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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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Benjamin Franklin Leaves Boston in Style

Among the first generation of leading American statesmen, Benjamin Franklin is often said to be the only one who was ever in bondage to another person. Sure, he was an apprentice with a limited time until he became free, and his master was his older brother James, but he still chafed at that status.

Paradoxically, Benjamin was formally identified as the publisher of the New England Courant, a ruse to get around the authorities’ ban on James issuing a newspaper. But James was master of the shop.

Benjamin started to talk about working somewhere else. James reportedly went to the other printers in Boston and warned them not to hire his brother. Benjamin then started to talk about going to New York instead.

In Franklin’s autobiography, he described how he made it out of Boston this way:
I determin’d on the Point, but my Father now siding with my Brother, I was sensible that, if I attempted to go openly, Means would be used to prevent me. My Friend [John] Collins, therefore, undertook to manage a little for me. He agreed with the Captain of a New York Sloop for my Passage, under the Notion of my being a young Acquaintance of his that had got a naughty Girl with Child, whose Friends would compel me to marry her, and therefore I could not appear or come away publicly.

So I sold some of my Books to raise a little Money, Was taken on board privately, and as we had a fair Wind, in three Days I found myself in New York, near three hundred Miles from Home, a Boy of but seventeen, without the least Recommendation to or Knowledge of any Person in the Place, and with very little Money in my Pocket.
Such a classy start for the future Founder.

William Temple Franklin published the autobiography after his grandfather’s death, he substituted “had an intrigue with a girl of bad character” for “got a naughty Girl with Child.” That doesn’t really address the fact that it takes two to be naughty in that fashion. Furthermore, once he settled in Philadelphia, Benjamin proved himself fully capable of doing just what his friend Collins had described him doing back in Boston.

(Collins eventually followed Franklin to Philadelphia, but their friendship didn’t last.)

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