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From Boyhood to Manhood|
XXX. The Leathern-Apron Club.
by Thayer, William M.
|Benjamin began to reflect much upon his religious opinions (or,
rather, irreligious), on his return voyage from England, as related to
the errors and mistakes of his life. He had much time, during those
three long, wearisome months, to study himself, past and present.
Evidently he came to possess a more correct knowledge of himself on
that voyage than he ever had before. He was so sincere in the matter
that he drew up a number of rules by which to regulate his future
life. A year and more afterwards he enlarged and perfected this code
of morals. The rules which he adopted on the Berkshire were prefaced
with the following paragraph:
"Those who write of the art of poetry teach us that, if we would write
what may be worth reading, we ought always, before we begin, to form a
regular plan and design of our piece, otherwise we shall be in danger
of incongruity. I am apt to think it is the same as to life. I have
never fixed a regular design of life, by which means it has been a
confused variety of different scenes. I am now entering upon a new
one; let me, therefore, make some resolutions, and form some scheme of
action, that thenceforth I may live like a rational creature."
The closing sentence shows that his conscience was making him
considerable trouble, and that he concluded his life had been very
irrational. Perhaps he thought of Collins, whom he made a free
thinker, and of Ralph, whom he corrupted in the same way. One of them
became a drunkard, and the other a polygamist; both of them cheating
him out of a sum of money; might not their free thinking be related to
their immoralities? He could not help thinking of these things, and so
he wrote down the following rules:
"1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time till I
have paid what I owe.
This was not all he wrote to guide his future career; but we have
cited enough to show the current of Benjamin's thoughts at the time of
which we are speaking. We shall see hereafter that he did not cease to
reflect upon his career, and resolve upon a nobler life.
"2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody
expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity
in every word and action; the most amiable excellence in a rational
"3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand,
and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of
growing suddenly rich; for industry and patience are the surest means
"4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of
truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon
others, and, upon proper occasions, speak all the good I know of every
Soon after his return from England, perhaps after the death of Mr.
Denham, Benjamin organized a literary club, composed, at first, of
eleven members, all of them more or less talented and desirous of
self-improvement, and nearly all of them mechanics, which fact caused
the institution to be christened "THE LEATHERN-APRON CLUB," although
the real name of it, as suggested by Franklin, was "THE JUNTO."
The society was patterned after one formed by Cotton Mather in Boston.
The first thing done at their meetings was to read the following
questions, pausing after reading each for any remarks or propositions
members might desire to make. The principal questions were as follows:
"1. Is there any remarkable disorder in the place that requires our
endeavor for the suppression of it? And in what fair, likely way may
we endeavor it?
"I should pronounce that an ingenious society for doing good and
getting good," said Coleman, after the questions were read.
"2. Is there any particular person, whose disorderly behavior may be
so scandalous and notorious that we may do well to send unto the said
person our charitable admonitions? Or, are there any contending
persons whom we should admonish to quench their contentions?
"3. Is there any special service to the interest of Religion which we
may conveniently desire our ministers to take notice of?
"4. Is there any thing we may do well to mention unto the justices for
the further promoting good order?
"5. Is there any sort of officers among us to such a degree unmindful
of their duty that we may do well to mind them of it?
"6. Can any further methods be devised that ignorance and wickedness
may be chased from our people in general, and that household piety in
particular may flourish among them?
"7. Does there appear any instance of oppression or fraudulence in the
dealings of any sort of people that may call for our essays to get it
"8. Is there any matter to be humbly moved unto the Legislative Power,
to be enacted into a Law for the public benefit?
"9. Do we know of any person languishing under sore and sad
affliction; and is there any thing we can do for the succor of such an
"10. Has any person any proposal to make for our own further advantage
and assistance, that we ourselves may be in a probable and regular
capacity to pursue the intention before us?"
"It was so, and Cotton Mather himself was a member of twenty of these
societies," said Benjamin. "They became very popular, and I recall
with what interest my father participated in the meetings. I often
accompanied him, and, young as I was, they were very interesting to
me. It was that fact which suggested the questions I have reported for
When a person united with the Junto, he was required to stand up, lay
his hand on his heart, and answer the following questions:
"1. Have you any particular disrespect to any present member?
