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From Boyhood to Manhood
XXVII. "Our Water-Drinker."
by Thayer, William M.


A letter from Ralph to Benjamin informed the latter that the former was settled in a small village called Berkshire, where he was teaching about a dozen boys in reading and writing at a sixpence each per week, --not a very flattering position, but, in the circumstances, better than none.

What surprised Benjamin, however, was that Ralph had changed his name, and was known in that village as Franklin. He had assumed Franklin's name, thinking that such a position was not honorable for James Ralph to occupy. At first, Benjamin was somewhat displeased to find himself scattered about in such a way, printer and schoolmaster, and he knew not what next. But, on the whole, he concluded to let the matter rest; and, if his old friend could get success out of his name, allow him to do it. So he corresponded with him from time to time, directing his letters to "Mr. Franklin, schoolmaster," as Ralph desired.

It was not long before Benjamin began to receive instalments of an epic poem which Ralph was composing, with the request to examine and return remarks and corrections. Benjamin did examine and return it, with the advice to cease writing epic poems and attend to his legitimate business or get into some other. But it was of no use, the poem continued to come by instalments.

At this juncture, too, another trial was added to his singular experience. Ralph's English wife called upon him for help. The following is Franklin's account of the manner in which Ralph came into these new relations:

"In our house lodged a young woman, a milliner, who, I think, had a shop in the Cloisters. She had been genteelly bred, was sensible, lively, and of a most pleasing conversation. Ralph read plays to her in the evenings, they grew intimate, she took another lodging, and he followed her. They lived together some time, but he being still out of business, and her income not sufficient to maintain them with her child, he took a resolution of going from London to try for a country school."

"I need help, and know not where to go except to you," said Mrs. Ralph; "indeed, James told me to apply to you."

"I recall," replied Benjamin, "that he asked me in one of his letters to see that you were not in want. I am not in circumstances to do much for you, but I will cheerfully do what I can."

"I shall be very much obliged for the smallest favor. My wants are few, and I can make a little assistance go a good way."

Benjamin relieved her wants, and from that time continued to call upon her, to see that she was made comfortable and to enjoy her company. These demands upon his purse kept it drained to the last cent all the time, so that he could lay nothing by for himself. He could see no way out of his trouble. He must continue penniless, or let Ralph and his family suffer. But just then an indiscreet act on his part offended Ralph, who, coming to London for a day or two, said to Benjamin:

"I consider myself under no obligations to you whatever from this time. I shall ask no more favors of you for myself or family, and will have nothing more to do with you."

"Very well," replied Benjamin, "I will so understand it."

In this way Benjamin was relieved of a great burden unexpectedly. Incumbrances thus removed, he devoted himself with remarkable energy and industry to his business and self-improvement.

About this time Benjamin was offered larger pay at Watts' printing house, near Lincoln's Inn Fields, and he removed thither. He changed his boarding-place, also, to Duke Street, opposite the Romish chapel.

Next door to Benjamin's lodgings was a bookstore kept by one Wilcox. He had an immense collection of second-hand books, in which, of course, Benjamin became much interested, spending his leisure time here.

"I have not the money to make purchases," he said to Wilcox. "I wish I had. There are so many valuable books here, and they are so cheap, that I wish I was able to make many of them my own."

"Well, you are at liberty to spend all the time you can reading them here," answered Wilcox, who had already formed a high opinion of his abilities. "Perhaps some day you will be able to own some of them."

"You are very kind indeed, Mr. Wilcox, and I shall avail myself of your generosity to make the acquaintance of some of these authors."

Benjamin had already rehearsed the story of the fraud through which he became a London printer, so that Wilcox understood the reason that he was penniless.

"Glad to see you here any time; feel perfectly at home, and get all the good you can out of these books," Wilcox added with great kindness.

It was not long before an original idea about the use of those books took possession of Benjamin's mind, and he made it known to the bookseller.

"A new idea has struck me, Mr. Wilcox. I do not want to take so much advantage of your generosity, and it has occurred to me that I can pay you a sum we can agree upon to take out and read such books as I may select. I mean, pay you a given amount on each book I read."

"I had not thought of that; it is an excellent plan, I think. We will have no difficulty about the price," answered Wilcox.

"It will take me longer, of course, to read some books than it will others," continued Benjamin; "but I am a rapid reader, and shall be as expeditious as possible with each volume. And, also, I pledge myself that each volume shall be returned in as good a condition as when I take it out."

"That is fair; I accept the proposition."

