It's Up to You, Ben Franklin is a part of the It's Up to You collection.
History meets humor in this interactive Benjamin Franklin biography. Laugh and learn as this American hero makes the toughest choices of his life. Perfect for readers of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales.
You're Benjamin Franklin: inventor, humorist, diplomat-spy, and Founding Father. To rise from humble beginnings and become an American hero, you have to weigh the facts, trust your gut, and make tough choices that will forge America's destiny. No pressure!
In this tongue-in-cheek biography, father-daughter team Tom and Leila Hirschfeld explore eleven critical decisions that shaped Ben's incredible life. With over 100 pieces of archival and original art, fun facts, historical trivia, sidebars, and more, follow Ben's footsteps through the smart calls and near misses that launched his career and helped unite the United States!
An Excerpt fromIt's Up to You, Ben Franklin
At the Crossroads
Your life, Ben, was an amazing journey. Beginning as a poor apprentice, with no schooling past the age of ten, you faced a hard road. But along that road you made unique choices, choices that took you--and America--in new and stunning directions. Who else but you could have achieved all these milestones?
• Founding Father: You’re the only person who signed all of America’s “big four” early documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
• Diplomat/spy: You played a part in the Revolution second in importance only to George Washington’s, first getting France’s help to win the war and later settling with England to end it.
• Scientist: Your groundbreaking research on electricity established a whole new scientific field, and you shed light on dozens of other topics, from lead poisoning to the Gulf Stream.
• Inventor: You saved countless lives with your lightning rod and low-smoke stove, from which you refused to profit, and delighted mankind with your bifocal spectacles, musical instruments, and other inventions. Oh, and you were the first kitesurfer!
• Writer: America’s leading author of your century, you wrote international bestsellers including Poor Richard’s Almanack and your famous Autobiography.
• Entrepreneur: Starting almost penniless, you worked your way up to control a newspaper, a publishing house, a chain of printing shops, and large real estate holdings.
• Civic activist: You founded America’s first lending library and volunteer fire corps, an Ivy League college, a hospital, and many other institutions that improve life for your fellow Americans to this day.
• Public servant: You founded and ran the US Postal Service, served Pennsylvania as an assemblyman and later as three-time president of its executive council, and helped write the state’s constitution.
Along the way, Ben, you also blazed new trails in understanding what it means to be an American, and you gave America a new image on the world stage. You truly pioneered the American Dream, in which anyone can rise in society through hard work and self-discipline. But how did a humble candlemaker’s son from Boston rack up this awesome list of achievements? What kind of person does it take to rise from modest beginnings to become one of his country’s (and the world’s!) all-time heroes?
Okay, maybe you didn’t always seem so “humble” or “modest.” You had a lot to feel pleased with yourself about--and you did. But people still liked you, because you never took yourself too seriously. Of all the Founding Fathers, Ben, you were always the most easygoing, the quickest to smile or crack a joke. That makes you the perfect subject for a biography: not only did you choose one fascinating path after another, but you remembered to have fun along the way.
On your life’s voyage, Ben, you faced more than your share of crossroads. Even more than for most people, the decisions you made there changed the world. We’re going to take a look at eleven major choices, from how you dealt with your bossy older brother to how you confronted America’s deep problem of slavery. At each junction, we’ll explore where you were coming from, which ways you could have gone, and why you chose the path you did. We’re going to walk in your shoes and discover the earthshaking times you lived in, the mind-blowing deeds you accomplished--and the exceptional person you really were. It’s not just history, Ben: it’s your story.
You’re stuck with the worst boss ever--who happens to be your big brother!
It’s funny that history will remember you as laid-back and grandfatherly, Ben. You may be easygoing, but you also think for yourself. From a very young age, your independent mind has led you to challenge authority.
Of course, what most people don’t know is that you’re continuing a Franklin tradition. Family lore tells of a long line of rebels who stood up for religious or political freedom:
Your great-great-grandfather, an English village blacksmith, was an activist ahead of his time, spreading the recently outlawed Anglican religion and organizing nearby peasants against unfair land laws. It helped that he knew how to read, which was unusual then.
The first of many Franklins to get into hot water for writing was his youngest son, Henry, whose poem insulting a local noble got him tossed in jail for a year.