At one of their earliest meetings Benjamin proposed that each member
(the number of members was limited to twelve) should bring his books
to the club-room for reference during their discussions.
"Answer. I have not.
"2. Do you sincerely declare that you love mankind in general, of what
profession or religion soever?
"Answer. I do.
"3. Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, name, or
goods, for mere speculative opinion, or his external way of worship?
"4. Do you love truth for truth's sake; and will you endeavor
impartially to find and receive it yourself, and communicate it to
"A capital idea," said Coleman, "and I would suggest that each member
have the privilege of reading the books belonging to other members."
"Another good idea," rejoined Benjamin; "I second that motion with all
"It will not take any one of us a great while to read all the books we
can muster," suggested Potts.
At that time there was no bookstore in Philadelphia, nor was there one
of considerable note anywhere in the Colonies, except in Boston. The
people of Philadelphia sent to England for the books they wanted,
which was expensive and inconvenient.
After this plan had been successfully used for several months,
Benjamin made another proposition.
"I propose that we establish a library, interesting parties outside to
join us in the enterprise."
"Raising money for the same by subscription, do you mean?" inquired
"Yes; unless there is a better way of doing it."
"I doubt if outsiders can be interested to join us in such a project,"
said Grace. "Few people care enough about books to put money into such
"Perhaps so; but we can try; if we fail we shall still be as well off
as we are now," was Benjamin's answer. "Unless we make the effort we
shall never know what we can do."
"And you are the one to solicit subscriptions, Ben," remarked Godfrey.
"If anybody can succeed, you can. If I should undertake and fail, as I
should, it would not prove that the scheme is impracticable."
"I am perfectly willing to solicit subscriptions, and I will begin at
once and be able to report success or failure at the next meeting,"
was Benjamin's generous offer.
At the following meeting he was able to report success, so far as he
had been able to work; and he continued until fifty young tradesmen
had pledged forty shillings each as a subscription, and, in addition,
ten shillings per annum. This was unexpected success, and the members
of the Junto were highly elated. Thus was established the first
circulating library in this country. Benjamin Franklin was the author
of it; and that library numbers now one hundred thousand volumes.
Since that day the library scheme has proved so beneficial to
individuals and the public, that there are thousands of circulating
libraries in the land. Almost every town of two or three thousand
inhabitants has one. It must not be forgotten, however, that Benjamin
Franklin conceived and reduced the idea to practice.
The following are some of the questions discussed by members of the
"Is sound an entity or body?
The foregoing Rules and Questions show that it could not have been an
ordinary class of young men to meet and discuss such subjects.
Benjamin's talent is manifest both in the organization and the themes
"How may the phenomenon of vapors be explained?
"Is self-interest the rudder that steers mankind, the universal
monarch to whom all are tributaries?
"Which is the best form of government, and what was that form which
first prevailed among mankind?
"Can any one particular form of government suit all mankind?
"What is the reason that the tides rise higher in the Bay of Fundy
than the Bay of Delaware?
"Is the emission of paper money safe?
"What is the reason that men of the greatest knowledge are not the
"How may the possession of the lakes be improved to our advantage?
"Why are tumultuous, uneasy sensations united with our desires?
"Whether it ought to be the aim of philosophy to eradicate the
"How may smoky chimneys be best cured?
"Why does the flame of a candle tend upwards in a spire?
"Which is the least criminal, a bad action joined with a good
intention, or a good action with a bad intention?
"Is it inconsistent with the principles of liberty in a free
government, to punish a man as a libeller when he speaks the truth?"
Improvements have been the order of the day since the Junto was
organized; but we doubt if there has been much improvement upon the
Junto in literary organizations for the young. It is not surprising,
that, of the original twelve members, two became surveyors-general;
one the inventor of a quadrant; one a distinguished mechanic and
influential man; one a merchant of great note and a provincial judge,
and all but one respected and honored men. At the same time, Benjamin,
the founder, became "Minister to the Court of St. James," "Minister
Plenipotentiary to France," and the greatest Statesman and Philosopher
of America, in the eighteenth century.
