Benjamin Franklin under President Sanders

It is easy to believe that those who prosper and enjoy financial success have simply been lucky.  This is not the case.  True there are those who get by and enjoy a good life solely because of luck – be it in the form of familial connections or inheritances – but this does not mean that a connection is all it takes nor that every inheritance is sufficient enough to live exceedingly well.  It is important to note this because the common idea today seems to be that most – if not all – rich people have simply been lucky and that they should acknowledge this luck by giving more than their fair share to the government to help those experiencing lesser successes.  (“Fair” being another topic entirely.) The truth is that all people, rich and poor, have been – and are – touched by luck, good and bad.  However, the more prosperous individuals generally make smart choices in order to increase their chances of allowing luck to find them, which in turn allows them to build their wealth.

To illustrate how both good and bad luck has an effect on a successful individual, consider the story of Benjamin Franklin’s journey from Boston to Philadelphia at the age of sixteen.[1]  Franklin began his working life in Boston by apprenticing for his brother in a print shop.  Eventually he would become a leading printer in the Colonies, one of their most important businessmen, a political agent for several of the American colonies, a nearly world-renowned thinker and scientist, a contributor to the fields of economics, meteorology, music, psychology, and much more.  When Ben left home at sixteen to be on his own, he had no plan nor connection in Philadelphia yet he would end up working as a printer again, in time starting his own print shop where he would publish a newspaper and the famous Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Actually, Ben’s original plan was to head to New York, and that he did.  When he arrived however, he found that printing was not in high demand there in Manhattan – a bit of bad luck.  H. W. Brands writes in his biography The First American, “For all their commercial energy – perhaps even because of it – the Dutch merchants and tradesmen in Manhattan evinced scant interest in the services of printers.  The town lacked a newspaper, the merchants evidently being too busy to read about the world they lived in.”  Here, Franklin could have given up and enlisted on a ship, possibly dying a death similar to that of one of his older brothers who had earlier run off to sea.  He did, however find the sole printer in New York, a Mr. William Bradford.  Being able to handle all of the printing work to be done in The Big Apple, he had no need of young Benjamin – a bit of bad luck.  Luckily, Mr. Bradford had a son operating a print shop in Philadelphia who was in need of a replacement journeyman.  Franklin could have stayed in New York and run through his little remaining money but he knew his knowledge of printing was basically his only marketable skill, so he headed to Philadelphia.

Franklin boarded a cheap, small vessel and experienced rough weather which threw it slightly off its course.  The vessel was unable to get back to land as all the closest possibilities were far too rocky.  Brands writes “Some villagers on shore saw the boat bouncing beyond the breakers; the ferryman, Franklin, and the others shouted for them to come fetch them in smaller boats they could see lying by.  But the villagers chose not to hazard their lives for these strangers and went back to their houses.  Although the wind gradually abated, Franklin and the others spent a most uncomfortable night on the water – cold, wet, hungry, and thirsty.  A single dirty bottle of rum had to sustain them as what should have been a passage of a few hours stretched well beyond twenty-four.”  A most unfortunate bit of bad luck.  Here, Franklin could have tried his luck at swimming and most likely drowned – even the locals wouldn’t chance their lives in boats to help them.  Or he could have gotten drunk and been pitched overboard as did happen to a Dutchman on board.  It was Franklin who pulled him back into the boat, whereupon the man fell asleep.

After eventually reaching land, he had to take another ferry trip – thankfully calm this time – but the storm before had now become hard rain.  Franklin later wrote “I was thoroughly soaked, and by noon a good deal tired, so I stopped at a poor inn, where I stayed all night, beginning now to wish that I had never left home [italics mine].” Perhaps here it would have been easier to begin the journey back to Boston, at least there he had some sort of social network to count on after a rough and tiring trek.   But, after miles of walking, missing a boat to take him to Philadelphia down the Delaware, and a brief sojourn at the home of an elderly matron, he caught another boat headed to Philadelphia.  Unfortunately, the wind did not favor the journey – what luck – forcing those on board to row.  Eventually, they figured that they had passed their destination and camped overnight.  Come morning, they discovered that they had indeed overshot their destination but only by a short distance.  They got back into the boat and eventually landed at the wharf at the foot of Market Street.

Now, this was just the journey to Philadelphia.  Not only did he successfully make it to the city while being touched by luck good and bad and being tempted to give up, but he got a job there as well, and eventually became owner and proprietor of his own business.  This leading to him becoming (as noted above) a leading printer in the Colonies.

The contact he made in New York – Mr. Bradford – did indeed have a son in Philadelphia with a printing operation, a Mr. Andrew Bradford.  When Franklin had his interview with him, he was unbathed, wearing dirty clothes, hungry, and nearing the end of his funds.  Funnily, the elder Bradford whom he had met in New York was there (he had made his journey on horseback – a more expensive but reliable mode).  Both Bradfords were impressed enough with young Benjamin to invite him to have breakfast with them – a bit of good luck.  Yet the younger Bradford had to inform Franklin that he had already engaged another as a replacement for his journeyman – a bit of bad luck.  They told Franklin that there would be potential work from them though in the future in the form of some special orders, but at the moment he was not needed.  There was, however, another printer in town, a Mr. Keimer, and Bradford the elder took it upon himself to bring Franklin over to him.  The Bradfords also told Franklin that if things did not work out with Keimer, he was welcome to lodge with them until business warranted hiring him.  Franklin had a little interview with Keimer during which he displayed his skills on equipment inferior to that with which he was accustomed in Boston.  He was not hired immediately and thus lodged with the Bradfords taking odd jobs until Keimer had enough business to hire him full-time.

