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From Boyhood to Manhood|
IX. Table-Talk Education.
by Thayer, William M.
|We delay the narrative, at this point, to introduce a subject that
Franklin often referred to as influencing his early life. In his
"Autobiography," he said:
"At his table he [his father] liked to have, as often as he could,
some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with; and always took
care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which
might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he
turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent, in the
conduct of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what
related to the victuals on the table; whether it was well or ill
dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavor, preferable or
inferior to this or that other thing of the kind; so that I was
brought up in such a perfect inattention to those matters, as to be
quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me. Indeed, I am so
unobservant of it, that to this day I can scarce tell, a few hours
after dinner, of what dishes it consisted. This has been a great
convenience to me in travelling, where my companions have been
sometimes very unhappy for want of a suitable gratification of their
more delicate, because better instructed, tastes and appetites."
This was different from much of the table-talk that is heard in many
"I do not want any of that, I do not love it," exclaims one child. "I
should think you might have a better dinner than this."
"What would you have if you could get it; roast chicken and plum
pudding?" his mother replies, in a facetious way, instead of reproving
"I would have something I could eat. You know I do not love that, and
"Well, it does boys good, sometimes, to eat what they do not love,
especially such particular ones as you are," adds his father.
"I sha'n't eat what I do not like, anyhow; I shall go hungry first."
"There, now, let me hear no more complaint about your food," adds his
father, more sharply. "You are scarcely ever suited with your
"May I have some?" calling for something that is not on the table.
"If you will hold your tongue, and get it yourself, you can have it."
"And let me have some, too," shouts another child. "I do not love this,
neither. May I have some, pa?"
"And I, too," exclaims still another. "I must have some if Henry and
In this way the table-talk proceeds, until fretting, scolding, crying,
make up the sum total of the conversation, and family joy are
embittered for the remainder of the day. In contrast with the
discipline of instructive conversation, such schooling at the fireside
is pitiable indeed.
Franklin claimed that this feature of family government exerted a
moulding influence upon his life and character. It caused him to value
profitable conversation in boyhood and youth. In manhood he frequently
found himself posted upon subjects made familiar to him by
conversation at the table and hearthstone of his boyhood, especially
topics relating to the mother country. He was more particularly
edified by conversation at home during the four years that "Uncle
Benjamin" was a member of his father's family. For this favorite
"Uncle" was a very instructive talker, having been educated by the
conversation of his father at home in England, as his nephew Benjamin
was by his father in Boston. When "Uncle Benjamin" was very old, he
could even recall the expressions which his father used in prayer at
the family altar, and he wrote some of them in one of his books of
poetry, as follows:
"Holy Father, into thy hand we commit our spirits, for thou hast
redeemed them, O Lord God of Truth."
We have copied the language just as it was written by "Uncle Benjamin,"
and it is chiefly Bible language, showing marked familiarity with the
"Command thine angel to encamp round about our habitation."
"Give thine angels charge over us, that no evil may come nigh our
"Thou knowest our down-lying and rising-up, thou art acquainted
with all our ways, and knowest our tho'ts afar off."
"We know that in us, that is, in our flesh, there dwelleth no good
"Holy Father, keep through thine own name all those that are thine,
that none of them be lost."
"We thank thee, O Father, Lord of Heaven and earth. Tho' thou hast
hid these things from the wise and prudent, yet thou hast revealed
them unto babes. Even so, Holy Father, for so it seemed good in thy
We infer, from the foregoing, that useful conversation was
characteristic of the Franklins of each generation, indicating a good
degree of intelligence and talents of high order. Ignorance does not
indulge in improving conversation; it could not if it would. Nor do
small mental powers show themselves in excellence of conversation. So
that it is quite evident that talents in the Josiah Franklin family
were not limited to Benjamin. They reached back to former generations.
Mr. Parton says: "Thomas Franklin, the elder, had four sons: Thomas,
John, Benjamin, and Josiah. There lived at Ecton, during the boyhood
of these four sons, a Mr. John Palmer, the squire of the parish and
lord of an adjacent manor, who, attracted by their intelligence and
spirit, lent them books, assisted them to lessons in drawing and
music, and, in various ways, encouraged them to improve their minds.
