The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Thirty Four
Section Thirty Four
Continuation of the Account of my Life. Begun at Passy 1784
It is some time since I receiv’d the above Letters, but I have been too busy till now to think of complying with the Request they contain. It might too be much better done if I were at home among my Papers, which would aid my Memory, & help to ascertain Dates. But my Return being uncertain, and having just now a little Leisure, I will endeavor to recollect & write what I can; If I live to get home, it may there be corrected and improv’d.
Not having any Copy here of what is already written, I know not whether an Account is given of the means I used to establish the Philadelphia public Library, which from a small Beginning is now become so considerable, though I remember to have come down to near the Time of that Transaction, 1730. I will therefore begin here, with an Account of it, which may be struck out if found to have been already given.
At the time I establish’d myself in Pennsylvania, there was not a good Bookseller’s Shop in any of the Colonies to the Southward of Boston. In New-York & Philadelphia the Printers were indeed Stationers, they sold only Paper, &c. Almanacks, Ballads, and a few common School Books. Those who lov’d Reading were oblig’d to send for their Books from England. The Members of the Junto had each a few. We had left the Alehouse where we first met, and hired a Room to hold our Club in. I propos’d that we should all of us bring our Books to that Room, where they would not only be ready to consult in our Conferences, but become a common Benefit, each of us being at Liberty to borrow such as he wish’d to read at home. This was accordingly done, and for some time contented us. Finding the Advantage of this little Collection, I propos’d to render the Benefit from Books more common by commencing a Public Subscription Library. I drew a Sketch of the Plan and Rules that would be necessary, and got a skilful Conveyancer, Mr Charles Brockden to put the whole in Form of Articles of Agreement to be subscribed; by which each Subscriber engag’d to pay a certain Sum down for the first Purchase of Books and an annual Contribution for increasing them. So few were the Readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the Majority of us so poor, that I was not able with great Industry to find more than Fifty Persons, mostly young Tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose Forty shillings each, & Ten Shillings per Annum. On this little Fund we began. The Books were imported. The Library was open one Day in the Week for lending them to the Subscribers, on their Promissory Notes to pay Double the Value if not duly returned. The Institution soon manifested its Utility, was imitated by other Towns and in other Provinces, the Libraries were augmented by Donations, Reading became fashionable, and our People having no public Amusements to divert their Attention from Study became better acquainted with Books, and in a few Years were observ’d by Strangers to be better instructed & more intelligent than People of the same Rank generally are in other Countries.
When we were about to sign the above-mentioned Articles, which were to be binding on us, our Heirs, &c for fifty Years, Mr Brockden, the Scrivener, said to us, “You are young Men, but it is scarce probable that any of you will live to see the Expiration of the Term fix’d in this Instrument.” A Number of us, however, are yet living: But the Instrument was after a few Years rendered null by a Charter that incorporated & gave Perpetuity to the Company.
The Objections, & Reluctances I met with in Soliciting the Subscriptions, made me soon feel the Impropriety of presenting one’s self as the Proposer of any useful Project that might be suppos’d to raise one’s Reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s Neighbors, when one has need of their Assistance to accomplish that Project. I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a Scheme of a Number of Friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought Lovers of Reading. In this way my Affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis’d it on such Occasions; and from my frequent Successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little Sacrifice of your Vanity will afterwards be amply repaid. If it remains a while uncertain to whom the Merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself will be encourag’d to claim it, and then even Envy will be dispos’d to do you Justice, by plucking those assum’d Feathers, & restoring them to their right Owner. This Library afforded me the means of Improvement by constant Study, for which I set apart an Hour or two each Day; and thus repair’d in some Degree the Loss of the Learned Education my Father once intended for me. Reading was the only Amusement I allow’d myself. I spent no time in Taverns, Games, or Frolics of any kind. And my Industry in my Business continu’d as indefatigable as it was necessary. I was in debt for my Printinghouse, I had a young Family coming on to be educated, and I had to contend with for Business two Printers who were establish’d in the Place before me. My Circumstances however grew daily easier: my original Habits of Frugality continuing. And my Father having among his Instructions to me when a Boy, frequently repeated a Proverb of Solomon, “Seest thou a Man diligent in his Calling, he shall stand before Kings, he shall not stand before mean Men.” I from thence consider’d Industry as a Means of obtaining Wealth and Distinction, which encourag’d me, tho’ I did not think that I should ever literally stand before Kings, which however has since happened.—for I have stood before five, & even had the honor of sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, to Dinner.