Advice from Benjamin Franklin
The New Year is so refreshing. We seem naturally to be optimistic about the future and have high hopes that things that didn't work out so well in the past year will somehow work out better this year.
In previous articles, we have talked much about the wisdom of the Founders when it comes to current political issues. We have done our best to show how their wisdom is timeless and their advice to us, if we were to follow it, would have saved us so much grief and troubles in our country's history. But their wisdom is broader than just politics. They were very practical people who had to live in society, raise children, get along with people, and contribute to the well-being of their communities.
In studying the political writings of the Founders, one cannot help but be impressed with their philosophy for everyday living, which most of them have woven in and around their political writings. Sometimes it is like reading a manual on family relationships. Over the years, when I have had occasion, either in school settings or in seminars, I have tried to impart this wisdom to young people and their parents. It is practical, it is sensible, and it is problem-solving. It is convincing to me that the Founders knew that anyone who builds his political beliefs upon correct principles must also build a foundation of personal and family values and beliefs on correct principles. It would be inconsistent to try to have a successfully correct philosophy of freedom and be a failure in one's personal and family life, or vice versa.
Two years ago, 30 teachers in our school of 7-12 grade students, taught daily lessons from the life and teachings of Benjamin Franklin. His advice and thinking is so powerful and so applicable to our day, I present selected items to you in a question and answer format in hopes of helping in your attempt at making this New Year the best one yet. This material is taken from The Real Benjamin Franklin , by Andrew Allison, W. Cleon Skousen, and Richard Maxfield, and published by NCCS. The questions are ours; the answers are Benjamin Franklin's. Page references toThe Real Benjamin Franklin are in parenthesis.
- Q. What can a parent do to help improve the minds of his children? A. Ben wrote of his father: "At his table he liked to have, as often as he could, some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life." (7)
- Q. What is the most effective activity for a young person for improving character? A. In giving advice to his daughter he said: "I shall therefore only say, that the more attentively dutiful and tender you are towards your good mama, the more you will recommend yourself to me.. Go constantly to church, whoever preaches. The act of devotion in the common prayer book is your principal business there, and if properly attended to, will do more towards amending the heart than sermons generally can do. For they were composed by men of much greater piety and wisdom, than our common composers of sermons can pretend to be." (312)
- Q. How can one relate simple math to human behavior? A. "Let me give you some fatherly advice. Kill no more pigeons than you can eat. Be a good girl and don't forget your catechism. Go constantly to meeting-or church-till you get a good husband, then stay at home and nurse the children, and live like a Christian. Spend your spare hours, in sober whisk, prayers, or learning to cipher. You must practice addition to your husband's estate, by industry and frugality; subtraction of all unnecessary expenses;multiplication (I would gladly have taught you that myself, but you thought it time enough, and wouldn't learn) he will soon make you a mistress of it. As to division , I say with Brother Paul, Let there be no division among ye." (313)
- Q. What kind of reading and memorizing can best help young people? A. In writing his popular Almanac, Franklin knew the value of short maxims: "For besides the astronomical calculations, and other things usually contained in almanacks, which have their daily use indeed while the year continues, but then become of no value, I have constantly interspersed moral sentences, prudent maxims, and wise sayings, many of them containing much good sense in very few words, and therefore apt to leave strong and lasting impressions on the memory of young persons, whereby they may receive benefit as long as they live, when both almanack and almanack-maker have been long thrown by and forgotten." (315)
- Q. How should citizens express themselves concerning the trends of the day, including the trends in the modern education system? A. Andrew Allison writes: Thus was created "Silence Dogood," a fictional widow who shared with the editor of the Courant her humorous and sometimes profound observations on the fashions and foibles of colonial life. Ben secretly wrote these letters every two weeks for a period of seven months.. Some of the Dogood letters advocated timely social improvements, such as greater educational opportunities for women and an "office of insurance for widows." More commonly they expressed good-natured criticisms of various human vices which young Franklin had noticed among the Boston townspeople. "I have...a natural inclination to observe and reprove the faults of others, at which I have an excellent faculty," wrote Mrs. Dogood. "I speak this by way of warning to all such whose offenses shall come under my cognizance, for I never intend to wrap my talent in a napkin.." The lively widow lashed out against drunkenness, hypocrisy, pride, "hoop petticoats" ("these monstrous topsy-turvy mortar pieces...look more like engines of war for bombarding the town than ornaments of the fair sex"), and the shallow curriculum at Harvard ("they [the students] return...as great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited"). (14)
- Q. In Franklin's day, and to a growing extent in our day, some people are desirous to have titles attached to their names, apparently to give them authority or "nobility." How did Franklin feel about this? A. "In old times it was no disrespect for men and women to be called by their own names. Adam was never called Master Adam; we never read of Noah Esquire, Lot Knight and Baronet, nor the Right Honorable Abraham, Viscount Mesopotamia, Baron of Canaan. No, no, they were plain men, honest country graziers that took care of their families and their flocks. "Moses was a great prophet and Aaron a priest of the Lord; but we never read of the Reverend Moses nor the Right Reverend Father in God, Aaron, by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Israel. Thou never sawest Madam Rebecca in the Bible, my Lady Rachel, nor Mary, though a princess of the blood, after the death of Joseph called the Princess Dowager of Nazareth. No, plain Rebecca, Rachel, Mary, or the Widow Mary, or the like. It was no incivility then to mention their naked names as they were expressed." (18)
