At a meeting of writers last night, one person shared a story about Benjamin Franklin learning to swim. That reminded me of this anecdote from the great man’s Autobiography, in which a 1724 episode which must have been riotously funny to a bunch of rowdy teenaged apprentices becomes a Serious Lesson for Us All. But then that’s the way the Autobiography works.
There was another bookish lad in the town [Boston], John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice. . . .Collins helped Franklin run away from his older brother and master. Franklin established himself as a journeyman in Philadelphia, and sent such happy reports home that Collins, by then “a clerk in the post-office,” decided to join him. But their relationship wasn’t the same.
I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough.
While I liv’d in Boston most of my hours of leisure for conversation were spent with him, and he continu’d a sober as well as an industrious lad; was much respected for his learning by several of the clergy and other gentlemen, and seemed to promise making a good figure in life. But, during my absence, he had acquir’d a habit of sotting with brandy; and I found by his own account, and what I heard from others, that he had been drunk every day since his arrival at New York, and behav’d very oddly.When we consider the older Benjamin Franklin and his lessons, it’s often wise to consider what the younger Benjamin Franklin would have thought of them. Probably something like this.
He had gam’d, too, and lost his money, so that I was oblig’d to discharge his lodgings, and defray his expenses to and at Philadelphia, which prov’d extremely inconvenient to me. . . .
We proceeded to Philadelphia. Collins wished to be employ’d in some counting-house, but, whether they discover’d his dramming by his breath, or by his behaviour, tho’ he had some recommendations, he met with no success in any application, and continu'd lodging and boarding at the same house with me, and at my expense. . . .
His drinking continu’d, about which we sometimes quarrell’d; for, when a little intoxicated, he was very fractious. Once, in a boat on the Delaware with some other young men, he refused to row in his turn. “I will be row’d home,” says he.
“We will not row you,” says I.
“You must, or stay all night on the water,” says he, “just as you please.”
The others said, “Let us row; what signifies it?”
But, my mind being soured with his other conduct, I continu’d to refuse. So he swore he would make me row, or throw me overboard; and coming along, stepping on the thwarts, toward me, when he came up and struck at me, I clapped my hand under his crutch [i.e., crotch], and, rising, pitched him head-foremost into the river.
I knew he was a good swimmer, and so was under little concern about him; but before he could get round to lay hold of the boat, we had with a few strokes pull’d her out of his reach; and ever when he drew near the boat, we ask’d if he would row, striking a few strokes to slide her away from him. He was ready to die with vexation, and obstinately would not promise to row.
However, seeing him at last beginning to tire, we lifted him in and brought him home dripping wet in the evening.
We hardly exchang’d a civil word afterwards, and a West India captain, who had a commission to procure a tutor for the sons of a gentleman at Barbadoes, happening to meet with him, agreed to carry him thither. He left me then, promising to remit me the first money he should receive in order to discharge the debt; but I never heard of him after.