The price per volume was agreed upon, and Benjamin reveled in books every night. He never advanced more rapidly in intellectual attainments than he did after this arrangement with Wilcox.

This is the first instance of loaning books for a price on record--a practice that has become well-nigh universal since that day.

He had not been at Palmer's long before he was employed in composing for the second edition of Wollaston's "Religion of Nature," which was just the kind of a treatise to arouse his intellect, and to set him to thinking and also to speculating.

"Poor reasoning!" he said to Mr. Watts; "very fallacious and superficial, too."

"Ah!" replied Mr. Watts, considerably surprised that his new employee, just over from a new and uncultivated country, should handle a treatise like that so gingerly; "how is that? Rather a popular work, that of Wollaston's."

"Popular enough it may be, but error is often popular. The work is illogical, and not altogether in harmony with facts." Benjamin's criticisms impressed Mr. Watts somewhat, though he thought he was laboring under a mistake.

"Perhaps the trouble is in your own mind, and not in Wollaston's," he suggested.

"That may be; but I am going to review it for my own satisfaction and benefit," answered Benjamin.

"Then I will suspend judgment until I can read your review," said Mr. Watts, at the same time being still more surprised that a youth of his age should be so familiar with such topics.

Within a short time Benjamin had his review of "Religion of Nature" prepared and printed, bearing the somewhat dignified title, "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain," and it was inscribed to his friend, James Ralph. A copy was submitted to Mr. Watts for examination, and his opinion awaited with some anxiety.

"I confess that it is a remarkable production for a youth like you to father--remarkable in its plan, thought, and reasoning--but it is no credit to your principles," Mr. Watts said.

"How so?"

"It is really deistical in its position. You remember that I suggested the trouble might be in yourself, instead of Wollaston; and it is, in my judgment."

"Wherein is my reasoning illogical or incorrect?" Benjamin's use of the Socratic method of reasoning still adhered to him.

"Any reasoning is illogical and fallacious that takes it for granted that there is no God," answered Mr. Watts. "Without a God, we are nowhere; and that is where your pamphlet is. There is ingenuity in it, I grant; but it is false."

"From your standpoint, you mean, Mr. Watts?"

"Yes, if you please; but my standpoint is the Bible. Any reasoning that ignores the Bible is fallacious. To pretend to understand the things of this world without a God is abominable. 'The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.'"

"Well, you are getting rather personal," Benjamin answered, roguishly. "I suspect that you are rather puritanical in your notions; but I am not."

"No, that is quite evident; nothing puritanical about your Dissertation, but a plenty that is fanatical," retorted Mr. Watts.

"Much obliged for your opinion, so frankly expressed," added Benjamin, as Mr. Watts turned to answer a call.

A short time after the publication of the foregoing Dissertation, a London surgeon, by the name of Lyons, called at Watts' office.

"Is there a man at work in your printing house by the name of Franklin--Benjamin Franklin?" he inquired of Mr. Watts.

"There is."

"Can I see him?"

"Yes, I will call him."

Benjamin was called and introduced to the gentleman, who said, holding a pamphlet in his hand:

"Are you the author of this 'Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain'?"

"I am, sir." Benjamin had received such a trimming from his employer, that he was almost sure the stranger had come to stigmatize him for writing that pamphlet. But he was soon relieved by the remark of Lyons:

"I have read it with great interest, and have been very much profited by it. I did not dream, however, that it was written by so young a person as you are."

Benjamin thanked him for his complimentary words, and the surgeon went on:

"I am the author of the book entitled, 'The Infallibility of Human Judgment,' and I think our views harmonize in the main. I should be pleased to loan you a copy if you care to read it."

"It will afford me real pleasure to read it, Doctor Lyons, and I shall appreciate your favor."

"And when you have read it, I shall be glad to meet you, and compare notes, and discuss the topics."

"Nothing will suit me better than that," added Benjamin.

Doctor Lyons frequently called on Benjamin to converse upon the subject-matter of his pamphlet, and, at one time, he says, "He carried me to the Horns, a pale-ale house in ------ Lane, Cheapside, and introduced me to Doctor Mandeville, author of the 'Fable of the Bees,' who had a club there, of which he was the soul, being a most facetious, entertaining companion."

The religion in Benjamin's pamphlet, and that in Lyons' book, was well suited to a "pale-ale house." It was so pale as scarcely to be discernible in either book or pamphlet--almost entirely faded out. That was why Benjamin's pamphlet pleased Lyons so much--the religion in it was not too much for a "pale-ale house."