Then there’s his youngest son, Thomas II, known for his mechanical genius. Not only did your grandfather possess skill as a surgeon, clockmaker, gunsmith, and scribe, but he transcended England’s rigid class system by teaching himself astronomy, chemistry, and history.
His youngest son--see a pattern?--your dad, Josiah, rejected the (now-lawful) Anglican religion to become a (not-so-lawful) Puritan, soon after which he ditched England for the colony of Massachusetts. Boston, its capital, was a town of Puritans, so called because they wanted to practice a plainer, “purer” faith, and of other austere Protestants. Boston’s elite were known for strict religious observance, solemn dress, sober manners, and low tolerance for new ideas. Josiah did well in Boston selling cleanliness and light: he made soap and candles.
Josiah married your mom, Abiah Folger, the youngest (naturally) of Peter Folger’s nine children. Peter was a freethinker through and through. He crossed class lines by marrying a serving maid; left Boston for Nantucket Island, where he taught school and converted local Indians; was jailed for resisting the development plans of wealthy landowners; and wrote a pamphlet during King Philip’s War (between Puritans and Indians) in which he claimed God was using the war to punish the Puritans for their intolerance.
Given her upbringing, Abiah must have felt right at home among the nonconformist Franklins. She and Josiah had another trait in common, luckily for you: exceptionally good health. They both lived well into their eighties, a rarity, with no serious illness until shortly before their deaths.
A Born Rebel
So here you came along in 1706, the youngest of your father’s sons. (Two sisters came after you, including your lifelong favorite, Jane.) Did your rebellious ways come from your genes, or was it just a family tradition, passed down by a long line of youngest sons? Either way, you grew into a clever, rambunctious lad.
You loved to swim in the river, but were you content to swim like everyone else? Of course not. Observing that kids with bigger hands and feet went faster, you crafted four flippery things out of wood, two with places for your thumbs to grasp and two that tied onto your feet like sandals. Then, somehow realizing that a kite might save you the trouble of swimming altogether, you used one to glide you all the way across a pond--thus becoming the first known kitesurfer in history! That would not be the last time you came up with a nifty use for kites.
When you were eight, your pious dad decided to raise you to be a minister. You were his tenth son and obviously smart, so he saw you as a kind of tithe (Puritans believe in giving a tithe, or tenth part of their possessions, to the Church). Your path to the ministry would pass through Boston Latin School and on to Harvard College, which was then the only college in Massachusetts.
You had such a promising start, coming in at the top of your first-year class, that Boston Latin offered to let you skip a grade the following fall. Suddenly, though, your academic glory was cut short. Your dad, deciding that educating you for the ministry would be too expensive, yanked you out of Boston Latin and off the path to college. Instead, he decided, you should take up a trade, so all you got was one more year of basic lessons (at a lesser school, where they taught only writing and math). At age ten, schooling over, you found yourself working in your father’s shop: filling soap molds; cutting candlewicks; and skimming the fat off boiling, smelly cauldrons. Bummer.
Disappointed though you were, Ben, you were probably never “reverend” material anyway: you were a little too high-spirited, a little . . . irreverent. As just one example, here’s a story told by your sister Jane: you got so tired of the long blessings Josiah would say before and after every meal that you made the “helpful” suggestion of saying just one big grace up front, when food was being salted away in barrels for the winter. Your dad was not at all amused by the idea that skipping grace all winter would be a great time-saver.
But fate did not intend you to make candles for long. You hated that work, and your love of adventure began tempting you to run away to sea. One of your brothers had previously done just that, and your dad didn’t want a repeat, so he took you around to many different Boston shops, thinking you might like another trade better than his. None seemed a perfect fit, but the tour did show you how lots of different things got made, and this mini-education in manufacturing stayed forever in that unusual brain of yours.
Big Brother Is Watching
After you worked two long years with tallow and wicks, your dad found a spot for you as an apprentice to a local printer, who happened to be your older brother James. Josiah pressured you into signing an unusually long contract, promising to stay an apprentice for nine years, by which time you would be twenty-one.
