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From Boyhood to Manhood|
XXXI. Brighter Days.
by Thayer, William M.
|It would require several months for the printing outfit ordered from
England to reach Philadelphia. In the mean time, Benjamin was
considering what to do; and, while canvassing the field, he received
the following note from Keimer:
"PHILADELPHIA, 10 Dec., 1727.
Benjamin's first impulse was to destroy the letter and take no further
notice of it. But the second, sober thought led him to consult
Meredith, who continued to work for Keimer. Meredith read the letter,
"MR. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN:
"Dear Sir,--It is not wise for old friends like you and I to
separate for a few words spoken in passion. I was very hasty, and
am sorry for it. I want my old foreman back again at the old price.
I have plenty of work, and if you think well of my proposition,
come and see me.
"I should advise you to accept his proposition, as you have nothing to
"But can you tell me what selfish end he has in view, for Keimer would
never come down like that unless he had an axe to grind?" Benjamin
"Most certainly I can. He can have a government job if he can do the
work. The Province of New Jersey is going to make a new issue of paper
money, and he can get the job; but you are the only printer in
Philadelphia who can do that work, so he wants you."
"I knew there must be something of that sort, or he never would have
asked for my work again. He is too contemptible a man to work for."
Benjamin spoke with much feeling; and he was right, too.
"But here is the point," continued Meredith. "I am poorly equipped to
set up business for myself, and you can teach me. It will be anywhere
from six to eight months before our outfit arrives from England, so
here is a good opportunity for me to improve."
"I suppose that is the best way of looking at it; but Keimer has so
little manhood about him that I have no respect for him. I dislike to
work for a man whom I despise, and can't help it." Benjamin's language
showed that it was almost too much to ask him to return to Keimer's
printing office; but Meredith persevered.
"For my sake, I want you should decide to accept the proposition.
Keimer has made an apology, so that you can return without
compromising your manhood at all. It looks to me as if it were wiser
to accept his proposal than to decline it."
"I will sleep over it to-night before I decide, and let you know in
the morning," replied Benjamin, as he took his leave.
In the morning Benjamin put in his appearance at Keimer's office,
ready for work. He received a hearty welcome, and was at once apprized
of the paper-money job of New Jersey.
Benjamin succeeded in contriving and completing a copper-plate press;
and when cuts and ornaments were all ready, Keimer and he proceeded to
Burlington, N.J., where they remained three months to fulfill the
contract. It proved a rare school for Benjamin. It brought him in
contact with many prominent men, who were of much assistance to him
afterwards. He was so much more intelligent than Keimer, that the
latter was of little consequence, as very little notice was taken of
him. One day Isaac Decon, the surveyor-general, said to him:
"You are complete master of your business, and success is before you."
"I have improved my opportunities," modestly answered Benjamin, "and
done the best I could to learn my trade. I don't like the half-way
method of doing business."
"I commenced business in a very humble way," continued Decon, "without
dreaming that I should ever possess such an estate as I do now."
"What was your business?"
"I wheeled clay for the brickmakers, and had no opportunity of going
to school in my boyhood. I did not learn to write until I became of
age. I acquired my knowledge of surveying when I carried a chain for
surveyors, who were pleased with my desire to learn the business, and
assisted me. By constant industry, and close application, and not a
little perseverance, I have succeeded in reaching the place where you
now see me."
"That is the only way any person ever reached an honorable position,"
remarked Benjamin, after listening to the interesting story of
"You are right in that view, and one-half of the battle is fought when
correct views of life are fixed. When an employer like Keimer is
inferior to his employee in ability, tact, and enterprise, there is a
very poor show for him. If you set up for yourself in Philadelphia,
you will work him completely out of his business."
Late in the spring of 1728 the printing outfit arrived from England.
Benjamin and Meredith had settled with Keimer, who was unusually happy
because his profits on his paper-money job in New Jersey had tided him
over very discouraging embarrassments. Keimer knew nothing of their
plans, however, when a settlement was consummated, as both had kept
the secret. The first intimation that he, or the public, had of such
an enterprise, was the opening of their printing house in the lower
part of Market Street--"FRANKLIN & MEREDITH."
"Here's a man looking for a printer," said George House, an old friend
of Benjamin. "He inquired of me where he could get a job done, and I
told him that here was the place above all others."
"Thank you for the advertisement, George. Yes, sir, we can serve you
here at short notice. What will you have done?" Benjamin won the
customer over at once by his genial, familiar way.
The man made known his wants; and it proved to be a five-shilling job,
all the more acceptable because it was the first.
With the members of the Junto all interested in his success, and the
public men of New Jersey, who made his acquaintance at Burlington,
Benjamin's business was soon well advertised. Many people were taken
by surprise, and most of them predicted a failure, since there were
two printers in town already. One day Samuel Nickle, an old citizen of
the town, known somewhat as a croaker, was passing by, and, looking
up, he read the sign.
"Another printing house!" he said to himself. "And two in town
already! Who can be so thoughtless?" He stopped and mused a few
moments, and then entered.
"Are you the young man who has opened this printing house?" he
inquired of Benjamin.