Doctor Lyons introduced him, also, to one Doctor Pemberton, "at Batson's Coffee-house," a kindred spirit, whose coffee was stronger than his religion--a quick-witted, lively sort of a man. He was very familiar with Benjamin.

"Glad to know that your mind is interested in subjects of so grave importance," he said. "In a youth of your age it is evidence of a strong mind and expanding intellect."

"Most of my friends do not regard my views with the favor you express; they see evidence, rather, of mental weakness and distortion," said Benjamin in reply.

"It is because they do not investigate for themselves. They are content to receive opinions secondhand, labelled and fixed. How would you like to number Sir Isaac Newton among your friends?" Doctor Pemberton spoke as a man of authority.

"I should feel myself highly honored," answered Benjamin. "Do you know him?"

"I have the honor of his acquaintance; and I will give you an introduction at some future time."

"I shall accept your favor with thanks"; and Benjamin waited and waited for the opportunity, but it never came, probably because Newton could never be found in "an ale-house."

This was the outcome of Benjamin's literary venture; and the pleasantest part of the whole was that he lived to see the folly of his effort, especially its non-religious character. He became satisfied that Mr. Watts was right when he declared the principles of his Dissertation "abominable."

At another time, while Benjamin worked at Watts', Sir Hans Sloane called upon him,--another notable London character of that day. Benjamin was taken aback when he met him,--he could scarcely divine what this titled Englishman could want of him.

"I have heard of you, Mr. Franklin, as recently from America, and I have called to make your acquaintance," he said.

"Glad to meet you, Sir Hans," replied Benjamin, fully equal to the occasion. "I am at your service."

"You are the author of a pamphlet called," and he gave the title, "are you?"

"I am."

"I have not read it; but I have heard it discussed, and I concluded that a youth of your age must possess a strong mind to undertake such a treatise. And I understand that you brought many curiosities with you to this country." Now, Sir Hans was getting to the subject that was near to his heart; for he was a curiosity-hunter.

"A few only--very few," replied Benjamin.

"You have a purse, I understand, made of the asbestos, which purifies by fire?"

"Yes, sir, I have."

"I should be delighted to have you call upon me in Bloomsbury Square, and bring the purse; and I will show you my great collection of curiosities. I think you can spend a pleasant and profitable evening in that way."

"I will do it with the greatest pleasure, and be obliged for the opportunity," Benjamin answered.

And he did. The first opportunity he improved to take the asbestos purse to Bloomsbury Square, where he had a splendid time examining the best collection of curiosities he had ever dreamed of, and where he discussed various topics of interest with the entertaining Sir Hans.

"Now," said the host, as Benjamin was about to leave, "I should be glad to add the asbestos purse to my collection, and I will pay you well for it," naming the amount.

"I will accommodate you and leave it." Benjamin was happy to add to Sir Hans' collection, in the circumstances.

Benjamin felt the need of more physical exercise, so that when he entered the printing house, he "took to working at press." He drank water only; all other employees, about fifty of them, drank strong beer. He was really a curiosity to them.

"Beer-guzzling is a detestable habit," he said to a fellow-workman, "and it is a very expensive one, too, for a poor fellow like you."

"I could not do a decent day's work without beer. I drink it for strength."

"So much the worse for you; beer strength is the worst sort of weakness," continued Benjamin. "Just stop a moment and think what a beer-barrel you make of yourself; a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon, a pint at six o'clock, and a pint when you have done work--almost a gallon each day! Why, I could not hold half as much as that; I should run over."

"Then you don't believe a man can do more work for drinking strong beer?"

"Of course I don't. I can do more work than any man in the establishment, and I can lift more than any other man here; and I drink nothing but water. If beer imparts the strength you imagine, any one of you ought to do more work and lift more than I can; isn't that so?"

The workmen had good reason to believe this; for Benjamin had kept his eyes and ears open from the time he entered the printing house, and he had learned just what the men thought about beer, why they drank it, how much work they did, and how much they could lift. Without saying a word about it, he took special pains to turn off a large amount of work, and to lift more than his fellow-workmen. For example, he would carry two forms of type, one in each hand, up and down stairs, while the other workmen carried but one with both hands. Therefore, Watts (the name of the workman) knew that every thing Benjamin claimed about strength was true.

"Are all Americans like you?" inquired the workman.

"No; too many of them are like you, I am sorry to say; they drink beer and other intoxicants, that disqualify them for business. If more of them would drink water, as I do, they would be far better off physically and pecuniarily."

