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Why Benjamin Franklin Ran Away From Home at 17 Years Old

Book: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

A Younger Benjamin Franklin

By Benjamin Franklin

About the Book: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is the unfinished record of Benjamin Franklin’s life written by Franklin himself and is one of the most influential examples of an autobiography ever written. Franklin’s account of his life is divided into four parts, reflecting the different periods at which he wrote them.

Running Away From Home

At 17 years old, Benjamin Franklin found himself at less than a crossroads in life, something closer to a dead end. The walls were closing in on him in his hometown of Boston and in making a move that would lay the foundation for the quintessential American Dream, he left home to start over and find opportunity elsewhere.

His inspiring approach to life remains one of the greatest accounts of how one can find success despite being in the most compromised of positions. Here is the story of when Benjamin Franklin fled home in his Pursuit of Happiness.

Brother Starts A Newspaper

In 1720, Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James Franklin, launched the New England Courant. Per Benjamin’s recollection, it must have been the second newspaper started in America.

He adds, “The only one before it was the Boston News-Letter. I remember his being dissuaded by some of his friends from the undertaking, as not likely to succeed, one newspaper being, in their judgment, enough for America.”

Despite the naysayer’s, James persisted and eventually hired Benjamin on as an apprentice; his duties were to “carry the papers thro’ the streets to the customers.”

A Curiosity For Writing

Benjamin’s aspirations grew beyond being his brother’s delivery boy. He wanted to become a writer. Noticing all the praise his brother’s friends got for their writings, he longed for the same approbation, however, he knew his brother would never publish anything that came from him.

Rather cunningly, Benjamin had other ways of getting his work noticed. He explains, “I contrived to disguise my hand, and, writing an anonymous paper, I put it in at night under the door of the printing house. It was found in the morning, and communicated to his writing friends when they call’d in as usual.

In doing so, the other writers would read, heap praise, converse, and even take guesses at who could have written such a paper. Simultaneously, Benjamin would be in the same room conducting his own duties but would get to listen in on their generally gracious opinions. He adds, “In their different guesses at the author, none were named but men of some character among us for learning and ingenuity.

Subtle Conflict

Eventually, Benjamin began to notice that as his brother’s friends thought more of him, it would upset James. Benjamin hints that at times, he may have gotten too full of himself, which could give James good reason to not want his head getting any bigger.

He also takes the time to point out, “perhaps, this might be one occasion of the differences that we began to have about this time.” He continues, “Though a brother, he considered himself as my master, and me as his apprentice, and, accordingly, expected the same services from me as he would another, while I thought he demean’d me too much in some he requir’d of me, who from a brother expected more indulgence.”

Their disputes would ultimately make their way back home and in front of their father. Benjamin would usually gain his father’s favor but would continue to feel James’s somewhat tyrannical passion at work.

He says “my brother was passionate, and had often beaten me, which I took extremely amiss; and, thinking my apprenticeship very tedious, I was continually wishing for some opportunity of shortening it, which at length offered in a manner unexpected.”

In reflecting, Benjamin is sure to add, “I fancy his harsh and tyrannical treatment of me might be a means of impressing me with that aversion to arbitrary power that has stuck to me through my whole life.

Newspaper Gets Reprimanded

After making a political point that offended their local government, the New England Courant got shut down and James Franklin was thrown into confinement. Benjamin was even imprisoned as the council was trying to discover the author of the piece; he never talked and was later released. Yet, his brother remained in jail.

While his brother was imprisoned, Benjamin took over operations of the paper. When James was finally released, the council ordered that “James Franklin should no longer print the paper called the New England Courant.” Therefore, they concluded, the best way to move forward would be to let the paper be printed under the name of Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin gets into further detail, emphasizing how he’d get his apprenticeship lifted, saying, “to avoid the censure of the Assembly, that might fall in him as still printing it by his apprentice, the contrivance was that my old indenture should be return’d to me, with a full discharge on the back of it, to be shown on occassion…

He continues “but to secure to him the benefit of my service, I was to sign new indentures for the remainder of the term, which were to be kept private. A very flimsy scheme it was…” yet, it worked!

