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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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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,"
"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
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
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
"A Water-American, indeed!" said Mr. Watts, who heard much of the
conversation. "But will you not allow some comfort to hard-working
"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,"
"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
"A treat now, Ben; that is the condition of admission here," said the
"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
"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
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
[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.