Named "one of the best books of 2006" by The New York Sun
Described by Carl Van Doren as "a harmonious human multitude," Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American of his time, of perhaps any time. His life and careers were so varied and successful that he remains, even today, the epitome of the self-made man. Born into a humble tradesman's family, this adaptable genius rose to become an architect of the world's first democracy, a leading light in Enlightenment science, and a major creator of what has come to be known as the American character. Journalist, musician, politician, scientist, humorist, inventor, civic leader, printer, writer, publisher, businessman, founding father, and philosopher, Franklin is a touchstone for America's egalitarianism.
The first volume traces young Franklin's life to his marriage in 1730. It traces the New England religious, political, and cultural contexts, exploring previously unknown influences on his philosophy and writing, and attributing new writings to him. After his move to Philadelphia, made famous in his Autobiography, Franklin became the Water American in London in 1725, where he was welcomed into that city's circle of freethinkers. Upon his return to the colonies, the sociable Franklin created a group of young friends, the Junto, devoted to self-improvement and philanthropy. He also started his own press and began to edit and publish the Pennsylvania Gazette, which became the most popular American paper of its day and the first to consistently feature American news.
List of Illustrations
PART I. BOSTON: YOUTH, 1706-1723
2. Child to Adolescent
3. Printer's Devil
4. Massachusetts Controversies, 1716-1723
5. Nathaniel Gardner and the Couranteers
6. James Franklin: America's First Newspaperman
7. Silence Dogood in Context
8. "Saucy and Provoking": Franklin Takes Charge
9. Assessing Franklin as a Youth, to Age Seventeen
PART II. ADRIFT, AGE SEVENTEEN TO TWENTY-FOUR, 1723-1730
10. The Runaway
11. The Water American: London Escapades
12. At Sea, 1726
13. Merchant to Master Printer, 1726-1728
14. The Junto
15. Business, 1728-1730, and "Articles of Religion"
16. The Busy-Body
17. Paper Currency
19. Assessing Franklin, Age Seventeen to Twenty-four
Appendix: New Attributions
Sources and Documentation
List of Abbreviations
In August 1723 seventeen-year-old Franklin found himself jobless and ostracized. He had been working for his older brother, James Franklin, who was now twenty-six. Six months before, when James was forbidden by the authorities to continue printing his newspaper unless it were first supervised by the secretary of Massachusetts, he brought out the newspaper under the name of Benjamin Franklin. Since Franklin was apprenticed to James, the latter returned him the cancelled indenture so that he could, if challenged, show it to the Massachusetts authorities. At the same time, Franklin and James signed another, secret indenture, whereby Franklin agreed to continue his apprenticeship with James. But the brothers often argued, and when they next quarreled, James beat his young brother, and Franklin quit. He could do so, for he knew that James could not produce the new indenture to the authorities and force Franklin to come back to work. Later, in the Autobiography, Franklin ruminated: "It was not fair in me to take this Advantage, and this I therefore reckon one of the first Errata of my Life: But the Unfairness of it weigh'd little with me, when under the Impressions of Resentment, for the Blows his Passion too often urg'd him to bestow upon me. Tho' He was otherwise not an ill-natur'd man. Perhaps I was too saucy and provoking" (20).
Franklin knew that he was as fast and efficient a printer as his brother or any Boston journeyman, and he assumed that he could find work at one of the several other Boston printers. He probably first went to Thomas Fleet, a young printer whom he knew well, but Fleet refused to hire him. Since Fleet's business was expanding and since good journeymen printers were rare in Boston, Franklin was puzzled. But when the printers John Allen and Samuel Kneeland also refused to hire him, he began to suspect the truth. Old Bartholomew Green, his father's friend and fellow member of the Old South Church, a person whom Franklin had known all his life, also turned him down. Franklin realized that his brother had told every local printer that Franklin was really still apprenticed to him. No Boston printer would hire him. What was he to do? There were no printers in the surrounding towns, and he could not sail from Boston, for his father and his brother could force him back if he tried to book passage. Besides, he had little money, not enough to pay for a voyage.
Worse, he had become notorious in Boston as an infidel. He enjoyed arguing and practiced a Socratic method of asking questions and having his opponents agree with statements that gradually led them to conclusions they had not foreseen. He confessed in the Autobiography that his "indiscrete Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist" (20). Moreover, he was infamous as a radical, whose newspaper writings insulted the best-known ministers of Boston, Cotton and Increase Mather, and who satirized the old, greatly respected chief justice, Samuel Sewall. The sensitive adolescent found that his writing and his private Socratic arguments had ostracized him from many good people in Boston. Some parents told their children to have nothing to do with him. How did he find himself in this predicament, and how did he make such a mess of his life by age seventeen? And what could he do?
"A labor of love balanced by thoughtful criticism. There is nothing like it."—American Historical Review
"Veteran Franklin scholar Lemay offers a highly detailed examination of one of the most fascinating of America's founders."—Publishers Weekly
"Under Mr. Lemay's narrative spell, Franklin emerges as the greatest of Americans. . . . It takes an awesome biography to do justice to such a man, and that is exactly what Mr. Lemay is writing."—New York Sun
"Lemay's magnificent opus manages to be accessible and interesting for the general reader while also valuable for the specialist. . . . For readers who want to luxuriate in the life and times of a fascinating man and who enjoy seeing how an expert historian examines evidence and reaches conclusions, this biography is indispensable. Highly recommended."—Library Journal (starred review)
"The authoritative compendium of Franklin's remarkable exploits and contributions."—Times Higher Education Supplement
"This colossal study . . . does for Franklin what Dumas Malone did for Thomas Jefferson. In sheer comprehensiveness, it surpasses any previous (and, one imagines, future) treatment. When completed, it promises to provide just about as complete a factual account of Franklin's life as it is possible to put together."—Journal of American History
"Lemay's final output will do for the popular interest in our revolution and early founding what Douglas Southall Freeman's magisterial Lee's Lieutenants did for our fixation on the Civil War. . . . I can't wait for Mr. Lemay's next volumes."—Washington Times
"Recent books on Ben Franklin abound. However, this work, in the classic multivolume 'life and times' genre, is especially valuable. Highly recommended."—Choice