All the boys appear to have been greatly profited by Squire Palmer's
friendly aid; but none of them so much as Thomas, the eldest,
inheritor of the family forge and farm."
It was this Thomas who became grandfather of our Benjamin, and whose
expressions in prayer we have quoted. Mr. Parton discovers such
talents there as make profitable conversation at the table and
elsewhere, and are transmitted to posterity. For he says, still
"In families destined at length to give birth to an illustrious
individual, Nature seems sometimes to make an essay of her powers with
that material, before producing the consummate specimen. There was a
remarkable Mr. Pitt before Lord Chatham; there was an extraordinary
Mr. Fox before the day of the ablest debater in Europe; there was a
witty Sheridan before Richard Brinsley; there was a Mirabeau before
the Mirabeau of the French Revolution. And, to cite a higher instance,
Shakespeare's father was, at least, extraordinarily fond of dramatic
entertainments, if we may infer any thing certain from the brief
records of his mayoralty of Stratford, for he appears to have given
the players the kind of welcome that Hamlet admonished Polonius to
bestow upon them. Thomas Franklin, the eldest uncle of our Benjamin,
learned the blacksmith's trade in his father's shop, but, aided by
Squire Palmer and his own natural aptitude for affairs, became, as his
nephew tells us, 'a conveyancer, something of a lawyer, clerk of the
county court, and clerk to the archdeacon; a very leading man in all
county affairs, and much employed in public business.'"
The quotation Mr. Parton makes, in his closing lines, is from a letter
of Benjamin Franklin, addressed to Mrs. Deborah Franklin, dated
London, 6 September, 1758. We quote still further from it, as it is
interesting matter relating to the prominence and intelligence of the
"From Wellingborough we went to Ecton, about three or four miles,
being the village where my father was born, and where his father,
grandfather, and great-grandfather had lived, and how many of the
family before them we know not. We went first to see the old house and
grounds; they came to Mr. Fisher with his wife, and, after letting
them for some years, finding his rent something ill-paid, he sold
them. The land is now added to another farm, and a school is kept in
the house. It is a decayed old stone building, but still known by the
name of Franklin House. Thence we went to visit the rector of the
parish, who lives close by the church--a very ancient building. He
entertained us very kindly, and showed us the old church register, in
which were the births, marriages, and burials of our ancestors for two
hundred years, as early as his book began. His wife, a good-natured,
chatty old lady (granddaughter of the famous Archdeacon Palmer, who
formerly had that parish and lived there), remembered a great deal
about the family; carried us out into the church-yard and showed us
several of their grave-stones, which were so covered with moss that we
could not read the letters till she ordered a hard brush and a basin
of water, with which Peter scoured them clean, and then Billy copied
them. She entertained and diverted us highly with stories of Thomas
Franklin, Mrs. Fisher's father, who was a conveyancer, something of a
lawyer, clerk of the county courts, and clerk to the archdeacon in his
visitations; a very leading man in all county affairs, and much
employed in public business. He set on foot a subscription for
erecting chimes in their steeple and completed it, and we heard them
play. He found out an easy method of saving their village meadows from
being drowned, as they used to be sometimes by the river, which method
is still in being; but, when first proposed, nobody could conceive how
it could be, 'but, however,' they said, 'if Franklin says he knows how
to do it, it will be done.' His advice and opinion were sought for on
all occasions, by all sorts of people, and he was looked upon, she
said, by some, as something of a conjurer. He died just four years
before I was born, on the same day of the same month."
Such kind of men are not given to foolish conversation. They are too
sensible to indulge in mere twaddle about the weather. Their talents
raise them to a higher plane of thought and remark. Josiah Franklin
only observed the custom of his ancestors, no doubt unwittingly, when
he sought to improve the minds and hearts of his children by
instructive conversation at the table and fireside. Benjamin had a
right to claim for it a decided educational influence in the family.
