonitj still wore
the same equal face ; nobody aspired, nobody was
oppressed ; industry was sure of profit, knowledge
of esteem, and virtue of veneration.

'' An assuming landlord, strongly disposed to con^
vert free tenants into abject vassals, and to reap
what he did not sow, countenanced and abetted by
a few desperate and designing dependants on the one
side, and on the other, all who have sense enough
to know their rights and spirit enough to defend
them, combined as one man against the said land-
lord and his encroachments, is the form it has since
assumed.

" And surely, to a nation bom to liberty like this,
bound to leave it unimpaired, as they received it
from their fathers, in perpetuity to their heirs, and
interested in the conservation of it in every append^
age of the British empire, the particulars of such a
contest can not be wholly indifferent

''On the contrary, it is reasonable to ttnak the
first workings of power against liberty, and the nat-
ural efforts of unbiased men to secure themselves
against the first approaches of oppression, must have
a captivating power over every man of sensibility
and discernment among us.

"Liberty, it seems, thrives best in the woods.
America best cuhivates what Germany brought
forth. And were it not for certain ugly compari**
sons, hard to be suppressed, the pleasure arising from
such a research would be without alloy.

•* In the fends of Florence, recorded by Macbiavcl(



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LIFE QF FRANKLIN.



277



we find more to lament and less to praise. Scarce
can we believe the first citizens of the ancient re-
publics bad such pretensions to consideration, though
so highly celebrated in ancient story. And as to
ourselves, we need no longer have recourse to the
late glorious stand of the French parliaments to ex-
cite our emulation.

'* It is a known custom among farmers to change
their com from season to season for the sake of fill-
ing the bushel ; and in case the wisdom of the age
should condescend to make the like experiment in
another shape, from hence we may learn whither to
repair for the proper species.

" It is not, however, to be presumed, that such as
have loDg been accustomed to consider the colonies
in general as only so many dependencies on the
conncil board, the Board of Trade, and the Board
of Customs, or as a hotbed for causes, jobs, and
other pecuniary emoluments, and as bound as efiect-
ually by instructions as by laws, can be prevailed
upon to consider these patriot rustics with any de-
gree of respect.

• " DerisioD, on the contrary, must be the lot of him
who imagines it in the power of the pen to set any
luster upon them ; and indignation theirs for daring
to assert and maintain the independence interwoven
in their Constitution, which now, it seems, is be-
come an improper ingredient, and, therefore, to be
escised away.

''But how contemptibly soever these gentlemen
liaay talk of the colonies, how cheap soever they



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LIFE OF FRANKLIN.



may bold their Assemblies, or how insignificant the
planters and traders who compose them, truth will
be trath, and principle principle, notwithstanding.

" Courage,, wisdotn, integrity, and honor are not
to be measured by the sphere assigned them to act
in, but by the trials they undergo and the vouchers
they furnish ; and, if so manifested, need neither
robes nor titles to set them off."



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j:.IF£ OF FRANKLIN. Old



CHAPTER XIV.

It was one of the maxims of Dr. Franklin that



Online LibraryBenjamin FranklinBenjamin Franklin : his autobiography : with a narrative of his public life and services → online text (page 17 of 34)