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From Boyhood to Manhood|
XXVIII. At Home Again.
by Thayer, William M.
|We have seen that James Ralph and Benjamin parted company. Ralph had
more brains than heart. His intellectual powers were greater than his
principles. The reader may ask what became of him. After continuing
poor and unsuccessful, engaging in several literary ventures that did
little more than aggravate his poverty, and changing from one kind of
work to another, good fortune seemed to become his portion. Mr. Parton
"As a political writer, pamphleteer, and compiler of booksellers'
history, he flourished long. Four ministers thought his pen worth
purchasing: Sir Robert Walpole, Mr. Pelham, Lord Bute, and the Duke of
Bedford. The nobleman last named evidently held him in high esteem,
and furnished the money for one of Ralph's political periodicals. Lord
Bute, it is said, settled upon him an annuity of six hundred pounds.
Fox praises the fairness, and Hallam the diligence, displayed in his
two huge folios of the 'History of William III.' His works may be
examined by the curious in the library of Harvard University and in
the Philadelphia city library. In estimating the career of this erring
man, we should not forget that many of the noblemen and statesmen with
whom he associated, and for whose advancement he toiled, had less
principle than he, and had not his excuse." [*]
[* "Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin," vol. i. p. 136.]
"Swimming is one of the fine arts, I think," said Benjamin to Wygate,
a printer with whom he was on the most intimate terms. "I feel about
as much at home in the water as I do on the land."
"Well, I should go to the bottom pretty quick if I should venture
where the water is over my head, for I can't swim any more than this
printing-press can," answered Wygate.
"Why don't you learn? It might be of great use to you sometime."
"I should like to know how, but I never tried to learn."
"And that is a good reason for not knowing how to swim. You can't
expect to know any thing without learning. I can teach you without any
"I accept your offer, and will try my best to learn; and Hall will try
with me, I think. You can teach two as well as one, can't you?"
"Yes, a dozen, so far as that goes; the more the merrier."
"When will you go?"
"Just when you please. You and Hall fix the time, and I will be on
The result was that Benjamin was in the water with his two pupils
within a few days, and he taught both of them to swim well in two
lessons. At the same time, he gave them an exhibition of what an
expert swimmer can do in the water, performing different feats on and
under the water, that filled his two companions with surprise.
"You are a water-American in more senses than one," remarked Wygate,
in admiration of Benjamin's pranks in the water. "You could live in
the water about as well as on the land."
"That is not strange," responded Hall; "he believes in water, inside
and outside; he only practises what he preaches, and that is what he
ought to do."
"Some people can't practise what they preach if they try ever so hard,
in business or in morals," rejoined Wygate.
Wygate was the son of a wealthy man, who educated him quite
thoroughly. He could read Latin and French about as well as he could
English, and he could write very entertaining articles. He was fond of
reading, too, and loved to discuss important questions. Such a young
man was not often found in a printing office, and he just suited
Benjamin in his literary tastes, so that they became boon companions.
Their mutual attachment was strengthened by this experience in the art
Not long after Wygate learned to swim, and while the feats that
Benjamin performed in the water were still a subject of remark, some
gentlemen proposed an excursion by water to Chelsea, several miles
"Wouldn't you like to go, Ben?"
"Of course I would, if you are going."
"I will go if you go. I will call round with some of the party and
introduce you to them."
This was done in due time, and Benjamin learned from them that they
were going to Chelsea "to see the college and Don Saltero's
curiosities," which object of the excursion more than doubled his
On the trip Wygate talked much with some of the party about Benjamin's
feats in the water as almost too wonderful to be believed. On
returning, one of the gentlemen said:
"Franklin, why can you not give us an exhibition of your antics in the
"Yes, Ben, do; let them see that what I have told them is literally
true," entreated Wygate.
"Come, Ben, do it," added Hall; "it will put Saltero's curiosities
into the shade. These gentlemen will be so interested in your
performances that they will forget all other curiosities."
"Well, I am always ready to accommodate," replied Benjamin, "and it
will not cross my disposition to have a little frolic in the water, so
I will consent."
So saying, he took off his clothing and leaped into the river, and was
soon as much at home there as a water-fowl. Sometimes he was under the
water, and sometimes on it; it did not seem to make much difference to
him which. He swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars, four miles,
entertaining the company with many manoeuvres all the way. Then he got
on board, arrayed himself in his apparel to hear such words of praise
"Wonderful! I had no idea that any man could attain to such skill in
"No one in London who can do that!"
"Nor in all England and Wales."
"Couldn't drown you, Franklin, if you were left in the middle of the
"You could make a fortune, if you chose to exhibit your skill."
