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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 families now.

"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 him.

"I would have something I could eat. You know I do not love that, and never did."

"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 victuals."

"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 James do."

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."

"Command thine angel to encamp round about our habitation."

"Give thine angels charge over us, that no evil may come nigh our dwelling."

"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 thing."

"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 sight."
We have copied the language just as it was written by "Uncle Benjamin," and it is chiefly Bible language, showing marked familiarity with the Scriptures.

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 further:
"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 Franklin ancestors:
"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 Cornelia had.

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 this:
"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 American."

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.

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