As the tenth son of a pious Puritan, Benjamin Franklin was to have studied for the ministry, as his father’s tithe to the Lord. At age 8 he was sent to Boston Latin School to prepare for enrollment at Harvard. He excelled in his studies at the school; yet his father changed his mind after a year, deciding against a formal education for young Benjamin. In his writings, Franklin claimed that the decision was due to the expense of the thing, but the more likely reason is that Josiah Franklin realized his skeptical, puckish, irreverent son was not suited to be a parson.
Historians have fantasized about what could have happened had Benjamin Franklin attended Harvard. Some have argued that a formal education would have removed those qualities that we find so attractive about Franklin: his spontaneity, freshness, irreverence, and his intuitive literary style. Yet this need not have happened; at the time Harvard administrators were struggling mightily against a student culture that was already marked by much drinking and partying, and of the thirty-nine students who would have made up Franklin’s class, less then half ended up as clergy.
In any case, Franklin’s father chose to allow the boy, who had already expressed a disgust at the family trade of tallow-rendering, to select his own trade. He took him on long walks through Boston to visit various types of craftsmen; the passing familiarity with different trades thus acquired helped form Franklin into a lifelong dabbler, which was of great use to him as an inventor.
Benjamin ended up becoming apprenticed, at age 12, to his older brother James, who had recently set up shop as a printer. The print trade was a natural fit for the boy, who was already a devoted reader. It gave him access to books, which he would sneak from various booksellers’ apprentices, borrowing them in the evening and often staying up all night to read them before smuggling them back to their places first thing in the morning. Books were his most important early influences; his childhood favorites included John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives, Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good, and Daniel Defoe’s An Essay upon Projects.
The ideas formed under these early influences would continue to resurface throughout Franklin’s life:
- From Bunyan’s book Franklin adopted a refreshingly sparse and clean prose style, as well as a firm belief in the concept of Progress, both individual and corporate, as the fruit of human struggle against adversity.
- Plutarch’s work also contributed to this idea, and to Franklin’s gradual move away from Calvinism, with its emphasis on the essential depravity of man and the predestination of his soul, toward the deism that he would share with most of the great minds of the Enlightenment period.
- From Mather’s tract Franklin took one of the aspects of Puritanism that he would retain throughout life, its focus on the performance of practical good works for the benefit of the community.
- Along the same lines, Defoe’s book proposed ideas for many community projects of the type Franklin would later start up in Philadelphia: fire insurance associations, pension societies, welfare schemes and the like.
It was from Defoe that Franklin also obtained the progressive notion of equal education and rights for women; early experiences debating in favor of this idea convinced Franklin that a disputatious personal style was less likely to bring people around to his point of view than the convivial, Socratic approach which later became his trademark.