« AnteriorContinuar »
Ten years before the breaking out of the war of the Revolution, Hume called Franklin "the first philosopher and indeed the first great man of letters" in the new world; on the very eve of that struggle, Samuel Johnson, in his astonishing pamphlet Taxation no Tyranny, described him as "a muster of mischief," wlro knew "how to put in motion the engine of political electricity"; and during the war, while Franklin was pressing the claims of the American patriots upon France, he was often represented in vario.is attitudes as commanding and using the lightning as a servant of the cause of liberty. Turgot's famous line
"Eripuit Cffilo fulmen, septrumque tyrannis,"
happily expressed the two sides of Franklin's activity which made a deep impression on Europe: his fruitful passion for science, and his ardent advocacy of liberty. During the eventful years from 1765 to his death in 1790, Franklin was, from the European standpoint, distinctly the foremost man in America; and after the lapse of more than a century, probably no American save Lincoln is more widely known beyond the se», In this country other figures have to a certain extent withdrawn public attention from his extraordinary career and sensibly diminished nis reputation ; a process which has been aided by Franklin's lack of idealism in mind and character; but the estimate of Franklin by Europe has been more adequate than the judgment of his countrymen. The more closely his career is studied the more clear does it become that, with the exception of Lincoln, no man yet born on this continent has more strikingly expressed its feeling or illustrated the range of its opportunities.
Like Lincoln, Franklin was of humble parentage. The representative, for many years in a spiritual as well as official sense, of the middle colonies, Franklin was born in Boston. It was in the year 1706, Queen Anne was served by a group of brilliant writers at home, and the colonies were fairly content in the new world. There were but ten of them and their combined population did not reach four hundred thousand; a thin skirmish line of civilization stretched over the breadth of an immense and hostile continent. The earliest of American journalists came at a time when there was but one newspaper in the colonies. His father, an English dissenter, had come to Boston in 1685 and became a tallow-chandler. The boy had various schooling, partly at home, partly at the Boston Latin School, and partly under a teacher of some local reputation; but his formal education was ended prematurely in his eleventh year. His parents talked of the church as a career; the boy talked of the sea: but for two years his work was in his father's shop, "cutting wick for the caudles, filling the dipping mould and the mould for cast candles, attending the shop, going of errands."
From early childhood he was fond of reading, and the little money that came his way went into books. The boy's first extensive purchase was John Bunyan's works in small volumes; a selection suggestive of literary taste if not of religious instinct. These volumes were sold later in order to secure Burton's Historical Collections. The library of the elder Franklin was small in bulk and made up chiefly of books of polemical theology; and probably there has never been a mind more indifferent to writing of this kind than that of the younger Franklin. There was one oasis, however, in this desert of disputatious divinity and that was the immortal work of Plutarch, which George Eliot so finely described as the "pasturage of noble minds." From this rich soil of human experience and achievement Franklin drew impulse and instruction in equal degree; and the reading of the Lives left a permanent impression on his character. In his simplicity, frankness, courage, and industry he was one of Plutarch's men. A book of De Foe's fell into his hands at this time and was probably not without influence on his style.
His tastes and the direction given to his thoughts by his passion for books inclined him to the printer's trade; although the siren voice of the sea had not yet ceased to sing to him. At the age of twelve he was bound to his older brother James by indentures which made him an apprentice until he was twenty-one years old. He learned his craft easily and rapidly and, having freer access to books, often sat up all night in order to return a borrowed volume in the morning. He was securing that education without which Buccchs in the higher fields of activity is impossible. Although essentially a man of understanding rather than of imagination, Franklin did not escape the charms of verse. He even succumbed to the temptation to turn the musical line, and a ballad of his making, dealing after the manner of ballads of the time with a drowning accident, had a great sale; and the flattered writer would have ventured upon larger enterprises of the kind if his brother had not assured him that verse-writers were generally beggars. Escaping this peril Franklin devoted himself to prose, writing with an instinctive conviction that the ability to use the pen with freedom and power was to be of great importance to him. Several letters of his, written to an acquaintance in the progress of a discussion between them, fell into his father's hands; and the elder Franklin, who was a man of great natural sagacity, made Benjamin conscious of the lack of clearness, orderliness, and eloquence in his style and awakened the critical sense in the boy's mind.
As a rule, men of original power are fortunate in falling at the ripe moment on the material essential to their own liberation and growth; Franklin happily came upon a volume of the Spectator at this critical time in his education. He could hardly have found a better model, nor one which could deflect him less from his own line of growth or teach him more of the things he needed to know. His native gift of clear, large, tolerant, understanding; his controlling sense of reality; his resolute common-sense; his immense capacity for learning the ways of the world and the character of men found in the lucidity, humor, ease, and sincerity of the Spectator both example and impulse. The boy suddenly found himself, for the purposes of his own development as a prose-writer, under the wise, urbane, and captivating teaching of one of the masters of English writing.
His use of the Spectator was so characteristic and of such great importance in his education as a writer that his own account of it must not be abridged : —
"I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try'd to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults and corrected them. Hut I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting or using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different Bound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety hi my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and. after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also