Friday, August 5, 2016
Photo: The photo we all know, (but how accurate to his personality is it?) from Ben Franklin's Wikipedia page. All of the photos in this entry come from the same page.
(Copied and pasted shamelessly from my Goodreads page. Yes, Goodreads. Don't judge.)
Actually, I have the 1932 hardcover, with red boards and very small print, that this paperback is taken from; but I couldn't find that in the listings, and I'm too lazy to create my own for it, and if you've been able to deal with this sentence, you should be able to read this book, no problem, though Franklin used bigger words. There are lots of semicolons and commas and pedantic words, but that was the style of self-labelled philosophers at the time, so the reader has to deal with it.
Though, to be fair, the reader should deal with it, because this is worth reading. I found a lot to like about this, including:
--Ben Franklin came from almost nothing, and became one of the most known, liked, respected, and wealthy men of his time.
--He wrote plainly about how to get this done, and it amounted to just a few things:
* work your ass off, at printing, business in general, or whatever the hell it is you do
* want to work your ass off; want to succeed
* if you see a good thing, pounce on it, fast, before someone else does
* keep your word, even if it's to your (slight) detriment
* form lots of clubs, and be friends with other good businessmen (and men in general)
* moderate, in all things, except business while young
* want to be a decent person, and strive for it
* if you write well and work hard, you'll be known for it
(This last is surprisingly true, then and now. Most people, IMO, don't write well or work consistently, daily, hard. I'm one of the more active people I know, and I have been disgustingly lazy this summer.)
You may not know that Ben Franklin came from Boston, MA; moved to Newport, RI; then to New York City, then to London, England, then, finally, to Philadelphia. He moved around a lot, mentally and physically, and became a successful (and busy) diplomat after he became a very successful businessman and printer. He never stayed still, and I'll bet his energy was at times difficult for his wife to deal with. (I offer this to you from personal, bitter experience.)
He was one of the most fit and physical guys around in his youth. Written in three stages when he was older (the last time just a year or so before he died), his Autobiography (edited; not in full) comes across as plainly written as he was plainly spoken, and it pulls no punches. It shows he was known for his rowing and swimming prowess when younger, and he speaks highly--as did most guys of his time--of long walks. It seems he was quite different when younger, physically, than the rather robust portraits we have of him as an older man. But who knows? The grim expression of his mouth and lips in portraits (he often looks like he was biting down hard on something) was the common trope in paintings of the time; George Washington looks like he has just finished biting someone's face off, by comparison. So were these guys bitter, too-serious old men, in pain from their wooden false teeth? Who knows, but Franklin's writing doesn't make him seem that way.
(Though, a quick note about his teeth: He was a very successful printer, of course, and he did all or most of the work himself for most of his printing career, so he put a lot of lead in his mouth, between his teeth, when he was setting type. My father, a typesetter himself early in his career [which he missed when he got promoted, though he preferred the better pay and benefits], said he put heavy lead type in his mouth all the time when setting it, and so did everybody else. If he did that in the 1960s and 1970s, Franklin did that in the 1700s--and they shared the same dental fate as well.)
Another quick note: It seems Franklin was a helluva salesman, as all of his money as a printer came, of course, from subscriptions to his newspaper. As you may imagine, he sold those himself, as well. Since he was very strong at interpersonal communication (he joined lots of philosophical clubs, and started a lot of those, and social clubs), this may have been easy for him. As I said, he was well liked; it seems that nobody tired of him asking them to buy subscriptions to everything, from his paper, to his Almanack, to other pamphlets and start-ups of his friends, social and political.
And--he made a lot of money from almost-Ponzi schemes. He'd take on apprentices, or help printers from other states, and when they got situated with their own businesses, they had to give him a percentage of their business for X number of years. This would sooner or later end, but I'll bet it was part of a contract. Lots of guys happily signed up for it, so it seems to be a mostly win-win for everyone involved.
He also had lots of trouble with the wrong friends when he was younger. He'd at first make business decisions or friendships with men who proved to be unreliable, drunkards (a big problem), lazy, greedy, or inept. Surprisingly, he never broke off these friendships. They did, in bitterness of his success, and he was always glad to be rid of them--but he always waited for them to break up with him! I was glad to see this, as I've made similar mistakes over the years. Sometimes I did the breaking-up, sometimes they did, but I was always glad it ended. Who needs the drama?
(Doesn't look like the Ben Franklin we're used to, does it? Painted during his lifetime by Benjamin Wilson, in 1759.)
A benefit for Ben Franklin in Philadelphia at the time: No major papers or magazines yet; no monopoly on the time or money of the successful. The literacy rate, of course, was low, but I'll bet the time spent reading of those who could read was a lot higher than it is now. I know a helluva lot of college-educated people who never read. Don't you? Franklin's paper and other printed material sort of formed a monopoly at the time in Philly.
Franklin started the first public library in the colonies, and the first volunteer fire departments. He helped set up successful postal delivery and was the first Postmaster General. We know about his kite and electricity experiments (not covered in his book), but he also had hundreds (!) of other patents, for things like printing presses (obviously), wood-burning stoves, and who knows what else. He just glosses over this accomplishment.
He spent a lot of time with his personal blueprint for personal and moral success, which I'll go over in a different blog. (Go to stevenbelanger[dot]blogspot[dot]com.) This section of his book is what most people remember about his Almanack--another huge success never gone into in his book. In fact, there are no aphorisms here--no, "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Ever see the magnet that has the second half crossed off and replaced with, "Tired as hell"?
Anyway, the very surprising thing about his Autobiography is what's not in it. You would think that a successful printer would print a lot about his business success, political success, scientific success, social success, personal success, or his moral, social or political views--but he never did, outside of his Almanack (which everyone knew he wrote). But his press was never a publishing house. There were lots of successful, literate guys with libraries--which he mentions frequently and of course approved of--but it seems he was just too busy to print his own Autobiography.
He finally did when he was much older--while he was bored in France or in England in one of his diplomatic posts later in life. He had a very detailed outline, starting from his very early Boston days, but he only finished a very small percentage of it while alive. No Almanack. No Declaration of Independence! No Revolutionary War! No coverage of his diplomatic successes, before or after the war. (The British and French, apparently, loved him. So did a lot of women over there, if you catch my drift.) He was already a widower when the war came, and I think he re-married afterwards, but was never at home. I'm guessing that he spent a lot more time in France and England in his life than he ever spent in Philadelphia. This is definitely true after the war; he was a very successful diplomat in France. He served in this capacity from 1776 to 1785, and he died in 1790.
I could go on. Very, very interesting life. Very interesting guy. Highly recommended.