The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Fifty

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Section Fifty[edit]

I have since had Doubts of the Practicability of the latter Part of this Proposal, on Account of the Narrowness of some Streets, and the Difficulty of placing the Draining Sleds so as not to encumber too much the Passage: But I am still of Opinion that the former, requiring the Dust, to be swept up & carry’d away before the Shops are open, is very practicable in the Summer, when the Days are long: For in Walking thro’ the Strand and Fleetstreet one Morning at 7 a Clock I observ’d there was not one shop open tho’ it had been Daylight & the Sun up above three Hours. The Inhabitants of London choosing voluntarily to live much by Candle Light, and sleep by Sunshine; and yet often complain a little absurdly, of the Duty on Candles and the high Price of Tallow.

Some may think these trifling Matters not worth minding or relating. But when they consider, that tho’ Dust blown into the Eyes of a single Person, or into a single Shop on a windy Day, is but of small Importance, yet the great Number of the Instances in a populous City, and its frequent Repetitions give it Weight & Consequence; perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some of Attention to Affairs of this seemingly low Nature. Human Felicity is produc’d not so much by great Pieces of good Fortune that seldom happen, as by little Advantages that occur every Day. Thus if you teach a poor young Man to shave himself and keep his Razor in order, you may contribute more to the Happiness of his Life than in giving him a 1000 Guineas. The Money may be soon spent, the Regret only remaining of having foolishly consum’d it. But in the other Case he escapes the frequent Vexation of waiting for Barbers, & of their some times, dirty Fingers, offensive Breaths and dull Razors. He shaves when most convenient to him, and enjoys daily the Pleasure of its being done with a good Instrument. With these Sentiments I have hazarded the few preceding Pages, hoping they may afford Hints which some time or other may be useful to a City I love, having lived many Years in it very happily; and perhaps to some of our Towns in America.

Having been for some time employed by the Postmaster General of America, as his Comptroller in regulating the several Offices, and bringing the Officers to account, I was upon his Death in 1753 appointed jointly with Mr William Hunter to succeed him, by a Commission from the Postmaster General in England. The American Office had never hitherto paid any thing to that of Britain. We were to have 600£ a Year between us if we could make that Sum out of the Profits of the Office. To do this, a Variety of Improvements were necessary; some of these were inevitably at first expensive; so that in the first four Years the Office became above 900£ in debt to us. But it soon after began to repay us, and before I was displac’d, by a Freak of the Minister’s, of which I shall speak hereafter, we had brought it to yield three times as much clear Revenue to the Crown as the Post-Office of Ireland. Since that imprudent Transaction, they have receiv’d from it—Not one Farthing.

The Business of the Post-Office occasion’d my taking a Journey this Year to New England, where the College of Cambridge of their own Motion, presented me with the Degree of Master of Arts. Yale College in Connecticut, had before made me a similar Compliment. Thus without studying in any College I came to partake of their Honors. They were confer’d in Consideration of my Improvements & Discoveries in the electric Branch of Natural Philosophy.

In 1754, War with France being again apprehended, a Congress of Commissioners from the different Colonies, was by an Order of the Lords of Trade, to be assembled at Albany, there to confer with the Chiefs of the Six Nations, concerning the Means of defending both their Country and ours. Governor Hamilton, having receiv’d this Order, acquainted the House with it, requesting they would furnish proper Presents for the Indians to be given on this Occasion; and naming the Speaker (Mr Norris) and myself, to join Mr Thomas Penn & Mr Secretary Peters, as Commissioners to act for Pennsylvania. The House approv’d the Nomination, and provided the Goods for the Present, tho’ they did not much like treating out of the Province, and we met the other Commissioners and met at Albany about the Middle of June. In our Way thither, I projected and drew up a Plan for the Union of all the Colonies, under one Government so far as might be necessary for Defense, and other important general Purposes. As we pass’d thro’ New York, I had there shown my Project to Mr James Alexander & Mr Kennedy, two Gentlemen of great Knowledge in public Affairs, and being fortified by their Approbation I ventur’d to lay it before the Congress. It then appear’d that several of the Commissioners had form’d Plans of the same kind. A previous Question was first taken whether a Union should be established, which pass’d in the Affirmative unanimously. A Committee was then appointed one Member from each Colony, to consider the several Plans and report. Mine happen’d to be prefer’d, and with a few Amendments was accordingly reported. By this Plan, the general Government was to be administered by a President General appointed and supported by the Crown, and a Grand Council to be chosen by the Representatives of the People of the several Colonies met in their respective Assemblies. The Debates upon it in Congress went on daily hand in hand with the Indian Business. Many Objections and Difficulties were started, but at length they were all overcome, and the Plan was unanimously agreed to, and Copies ordered to be transmitted to the Board of Trade and to the Assemblies of the several Provinces. Its Fate was singular. The Assemblies did not adopt it as they all thought there was too much prerogative in it; and in England it was judg’d to have too much of the Democratic: The Board of Trade therefore did not approve it; nor recommend it for the Approbation of his Majesty; but another Scheme was form’d (suppos’d better to answer the same Purpose) whereby the Governors of the Provinces with some Members of their respective Councils were to meet and order the raising of Troops, building of Forts, &c. &c. to draw on the Treasury of Great Britain for the Expense, which was afterwards to be refunded by an Act of Parliament laying a Tax on America. My Plan, with my Reasons in support of it, is to be found among my political Papers that are printed.

