J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Franklin’s Autobiography in Franklin’s Hand

Today I’m scheduled to travel from Boston to Philadelphia, much as young Benjamin Franklin did almost three centuries ago.

The manuscript in which Franklin recounted his early life for his children can be viewed in digital form thanks to the library of the University of Pennsylvania. (The manuscript itself belongs to the Huntington Library in California.)

Here’s Franklin describing the extent of his formal schooling:
My elder Brothers were all put Apprentices to different Trades. I was put to the Grammar School at Eight Years of Age, my Father intending to devote me, as the Tithe of his Sons, to the Service of the Church. My early Readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read), and the Opinion of all his Friends that I should certainly make a good Scholar, encourag’d him in this Purpose of his. My Uncle Benjamin too approv’d of it, and propos’d to give me all his Shorthand Volumes of Sermons, I suppose as a stock to set up with, if I would learn his Character.

I continu’d however at the Grammar School not quite one Year, tho’ in that time I had risen gradually from the Middle of the Class of that Year to be the Head of it, and farther was remov’d into the next Class above it, in order to go with that into the third at the End of the Year. But my Father in the mean time, from a view of the Expence of a College Education which, having so large a Family, he could not well afford, and the mean Living many so educated were afterwards able to obtain, Reasons that be gave to his Friends in my Hearing, altered his first Intention, took me from the Grammar School, and sent me to a School for Writing and Arithmetic kept by a then famous Man, Mr. Geo. Brownell, very successful in his Profession generally, and that by mild encouraging Methods. Under him I acquired fair Writing pretty soon, but I failed in the Arithmetic, & made no Progress in it.

At Ten Years old I was taken home to assist my Father in his Business, which was that of a Tallow Chandler and Sope-boiler; a Business he was not bred to, but had assumed on his Arrival in New England & on finding his Dying Trade would not maintain his Family, being in little Request. Accordingly I was employed in cutting Wick for the Candles, filling the Dipping Mold, & the Molds for cast Candles, attending the Shop, going of Errands, &c.
The manuscript shows Franklin’s little edits, such as changing his time at Boston’s Latin School from “only one Year” to “not quite one Year” and adding the description of Brownell’s “mild encouraging Methods” of teaching.

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