The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Fourty Three
Section Fourty Three
In 1737, Col. Spotswood, late Governor of Virginia, & then Post-master, General, being dissatisfied with the Conduct of his Deputy at Philadelphia, respecting some Negligence in rendering, & Inexactitude of his Accounts, took from him the Commission & offered it to me. I accepted it readily, and found it of great Advantage; for tho’ the Salary was small, it facilitated the Correspondence that improv’d my Newspaper, increas’d the Number demanded, as well as the Advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a very considerable Income. My old Competitor’s Newspaper declin’d proportionably, and I was satisfy’d without retaliating his Refusal, while Postmaster, to permit my Papers being carried by the Riders. Thus he suffer’d greatly from his Neglect in due Accounting; and I mention it as a Lesson to those young Men who may be employ’d in managing Affairs for others that they should always render Accounts & make Remittances with Great Clearness and Punctuality. The Character of observing such a Conduct is the most powerful of all Recommendations to new Employments & Increase of Business.
I began now to turn my Thoughts a little to public Affairs, beginning however with small Matters. The City Watch was one of the first Things that I conceiv’d to want Regulation. It was managed by the Constables of the respective Wards in Turn. The Constable warn’d a Number of Housekeepers to attend him for the Night. Those who chose never to attend paid him Six Shillings a Year to be excus’d, which was suppos’d to be for hiring Substitutes; but was in reality much more than was necessary for that purpose, and made the Constableship a Place of Profit. And the Constable for a little Drink often got such Ragamuffins about him as a Watch, that reputable Housekeepers did not choose to mix with. Walking the rounds too was often neglected, and most of the Night spent in Tippling. I thereupon wrote a Paper to be read in Junto, representing these Irregularities, but insisting more particularly on the Inequality of this Six Shilling Tax of the Constables, respecting the Circumstances of those who paid it, since a poor Widow Housekeeper, all whose Property to be guarded by the Watch did not perhaps exceed the Value of Fifty Pounds, paid as much as the wealthiest Merchant who had Thousands of Poundsworth of Goods in his Stores. On the whole I proposed as a more effectual Watch, the Hiring of proper Men to serve constantly in that Business; and as a more equitable Way of supporting the Charge, the levying a Tax that should be proportion’d to Property. This Idea being approv’d by the Junto, was communicated to the other Clubs, but as arising in each of them. And tho’ the Plan was not immediately carried into Execution, yet by preparing the Minds of People for the Change, it paved the Way for the Law obtain’d a few Years after, when the Members of our Clubs were grown into more Influence.
About this time I wrote a Paper, (first to be read in Junto but it was afterwards publish’d) on the different Accidents and Carelessnesses by which Houses were set on fire, with Cautions against them, and Means proposed of avoiding them. This was much spoken of as a useful Piece, and gave rise to a Project, which soon followed it, of forming a Company for the more ready Extinguishing of Fires, and mutual Assistance in Removing & Securing of Goods when in Danger. Associates in this Scheme were presently found amounting to Thirty. Our Articles of Agreement oblig’d every Member to keep always in good Order and fit for Use, a certain Number of Leather Buckets, with strong Bags & Baskets (for packing & transporting of Goods) which were to be brought to every Fire; and we agreed to meet once a Month & spend a social Evening together, in discoursing and communicating such Ideas as occur’d to us upon the Subject of Fires as might be useful in our Conduct on such Occasions. The Utility of this Institution soon appear’d, and many more desiring to be admitted than we thought convenient for one Company, they were advised to form another, which was accordingly done. And this went on, one new Company being formed after another, till they became so numerous as to include most of the Inhabitants who were Men of Property; and now at the time of my Writing this, tho’ upwards of Fifty Years since its Establishment, that which I first formed, called the Union Fire Company, still subsists and flourishes, tho’ the first Members are all deceas’d but myself & one who is older by a Year than I am. The small Fines that have been paid by Members for Absence at the Monthly Meetings, have been apply’d to the Purchase of Fire-Engines, Ladders, Firehooks, and other useful Implements, for each Company, so that I question whether there is a City in the World better provided with the Means of putting a Stop to beginning Conflagrations; and in fact since those Institutions, the City has never lost by Fire more than one or two Houses at a time, and the Flames have often been extinguish’d before the House in which they began has been half consumed.