"Some of our best doctors claim that there is much nutriment in beer," he suggested.

"And every one of them knows that there is more nutriment in a pennyworth of bread than there is in a whole gallon of beer. Therefore, if you eat the bread and drink the water, you get more strength."

The printer acknowledged that there was something in that.

"You see," continued Benjamin, "that all the nutriment there is in the barley is destroyed to convert it into beer. Your beer is very dirty water made bitter with malt, out of which nearly every particle of nutriment has been squeezed. There is as much nourishment in dishwater as there is in that stuff."

"Here, Jake, where are you?" called out another workman. "Bring on the beer."

Jake was the ale-boy, whose business it was to supply the men with beer from the ale-house.

"Another nuisance required by your beer business," exclaimed Benjamin. "Better by far pay a boy double price to bring water from the well, instead of bringing that stuff to absorb your money and sodden your brain."

"A Water-American, indeed!" said Mr. Watts, who heard much of the conversation. "But will you not allow some comfort to hard-working men?"

"Certainly; that is what I am after. There is more comfort in one glass of pure water than there is in a whole barrel of beer. Here is Watts, paying out four or five shillings every week for beer, when water would cost him nothing, and he would have that amount to spend for genuine comforts. Besides, beer unfits him to get real comfort out of any thing, even out of his home."

"You are about right on that," replied Watts; "beer does make a class of men most miserable. But must I discard it because some men use it to their injury?"

"Of course you must," Benjamin answered quickly and triumphantly. "There is where duty and right come in. The strong must bear the infirmities of the weak, or they won't amount to much in the world."

"Many of them won't amount to much any way, beer or no beer," responded Watts.

"Any of them will amount to more with water than they will with beer," retorted Benjamin, who felt competent to support his side of the question. He went on:

"Look here: I am supplied with a large porringer of hot-water gruel, sprinkled with pepper, crumbled with bread, and a bit of butter in it, for just the price of a pint of beer, three half-pence. Now, honestly, is not this much better for me, or for yourself, than the same amount of filthy beer?"

"Possibly; it is a new view of the case to me," was all that Mr. Watts could say, evidently conceding that Benjamin was about right.

Benjamin exchanged the press-room for the composing-room, after a few weeks.

"A treat now, Ben; that is the condition of admission here," said the men.

"I guess not; I fulfilled that condition in the press-room," answered Benjamin. "Once will do in this establishment."

"But you will," retorted a fellow-worker, enforced by a dozen voices. "The rule is irrevocable."

"We will see about that," replied Benjamin, with coolness, but determination.

"Yes, we will see," chimed in a resolute voice.

"And after all your seeing and blustering I shall not do it," added Benjamin, in a tone that indicated he meant what he said.

"Ben is right," interrupted Mr. Watts, who had listened to the colloquy; "he has met that condition once in the press-room, and he will not be required to repeat it. I forbid his doing it."

"It is a very foolish custom any way," said Benjamin, "and the sooner it is abandoned in England or anywhere else the better."

After all he did not carry his point. His own words about the affair were as follows:
"I stood out two or three weeks, was accordingly considered as an excommunicate, and had so many little pieces of private malice practised on me, by mixing my sorts, transposing and breaking my matter, etc., etc., if ever I stepped out of the room,--and all ascribed to the chapel ghost, which they said ever haunted those not regularly admitted,--that, notwithstanding the master's protection, I found myself obliged to comply and pay the money; convinced of the folly of being on ill terms with those one is to live with continually."
Benjamin kept up the fight against beer-drinking until he fairly conquered. One after another yielded to his example and arguments, and abandoned the old habit of swilling down beer, until a thorough reformation was wrought in the printing office. The strength, health, tact, and enterprise of the "water-drinker" convinced them that he was right. The title, "Our Water-drinker" bandied about the printing house, came to be really an appellation of esteem.

The printing press, on which Benjamin worked at Watts' printing house, is now in the Patent Office at Washington, where many visitors go to see it. Forty years after he worked on it, Franklin was in London, where his fame was greater than that of any other man, and he called at the old printing house, and going up to the familiar press, he said to the employees:

"It is just forty years since I worked at this press, as you are working now."

[Illustration Removed: FRANKLIN'S LONDON PRINTING PRESS]

The announcement rather startled them. That a public man of so much fame should ever have even served in a printing office as they were serving, was almost too much for them to believe.

The publisher of this volume has in his possession fac-simile letters from different gentlemen in England, fully verifying the press the engraving of which appears above.

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