Life was hard for an apprentice: long hours of grunt work for little or no pay, with food and training supposedly a fair reward. James didn’t cut his little brother any slack, either, working you at least as hard as anyone else in his shop. There was always more to do: cleaning the floors, cutting sheets of paper, slotting type (pieces of metal, each cast with a letter or two) into heavy trays, spreading ink over the type, or tightening the press to transfer the ink onto the paper. It soon became clear that James wanted you not for your brains but only for cheap labor: he ignored any ideas you offered about what to print or how to print it.
You made the best of a bad situation, continuing your education as best you could without teachers or much free time. First you read your dad’s books, mostly ancient or religious texts. Next you made friends with apprentices at the local bookstores, who let you borrow books, but only overnight. Within a few years, you had devoured volume after volume of philosophy, politics, history, grammar, math, logic, and even (still interested in going to sea) navigation.
Your reading taught you many things, including an important lesson you will use often in life: no matter how correct your logic, it won’t persuade people unless you use it with a light touch. You learned how a philosopher like Socrates, instead of confronting people directly, would approach sensitive issues in a roundabout way, often by asking questions. (You also found that even this method of challenging the common wisdom could be dangerous: Socrates’s fellow Athenians put him to death for it.) To practice different methods of written persuasion, you and a like-minded friend sent letters back and forth on various topics, such as whether women should have an equal right to education.
“Silence” Is Golden
Last year, in 1722, at age sixteen, you felt confident enough to write some humorous essays, which you decided were pretty good. James had launched a weekly newspaper, the New-England Courant, but you guessed he’d be too jealous to publish anything he knew you’d written. So you slipped your first essay under the shop’s door one night, written in a script altered to prevent recognition, under the comical pen name of Silence Dogood. The essay claimed you were a middle-aged widow living near Boston, and you had a few things to get off your chest, starting with your life story. (It all began with your birth on a ship carrying your parents here from England; sadly, your fictional dad was still celebrating when a wave washed him overboard.) You didn’t expect to please all your readers (you wrote), but you had no plans to displease them, and if anyone took offense--unless you meant offense--well, he must not be worth your attention.
Everyone in the shop loved your piece, and James printed it on the front page. Silence Dogood was a hit! You wrote another essay, and another, all poking fun at human foolishness and local problems, and the readers begged for more. James published fourteen Silence Dogood essays in all--until you told everyone who’d written them. Annoyed, he shut you down. As you’ll recall, James “thought, probably with reason,” that the kudos you were winning “tended to make me too vain.” So you got the satisfaction of showing you’d fooled him, but at the price of having poor Silence silenced forever.
In those brief months, you learned to love having fans (even if they had no idea who you actually were). You even got to run the newspaper for three weeks--because James was in prison. True to family tradition, his Courant had annoyed the authorities. He complained that the Puritans running Boston thought it was their job to enforce strict morals on everyone, regardless of lifestyle or beliefs. James was all for religion, he wrote, but “too much of it is worse than none at all.” Not only that, but, “Of all knaves, the religious knave is the worst”! Seeing the jail time he got for sticking his neck out reminded you once again that gentle humor was safer. His time behind bars did give you valuable management experience, though--and a taste for being in charge.
Now you’re seventeen, and James is back in control of the business. He won’t publish your essays, he ignores your suggestions, he bosses you around--even hits you when he feels like it--and there’s nothing a lowly apprentice can legally do to stop him. It’s just not FAIR. After getting shortchanged on your schooling, you’re now stuck with a tyrant who won’t let you advance at work--and beats you when you try!
You could try running away, but that would be disobeying your dad and breaking your contract. How can you win your independence? Do you fight back, continue your education, grin and bear your bad boss, or make a break for it?
What do you do, Ben? Select one:
A. Hit James back.
Sounds satisfying, though risky. James is older and probably stronger than you. More important, as apprentice you have no legal right to retaliate against your master. He could punish you severely or even have you thrown in jail! It’s a tough system, one you’ll remember when you hire apprentices of your own, whom you’ll treat far more kindly.
Still, fighting back could feel great, at least in the short run.
B. Go to college after all.
At first glance, that door seems closed. Sorry, Ben, but you lack the formal schooling to gain entrance to college, your dad still won’t pay for it, and you’re legally bound as an apprentice for another four years. And your recent fame as Silence Dogood may not persuade the Puritans who run Harvard to let you in: Silence annoyed the Boston elite by criticizing their hypocrisy and calling for more separation between church and state, so you’re not very popular with the powerful these days.