Saturday, April 22, 2006
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
By Richard E. Noble
I was watching “Book Notes” and this famous author was talking about the fact that as a youth he was forced, as were all grade-schoolers of his day, to read the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. He hated it, the book being so “dull, pompous and laden with platitudes”, he said.
I’ve just finished reading the Autobiography of Ben Franklin, and I have gotten a belly laugh out of just about every chapter. The man is hilarious. I really haven’t decided whether the whole book is an outright tongue-in-cheek put-on, or that old Ben is just such a practical, unemotional fellow, that his guidelines for living a virtuous life sound like a biology professor trying to explain to a slow student how to rationally distinguish his left hand from his right.
The story of his courtship with “Miss Read”, his eventual wife, I’m sure, is not something that “Miss Read” cut out of her husband’s book and hid away in a trunk of loving memorabilia in an upstairs attic, along with her first love poem and a piece of her wedding cake. She was “deserving ... pitiable and a good and faithful helpmate”, says Ben. And, believe it or not, she nearly lost Ben’s attentions by her inability to get her parents to cough up one hundred pounds as her dowry. In fact, she did loose Ben for a good period during the negotiations, and in the interim Ben being left hot to trot explains that; “In the meantime, that hard to be governed passion of youth had harried me frequently into intrigues with low woman that fell in my way.” He goes on to explain his thankfulness at not catching “distemper” or something worse.
His battle with being a perfect, virtuous individual he compares with a man attempting to buy a shinny ax. After a few hours and some time at the hard work of turning the wheel for the blacksmith who is trying to get the man’s desired ax to shine, the customer decides that a speckled ax will do just fine. This becomes even funnier when you remember that Ben is talking about his own moral character here. So when put next to the hard work of becoming moral and virtuous, Ben’s decision is that he would just as soon have a speckled soul to carry to his Maker. Oh, my goodness!
And this has got to be the best one of all. Ben is going into his shop on Craven Street one morning where upon he finds a “poor ... very pale and feeble” sickly woman, sweeping the walk in front of his door. He asks her who hired her to sweep his walk and she replies; “Nobody; but I am poor and in distress, and I sweeps before gentle folks’ doors and hopes they will give me something.”
Oh, my, doesn’t that nearly break your heart? So what does old compassionate Ben do? Why he offers the feeble, poor, pale, very sickly woman a shilling to sweep the whole darn street. When she comes for her shilling he presumes that a woman in her obviously poor condition couldn’t have done a very good job, so he sends his servant, out to check her work. Jeeves reports that the poor, dying, old lady has really done an excellent job - so what does Ben conclude? - that she deserves, possibly, a permanent, full-time job back at the Franklin plantation or something of the like? Not quite: “I then judged that if that feeble woman could sweep such a street in three hours, a strong, active man might have done it in half the time.”
Ben Franklin, the grandfather of compassionate conservatism - and possibly several illegitimate children - so, what’s new.