As this brief experience, together with his teaching Wygate and Hall
to swim, won him quite a reputation on this line, we may state here,
that after Benjamin had decided to return to Philadelphia and arranged
therefor, he received a note from Sir William Wyndham, a noted public
man, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Bolingbroke
administration, inviting him to pay him a visit. Benjamin was again
perplexed to know what this great man could want of him; but he went
to see him.
"I am happy to see you, Mr. Franklin, and I hope it has been no
inconvenience to you to call at this time."
"None at all," answered Benjamin. "On the other hand, I consider
myself highly honored by your invitation to call; and I have gladly
embraced the first opportunity to do so."
"I have heard of your great skill in the art of swimming," continued
Sir Wyndham; "and how quickly you taught two young printers to swim."
"Yes," modestly answered Benjamin, "I have some skill in the water,
and I did teach two of my companions the art of swimming, so that they
are excellent swimmers now."
"That is what I heard; and I have two sons who are soon to start upon
extensive travels, and I want they should learn to swim before they
go. It may be of great service to them."
"I have no doubt it would prove a benefit to them," responded
Benjamin. "I should not want to part with my skill for any
"Can you teach my two sons the art at once?"
"I regret to say that I can not, for the reason that I am soon to
leave London and return to America."
"Sorry for that, very sorry indeed. Allow me to suggest that, if you
could prolong your stay here, you might make a real pecuniary success
of establishing a swimming school. I should be willing to pay almost
any price for the instruction of my two sons." Sir Wyndham was very
earnest in his counsel, and made this suggestion sincerely.
"I really feel under great obligations for your interest and good
opinions," Benjamin answered; "but I have already accepted an
invitation to engage in business in Philadelphia, my home, and may
leave within a few days."
"That settles the matter, of course; but I am sorry that it is so,"
added Sir Wyndham. "I trust that you may prosper wherever you are."
Benjamin thanked him heartily for his complimentary words and good
wishes, and left him, almost wishing that he could cancel his
engagement with Mr. Denham and open a swimming school. Wygate and Hall
assured him that he could do well in that business.
Soon after the excursion to Chelsea, Wygate made known to Benjamin a
scheme that was in his mind.
"I want to travel extensively over Europe," he said, "and I have
decided to do it if you will become my traveling companion. We can
stop as necessity requires, from time to time, and work at our
business, so as to pay our way."
"I should like nothing better than to travel all over Europe,"
answered Benjamin. "I have a desire to see more than I have seen of
this part of the world."
"Well, what do you think of the plan?"
"I should say that it is practicable, although the suggestion is
entirely new to me. Could we get work at our business?"
"I took it for granted that we could," replied Wygate. "I have no more
means of knowing than you have."
"I should take it for granted that we could, too," said Benjamin;
"still I shall want to consider it; it is quite an enterprise to
"Somewhat of a scheme; but a very interesting and instructive one if
"That is so, and I think favorably of it. I will consult my good
friend, Denham, about it. He has seen more of the world than we have."
Benjamin was evidently favorably impressed with the proposition; for
he embraced the first opportunity to lay the subject before Mr.
"It does not strike me favorably," said Mr. Denham.
"We could both see and learn a great deal," remarked Benjamin.
"That is true; but other things are to be considered, which are of
equal importance. What might do for Wygate, whose home is here, might
not do for you, whose home is in America."
"That may be." Benjamin's brief reply indicated that he was not quite
certain on that point.
"It appears to me," continued Mr. Denham, "that your first thoughts
should be concerned about returning to Philadelphia, that you may set
up business for yourself there."
"I do not see much prospect of that at present. Of course I should be
glad to return home; for there is no place I prefer to Philadelphia."
"So far as prospects of which you speak are concerned, we can not
always judge; unexpected opportunities sometimes offer; and you do not
want to put yourself where you can not accept and use them."
"Of course not," Benjamin answered, evidently disappointed that his
friend did not endorse the scheme.
"I should recommend decidedly that you abandon the project entirely,
and think no more about it. Then you can continue your work with the
intention of returning to America whenever a favorable opportunity
Benjamin accepted the advice of Mr. Denham, and reported to Wygate, to
the no small disappointment of the latter; and both discarded the
scheme and devoted themselves to honest labor.
Benjamin heard of a place where he could get boarded at two shillings
a week, when he was paying three shillings and sixpence a week in Duke
"I think I shall be under the necessity of changing," he said to the
widow with whom he was boarding. "I want to save all the money I can,
so as to return to America."
"I shall be very sorry to have you leave, Mr. Franklin, if I can
possibly arrange with you to remain."
"I have no desire to leave, except to save a little in my expenses,
that I may return to America sooner: that is all."
"Rather than have you go, I will deduct two shillings a week from what
you are paying me now."
