The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin By Benjamin Franklin Summary and Analysis Part 1: Section 2 - The Apprentice

Summary

At the age of 12, Benjamin reluctantly signed an indenture contract, to work without pay (except for his last year of service) until he was 21. But he learned his printing house duties quickly, and much more besides. From friends apprenticed to booksellers, he was able to borrow books that he read throughout many nights. And under the encouragement of his brother, he learned to compose ballads about local topics and peddle them successfully around the streets. His father made fun of the verses, and discouraged Benjamin from writing poetry, since poets usually made so poor a living.

Most important, however, Benjamin learned at this time to write effective prose. His lessons began when he engaged in a running, written argument with his friend John Collins about the plausibility of educating women, a scheme Franklin favored. When Benjamin's father read the letters and pointed out that his son's writing lacked elegance and clarity, Benjamin resolved to improve it. First he tried imitating the Spectator papers. He would jot down the ideas of articles, then after a few days write the ideas out in his own sentences, which he would compare with the originals. He wrote verse in order to increase his awareness of words, and turned stories into verse and back again in order to gain writing practice. He would also jumble an essay's statements, then after several weeks try unscrambling them to increase his sense of structure.

When 16, Benjamin became a vegetarian and volunteered to board himself for half what his brother was currently paying. He soon found that by eating frugally, he could save half the amount his brother gave him, and could use the money to buy books. Then while his brother and the other apprentices were eating, he could use the extra time for study.

One book that influenced the boy at this time was an English rhetoric that included an illustration of "the Socratic Method." Charmed by Socrates' approach to conversation, Benjamin began to practice drawing people out as Socrates had done, avoiding any direct contradictions of their opinions. He soon grew adept at trapping his opponent through ostensibly irrelevant questions. He pretended to be "the humble Enquirer and Doubter," and found the method particularly good in religious arguments. Though he stopped using this method after awhile, he always tried to express himself with Socrates' "modest Diffidence," for he found the manner convinced others to follow his wishes far better than dogmatic assertiveness.

Around 1720, Benjamin's brother began to print a newspaper called the New England Courant. Young Benjamin secretly contributed articles that were praised by James's friends, and thought to be the work of some prominent citizen. When Benjamin announced himself the author, however, James decided that the praise would make his apprentice conceited.

The two brothers did not get along. Benjamin particularly resented James's beatings. After James was imprisoned for a month because of a newspaper article offensive to the Assembly, however, Benjamin printed in the Courant several remarks that were critical of the government. So when James was released, he was ordered to stop printing his newspaper. James decided to circumvent this injunction by making Benjamin the official printer. But because Benjamin could not serve legally while he was his brother's apprentice, the two agreed that Benjamin's contract would be returned publicly, a private agreement on the old terms to be substituted in secret. Soon an argument allowed Benjamin to take advantage of his brother's public act by refusing to work for him. In effect, he cheated James of four years of free labor, an act Benjamin later declared "one of the first Errata of my Life." James's revenge was to prevent Benjamin from getting a job at any other printing-house in Boston.

At this point, Benjamin decided to try his luck in New York, the nearest town boasting printers. Since he could get no work, had made political enemies in the Assembly, and had been labeled an atheist in the town, he felt it judicious to leave Boston. But he feared that his father might prevent his leaving, because he was only 17; so he slipped away secretly, telling a ship's captain that he was fleeing friends of a girl he had got pregnant but did not wish to marry.

Analysis

In this section and throughout the Autobiography, Franklin takes an understandable pride in his own accomplishments, and an unapologetic stance about his faults. He gives God conventional perfunctory thanks for leading him to his successes, but never professes that he was unworthy of the blessings Providence gave him. If God led him to the means he used for achieving success, Franklin makes clear, those means were still fashioned by his own ingenuity. The point suggests a fact about Franklin which one must remember in order to understand the man's astonishing range of achievements: above all, Franklin accepted himself gladly, believing himself capable of grasping any good thing, if he worked hard enough for it. And this acceptance of himself included not only his talents but also his flaws. His mistakes he calls, significantly, his "errata," a printer's term for typographical errors. The choice of words indicates that Franklin did not think in terms of sins, or moral lapses, or personal inadequacies. Rather, he found some past actions, when considered objectively and impersonally, to be unfortunate deviations from the popular standard. As the Autobiography goes on to point out, Franklin felt that many of his errata were later cancelled by other actions that fairly compensated for them. Though he seemed to regret not being perfect from the beginning (and later formulated a scheme for arriving at perfection in 13 weeks), he apparently wasted little energy agonizing over irremediable mistakes.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

At age 17, Franklin left Boston because




Quiz