William Cabell Bruce.

Benjamin Franklin, self-revealed; a biographical and critical study based mainly on his own writings online

. (page 42 of 47)
Online LibraryWilliam Cabell BruceBenjamin Franklin, self-revealed; a biographical and critical study based mainly on his own writings → online text (page 42 of 47)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Persons who merit some particular Expression of my Respect;
and it will save modest Virtue the Trouble of calling for our
Regard, by awkward roundabout Intimations of having been
heretofore employ' d in the Continental Service.

The Gentleman, who made the Voyage to France to provide
the Ribands and Medals, has executed his Commission. To
me they seem tolerably done; but all such Things are criticis'd.
Some find Fault with the Latin, as wanting classic Elegance
and Correctness; and, since our Nine Universities were not
able to furnish better Latin, it was pity, they say, that the
Mottos had not been in English. Others object to the Title,
as not properly assumable by any but Gen. Washington, [and
a few others] who serv'd without Pay. Others object to the
Bald Eagle as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For
my own Part, I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as
the Representative of our Country; he is a Bird of bad moral
Character; he does not get his living honestly; you may have
seen him perch'd on some dead Tree, near the River where, too
lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing-
Hawk; and, when that diligent Bird has at length taken a
Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the support of his Mate
and 'young ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him, and takes it

VOL. II — 3^



498 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

from him. With all this Injustice he is never in good Case;
but, like, those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing,
he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a
rank Coward; the little King Bird, not bigger than a Sparrow,
attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is
therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and
honest Cincinnati of America, who have driven all the King-
birds from our Country; though exactly fit for that Order of
Knights, which the French call Chevaliers d' Industrie.

I am, on this account, not displeas'd that the Figure is not
known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turk'y. For in
Truth, the Turk'y is in comparison a much more respectable
Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles
have been found in all Countries, but the Turk'y was peculiar
to ours; the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought
to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv'd up at the
Wedding Table of Charles the Ninth. He is, [though a little
vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that,]
a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grena-
dier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade his
Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

Nor need we dwell longer either upon Franklin as a poet.
Considered seriously as such, he was undoubtedly one of
the kind, that, as Horace says, neither Gods nor men can
endure. But he should not be seriously regarded as a poet
at all. We should bring no severer judgment, to his
couplets than was brought to them by the plowmen and
frontiersmen, who kept Poor Richard's Almanac suspended
over their mantelpieces; and his anacreontics should be
read, as they were sung, after the edge of criticism has
been dulled by a bottle or so. It is only fair to Poor
Richard, however, to say that no one had a poorer opinion
of his gifts as a poet than himself. "I know as thee,"
he says in one of his prefaces, "that I am no Poet born:
and it is a Trade I never learnt, nor indeed could learn.
If I make Verses, 'tis in Spight of Nature and my Stars, I
write." In another preface, after honoring his friend



Franklin as a Writer 499

Taylor, of Ephemerides fame, with a considerable number
of lines, he exclaims: "Souse down into Prose again, my
Muse; for Poetry's no more thy Element, than Air is that
of the Flying-Fish. " And we need go no further than one
of Franklin's lively letters to PoUy, at which we have
already glanced, to satisfy ourselves that he placed quite
as low an estimate on his verses as Poor Richard did on his.
Speiaking of the Muse, which he mentioned in his letter
as having visited him that morning, he observes in his
light-hearted way :

This Muse appear'd to be no Housewife. I suppose few
of them are. She was drest (if the Expression is allowable)
in an Undress, a kind of slatternly NegligSe, neither neat nor
clean, nor well made; and she has given the same sort of Dress
to my Piece. On reviewing it, I would have reform'd the lines
and made them all of a Length, as I am told Lines ought to be;
but I find I can't lengthen the short ones without stretching
them on the Rack, and I think it would be equally cruel y^-^
cut off any Part of the long ones. Besides the Superfluity of '^'
these makes up for the Deficiency of those; and so, from a
Principle of Justice, I leave them at full Length, that I may
give you, at least in one Sense of the Word, good Measure.