Nonetheless, in an odd sort of way, Benjamin was set free from his dreaded apprenticeship to his brother.

A Falling Out With His Family

Now that the documentation which held him indentured to his brother was to be kept secret, he took further liberties and became bolder during altercations with James. Benjamin knew James could never officially enforce the terms of their new contract, as this would mean the council would shut down the paper in the wake of discovering James was actually still running the New England Courant.

Describing the complicated situation, Benjamin notes, “It was not fair in me to take further advantage, and this I therefore reckon one of the first errata of my life; but the unfairness of it weighed little with me…though he was otherwise not an ill-natured man: perhaps I was too saucy and provoking.”

Note: In reading this portion of the book, one can’t help but feel Benjamin Franklin is holding back on exposing the abuses his brother impressed upon him. In writing, he is protecting James and taking the high road.

Benjamin began looking for work elsewhere, something he couldn’t have done under the conditions of his original apprenticeship.

What happens next only grows their rift, he says, “When he found I would leave him, he took care to prevent my getting employment in any other printing-house of the town, by going round and speaking to every master, who accordingly refus’d to give me work.”

Leaving Boston

A young Benjamin Franklin makes the decision to embark on what many consider the original American Dream. The idea that one can come to this country with only the shirt on his back and the desire to become more owes its conception to the story below; best told in his own words:

I then thought of going to New York, as the nearest place where there was a printer; and I was rather inclin’d to leave Boston when I reflected that I had already made myself a little obnoxious to the governing party, and from the arbitrary proceedings of the Assembly in my brother’s case, it was likely I might, if I stay’d, soo bring myself to scrapes; and farther, that my indiscrete disputations about religion began to make me pointed at with horror by good people as an infidel or atheist.

I determin’d on the point, but my father now siding with my brother, I was sensible that, if I attempted to go openly, means would be used to prevent me.

My friend Collins, therefore, undertook to manage a little for me. He agreed with the captain of a New York sloop for my passage, under the notion of my being a young acquaintance of his, that had gotten a naughty girl with child, whose friends would compel me to marry her, and therefore I could not appear or come away publicly.

So I sold some of my books to raise a little money, was taken on board privately, and as we had a fair wind, in three days I found myself in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17, without the least recommendation to, or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket.

No Luck In New York

Only more challenges awaited teenage Benjamin Franklin in New York. Confident in his abilities, he went to who was probably the only printer in the place, a Mr. William Bradford. Bradford had already been the first printer in Pennsylvania, however, was removed after a quarrel with a man named George Keith. Thus, his present being in New York.

Bradford told Benjamin he could not employ him on the grounds he already had enough help for the work needed to be done. He did, however, point Ben in the direction of Philadelphia, saying to him, “My son at Philadelphia has lately lost his principal hand, Aquila Rose, by death; if you go hither, I believe he may employ you.”

Benjamin Franklin remembers, “Philadelphia was hundreds of miles further; I set out, however, in a boat for Amboy, leaving my chest and things to follow me round by sea.”

Journey To Philadelphia

Leaving New York Harbor

Franklin is sure to stress the miserable nature of his prolonged voyage out of New York Harbor. To begin with, upon leaving New York, a squall of birds tore the boat’s sails to pieces which forced them to take a longer detour.

Along this detour, he says a drunk Dutchman fell overboard, he then describes saving the man, explaining, “I reached through the water to his shock pate, and drew him up, so that we got him in again.

Upon getting the man back into the boat, he gave Benjamin a book to dry off for him. The book was a finely printed copy of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Franklin takes time to heap praise on the work, adding, “I have since found that it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, and suppose it has been more generally read than any other book, except perhaps the Bible.”

Note: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan was also widely known to be the favorite book of President John F. Kennedy. Check out our article on Kennedy’s reading obsession as outlined by his wife, Jackie Kennedy.