In old age Doctor Franklin said of the Junto: "It was the best school
of philosophy, morality, and politics that then existed in the
Province; for our queries, which were read the week preceding their
discussion, put us upon reading with attention on the several
subjects, that we might speak more to the purpose; and here, too, we
acquired better habits of conversation, every thing being studied in
our rules which might prevent our disgusting each other."
The Junto was copied in England fifty years after Benjamin organized
it in Philadelphia, by Cleming Jenkinson (who became Earl of
Liverpool) and others; and, within it, they began careers that became
illustrious. It has been copied in different parts of our own land
down to the present day, blessing the people and the country in more
ways than one.
"I can tell you how to get over the difficulty," said Benjamin: "let
each member get up a club of twelve, and that will give a chance for
one hundred and forty-four members."
"And when that number is attained, I suppose you will have each one of
the one hundred and forty-four organize a Junto, and that will make
the membership seventeen hundred and twenty-eight, enough to
constitute a good township," suggested Coleman, who did not endorse
"One Junto will be of more service to members, as well as to the
public, than a dozen can be, only abolish the limit to twelve members,
and allow all who desire to join," was Coleman's view.
"More interesting, also, to have a larger number of members,"
suggested Parsons. "Numbers create enthusiasm."
"And numbers often create friction, too," retorted Benjamin; "we want
to avoid both shoals and rocks."
"Another thing that I object to very much is this: if each one of us
organizes another Junto, we no longer associate with each other--the
very thing for which this Junto was organized." This was the strongest
objection that Coleman urged.
"That is the selfish side of the question," suggested Benjamin. "On
the other hand, there will be twelve times as many persons to be
benefited. If we twelve are benefited, how much better and grander to
have one hundred and forty-four benefited!"
"Ben is right; and I am of the opinion that the sooner we adopt this
plan the better. It will be unpleasant to sacrifice our social
connections to form new ones, but the new ones may become equally
pleasant." Scull thus supported Benjamin's proposition; and so did
Meredith, Maugridge, and others.
This discussion arose from the popularity of the Junto. It became so
popular that large numbers of persons wanted to join it, and besought
the members to abolish the rule limiting the membership to twelve.
Hence, Benjamin's proposition to meet the exigency, which was carried,
with this amendment:
"The new clubs shall be auxiliary to this, the original one, each
reporting its proceedings to the parent society, that one harmonious
purpose and plan may characterize all."
All the members did not organize a club, but five or six did, and
these clubs flourished for many years, blessing the town and the whole
The Junto was not many months old, when Benjamin made another
"The books we read have words and phrases in other languages, and I do
not know their meaning. I studied Latin some in Boston, before I was
ten years old, and Latin words I can guess at, but French I can't.
Suppose we study French."
"You can study it if you want to," replied Scull, "but I have not the
time for another study."
"And I have not the taste for it," said Meredith. "One language is all
that I can handle, and I can't handle that as I want to."
"I like the suggestion," responded Coleman "and can give a little time
to French, though not a great deal. If Ben becomes an expert linguist
he can translate the foreign words and phrases for us."
"That last suggestion is best of all," remarked Parsons. "Ben can go
ahead and become a linguist for our benefit. That is the benevolent
side of this question," punning on his argument for the benevolent
side of the club question.
Whether other members of the Junto studied the languages we have no
means of knowing, but Benjamin did, with remarkable success. First he
studied French, and when he could read it quite well, he took up
Italian and Spanish. By this time he became so interested in foreign
languages that he revived his acquaintance with Latin, becoming quite
a good scholar therein. It was a mystery to his companions how he
found time to accomplish so much; but he did it by method and
industry, improving the smallest fragments of time, working early and
late. He was very fond of playing chess; but he denied himself the
pleasure wholly in order that he might have the more time for study.
While at Keimer's he found more time for reading and hard study,
because his employer observed Saturday as his Sabbath, giving only
five days in the week to work.