This is how Benjamin Franklin began to gain traction in setting up his life far away from home and at the age of sixteen – almost seventeen.  His new boss was “very illiterate” and “very ignorant of the world” according to Franklin.  This caused Benjamin to work doubly hard at times, for how could one expect to maintain a quality printing operation whilst being “very illiterate?”  Some time later, after a trip back to Boston and another to London, the still young Franklin would begin his own printing business.  To keep things going he was smart and frugal with his money, smart regarding whom he hired, and worked into the late hours of the night and – at times – into the next morning.

Here, it is worth mentioning his trip back home to Boston – or at least the trip from Boston back to Philadelphia.  His sloop stopped off at New York and it was there that Franklin met up with a Boston friend named John Collins who wanted to head down to Philadelphia with him and prosper in the way Franklin had and was.  Mr. Collins offers an extremely illustrative juxtaposition to the young Mr. Franklin.  Here I think it best to let the writing of Mr. Brands take over for a moment:

“Franklin had known Collins as an industrious and sober scholar, but lately his friend had acquired a taste for brandy. Like many another young man suddenly unsupervised in unfamiliar surroundings, Collins found his freedom more than he could manage; he descended into a state of constant inebriation [italics mine].  He compounded his problem by frequent visits to gaming tables.  When Franklin reached New York, he found his friend drunk, broke, and just ahead of the sheriff.  Franklin paid Collins’s bills and resigned himself to paying the rest of Collins’s way to Philadelphia (54).”

He continues:

“Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Collins’s alcoholic habit prevented his obtaining employment, and Franklin saw no alternative to paying his room and board till his circumstances improved.  Unfortunately, they did not. Collins found new gambling partners among the Pennsylvanians and ran into debt again.  He pleaded Franklin for loans, which Franklin provided, against better judgment (54).”

The two eventually had a scuffle over such matters, the climax being a drunk Collins swimming after a boat he had been launched out of by Franklin; Benjamin had countered an attack from Collins whereby he threw Collins overboard.

“Not long afterward [the boat incident] Collins shipped out to Barbados to serve as tutor to the sons of a planter there.  In one of the rare clearheaded and remorseful moments he promised to pay Franklin what he owed him with the first money he received in his new post.  He never did, and Franklin never heard from him again (55).”

Here, we have but a glimpse of the rather long (Franklin lived into his eighties), certainly active life of a very industrious person who took risks, made good decisions, lived within his means, and worked hard to achieve.  Imagine living a life made up entirely of stories like those narrated above for about twenty or thirty years.  Imagine leaving your home as a teenager and traveling to cities to which you’ve never been before.  You avoid drinking to excess or resorting to crime.  You manage your money wisely.  You find work and hold that job.  You build up a reputation for yourself as a trustworthy individual.  Imagine eventually owning your own business.  Imagine how difficult it is to set up your own company: how many hours of sleep you lose in order to keep things on schedule, how rarely you would see your family (Franklin by this time was married and also a father), how little money you would make in the beginning.  But after some time – and with much hard work and long hours, indeed the business becoming your life – a leader is elected into power who plans to take more of your money away to provide for other people who live in the same country as you and enjoy the same rights.  How just would you find that to be? And who do you think would be more satisfied with this plan proposed by this new leader, Benjamin Franklin or John Collins?  Who do you think would have voted for this leader, Benjamin Franklin or John Collins?

It is, of course, here that the common socialist argument would be made that it took more than just Ben Franklin to do what he did: there were people that made the boats in which he travelled, people that set up the towns in which he resided, people that made the equipment he purchased, et cetera ad nauseam.  This is a whole topic in itself and one that is easily rebutted.  I will not touch upon it just here but will trust that any person endowed with any amount of adequate reasoning faculties will after a few minutes of serious thought find the feebleness of this argument.  Here, instead I must address the other, quite reasonable, argument to be made against Mr. Franklin: slavery.

Someone could very reasonably point out that in a sense he was lucky since he was not a slave.  And I would completely agree with them.  This is precisely why slaves were never mentioned in relation to any choice Mr. Franklin made in the story above.  I only compared him to people who were on the same plane as him and in essence share the same starting point.  And as far as I know, slaves did not service him in his journey.  They did not man the boats he was on nor did a slave help him with his belongings.  It was Franklin himself who had to do the rowing down the Delaware and when he had to walk for miles at a time with his belongings, he did so alone.  It is true that Franklin did own slaves in his life, albeit very few (I fully accept that there is no number of slaves that is acceptable to own but point out the small number only to compare with the likes of a plantation owner or Thomas Jefferson, who owned about 600 slaves over the course of his lifetime), but it is also worth noting his petition for the abolition of slavery which can be read at nationalarchives.org.  I also concede the fact that his newspaper advertised slave sales.  This is something that must be honestly acknowledged, but I do not think it detracts from the point that a teenager who left home on his own and who made wise decisions, avoided vice and debauchery, and worked very hard to set up a successful business does not deserve to have other people vote to have more of his wealth to be used for their benefit.

[1] All information of this journey is from chapters II, III, & IV of The First American – The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin  by H.W. Brands published 2002 by Anchor.

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