Of all the productions of Franklin, the Autobiography
and Poor Richard's Almanac, axe those upon which his
literary fame will chiefly rest. Of the former, we have al-
ready said too much to say much more about it. It is the
only thing written by Franklin that can properly be called
a book, and even it is marked by the brevity which he
regarded as one of the essentials of good writing. If
he did not write other books, it was not, so far as we can
see, because, as has been charged, he lacked constructive
capacity, but rather because, when he resorted to the
pen, he did it not for literary celebrity, but for practical
purposes of the hour, best subserved by brief essays or
papers. It is true that in writing the early chapters of



500 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

the Autobiography, which brought his life down to the
year 1730, he was not exactly writing for the moment, but,
stUl, the motive by which he was actuated was a purely
practical one. ' ' They were written to my Son, ' ' he said in
a letter to Matthew Carey, "and intended only as Inform-
ation to my Family." Even in the later chapters,
which brought his life down to his fiftieth year, he still had
a similar incentive to literary effort, highly congenial
with the general bent of his character, that is to say, the
opportunity that they afforded him to point to his busi-
ness success as an example of what might be aTccomplished
by frugality and industry. ' ' What is to follow, ' ' he wrote
to the Due de la Rochefoucauld, "will be of more import-
ant Transactions: But it seems to me that what is done
will be of more general Use to young Readers; as exemplify-
ing strongly the Effects of prudent and imprudent Con-
duct in the Commencement of a Life of Business. " Two
days later, he wrote to Benjamin Vaughan from Phila-
delphia that he was diligently employed in writing the
Autobiography, to which his persuasions had not a little
contributed.

To shorten the work [he said], as well as for other reasons,
I omit all facts and transactions, that may not have a ten-
dency to benefit the young reader, by showing him from my
example, and my success in emerging from poverty, and
acquiring some degree of wealth, power, and reputation, the
advantages of certain modes of conduct which I observed, and
of avoiding the errors which were prejudicial to me.

To the limited nature of the inducements to the com-
position of the Autobiography, disclosed by these letters, it
was due that the interest of Franklin in the subsequent
continuation of the work was too languid for the com-
pletion of the whole plan of the Autobiography, as inti-
mated in the Hints which he gives of its intended scope,



Franklin as a Writer 501

notwithstanding the urgent appeals which his friends never
ceased to make to him to complete it.

If one of the effects of the fearless self-arraignment of
the Autobiography has been to lower the standing of
Franklin in some respects with posterity, we should remem-
ber the unselfish motive, which induced him to turn his
youthful errors to the profit of others, and also the fact that
he had his own misgivings about the bearing upon his
reputation of such outspoken self-exposure, and sub-
mitted the propriety of publishing the Autobiography un-
reservedly to the judgment of friends who were certainly
competent judges in every regard of what the moral
sense of their time would approve.

I am not without my Doubts concerning the Memoirs,
whether it would be proper to publish them, or not, at least
during my Life time [he wrote to the Due de la Rochefoucauld],
and I am persuaded there are many Things that would, in
Case of Publication, be best omitted; I therefore request it
most earnestly of you, my dear Friend, that you would examine
them carefully & critically, with M. Le Veillard, and give me
your candid &~friendly Advice thereupon, as soon as you can
conveniently.

Later, he wrote to Benjamin Vaughan from Philadel-
phia that he had, of late, been so interrupted by extreme
pain, which obliged him to have recourse to opium, that,
between the effects of both, he had but little time, in which
he could write anything, but that his grandson was copy-
ing what was done, which would be sent to Vaughan for
his opinion by the next vessel; for he found it a difficult
task to speak decently and properly of one's own conduct,
and felt the want of a judicious friend to encourage him
in scratching out. The next time that Franklin wrote
to Vaughan it was when opium alone could render exist-
ence tolerable to him, but in the interim, he had happily
discovered that he could dictate even when he could not
write.



502 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

What is already done [he said] I now send you, with an
earnest request that you and my good friend Dr. Price [later
in the letter he calls him "my dear Dr. Price"] would be so
good as to take the trouble of reading it, critically examining
it, and giving me your candid opinion whether I had best
publish or suppress it; and if the first, then what parts had
better be expunged or altered. I shall rely upon your opin-
ions, for I am now grown so old and feeble in mind, as well as
body, that I can not place any confidence in my own judgment.