"That is, you propose to board me for one shilling and sixpence a
"Yes, that is it, and it is a bargain if you say so."
"It is a bargain, then." And Benjamin continued to board there as long
as he remained in London.
Before this woman received him for a boarder in the first place, she
sent to the printing house to inquire about his character. The report
was so favorable that she took him to board. And now she had tried
him, and was a greater admirer of his character than ever.
It is one of the things to be said in Benjamin's favor, that, with all
his faults, he always pleased and satisfied his employers and
Benjamin records the following interesting incident respecting his
friend Denham, of whom we have spoken, and to whom we shall refer
"I must record one trait of this good man's character. He had formerly
been in business at Bristol, but failed, in debt to a number of
people, compounded, and went to America. There, by a close application
to business as a merchant, he acquired a plentiful fortune in a few
years. Returning to England in the ship with me, he invited his old
creditors to an entertainment, at which he thanked them for the easy
composition they had favored him with, and, when they expected nothing
but the treat, every man at the first remove found under his plate an
order on a banker for the full amount of the unpaid remainder, with
It was this excellent man and friend, who finally approached Benjamin
with a proposition.
"How would you like to return to Philadelphia?" he said to Benjamin.
"I should like nothing better, if the way was open for me to go."
"I will open a way for you if you will go."
"I am going myself. I intend to open a store of goods in Philadelphia,
and will employ you in the business, if you will go."
"I should like to go; but that will be a new business for me; perhaps
I shall not succeed in it."
"That is my lookout. I think you will succeed; at any rate, I am
prepared to take the risk."
"And I am prepared to go if you will." Benjamin was really delighted
with the proposition.
"I will pay you fifty pounds for one year, and increase your wages
thereafter as you become familiar with the business."
"That offer is satisfactory, though it is not as much as I make at my
"It will be better if you succeed. When you become well acquainted
with the business, I will send you with a cargo of bread and flour to
the West Indies, and I will procure you commissions from others that
will be profitable. In this way you can establish a good business for
"That is a very generous offer on your part, and I hope that I shall
merit your kindness."
"It will be necessary for you to close up your business at the
printing house at once, as I want you to assist me in purchasing,
packing, and shipping goods. My purpose is to carry a large stock to
"I shall accept your proposition, and resign my position at Watts'
immediately, and be at your service early and late."
Benjamin, no doubt, was more interested to return to America on
account of his relation to Miss Deborah Read. He had written to her
but once, and that was directly after he began work at Palmer's
printing house. He told her of Keith's fraud practised upon him,
leaving him in London a stranger and nearly penniless, so that he
could not return until he had earned money enough to pay his passage.
He did not write to her again, and his conscience had condemned him,
so that, at times, he dwelt sadly upon his unfaithfulness. He
neglected to write for so long a time, that he became ashamed to write
at all; and so the correspondence dropped. Yet, he did not forget Miss
Read, nor cast her off; and he blamed himself every time his thoughts
dwelt upon his sin of omission.
Benjamin's employer was very sorry to part with him.
"I am glad to have you as long as I have," he said, "but I wish you
would stay. I feel safe to commit work or business to your care. If
ever I can do you a favor, let me know, and I will only be too glad to
"I thank you for your confidence. I have done the best for you I
could, as I always mean to do for every employer. I regret to leave
you, and my companions with whom I have spent so many hours. But I
have a strong desire to return home." Benjamin spoke with considerable
"That is an honorable desire," answered Mr. Watts, "and I have no
doubt that you will be prospered in gratifying it. At any rate, I hope
So Benjamin separated from his old friends on the best of terms, and
commenced work for Mr. Denham. Nor was it light work. He accompanied
his employer from warehouse to warehouse, packing goods that he
bought, and forwarding them to the ship Berkshire, which would sail
on July 21st. It was new business for him, but he liked it all the
more for its novelty; and he performed the labors with his accustomed
tact and industry.
Benjamin had been nineteen months in London when he sailed on the 21st
of July, 1726. A few months before, he made the acquaintance of Peter
Collinson, a young man of noble English birth, whose talents gave him
nearly as much standing as his ancestry. Collinson heard of Benjamin
and sought him out, forming a life-long friendship. Collinson
accompanied Benjamin to the ship. Just before the vessel weighed
anchor, he handed his walking-stick to Benjamin, saying, "Let us
Benjamin exchanged, replying, "And let it be a pledge of friendship
"And a pledge, also, of faithful correspondence with each other,"
added Collinson, as they shook hands and parted.
The Berkshire, Henry Clark, master, was eighty-two days on its
voyage to Philadelphia. Benjamin landed there on the 11th day of
October, 1726: and he was at home again.