Monday, April 29, 2013

All about the Benjamins

The Horace Chronicles, #6

September 30

Dear Maya,

Today Mr. Smith told a story. I recorded it on my phone (I've been doing this lately; he says it's OK).

"So I want to tell you about two people," he said about halfway through class about the fights between the British and French in the colonies in the 1700s.  "One is an old woman named Silence Dogood. The other is a young kid -- your age, actually -- named Benjamin Franklin."

"You mean the guy on the $100 bill?" Carl asked.

"Right. Except this is when he was a teenager."

"He was never a teenager," Hannah said. "Teenagers hadn't been invented yet."

"Well, you're right about that. Teenagers are only about a hundred years old. Still, Benjamin Franklin was 16 once. So, for that matter, was I."

"You were not." (It is a little hard to picture, Maya.)

Liz raised her hand. Mr. Smith nodded. "What was the old woman's name again?"

"Silence Dogood."

"That doesn't sound like a real name."

"You're right, Liz: it isn't. Actually, the old woman based her name on two books by a famous preacher named Cotton Mather, who was a real big shot in colonial Boston. One was called "Silentarius.' The other was called 'Essays to Do Good."

"So what does she have to do with Benjamin Franklin?" Carl asked.

"Well, I should start by saying that Benjamin Franklin came from a large family. And he was among the youngest. So his father didn't have a lot of money to pay for his schooling. So he apprenticed the boy to his oldest brother James, who was a printer. Anybody remember how the apprentice thing worked?"

Evan Thompson, who switched into the class after the first week, raised his hand. "That's when you worked for someone for seven years and learned a job."

"Right. So Benjamin Franklin was working for his brother. James Franklin published a newspaper called The New England Courant. The Courant was really the first independent newspaper in the colonies, which is to day that it practiced freedom of the press. Which meant it sometimes criticized the colonies authorities. One of whom was the Reverend Cotton Mather." Mr. Smith paused to drink some coffee. He looked around the room. We were with him -- partly because he did that. It created a little suspense.

"Cotton Mather, for example, had a crazy idea. He thought -- get this -- that you could prevent a dangerous disease like smallpox, which once killed millions of people, by actually infecting them with a mild form of it, but sticking the germs into a cut. That you could, to use a technical term, 'inoculate' them."

"Crazy man, crazy," Carl said. He was really into it today. Maybe he got some extra sleep or had a good breakfast or something.

"Well, James Franklin said it was crazy. He also said that colonial authorities were too lax in going after pirates. Which landed his ass in jail."

"Pirates?" This from Deana.

"Yes, pirates. They were common in those days. French, Spanish, even the English did it. Lots of money to be made by raiding ships of rival nations. And there were lots of ships going in and out of Boston. It was the largest port in North America at the time."

"The seniors are going to have Pirate Day next week."

Mr. Smith ignored this. "James Franklin wasn't in jail long. And it didn't stop him from tweaking the Boston authorities. So he was pleased when he began getting a series of articles slipped under his door by this old woman, Silence Dogood. She made fun of Harvard students, local ministers, and the like. She was a widow who made clear she wouldn't mind getting married again. She even got some marriage offers."

"Did she get married again?" Hannah asked.


"Why not? Was she good-looking?"


Hannah squinted. "How do you know?"

"Well, actually, I kind of do know," he answered. "Good-looking, yes, I think so. But not a she. Silence Dogood was not actually an old woman. She was an adolescent boy named Benjamin Franklin."

I think Mr. Smith expected a laugh or some sense of surprise. But we didn't say anything.

"Young Franklin had written the pieces anonymously. And there were very popular. So his brother was upset when they stopped coming. But when he found it it was his kid brother, he got mad. So Ben ran away. To the new and rapidly growing city of Philadelphia." Another sip of coffee and a glance at the clock. Class was almost over; Dave was moving stuff around on his desk. 

"So what do you make of this guy?"

"He was smart," Carl said. "Funny."

"Does he seem like the guy on the $100 bill?"

"Not really. So what happened next?"

"What do you think happened?"

"I dunno. He wrote the Declaration of Independence?"

"No. That was mostly Thomas Jefferson. Besides, it's 1723, and that's over fifty years away."

"Wow. He was old."

"By then, yes. But Franklin did a lot before that. We'll talk more about it tomorrow."

So there you have it Maya, Ben Franklin, teenager. He was probably too cool for the likes of us. But I like hm anyway.