Of the same tenor was a still later letter to M. Le Veil-'
lard, in which Franklin expressed the hope that Le
Veillard would, with the Due de la Rochefoucauld, read
the Memoirs over carefully, examine them critically
and send him his friendly, candid opinion of the parts that
he would advise him to correct or expunge, in case he
should think that the work was generally proper to be
published, but, if he judged otherwise, that he would
inform him of that fact, too, as soon as possible, and pre-
vent him from incurring further trouble in the endeavor
to finish the work. The world has reason to be thankful
that the fate of the Autobiography should' thus have been
left to the decision of men who, even if they had not lived
in the eighteenth century, would have been robust enough,
in point of intelligence and morals, to believe that the
youthful errata laid bare in that book were more than
atoned for by the manly and generous aims that inspired it.

Of the Autobiography it is enough now to say that it is
one of the few books which have arrested and permanently
riveted the attention of the whole civilized world. Com-
menting in it on the copy of Pilgrim's Progress, "in Dutch,
finely printed on good paper, 'with copper cuts," which
the drunken Dutchman, whom he drew up by the shock-
pate from the waters of New York Bay, on his first journey
to Philadelphia, handed to him to dry, Franklin says:
"I have since found that it has been translated into. most
of the languages of Europe, and suppose it has been more



Franklin as a Writer 503

generally read than any other book, except perhaps the
Bible." The Autobiography is hardly less popular. It,
too, has been translated into most of the languages of
Europe, and has been printed and reprinted until it is
one of the most widely-read books in existence. Such it is
likely to remain always, not simply because it was written
by a very famous man, who possessed, to an extraordinary-
degree, the power of impressing his thoughts and fancies
on the hearts and imagination of the human race, but
because it tells a story of self -conquest and self -promotion
full of warning, guidance and hope for every human being,
who wishes to make the best of his own opportunities
and powers. As a mere composition, dressed though it
is like the poetic Muse described by Franklin in his let-
ter to PoUy "in a kind of slatternly Negligee, " it is one of
the masterpieces of literature. Its very careless loquacity
is but suggestive of a mind overflowing with its own
profusion of experience and reflection. There is no better
test of the extent, to which a writer has proved himself
equal to the highest possibilities of his art, than to ask
how readily his conceptions can be pictured; for the mind
of a great writer is but a gallery hung with such pictures
as the painter reduces to material form and color. Tried
by this test, the universal popularity of the Autobiography
can be readily understood. The Book of Genesis, the
plays of Shakespeare, Pilgrim's Progress, the novels of Sir
Walter Scott, are not more easily illustrated than are the
incidents depicted to the life in its early chapters. Some
of them wear a hard and coarse aspect as if they had been
struck off from ruder plates than any belonging to the
present state of the art of engraving, but this is only
another proof of the fidelity of Franklin to his eighteenth
century background. We might as well quarrel with the
squalor and sluttishess of Hogarth's scenes.

Poor Richard's Almanac, including the "Way to
Wealth," or Father Abraham's Speech is Franklin's other



504. Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

master-work. One would hardly look to almanac-making
for a classic contribution to letters, but it is not extrava-
gant to say that Poor Richard is one of the most life-
like figures in the literature of the world. Nestor, Falstaff,
Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Sir Roger de Coverley,
Captain Dugald Dalgetty and Colonel Newcome are not
more distinctly delineated, or rather we should say are not
more manifest to the eye and palpable to the touch. To the
people of Pennsylvania, its triHesmen, its farmers, even its
rude borderers, he was a personage fully as real as the
colonial governor at Philadelphia, and far more popular.
Thousands of its inhabitants never turned over the pages of
any other book except those of the Bible. And finally the
wise sayings of Poor Richard, in the form of the "Way to
Wealth," applicable as they were to the primal and uni-
versal conditions of human existence everywhere, became
known from the Thames to the Ganges. The middle of
the eighteenth century was the heyday of almanac-mak-
ing, and the best proof of the durable stuff, of which Poor
Richard's Almanac was woven, is the utter oblivion that
has overtaken all his competitors except those who are
preserved in his pages like flies in amber. The prefaces
of Poor Richard, the proverbial maxims with which his
almanacs are bestrewn^ the compendious speech on which
these maxims are finally strung like bright beads, have
survived, because they were adapted, with consummate
art, to the simple habits and mental wants of the rude
audience, to which they were addressed. For upwards
of thirty years, Poor Richard, with a distinctness and
consistency of character as perfect as those of Santa
Claus, made his annual bow to the People of Pennsylvania,
and served up to their delighted palates his highly^ sea-
soned ollapodrida of mock astrology, homely wisdom
and coarse jollity in prose and verse. S ometimes the
humor is mere horse^Jlaughter;_^ut_9l5ra^^th shrewd,
W OTldly-wise. merry-temperg dold philomath aiia[~iFar-