"I am, sir."
"I am very sorry for you. You are throwing away your money; you can't
succeed with two old printing houses here. You will fail."
"What makes you think so?"
"Because Philadelphia is degenerating, and half the people are now
bankrupt, or nearly so, and how can they support so many printers?"
"But the appearance of Philadelphia indicates thrift," answered
Benjamin. "See how many buildings are going up, and how rents are
rising every month. This does not look like going backward, it seems
"These are the very things that will ruin us," responded Nickle. "They
are no evidence of prosperity, but of extravagance, that will bring
disaster sooner or later."
"That sort of disaster is what we want," suggested Benjamin; "the more
of it the better. If Philadelphia ever becomes much of a town, it will
be in just that way." Benjamin saw at once that he was talking with a
croaker and treated him accordingly.
There was an organization of business men in Philadelphia at that
time, known as the "Merchants' Every-Night Club," answering, perhaps,
to a "Board of Trade" of our day. Its purpose was to advance the
business interests of the town. A member raised the question, "Can
another printing house prosper in town?"
"Not with the present population," was the view of one member.
"It will be a long time before three printing houses will be
required," remarked another.
"They could not have had very discreet advisers, it seems to me,"
still another remarked.
In this manner the subject was canvassed, every member but one
predicting the failure of the enterprise. That one was Doctor Baird, a
prominent physician, and he said:
"It will prove a success. For the industry of that Franklin is
superior to any thing I ever saw of the kind. I see him still at work
when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors
are out of bed."
"Doctor, I guess you are right, I did not think of that when I spoke,"
remarked one who had predicted failure. This member was so much
impressed by Doctor Baird's remark that he subsequently went to
Benjamin and made this proposition:
"I think you can add a stationer's department to your business, and
thus increase your profits; and if you think so, I will furnish you
with stock on credit."
"Your offer is a very generous one, and I thank you for it," answered
Benjamin; "but I think we had better stick to our trade at present and
not put too many irons in the fire at once."
"That is a wise caution, I think, and I am all the more impressed that
you are a young man of sound judgment, and you will succeed."
He had no doubt now that the printing house would succeed.
"Your good opinion encourages me very much, and I shall do my best to
have it realized," replied Benjamin. "I thank you very much for your
generous offer, and, perhaps, at some future day, I shall wish to
"Let me know whenever you are ready for it," said the gentleman as he
took his departure.
"We will start a weekly paper as soon as we are able," said Benjamin
to Meredith one day; "the Mercury is as near nothing as it can be. I
believe that an able paper here, abreast with the times, will
"You can make it succeed if any one can," replied Meredith, to whom
his partner had given a full account of his connection with the New
England Courant in Boston.
They canvassed the subject until it was decided to start a weekly
paper as soon as their pecuniary condition would permit. Just then the
Oxford student, whose time Keimer had bought, called upon Benjamin.
"Will you employ me as journeyman printer?" he asked.
"Employ you?" responded Benjamin with much surprise. "I thought your
time was Keimer's for four years."
"It was; but it is not now; I have bought it back."
"I am glad to hear that; you will be more of a man for it; and, before
long, I think we should like your work; just now we are not in want of
"Your work is increasing, I suppose?" said Webb; "hope I shall not
have to wait long."
"If you can keep a secret, Webb, I will let you into it," continued
Benjamin. "I expect to start a weekly paper before many weeks have
passed; and then I shall have plenty of work."
"How long shall I have to wait?"
"I can't say. It is possible I may want you before I start the
newspaper; work is coming in very well. But you must not let Keimer
know about the paper. When it starts I want it should be a surprise to
him and the public."
"I will not divulge your secret," was Webb's ready promise.
Nevertheless, Webb did disclose the secret to Keimer himself, who
proceeded to start a paper of his own, called the Pennsylvania
Gazette, and he hired Webb, at good wages, to work on it. It proved
to be a miserable affair, without ability or intelligent enterprise,
so that a sharp, witty young man like Benjamin could readily make it a
"I will show up his ignorance and conceit in the Mercury" (name of
the paper already published by Bradford), he said to Meredith. "See if
"A good idea, Ben; go ahead; it will create a sensation. Bradford will
be glad to publish any thing you may write."
"I will see him at once." And Benjamin hastened to the office of the
Mercury, made known his purpose to Bradford, who caught at it at
"Just the thing I want," responded Bradford. "Let me have something
for the next issue."
"Certainly; you shall have the first article to-morrow morning."
Benjamin hurried away with his mind completely absorbed upon the
subjects he should take up. The result was a series of amusing
articles, in which he burlesqued Keimer's proposals, and ridiculed his
editorials, which really deserved nothing better. He continued to
write in this way several months, signing all his articles "Busy
Body." The public were greatly interested in the communications,
because of their real merit. They were bright, even sparkling, full of
humor, logical to sharpness, and charged with ability. They drew
public attention to Bradford's paper, and public ridicule to Keimer's;
so that the subscription list of the former increased, while that of
the latter never had over ninety subscribers. People on every hand
inquired, "Who is Busy Body?" And, finally, the public learned that
it was "that young Franklin, the printer." Keimer learned who his
critic was; and, after the lapse of six or eight months from the time
the first number was issued, who should appear before Benjamin at his
office but him, saying:
"I understand that you think of starting a weekly newspaper; and I
have come to sell you mine."