- Q. What is the point of keeping a personal journal of one's life? A. "I am recovering from a long-continued gout, and am diligently employed in writing the history of my life.... I am now in the year 1756, just before I was sent to England. To shorten the work, as well as for other reasons, I omit all facts and transactions that may not have a tendency to benefit the young reader, by showing him from my example, and my success in emerging from poverty, and acquiring some degree of wealth, power, and reputation, the advantages of certain modes of conduct which I observed, and of avoiding the errors which were prejudicial to me. If a writer can judge properly of his own work, I fancy, on reading over what is already done, that the book will be found entertaining, interesting, and useful, more so than I expected when I began it." (320)
- Q. What did Franklin say about the growing tendency either to put off marriage or not to marry at all? A. "But take into your wise consideration the great and growing number of bachelors in the country, many of whom, from the mean fear of the expenses of a family, have never sincerely and honorably courted a woman in their lives; and by their manner of living leave unproduced (which is little better than murder) hundreds of their posterity to the thousandth generation.. What must poor young women do, whom customs and nature forbid to solicit the men, and who cannot force themselves upon husbands, when the laws take no care to provide them any, and yet severely punish them if they do their duty without them; the duty of the first and great command of nature and nature's God, increase and multiply." (320)
- Q. What would Franklin say about the growing problem of beer consumption in our country today? A. "At my first admission into this printing house [in England], I took to working at press, imagining I felt a want of the bodily exercise I had been used to in America, where presswork is mixed with composing. I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great guzzlers of beer. On occasion I carried up and down stairs a large form of types in each hand, when others carried but one in both hands. They wondered to see from this and several instances that the Water American, as they called me, was stronger than themselves who drank strong beer." (25-26)
- Q. Why is caring for the little things in life so important? A. "And again, he [Poor Richard] adviseth to circumspection and care, even in the smallest matters, because sometimes A little neglect may breed great mischief; adding, for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy; all for want of care about a horseshoe nail." (325)
- Q. What do you tell someone to do who owes you money and apparently has a difficult time repaying? A. "Some time or other you may have an opportunity of assisting with an equal sum a stranger who has equal need of it. Do so. By that means you will discharge any obligation you may suppose yourself under to me. Enjoin him to do the same on occasion. By pursuing such a practice, much good may be done with little money. Let kind offices go round. Mankind are all of a family." (328)
- Q. Is there an activity that will provide mental training for life's tough situations? A. "The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For life is a kind of chess, in which we often have points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are in some degree the effects of prudence or the want of it. By playing at chess, then, we may learn, I. Foresight , which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action; .II.Circumspection , which surveys the whole chessboard, or scene of action; the relations of the several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to....III. Caution , not to make our moves too hastily.... And lastly , we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources." (328)
- Q. What great opportunities are parents missing when they overly employ television or other amusements to entertain their children? A. "You cannot be more pleased in talking about your children, your methods of instructing them, and the progress they make, than I am in hearing it, and in finding that, instead of following the idle amusements which both your fortune and the custom of the age might have led you into, your delight and your duty go together by employing your time in the education of your offspring. This is following nature and reason, instead of fashion; than which nothing is more becoming the character of a woman of sense and virtue." (329)
- Q. It is difficult for some worshipers to see friends split off into new congregations. Should congregations be large so all can worship together rather than divided up into smaller ones? A. "Your tenderness of the church's peace is truly laudable; but, methinks, to build a new church in a growing place is not properly dividing but multiplying; and will really be the means of increasing the number of those who worship God in that way. Many who cannot now be accommodated in the church go to other places, or stay at home; and if we had another church, many who go to other places or stay at home, would go to church." (330)
- Q. How can one enlarge his circle of influence without the stain of argument or contention? A. Franklin formed a "club for mutual improvement, which we called the Junto. We met on Friday evenings. The rules I drew up required that every member in his turn should produce one or more queries on any point of morals, politics, or natural philosophy, to be discussed by the company, and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinion, or of direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties." (35-36)
- Q. What is a good way to set and keep New Year's resolutions in order to improve myself? A. Franklin developed a program which he called "the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection." He said, "I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other." This plan involved faithful adherence to thirteen separate virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. He devised a little book and set it up in such a way that he could examine himself and mark his progress at the end of each day. He decided to focus on only one virtue at a time, "and when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on till I should have gone through the thirteen.... I determined to give a week's strict attention to each of the virtues successively.... Proceeding thus to the last, I could go through a course complete in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year." How did his project turn out? At the advanced age of seventy-eight he wrote: "I entered upon the execution of this plan for self-examination and continued it, with occasional intermissions, for some time. I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.... After a while I went through one course only in a year, and afterwards only one in several years, till at length I omitted them entirely, being employed in voyages and business abroad with a multiplicity of affairs that interfered; but I always carried my little book with me.... In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But on the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the endeavor a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been.... And it may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor owed the constant felicity of his life down to his seventy-ninth year in which this is written.... I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefits." (59-61)