Pythagoras set so great value upon useful conversation that he
commanded his disciples to maintain silence during the first two years
of their instruction. He would have their minds thoroughly furnished,
that their conversation might be worthy of the pupils of so
illustrious a teacher. He was wont to say: "Be silent, or say
something better than silence." No men ever put this wise counsel into
practice more thoroughly than Josiah Franklin and his son Benjamin.
Cicero said of the mother of the Gracchi: "We have read the letters of
Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, from which it appears that the
sons were educated not so much in the lap of the mother as by her
conversation." Josiah Franklin had as poor an opinion of the lap
as an educator of his sons, in comparison with conversation, as
The poet Cowper wrote:
"Though conversation in its better part
May be esteemed a gift, and not an art;
Yet much depends, as in the tiller's toil,
On culture and the sowing of the soil."
Josiah Franklin was enough of a poet to understand this and reduce it
to practice. As his son said, he delighted to have some intelligent
man or woman for a guest at his table, for the improvement of his
children. But when there was no guest at the table, he led the way
alone by calling the attention of his sons and daughters to some
subject of interest and profit. He thought it would divert their
attention from the quality of their food, so that they would not be so
apt to complain of it, and, at the same time, impart information and
set them thinking. He did not allow one of his children to complain of
the food on the table, and he would have prevented it by severe
measures, if necessary. Before he found the method cited a wise one,
and therefore persevered in it. He often made this remark:
"You must give heed to little things, although nothing can be
considered small that is important. It is of far more consequence how
you behave than what you eat and wear."
Another remark he would make when the meal was unusually plain was
"Many people are too particular about their victuals. They destroy
their health by eating too much and too rich food. Plain, simple,
wholesome fare is all that Nature requires, and young persons who are
brought up in this way will be best off in the end."
Here is found the origin of Benjamin's rigid temperance principles in
eating and drinking, for which he was distinguished through life. In
his manhood he wrote and talked upon the subject, and reduced his
principles to practice. There scarcely ever lived a man who was so
indifferent as to what he ate and drank as he was. When he worked in a
printing-office in England, his fellow-printers were hard drinkers of
strong beer, really believing that it was necessary to give them
strength to endure. They were astonished to see a youth like Benjamin
able to excel the smartest of them in the printing office, while he
drank only cold water, and they sneeringly called him "The Water
The temperate habits which Benjamin formed in his youth were the more
remarkable because there were no temperance societies at that time,
and it was generally supposed to be necessary to use intoxicating
drinks. The evils of intemperance were not viewed with so much
abhorrence as they are now, and the project of removing them from
society was not entertained for a moment. Reformatory movements of
this kind did not begin until nearly a century after the time referred
to. Yet Benjamin was fully persuaded in his youth that he ought to be
temperate in all things. It was a theme of conversation at his
father's table and fireside. That conversation instructed him then, as
temperance lectures, books, and societies instruct the young now; and
it accomplished its purpose. In the sequel we shall learn still more
of the moulding power of home lessons, in conversation, to make him
the man he became.
It is related of the Washburne family, so well known in the public
affairs of our country, four or five brothers having occupied posts of
political distinction, that, in their early life, their father's house
was open to ministers, and was sometimes called "the ministers'
hotel." Mr. Washburne was a great friend of this class, and enjoyed
their society much. Nearly all the time some one of the ministerial
fraternity would be stopping there. His sons were thus brought into
their society, and they listened to long discussions upon subjects of
a scientific, political, and religious character, though public
measures received a large share of attention. The boys acquired
valuable information by listening to their remarks, and this created a
desire to read and learn more; and so they were started off in a
career that "led them on to fame." Their early advantages were few,
but the conversation of educated gentlemen, upon important subjects,
laid the foundation of their eminence in public life.
Benjamin was young, and his heart easily impressed, when he listened
to profitable conversation in the home of his boyhood. The way the
twig is bent the tree is inclined. His father gave the twig the right
bent, and the tree was comely and fruitful. It was a very easy and
cheap mode of instruction, always at hand, needing neither text-book
nor blackboard, yet pleasant and uplifting.