Franklin as a Writer 505

gazer hits the fancy of his readers with unerring accu-
racy between wind and water. His weather predictions',
and prognostications of planetary conjunctions are just \
serious enough for unlettered rustics whose minds have \
been partially but not wholly disabused of the belief that
rain comes with the change of the moon. His proverbs
are the proverbs of men whose lives are too meagre and i
straitened to permit them to forget his saying that if you |
will not hear Reason she'll surely rap your knuckles.
His humor is the humor of men whose grave, weather-
beaten features do not relax into a snule or grin except
under the compelling influence of some broad joke or ridi-
culous spectacle. Just as the most successful inventor
is the one who invents the device that has the widest
appHcation to material uses, so the most successful writer
is the one who conceives the thoughts that have the widest »
application to the moral and intellectual needs of mankind. 1
The thoughts that Poor Richard conceived or adopted
are such thoughts; for what he taught was full of signi-
ficance to every man who desires to obtain a correct in-
sight into the moral and economic laws that govern the
world for the purpose of winning its favor ; which means all
men except those who either prey on the world or merely
drift along with its current.

In the Prefaces to his Almanac, Poor Richard manages
to keep both his wife Bridget and himself close to the
footUghts. In the first preface, he says that, if he were to
declare that he wrote almanacs with no other view than
of the public good, he should not be sincere.

The plain Truth of the Matter is [he confesses], I am ex-
cessive poor, and my Wife, good Woman, is, I tell her, excessive
proud; she cannot bear, she says, to sit spinning in her Shift
of Tow, while I do nothing but gaze at the Stars; and has
threatned more than once to burn all my Books and Rattling-
Traps (as she calls my Instruments) if I do not make some
profitable Use of them for the Good of my Family.



5o6 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

In the preface of the succeeding year he announces that
the patronage of his readers the year before had made his
circumstances much easier. His wife had been enabled
to get a pot of her own, and was no longer obliged to
borrow one from a neighbor; nor had they ever since been
without something of their own to put in it. She had
also got a pair of shoes, two new shifts, and a new, warm
petticoat, and for his part he had bought a second-hand
coat, so good that he was no longer ashamed to go to town
or be seen there. These things had rendered- Bridget's
temper so much more pacific than it used to be that he
might say that he had slept more, and more quietly within
the last year than in the three foregoing years put together.

In a later preface, he declares that, if the generous pur-
chaser of his labors could see how often his fi-pence helped
to light up the comfortable fire, line the pot, fill the cup
and make glad the heart of a poor man and an honest
good old woman, he would not think his money iU laid out,
though the almanac of his Friend and Servant, R. Saun-
ders, were one half blank paper.

A year later. Mistress Saunders avails herself of the fact
that her good man had set out the week before for Potow-
mack to visit an old stargazer of his acquaintance, and to
see about a little place for the couple to settle, and end
their days on, to scratch out the preface to the copy of the
almanac for that year which he had left behind him for the
press, because it had undertaken to let the world know
that she, who had already been held out in former prefaces
as proud and loud and the possessor of a new petticoat; had
lately, forsooth, taken a fancy to drink a little tea now and
then. Upon looking over the months, she saw that he had
put in abundance of foul weather this year, and therefore
she had scattered here and there, where she could find room,
some fair, pleasant sunshiny days for the good women to
dry their clothes in. If what she promised did not come to
pass, she would at any rate have shown her goodwill.