"How is that? Can't you make it go?" Benjamin replied in a familiar
"No, not as I want to. I don't think I am exactly qualified to run a
"How many subscribers have you?"
"Only ninety?" exclaimed Benjamin. "That number will be of no aid in
starting a paper; might as well start new; new paper, new title, new
editor, new every thing."
The conclusion of the interview was, however, that Benjamin purchased
the paper, took possession immediately, advertised his literary
enterprise, and "it proved," as he said, "in a few years extremely
profitable to me."
His economy was equal to his industry. He arrayed himself in the
plainest manner, although he aimed to look neat and tidy. His board
was simple and cheap, and every thing about his business was conducted
on the most economical principles. He wheeled home the paper which he
bought, boarded himself some of the time, sleeping in the office, and
never stopped to consider whether it was compromising the dignity of a
printer to do such things.
Keimer left no stone unturned to secure business and cripple Franklin
and Meredith. He was never half so active and enterprising as he
became after these two young men set up for themselves. One day Keimer
was in Benjamin's printing office to transact some business, when the
latter said to him:
"Look here, Keimer; come with me into the back room."
"What you got there?" Keimer answered, following.
"See that!" Benjamin said, pointing to a half-devoured loaf and
pitcher of water, that he had just made a meal off.
"What of that?" said Keimer, not comprehending the drift of Benjamin's
"Unless you can live cheaper than I can, it is no use for you to
attempt to run me out of business."
Both laughed, and Keimer departed.
The Gazette flourished finely from the time it came under Benjamin's
management. He was able to discuss public questions of importance with
manifest ability, and his articles created interest and discussion
among public men, who became subscribers in consequence. A dispute was
going on between Governor Burnett and the Massachusetts Assembly, and
Benjamin commented upon it with so much wisdom and originality that
his intimate acquaintance was sought by the most distinguished men.
Benjamin's work as a printer excelled that of either Keimer or
Bradford. The latter did the government printing, and often it was
done in a very bungling manner. This was notably so when he printed an
address of the House to the Governor. It was a very inferior job;
whereupon Benjamin printed it elegantly and correctly and sent a copy
to each member of the House. The House voted to give him the
government printing thereafter. By his method of doing the best he
could every time, he built up a business rapidly, and won a reputation
for industry, integrity, and ability that was worth more than money.
To return to Meredith. He had become more intemperate than ever. His
father, too, did not find relief from pecuniary embarrassment as he
expected. He was to pay two hundred pounds currency for the printing
house, and had paid one-half of it. But the other half was not paid
when due, for which all three were sued.
"Perhaps your father is not pleased with your partner," said Benjamin
to Meredith. "If that is the reason he does not advance the money, I
will retire, and you shall run the whole thing."
"No; my father is well satisfied with my partner, and so am I; so that
you need not think he is withholding money for the purpose of getting
rid of you. He is really embarrassed."
"Then he could not take the concern into his own hands for you to
"No, indeed; that would be quite impossible. Besides, I do not want it
on my hands."
"Why?" inquired Benjamin.
"Because I am satisfied that I am not adapted to this business. I was
bred a farmer, and ought not to have left that occupation."
"Drink water, as I do, and you may succeed as well at printing as
farming. A farmer who drinks to excess never succeeds."
"Drink or no drink," retorted Meredith, "I am sick of this business
and shall quit. Many of our Welsh people are going to settle in North
Carolina, where land is cheap, and I am going with them, and shall
follow my old employment."
"Then you will sell out your interest to me, if I understand you?"
That was what Benjamin wanted.
"Certainly; you can get enough friends to help you. If you will take
the debts of the company upon you, return to my father the hundred
pounds he has advanced, pay my little personal debts, and give me
thirty pounds and a new saddle, I will relinquish the partnership and
leave the whole in your hands."
"I will accept your proposition, and we will draw up the papers at
once," said Benjamin.
The bargain was consummated; and the proper papers were prepared,
signed, and sealed. Benjamin accepted the generous aid of Coleman and
Grace, and became sole proprietor of the printing house and
Pennsylvania Gazette. This was near the close of the year 1729, a
few months after the Gazette came into his hands.
A few months more elapsed, when he concluded to accept the offer of
the gentleman, spoken of on a previous page, to provide a stock of
stationery, and opened a stationer's shop in his building. This proved
a good investment, and led to his marriage, September 1, 1730, to Miss
While Benjamin was thus prospering, Keimer was going to the wall; and
finally his printing office, with all its furniture, was sold under
the hammer to pay his creditors; and he went to Barbadoes, where he
lived in poverty.
Thus changes brought Benjamin to the front, and his printing house was
the best, doing the most business, of any one in the whole country,
except Boston. True, Bradford continued his business and paper; but in
a very small way, in no sense a rival to our hero. He stood at the