The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin By Benjamin Franklin Summary and Analysis Part 3: Section 13 - Philadelphia Politics

Summary

As soon as Franklin disengaged himself from his business to perform his electrical experiments and philosophical studies, other people claimed his time. The Governor appointed him justice of the peace (from which duty he soon withdrew, finding he knew too little common law to serve well), the city corporation first chose him as Council member and then as alderman, and the citizens elected him a burgess of the Assembly. All these honors flattered him, of course, especially since they were "entirely unsolicited." But as the former clerk, he was especially delighted — for the ten years he was re-elected — to be able to make his own speeches in the Assembly.

In the next year, the Assembly appointed Franklin and another member to negotiate a treaty with the Indians. Discovering the Indians's weakness for alcohol, the government representatives forbade selling them liquor while the treaty was being settled, but promised ample rum when it was signed. The Indians received their promised rum one afternoon, and by night were drunkenly quarreling and beating each other by light of a huge bonfire. They "form'd a Scene the most resembling our Ideas of Hell that could well be imagin'd." Next day, three Indian counselors came to apologize and to blame their behavior on the rum. But they defended the rum, too, on the grounds that the Great Spirit had made everything for a purpose, and the purpose of rum was to intoxicate Indians. Franklin felt that rum had actually been responsible for annihilating the Indians' East Coast tribes.

A friend of Franklin's, Dr. Thomas Bond, began to advocate a Philadelphia hospital for any poor who needed care. The novel idea found little support until the man approached Franklin, saying that nobody would subscribe to the project until they heard what Franklin thought of it. Franklin promised his help, and wrote several newspaper articles on the topic. Soon it was apparent, however, that the hospital could not be built without help from the Assembly. But rural legislators felt the hospital would benefit only the city, and further questioned whether the plan had common support. So Franklin induced the assembly to allocate 2,000 pounds for the hospital on the condition that the same amount was first raised privately. Many legislators who doubted that such a large amount could be raised voted for this bill as a way to appear charitable without having to spend any public money. Franklin then went to the Philadelphian citizens, asking them to give generously and thus double their contributions. The wording of the bill thus influenced both Assembly members and townsmen; and Franklin later stated, "I do not remember any of my political Manoeuvers, the Success of which gave me at the time more Pleasure. Or that in after-thinking of it, I more easily excus'd myself for having made some Use of Cunning."

At this same time a minister named Gilbert Tennent requested Franklin's assistance in raising money for a church to house the remnants of Whitefield's followers. But Franklin was unwilling to keep asking friends for money and absolutely refused, as he also refused to give the man a list of generous citizens. Solicited at least for his advice, Franklin replied, "Apply to all those whom you know will give something; next, to those whom you are uncertain whether they will give anything or not; and show them the List of those who have given: and lastly, do not neglect those who you are sure will give nothing; for in some of them you may be mistaken." Tennent laughed, followed the advice, and raised more money than he had expected.

Though Philadelphia streets were straight and regular, they were also unpaved, therefore muddy in wet weather and dusty in dry. Sidewalks existed near the houses, but no provision was made for cleaning them. Franklin persuaded his neighbors to pay a sweeper to clean their sidewalks twice a week. And since their street was near a city market, all noticed the difference clean sidewalks made, and were more ready to accept taxes for paving the city (thereby reducing dirt). The paving bill Franklin introduced into the Assembly passed after he left for England, and he was later wrongly credited with the idea of adding streetlights. He did, however, suggests an improved design for the lamps that made them much superior to London's globes. Franklin's lamps, made of four square panes of glass with a chimney to emit smoke, gave more light, since the glass did not cloud up so rapidly as the globes. The lamps were also more economical, since an accidental blow broke only one pane of glass rather than the whole lamp.

When in England Franklin observed how inconvenient were London's arrangements for cleaning streets, how quickly the streets might be swept, and how practical was a single gutter running down the center of the street (since rain gathering into a single stream could easily wash away mud, whereas two streams on each side lacked force to do more than increase the mud). Franklin wrote up a proposal for systematically cleaning London's streets, which he thought workable because Londoners slept after sunrise, thus giving street cleaners time for their chores. He felt that so lowly a matter as street cleaning became important when one remembered the number of eyes hurt by blowing dust on a single day in London. He added, "Human Felicity is produc'd not so much by great Pieces of good Fortune that seldom happen, as by little Advantages that occur every Day." One might make a man happier, he felt, by teaching him to shave himself properly than by giving him 1,000 guineas: The man might spend his money rapidly, but the skill of shaving would spare him from waiting each day on barbers with dirty fingers, bad breath, and dull razors.

Analysis

Though many feel the Autobiography grows dull in parts written by the older Franklin, this section reveals the continuing undercurrent of humor that even the 78-year-old Franklin conveyed. His descriptions of the Indian apology are as amusing as his reference to their fate is sobering. One also notices the twinkle of irony behind Franklin's descriptions of horrors to be met in a barber's chair. His ironically obvious advice to Reverend Tennent suggests how the apostle of common sense leavened his apothegms with a smile.

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