Object of the Month

Benjamin Franklin recalls Boston, the place of his birth

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Mather, 12 May 1784

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Mather, 12 May 1784

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  • In a nostalgic letter to the Rev. Samuel Mather, Benjamin Franklin describes the trips he made back to Boston in the sixty years after he left for Philadelphia in 1723: "I long much to see again my native place, and once hoped to lay my bones there."  Writing from Passy, outside of Paris in 1784, Franklin describes the enduring influence of Samuel Mather's father, the Rev. Cotton Mather (who once had been among Franklin's bitterest political foes), both through his writings, "if I have been, as you seem to think, a useful citizen, the public owes the advantage of it to [Cotton Mather's Bonifacius, or Essays to Do Good]," and through Cotton Mather's personal admonishment to young Franklin to "Stoop as you go through the world" to avoid the "thumps" caused by carrying one's head too high. 

    Benjamin Franklin--Boston boy

    Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on 6 January 1706, the son of Josiah and Abiah Franklin. Many years later, in his celebrated Autobiography, Franklin described his childhood along the Boston waterfront in relatively idyllic terms, but as one of seventeen children of a tallow merchant and cloth dyer, by the time he was twelve he had left school for ever and become an apprentice to his older brother, James, the printer and publisher of an early Boston newspaper, The New-England Courant. The "Couranteers," as the contributors to James Franklin's paper came to be known, started something new in America--a lively journal without ties to the Massachusetts colonial government that published attacks on Boston's political and religious establishment. Their satirical attacks grew so strong that James Franklin was imprisoned and later forbidden to publish without prior censorship. He went into hiding, but The New-England Courant continued to appear with teenage Ben Franklin as its putative editor.

    In this heady atmosphere, sixteen-year-old Ben Franklin was inspired to make his own first efforts as a journalist.  As he recollected it, "even though he was still a boy," he secretly contributed a series of essays to the Courant that were supposedly written by a minister's widow named Silence Dogood. In spite of his early success as a satirist and social critic, young Ben Franklin grew restless under the strict control and abuse of his brother and master James. In September of 1723, when Ben was just seventeen years old, he ran away from his apprenticeship--first to New York, and then on to everlasting fame in Philadelphia. As his letter to Samuel Mather makes clear, however, it was not without fond recollections of his youth in Boston.

    An exhibition to celebrate the tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin's birth

    On 6 January 2006, the Massachusetts Historical Society will display Benjamin Franklin's first journalistic efforts--satirical essays written for The New-England Courant in 1722 (when Franklin was but sixteen years old). Writing under the pseudonym of "Silence Dogood," Franklin pretended to be a middle-aged widow who was alternately bemused and outraged by the foibles of the Boston political and religious establishment. The exhibition also will include maps, engravings, artifacts, and manuscript letters written by Franklin, including the letter on view here and a letter to James Bowdoin (written during Franklin's 1763 visit to Boston) that contains Franklin's recipe for his potent milk punch (see the online display of Benjamin Franklin's milk punch recipe). The Silence Dogood exhibition will be on display at the Society from January until March.

    Suggestions for further reading:

    Benjamin Franklin's writings are gathered in a modern, scholarly edition:

    Franklin, Benjamin.  The Papers of Benjamin Franklin.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959-  (37 vols. to date).

    J. A. Leo Lemay has edited Franklin's major published writings and a selection of his correspondence in two volumes for the Library of America:

    Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography, Poor Richard and Later Writings. New York: Library of America, 1997.

    Franklin, Benjamin. Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and Early Writings. New York: Library of America, 2002.

    Franklin has attracted an enormous number of distinguished biographers. For Franklin's youth and early career in Boston see:

    Lemay, J. A. Leo. The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Volume 1: Journalist, 1706-1730. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

    Other recent biographies include:

    Brands, H. W.  The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.

    Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

    Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

    Wood, Gordon. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.


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