Big Ben Franklin

The blog Get Rich Slowly had a post two days ago celebrating Benjamin Franklin’s 303rd birthday. I’m sorry I missed it. (The date; not so much the post.) Little Ben came into the world right here in Boston, about where the Claire’s store is now.

I’m a big fan of Ben’s, although not for the reasons that attract the Get Rich Slowly crowd. (And wouldn’t calling the blog Get Rich Slow be more parallel with get rich quick? It’s a great name anyway.)

Franklin was a very successful entrepreneur on what was then a wild frontier. In his spare time he was the leading American statesman and diplomat of his generation. And that stuff they told you in school about his discovering electricity is more true than not. Three centuries later, one end of your AA battery is labelled “+” and the other “-” because that’s what Ben decided to call them.

But for the adherents of the frugal faith, Franklin is known for the aphorisms he published in his Poor Richard’s Almanack and rehashed in Father Abraham’s Sermon, a.k.a. The Way to Wealth. These were wildly popular works in 18th Century America. You might say they are the beginning of our personal finance advice genre.

The Way to Wealth is all the more convincing because it is from a notably wealthy man. But just like the personal finance gurus of today, Franklin did not get rich from following his own advice so much as from selling it to others. It is not clear how frugal he was in his own life; he certainly understood that making a good show of being thrifty was good for business.

It is clear that getting rich slowly and quietly was not his thing. At 17, he skipped out of his apprenticeship to his brother in Boston (after learning the printing trade) and settled in Philadelphia. He fathered an illegitimate son that same year. By age 24 he was publishing a newspaper of his own and agitating for political reform in Pennsylvania. He managed to found most of the civic institutions the city needed, including a university, a public library, a volunteer fire department, and the militia. And then on to a bigger stage. In 1757 he got himself appointed the colony’s representative in London. He stayed there more or less continuously until the revolution broke out in 1775. If things hadn’t gotten nasty he probably would have lived in the big city for the rest of his life. His wife was back in Philadelphia the whole time.

Like I said, I love the guy. But those aphorisms of his, many, if not most, borrowed from others, may not relate all that well to his life. He did not, it bears pointing out, ever sign his own name to them. Get Rich Slowly quotes one of them as “Who is rich? He that rejoices in his portion.” That’s not in The Way to Wealth. As far as I know, it is in one of the 25 issues of the Almanack, but it’s originally from the Jewish Mishna, quoting Shimon ben Zoma two thousand years ago. (Pirkei Avot 4:1) Authorship aside, I am pretty sure that in real life my man Ben was not the kind to be satisfied by what he had already.

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