Franklin as a Writer 507

In the next preface, referring to the impression that the
great yearly demand for his almanac had made him so
rich that he should call himself Poor Dick no longer, and
pretending that he and the printer were different persons,
Poor Richard says :

When I first begun to publish, the Printer made a fair
Agreement with me for my copies, by Virtue of which he
runs away with the greatest Pa.rt of the Profit— However much
good may't do him; I do not grudge it him; he is a Man I have
a great Regard for, and I wish his Profit ten times greater than
it is. For I am, dear Reader, his as well as thy

Affectionate Friend,

R. Saunders.

But the five pence came in too rapidly for the almanac-
maker to persist in putting up a poor mouth of this kind.
In his twelfth year, after frankly admitting that he had
labored not for the benefit of the public but for the benefit
of his own dear self, not forgetting in the meantime his
gracious consort and Duchess, the peaceful, quiet, silent |
Lady Bridget, he states that, whether his labors had been
of any service to the public or not, he must acknowledge
that they had been of service to him.

It was by such personal touches as these that Poor
Richard made Bridget and himself as familiar to his
patrons as the signs of the Zodiac. Astrology itself
was, of course, too good a subject for keen ridicule to be
spared. Formerly, Poor Richard declares in one preface,
no prince would make war or peace, nor any general
fight a battle without first consulting an astrologer, who
examined the aspects and configurations of the heavenly
bodies, and marked the lucky hour. But "now, " he goes
on, "the noble art (more shame to the age we live in) is
dwindled into contempt; the Great neglect us, Empires
make Leagues, and ParUaments Laws without advising
with us; and scarce any other use is made of our learned



5o8 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

labours than to find the best time of cutting corns or geld-
ing Pigs."

I In many sly ways, Poor Richard let his readers know
; that his forecasts are not to be accepted too seriously. It
is no wonder, he says in his fifth preface, that, among the
multitude of astrological predictions, some few should fail;
for, without any defect in the art itself, 'tis well known
that a small error, a single wrong figure overseen in a
calculation, may occasion great mistakes, but, however
1 the almanac-makers might miss it in other things, he
\ believed it would be generally allowed that they always
\hit the day of the month, and that, he supposed, was
esteemed one of the most useful things in an almanac.
In another issue of the almanac, he indulges in a great
variety of confident predictions as to the year 1739. The
crabs will go sidelong and the rope-makers backwards, the
belly will wag before, and another part of the body,
which we shall not name, but he does, will sit down first.
Mercury will so confound the speech of people that, when
a Pennsylvanian will wish to say panther, he will say
painter, and, when a New Yorker will attempt to say this,
he will say diss, and the people of New England and Cape
May will not be able to say cow for their lives, but will be
forced to say keow by a certain involuntary twist in the
root of their tongues. As for Connecticut men and
Marylanders, they will not be able to open their mouths
but sir shall be the first or last syllable they will pronounce,
and sometimes both.

Some of his other predictions are that the stone blind
will see but very little, the deaf will hear but poorly and the
dumb will not speak very plain, while whole flocks, herds
and droves of sheep, swine and oxen, cocks and hens, ducks
and drakes, geese and ganders will go to pot, but the
mortality will not be altogether so great among cats, dogs
and horses. As for age, it will be incurable because of the
years past, and, towards the fall, some people will be seized



Franklin as a Writer 509

with an unaccountable inclination to eat their own ears.
But the worst disease of all will be a certain most horrid,
dreadful, malignant, catching, perverse and odious
malady, almost epidemical, insomuch that many will run
mad upon it. "I quake for very Fear," exclaims Poor
Richard, "when I think on't; for I assure you very few
will escape this Disease, which is called by the learned
Albumazar Lacko'mony. "

That the orange trees in Greenland will go near to
fare the worse for the cold, that oats will be a great help
to horses and that there will not be much more bacon
than swine, are stiU other prophecies hazarded by the
astrologer.

In another preface, he declares that he has gone into
retirement, and that it is time for an old man such as he is
to think of preparing for his Great Remove. Then follow



Online LibraryWilliam Cabell BruceBenjamin Franklin, self-revealed; a biographical and critical study based mainly on his own writings → online text (page 42 of 47)