”Pray, Father Abraham, what think you of the Times? Won’t these heavy Taxes quite ruin the Country?”
“Friends, the Taxes are indeed very heavy…but we have many others. . . We are taxed twice as much by our Idleness, three times as much by our Pride, and four times as much by our Folly. . . .” -- Poor Richard’s Almanack
Not well known today is Poor Richard’s Almanack, though people may have heard of the Franklin stove and bifocals—which Ben Franklin invented. Franklin started his annual Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732, the year George Washington was born. It was a means for publicizing his ideas and helped make his printing shop a financial success. (Circulation: 10,000 copies a year).
Ben learned printing as an apprentice to his brother James. but the apprenticeship term was nine years with no pay till he final year, and his brother maltreated him, so he fled to Philadelphia. There, he came to the attention of the provincial governor, who urged him to acquire a printing press from London . In the end, Ben went himself to London, where for two years he perfected his printing skills and brought home a press.
Back in Philadelphia in 1726 at age 21, he organized the Junto, a discussion group of twelve to discuss morals, politics, and Natural Philosophy. He wrote out the rules: No heated disputes, no dogmatic Conversation-killer words (like Obviously, Certainly, Undoubtedly). They met every Friday night after work. Every three months, a member would read aloud a piece he had written.
The Junto lasted 40 years, Today there are Juntos Another outcome was public libraries, which grew out of Ben’s idea was for members to shelve their books together in their meeting room.
A devourer of books, self-taught after two years at Boston Latin School, he became a versatile problem-solver. He invented or innovated bifocals, a glass armonica, street lighting, a police force, a fire company. When the Indians wiped out a village of Monrovians, he built four forts at the Provincial Governor’s request. He founded a militia, a hospital, an academy (becoming the University of Pennsylvania). Appointed Postmaster General, he made a trip through New England to lay out routes and invented the odometer, which he attached to his carriage.
A scientist, his experiment with a kite and lightning proved that lightning is a stream of electrified air. He enunciated the principle that science requires an experiment be capable of being reproduced—a principle sometimes overlooked 300 years later. For his scientific discoveries, he received honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, Oxford, and University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Finally, he lived in time to participate with the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
But it is not his inventions and innovations but his character that today, January 6, we celebrate on his birthday.
Early on, Ben worked to perfect his “virtues” of which he named 13: temperance, silence, order (each part of your business to have its time); resolution (perform what you’ve resolved); frugality, industry, sincerity (use no hurtful deceit); justice (perform the benefits that are your duty); moderation, cleanliness, tranquility (be not disturbed at trifles or understandable accidents); chastity, humility (imitate Jesus and Socrates).
He drew up a table showing the days of the week and each of the virtues. He concentrated on one virtue at a time till he mastered it.
He learned printing from his brother James, but found him difficult, and he fled to Philadelphia. There he came to the attention of the Provincial Governor, who encouaged him to acquire a printing press from London and set up his own printing shop. Ben went himself to London, where for two years he perfected his printing skills, returning with a press.
Back in Philadelphia in 1726 at age 21, he organized the Junto, a club of twelve members who met every Friday night after work for discussions on morals, politics, and Natural Philosophy. Ben wrote the rules:
Our debates were to be . . . conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire for victory, and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions or direct contradictions, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.
The Junta lasted 40 years. Today there are the American Philosophical Society and a few Juntos, in New York, London, and Philadelphia.
He kept unpleasantness out of his printing business. When people would come to him with a manuscript involving an unpleasant person, he would refuse to publish it, explaining that he would print it and give the customer copies he could distribute.”
In Poor Richard’s Almanack and throughout his life, his wit was useful. In London, where he was representing the provinces, he encountered Gibbon, famous author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Finding him overbearing, he wrote him a letter promising to furnish him with plenty of materials when he was ready to write the Rise and Fall of the British Empire.
He may have been the first cartoonist. In the Independence era, he drew a rattlesnake cut in pieces, with the initials of a province on each segment. He titled it “Join us or Die.”
In his essay the “Way to Wealth, a preface to the 1758 Poor Richard’s Almanac,” Franklin had useful advice:
Work while it is called To-day, for you know not how much you may be hindered To-morrow, which makes Poor Richard say, One to-day is worth two To-morrows, and farther, Have you somewhat to do To-morrow, do it To-day.
By Natalie Sirkin