Being the Winter following in Boston, I had much Conversation with Govr Shirley upon both the Plans. Part of what pass’d between us on the Occasion may also be seen among those Papers. The different & contrary Reasons of dislike to my Plan, makes me suspect that it was really the true Medium; & I am still of Opinion it would have been happy for both Sides the Water if it had been adopted. The Colonies so united would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would then have been no need of Troops from England; of course the subsequent Pretense for Taxing America, and the bloody Contest it occasioned, would have been avoided. But such Mistakes are not new; History is full of the Errors of States & Princes. “Look round the habitable World, how few Know their own Good, or knowing it pursue.”

Those who govern, having much Business on their hands, do not generally like to take the Trouble of considering and carrying into Execution new Projects. The best public Measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous Wisdom, but forc’d by the Occasion.

The Governor of Pennsylvania in sending it down to the Assembly, express’d his Approbation of the Plan “as appearing to him to be drawn up with great Clearness & Strength of Judgment, and therefore recommended it as well worthy their closest & most serious Attention.” The House however, by the Management of a certain Member, took it up when I happen’d to be absent, which I thought not very fair, and reprobated it without paying any Attention to it at all, to my no small Mortification.

In my Journey to Boston this Year I met at New York with our new Governor, Mr Morris, just arriv’d there from England, with whom I had been before intimately acquainted. He brought a Commission to supersede Mr Hamilton, who, tir’d with the Disputes his Proprietary Instructions subjected him to, had resigned. Mr Morris ask’d me, if I thought he must expect as uncomfortable an Administration. I said, No; you may on the contrary have a very comfortable one, if you will only take care not to enter into any Dispute with the Assembly. “My dear Friend, says he, pleasantly, how can you advise my avoiding Disputes. You know I love Disputing; it is one of my greatest Pleasures: However, to show the Regard I have for your Counsel, I promise you I will if possible avoid them.” He had some Reason for loving to dispute, being eloquent, an acute Sophister, and therefore generally successful in argumentative Conversation. He had been brought up to it from a Boy, his Father (as I have heard) accustoming his Children to dispute with one another for his Diversion while sitting at Table after Dinner. But I think the Practice was not wise, for in the Course of my Observation, these disputing, contradicting & confuting People are generally unfortunate in their Affairs. They get Victory sometimes, but they never get Good Will, which would be of more use to them. We parted, he going to Philadelphia, and I to Boston. In returning, I met at New York with the Votes of the Assembly, by which it appear’d that notwithstanding his Promise to me, he and the House were already in high Contention, and it was a continual Battle between them, as long as he retain’d the Government. I had my Share of it; for as soon as I got back to my Seat in the Assembly, I was put on every Committee for answering his Speeches and Messages, and by the Committees always desired to make the Drafts. Our Answers as well as his Messages were often tart, and sometimes indecently abusive. And as he knew I wrote for the Assembly, one might have imagined that when we met we could hardly avoid cutting Throats. But he was so good-natur’d a Man, that no personal Difference between him and me was occasion’d by the Contest, and we often din’d together. One Afternoon in the height of this public Quarrel, we met in the Street. “Franklin, says he, you must go home with me and spend the Evening. I am to have some Company that you will like;” and taking me by the Arm he led me to his House. In gay Conversation over our Wine after Supper he told us Jokingly that he much admir’d the Idea of Sancho Panza, who when it was propos’d to give him a Government, requested it might be a Government of Blacks, as then, if he could not agree with his People he might sell them. One of his Friends who sat next me, says, “Franklin, why do you continue to side with these damn’d Quakers? had not you better sell them? the Proprietor would give you a good Price.” The Governor, says I, has not yet black’d them enough. He had indeed labor’d hard to blacken the Assembly in all his Messages, but they wip’d off his Coloring as fast as he laid it on, and plac’d it in return thick upon his own Face; so that finding he was likely to be negrify’d himself, he as well as Mr Hamilton, grew tir’d of the Contest, and quitted the Government.