Benjamin Franklin was born more than three hundred years ago. Today he is still one of the most famous and beloved men in American history. Benjamin was a great scientist, thinker, inventor, writer, and printer. He created or helped create the first lending library, the first fire department, the first public hospital, and the first post office in America.
When he wasn’t working, Benjamin used his spare time wisely. He played music and taught himself five languages. He also learned to swim, and many years after he died, he was made a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame!
But Benjamin is probably best known as one of America’s Founding Fathers. His wisdom helped guide the country in its struggle to break free from English rule and become a new nation. People often wonder how this poor boy, with just two years of school, was able to lead such an amazing life. Benjamin Franklin’s story is hard to believe.
Benjamin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1706. At the time of his birth, the United States wasn’t a country. It was divided into thirteen colonies and ruled by England, a country thousands of miles across the ocean.
Boston was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Because the city is on the Atlantic Ocean and has a deep harbor, it was one of the busiest seaports in the colonies.
The Franklin Family
Before Benjamin was born, his father, Josiah, had sailed from England to make a new life in Boston. He owned a shop that sold candles and soap that were made there. Josiah had seven children with his first wife, who later died. He had ten more with his second wife, including Benjamin.
Josiah worked hard to feed seventeen children! Ben was the fifteenth child and the youngest son. People knew Josiah as a wise man who could be counted on to give good advice.
The Franklins lived in a small house with four rooms.
As a boy, Benjamin taught himself to swim. When he was eleven, he wanted to swim faster, so he made wooden paddles that fit over his hands—almost like flippers! He did swim a lot faster, but his wrists got very tired from using the paddles.
Once Benjamin tied himself to a kite that pulled him across the water.
Benjamin the Apprentice
Because most families were large and needed money, kids in Benjamin’s time went to work when they were very young. Many signed on to be an apprentice (uh-PREN-tis).
Apprentices worked for expert craftsmen to learn skills such as shoe or furniture making so they too could make a living. They signed contracts promising to work for a set number of years. Many promised to work until they turned twenty-one.
By the time he was ten, Benjamin had only been to school for two years. His father decided he needed to go to work and gave him a job at his soap and candle shop. Benjamin spent his days trimming candlewicks and running errands.
Benjamin didn’t like this job. What he did like was reading. James, Benjamin’s older brother, owned a printshop that printed books, newspapers, and articles. Josiah asked him to take Benjamin on as his apprentice.
Ben signed a contract promising to work for James until he was twenty-one. The contract said he’d obey his brother and not get married, play cards, or drink alcohol. In exchange, James would pay for his food, some clothes, and a place to live.
Today printing presses use electricity, but in Benjamin’s day people operated them by hand. Benjamin’s main job was to set up the letters one by one on the printing press. He also trudged door-to-door selling a newspaper called The New-England Courant
, which James published.
Benjamin and His Books
Benjamin was happiest reading. Since there were no libraries in Boston and he didn’t have money to buy books, he borrowed them from friends or read things from the shop.
Every night, Benjamin sat up late reading and studying. He became his own best teacher. By the time he was a teenager, he’d learned more math, better English grammar, some great writing skills, and much more.
Benjamin was interested in almost everything. Because he loved the sea, he read books on sailing. He even read a book urging people to stop eating meat. (He actually stopped for a short time.)
Mrs. Silence Dogood
When Benjamin was sixteen, he wanted to write for the newspaper. James was so jealous of him that he wouldn’t allow it. Benjamin secretly began to write funny articles that made fun of people and things.
Benjamin didn’t want anyone, especially his brother, to know that he was the writer, so he slipped his articles under the printshop door. He signed them as Mrs. Silence Dogood
. People all over town were curious about who Mrs. Dogood was. Ben pretended Mrs. Dogood was a widow. The newspaper got letters from men asking to marry her!
Apprentices were often harshly treated. Although Benjamin and James worked closely together, James had a bad temper and often hit or yelled at his brother.
It was against the law for apprentices to leave before their contract was up. In 1723, with several years left on his contract, Benjamin ran away from Boston.
A New Life
He packed a few clothes and took the small amount of money he’d made selling his books. Then Benjamin boarded a boat to New York City, where he hoped to find a job. Since there was no work for him in New York, he headed to Philadelphia, a city about a hundred miles away.
In order to get there, Ben walked fifty miles. Then he took a ship, and then he rowed a boat! It was a hard trip, and he felt sick. He’d read that drinking lots of cold water would make him feel better. He drank a lot!
Benjamin arrived dirty, hungry, and very tired. He went into a bakery and spent a precious few of his coins on three rolls. Then he strolled down the street eating one, with the other two tucked under each arm. Since Benjamin’s pockets were stuffed with shirts and socks, he was quite a sight!
Copyright © 2019 by Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.