Benjamin Franklin. The name conjures so many popular images. The one hundred dollar bill. Electricity and the famous kite with a key in a jar experiment. Mapping the gulf stream while voyaging to England and back to America. Father of the American Revolution and Co-Author of the Declaration of Independence. A Mason. What gave Benjamin Franklin the ability, beyond his God given gifts of intellect and physical prowess, to soldier through some of the most turbulent times this country has endured? What was his secret? It may be simpler than you think...
Much that surrounds Benjamin Franklin regarding his political maneuvering and inventions are owed to his early success as a newspaper apprentice, editor and publisher. Newspapers were printed using heavy type setting machines. These machines were set, sometimes letter by letter with heavy individual lead stamps, other times with common words, which had to be precisely arranged for each printing. In his early days, Benjamin Franklin set the type on this style of machine:
Born in Boston in July of 1706, Benjamin Franklin was one of ten children, his father had seven other children from a previous marriage. He was the youngest son.
As a young man, Benjamin Franklin found his father's candle making business unbearably boring, and declined a career in the cutlery making business.
He became an apprentice at his older brother James' printing shop, who had just returned from London where he learned the printing trade. James Franklin aimed to produce the religious pamphlets, flyers and books the near universally literate, pious and Puritanical leaning early Bostonians devoured. The intellectual and physical rigors suited the quick witted and large framed teenage Ben Franklin.
Eventually James and Benjamin began printing, but not publishing, "The Boston Gazette." Because it was connected with the postmaster, the Boston Gazette was not just, "Published with Authority," it read as if one of the authorities had published it judging by its velvet glove treatment of political affairs.
James wanted more and started his own paper, "The Daily Courant," as a political platform to speak out against the ultra conservative Cotton Mather and his zealous followers. Because James was wary of Benjamin's involvement in such an undertaking, he did not invite young Ben to participate. By disguising his handwriting and publishing letters as, "Silence Dogood," Franklin was able to use his wit and cleverly insert his viewpoints into the paper without upsetting his Brother's sensibilities. It also advanced the Courant's readership, who enjoyed the letters' intellectual as well as satirical nature.
To Silence Dogood, Cotton Mather's alma mater, Harvard, was a place where people, "learn little more than to carry themselves handsomely and enter a room genteely." Sixteen total Silence Dogood letters were published. Certainly one of the more profound statements came in a 1723 letter. Silence Dogood said, "Religion is indeed the principal thing, but too much of it is worse than none at all. The world abounds with knaves and villains, but of all knaves, the religious knave is the worst; and villainies acted under cloak of religion are the most execrable." Soon after, the Courant came under censorship by the local authorities.
Young Benjamin Franklin wanted more out of life than piety and censorship, and broke both law and tradition by abdicating his apprenticeship. He left Boston for comparatively free thinking Philadelphia in 1723 at the age of 17. He soon gained admission to work in a print shop that led him to travel to England where he observed English printing innovations, frequented the theater and made business connections, not to mention getting distracted by a dizzying array of the opposite sex. On his return, he was unsuccessful as a merchant, but soon found work in a print shop that published the Pennsylvania Gazette where he made improvements to the press. He also wrote for the "Mercury". (2)
In 1731 he joined a Masonic lodge, Saint John's Lodge in Philadelphia, at the age of 25 and offered to print its by-laws as a service. In 1732 he was elected Junior Grand Warden. In 1734, he was elected as Grand Master of Pennsylvania. For a chronological record of Ben Franklin's Masonic achievements, click here.
Being a well connected Mason meant plenty of printing business from the brethren, but his own works provided the largest stream of income. Of the 16 major works Benjamin Franklin published, the most often discussed is, "Poor Richard's Almanack". Poor Richard's Almanack was a collection of weather predictions, calendar notations, proverbial and industrial sayings, puzzles and household hints and tricks. It gained fame for its ingenious wordplay, including some of its best known phrases, "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," as well as, "let sleeping dogs lie."
While the almanac was quite popular, some of his other works, like "Fart Proudly," and "The Drinker's Dictionary," did not garner as much critical acclaim or pass into the realm of popular history associated with our first elder statesman. These however do show that Franklin had a great sense of humor and appreciated the frivolities of life.
The questions that led him to investigate and reason out so many curiosities stemmed from a consistent daily routine. Each day he had a structure that allowed him to maximize both his efficiency and effectiveness. However, it is the pair of questions that book-ended his day that really show what drove Benjamin Franklin to be such a force in advancing both his personal growth and America's development from colony to sovereign nation:
"What good shall I do today?" and, "What good have I done today?"
Just as we look to our siblings, parents and mentors for guidance and instruction, perhaps the simplest road to self improvement is to ask yourself these two questions every day. Whether you are a Mason or not, honestly answering them daily just might change your life.
by Brandon West, 2017-2018 Senior Deacon, Summit Masonic Lodge #213
(1) The First American-the life and times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands
(2) Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin