Culture

Young Benjamin Franklin’s Boyhood Heroes

Benjamin Franklin, CC/Wikipedia

Editor's Note:

Nick Bunker is the author of Young Benjamin Franklin, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World and An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, which won the 2015 George Washington Prize. In the same year, An Empire on the Edge was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

The following is excerpted from Nick Bunker’s Young Benjamin Franklin, which reveals how Franklin, “the boy,” was driven to success despite great hardships he faced while growing up. To learn more about who inspired one of our nation’s founding fathers as a boy and for a video with the author of the book, Nick Bunker, read on.


In his spare time away from the Mill Pond, the candles, and the soap, the boy had consumed Josiah’s small library. Most of the books had to do with divinity, but the young Benjamin, who could not stop reading, was done with that before the age of twelve. Having learned the lesson of the whistle, he spent his pocket money on the works of Bunyan, which he loved; but soon he had finished those as well. He traded them in for popular history: forty or fifty cheap, pocket-sized books by an English writer, who gave himself the pseudonym Robert Burton.

Actually, the author was Nathaniel Crouch, an English bookseller who had built his business with anti-Stuart propaganda. Whig and sensational, filled with xenophobia, his vast output consisted of stories “filled with wonders, rarities and curiosities,” in the words of his obituary. His were patriotic books in which the heroes were always Protestant—Drake, Raleigh, Cromwell, and so on—while the villains were traitors and Papists, in league with the atrocious kings of Spain and France.

It was the kind of writing that Franklin had to absorb sooner or later, because the attitudes that motivated Crouch were deeply ingrained in the culture of New England. If the boy was going to be a journalist, he would have to switch back and forth between the language of the street, the chapel, the law courts, and the drawing room. Variety was one of Franklin’s hallmarks—like Defoe, or Dickens, or James Joyce, he could write in a multitude of voices—but it could only come from experience. He would have to listen hard, to people from many different walks of life. He would also have to read cheap throwaway stuff as well as the classics; and few books were more throwaway than those of Mr. Crouch.

Fortunately, soon he found something more sublime. Apart from Bunyan and Defoe, the author Franklin recalled with most affection from his boyhood was a writer from the classical world: Plutarch, the Greek biographer, whose accounts of ancient heroes were also in Josiah’s collection. “I still think that time spent to great advantage,” said Franklin in his memoirs about the hours he devoted to Plutarch’s Lives, a book that helped to shape his politics as well as his prose.

At the Old South, Mr. Pemberton would quote from Plutarch when he wished to conjure up examples of justice, courage, and humility, or to explain how a town should be governed. Here was another kind of patriotism, very different from the ideology of Crouch. In the stories of Solon, who gave laws to Athens, of Brutus the slayer of a tyrant or Cicero the orator, a reader could find a definition of virtue that went beyond the narrow notions of a bigot. Thirty years later, when in 1749 he wrote the syllabus for what became the University of Pennsylvania, Franklin urged the students to study Greek and Roman history. It would teach them many things—not least how to govern a republic, a new Athens on the Delaware—but most of all it would teach them morality. In Plutarch, Livy, and the rest, the college men would find “the causes of rise and fall of any man’s character . . . the advantages of temperance, order, frugality, industry, perseverance.”

It was much the same list as Pemberton had given from the pulpit; but Plutarch had something that the pastor lacked, a flair for energetic prose. The only complete translation of the Lives was the one coauthored in the 1680s by the poet and playwright John Dryden. This is the one Frank-lin must have read. Dryden’s prose was superb: learned but informal, sprightly and vivid—or, as it would be described by Samuel Johnson, “airy, animated, and vigorous”—with the main verb dropped into the sentence in just the right place to keep the reader moving forward with vigor.

If Franklin could master not only this kind of prose but also the narrative style of Defoe, then add the authenticity of speech from the water¬front, he would become a writer who could keep his audience in touch with any subject. But as yet, he was too young to be a journalist. Instead, like Robinson Crusoe, the boy still yearned to be a sailor; and just like Crusoe’s father, Mr. Franklin was appalled by the idea.

In 1716 Josiah Junior had briefly returned to Boston, then left again and vanished forever, lost it was thought on a voyage to Asia. His father had been furious when the young man first went to sea, and he had no intention of allowing Benjamin to disappear in the same fashion. Another of his sons, John Franklin, trained as a tallow chandler, had recently married and begun making soap and candles in Newport, Rhode Island. This left the young Benjamin as the obvious successor in the family business at the Blue Ball. But he so clearly loathed the craft that his father knew he had to find him an alternative. It was at this point, in about 1717, when the boy was eleven, that Josiah took the boy around the town to watch artisans at work, in the hope that one of their trades might appeal.

Eventually Josiah settled for the obvious solution, by putting Benjamin out to be apprenticed to his cousin, Samuel the cutler. He did a spell as a sort of intern in Samuel’s workshop, helping to make cutting tools, but Samuel demanded the usual London payment of a hefty fee for taking him on. Josiah refused, and Benjamin came back to the house on Union and Hanover. Then James arrived home from England, to find his youngest brother still without a trade, and still longing for the ocean. The boy liked the thought of printing rather better than the prospect of a life boiling soap. Even so he had to be coaxed or cajoled into becoming James’s assistant.

Sixty years after the first of his uncles swore his indentures as a dyer in London, Benjamin Franklin became yet another apprentice, signing up to work for his brother. James insisted on nine years of service, rather than the usual seven, and eight of those would be unpaid. Benjamin’s reward would come by way of literature.

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.