The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin By Benjamin Franklin Summary and Analysis Part 3: Section 11 - First Involvements with Public Affairs

Summary

"My first Promotion," Franklin says, "was my being chosen in 1736 Clerk of the General Assembly." He was unchallenged his first year in office, but his second year began with an Assembly member's long speech opposing him. Since Franklin valued this job not only for the salary but also for the opportunity it gave him to secure printing orders, he took steps to win over his opponent: he asked to borrow a book, then returned it with many thanks. Being asked for this favor flattered the man, who remained Franklin's ally ever after. Franklin found it more profitable to remove enmity than to resent it, and further observed that "he that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged." The next year Franklin replaced Bradford as Postmaster, and found this job advantageous, too, despite its small salary, because it encouraged subscribers and advertisers for his newspaper and made newsgathering easier. Bradford had lost his job by keeping inexact accounts, an error against which Franklin warns others.

The first public affair on which Franklin concentrated was regulating the night watch. The constable of each ward profited from the six-shilling fee each householder paid for a substitute to keep watch. The constable spent many nights drinking with unsavory company instead of walking rounds. Furthermore, Franklin felt these fees were unfair, since a poor widow had to pay as much for her nighttime protection as the wealthiest merchant. Franklin felt regular watchmen should be hired and paid from fees based on the value of the property they protected. The plan was presented at both the Junto and its subsidiary clubs as if it had originated in each group. Some years later, after the various club members had grown prominent, Franklin's proposal was passed by the city.

Franklin also read in the Junto a paper on careless accidents causing household fires, and how to prevent them. Following the Junto's discussions, a fire company was organized which ultimately included most property owners of Philadelphia. Franklin was proud that the Union Fire Company still existed at the time he wrote, though all the original members but two were dead. He was also proud that Philadelphia's efficient fire-fighting system prevented more than two houses from ever being lost at a time.

In 1739 the Reverend Whitefield arrived in Philadelphia to preach, but the clergy refused him the use of their churches. He therefore preached in the fields, where huge crowds gathered to hear him. Franklin used Whitefield's outdoor sermons to estimate that thirty thousand might possibly hear him simultaneously, and to verify for himself the possible truth of historical accounts that generals had harangued whole armies. Franklin observed that Whitefield's older sermons were so well-practiced and modulated that they resembled "an excellent Piece of Music" and concluded that an itinerant preacher had some definite advantages over one who could not rehearse his sermons. Soon money was collected for a meetinghouse where Whitefield and any other preacher of any persuasion might preach if he wished, "so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a Missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, he would find a Pulpit at his Service."

Whitefield traveled through the Colonies to Georgia, where the first settlers had been largely "broken Shopkeepers and other insolvent Debtors" who perished in large numbers, leaving many orphans. He soon decided to establish an orphanage in Georgia, and returned north to raise funds. Since he ignored Franklin's advice to bring the children north instead, Franklin refused to contribute, though Whitefield's eloquence later moved him to empty his pockets.

Though Whitefield's prayers for Franklin's conversion were never answered, Franklin had great respect for Whitefield's personal integrity, and remained Whitefield's friend until the man died. Once Franklin invited Whitefield to stay with him, and Whitefield thanked him for "that kind Offer for Christ's sake." Franklin replied, "Don't let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ's sake but for your sake." But finally Whitefield came to grief over his writing, which critics could attack more easily than his spoken sermons. Franklin felt his influence would have been greater had he never written, since his admirers could then "feign for him as great a Variety of Excellencies, as their enthusiastic Admiration might wish him to have possessed. "

At this time Franklin's printing business and his unrivalled newspaper were making him wealthier each day. He thus began, on a partnership basis, to establish his trusted workmen in their own businesses in neighboring colonies. The contracts and partnerships worked out well for all.

Analysis

Franklin felt it unnecessary to identify the Reverend George Whitefield of England except by his last name, for he assumed the famous evangelist would be familiar to all. Whitefield's reputation rested on his open-air preaching throughout England and the American colonies. Along with Jonathan Edwards in New England, he began the Great Awakening, the wave of evangelical religious fervor that swept the colonies. As the bemused Franklin records, his eloquence and influence were great, even among those (such as Franklin) who were skeptical of his message and his methods. Whitefield assured the crowds that they were "half Beasts and half Devils," yet still they flocked to hear him. Indeed, "it seem'd as if all the World were growing religious." It is an indication of Franklin's genuinely tolerant religious spirit that though he never subscribed to any of the doctrines Whitefield was promulgating, he still remained the man's close personal friend. In fact, the hall Franklin helped erect for the use of Whitefield and any other itinerant preacher who wished to address a crowd, bespeaks a religious tolerance as rare in colonial days as it has proved to be in later times.

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