The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VI. Franklin

§ 2. His Early Years

In reviewing his own career Franklin does not dwell on the fact that he who was to stand before kings had emerged from a tallow chandler’s shop. To his retrospective eye there was nothing miraculous nor inexplicable in his origin. On the contrary he saw and indicated very clearly the sources of his talents and the external impulses that gave them direction. Born in Boston on 6 January, 1706, he inherited from his long-lived parents, Josiah and Abiah Folger Franklin, a rugged physical and mental constitution which hardly faltered through the hard usage of eighty-four years. He recognized and profited by his father’s skill in drawing and music, his “mechanical genius,” his “understanding and solid judgment in prudential matters, both in private and publick affairs,” his admirable custom of having at his table, “as often as he could, some sensible friend or neighbour to converse with,” always taking care “to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children.” Benjamin’s formal schooling was begun when he was eight years old and abandoned, together with the design of making him a clergyman, when he was ten. He significantly remarks, however, that he does not remember a time when he could not read; and the subsequent owner of one of the best private libraries in America was as a mere child an eager collector of books. For the two years following his removal from school he was employed in his father’s business. When he expressed a firm disinclination to become a tallow chandler, his father attempted to discover his natural bent by taking him about to see various artisans at their work. Everything that Franklin touched taught him something; and everything that he learned, he used. Though his tour of the trades failed to win him to any mechanical occupation,

  • it has ever since been a pleasure to me [he says] to see good workmen handle their tools; and it has been useful to me, having learnt so much by it as to be able to do little odd jobs myself in my house … and to construct little machines for my experiments, while the intention of making the experiment was fresh and warm in my mind.
  • Throughout his boyhood and youth he apparently devoured every book that he could lay hands upon. He went through his father’s shelves of “polemic divinity”; read abundantly in Plutarch’s Lives; acquired Bunyan’s works “in separate little volumes,” which he later sold to buy Burton’s Historical Collections; received an impetus towards practical improvements from Defoe’s Essay upon Projects and an impetus towards virtue from Mather’s Essays to do Good. Before he left Boston he had his mind opened to free speculation and equipped for logical reasoning by Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the Port Royal Art of Thinking, Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and the works of Shaftesbury and Collins.