Lessons from a Father of a Founding Father

I’ve recently begun reading again. Not that I had taken leave of the written word entirely, but I had certainly left off a steady diet of good literature. So a few days ago, I began reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I’ve always admired this paragon of intellect and American ingenuity. I knew of his Poor Richard’s Almanac, his inventions, his contributions to the independence of our country. However, I did not know how this great mind was formed during his childhood. I got my answer in the first few pages of his autobiography, where he describes his upbringing. As he talks of his “bookish inclination” and his struggles in school, he takes a moment to describe his father. It is obvious that Franklin had a deep respect and admiration for his father, who helped start Franklin on his journey of learning by exposing him to several trades and occupations.  I feel it serves best to leave Franklin’s description in his own words.

“He had an excellent constitution of body, was of middle stature, but well set, and very strong; he was ingenious, could draw prettily, was skilled a little in music, and had a clear pleasing voice, so that when he played psalm tunes on his violin and sung withal, as he sometimes did in an evening after the business of the day was over, it was extremely agreeable to hear. He had a mechanical genius too, and, on occasion, was very handy in the use of other tradesmen’s tools; but his great excellence lay in a sound understanding and solid judgment in prudential matters, both in private and publick affairs.” 

Later Franklin describes how his father would bring guests of the community over for dinner and engage them in deep conversations to “improve the minds of his children.” It is apparent that much of Franklin’s interest in ideas and his desire to improve the society around him began at the dinner table, listening to the conversations between his father and their guests.

Upon reading these words, my memory returned me to my childhood and the dinner table. Perhaps my father didn’t invite the local thinkers of my hometown over to dinner, but there was certainly an exchange of ideas at every meal. Like Franklin, I remember much more of the conversations than of the meals themselves. Science, philosophy, humour, and morality were all fair game. And I realize that much of what I try to instill in my children doesn’t take place at the homework desk, nor in the sunday school class, or even on the couch. It’s what they catch from our sharing at the table that seems to stick the longest. Even now they can recount conversations and laugh-a-thons we had at the table even more readily than they can remember some vacations or big trips. It’s an inducement for me to continue pouring in knowledge at the table, as I pour the gravy over the mashed potatoes, or pour the Sprite in the glasses as we share a Friday night pizza.

Franklin takes the time to write down the inscription on his parents’ gravesite, they each having lived to their late 80’s. I’d find this a fitting tribute to my life if my kids can say this about their parents one day (minus the amount of children).

Without an estate, or any gainful employment, By constant labor and industry, with God’s blessing, They maintained a large family comfortably, and brought up thirteen children and seven grandchildren reputably. From this instance, reader, Be encouraged to diligence in thy calling, And distrust not Providence. He was a pious and prudent man; She, a discreet and virtuous woman.

Though he lived long enough to see many of his son’s achievements, Ben Franklin’s father probably never imagined what an impact those conversations and his leading a life of learning would have on the history of our country. Neither can I predict what great things my kids may do one day as a result of some wisdom I may, by God’s grace, pass on. But I plan to continue giving my children every chance to see a man working hard to become a better man, as Franklin’s father did. I hope every father reading this feels, and then does, the same. Our country will be the better for it.

Quotes from Franklin, Benjamin (1994). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Kindle Locations 133-153). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.


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