Stranded off Staten Island (Amboy)

When drawing close to Staten Island, the weather wreaked havoc on their boat. Not to mention, they arrived at a place where there could be no landing – due to rocky terrain. They had no choice but to drop anchor, ride out the storm, and stay the night on the ship.

Franklin describes the evening, “We had no remedy but to wait till the wind should abate; and, in the mean time, the boatman and I concluded to sleep, if we could; and so crowded into the scuttle, with the Dutchman, who was still wet, and the spray beating over the head of our boat, leak’d thro’ to us, so that we were soon almost as wet as he. In this manner we lay all night, with very little rest.”

Surviving the entire ordeal off only a filthy bottle of rum, Franklin and company finally landed on Staten Island just before night fell. He was overcome by a devilish fever but recalled having read somewhere that drinking a lot of cold water would help; to which point he concluded, “I follow’d the prescription, sweat plentiful most of the night, and my fever left me.”

The next morning, he crossed from Staten Island to Amboy, New Jersey via ferry.

He caught word that in the town of Burlington, he could find boats to take him the rest of the way to Philadelphia. Burlington, New Jersey was a good fifty miles south from where he stood. With no other means of transportation, he continued his trek on foot.

Walking 50 Miles to Burlington, New Jersey

His first day of walking consisted of a torrential downpour, which by noon made him thoroughly soaked and incredibly exhausted. With night quickly approaching, he stopped at a poorly kept inn, where he stayed until the morning.

While at the rickety inn, he remembers the thought running through his mind, “beginning now to wish that I had never left home.

Being in such a miserably disheveled condition left the owners of the inn to question his journey. Concerned the people were beginning to think he was a runaway servant, Franklin hastily made off the next morning.

By the end of the next day’s walking, he made it to within 8-10 miles of Burlington. He stopped at an inn kept by one Dr. Brown. As Franklin was putting down water like a camel, Dr. Brown engaged in conversation with the boy and upon learning he was fairly well-read, they grew quite fond of each other. Franklin says they remained friends until the day Brown passed away.

Nonetheless, Benjamin’s voyage continued by dawn and later that morning he managed to reach Burlington.

Caught Up in Burlington

After arriving in Burlington, he says, “[I] had the mortification to find that the regular boats were gone a little before my coming, and no other expected to go before Tuesday, this being Saturday; wherefore I returned to an old woman in the town, of whom I had bought gingerbread to eat on the water, and ask’d her advice.”

Franklin made it all this way only to learn he’d have to hold out another three days or so; having little money and in a town where he knew nobody. His persistence alone is inspiring. Notice, all the while, whenever an obstacle comes up that he confronts it and, in doing so, deals with it; only to be embraced by the next of course.

These obstacles act as an early lesson in life. Bad things are going to happen. It’s a given. That’s just the way it goes. When they do happen, we then have the choice as to how we respond. We can complain about our terrible luck, mope around, and give up because things have gotten too difficult.

Or we can confront our challenges, deal with them, put them behind us, and remain ready for the next. Because the next will come, it’s only a matter of time. Franklin, at such a young age, is able to take advantage of this most optimistic approach to the ebb and flows of life.

The woman he had met while shopping for food told Franklin he could stay at her place until the next boat to Philadelphia passed through. He says, “being tired with my foot traveling, I accepted the invitation.” She provided him a place to stay, gave him food, and even asked of him to begin a printing business in Burlington!

Rowing to Philadelphia

Later that evening, Benjamin went for a walk by the side of the river, he explains that “a boat came by, which I found was going towards Philadelphia, with several people in her. They took me in, and, as there was no wind, we row’d all the way; and about midnight, not having yet seen the city, some of the company were confident we must have passed it.”

While some believed they had already passed Philidelphia, others admitted to being completely lost. As it was the middle of the night, they decided to head for shore; they found fencing to make firewood out of and camped out along the banks of the river until the sun came up.

When the sun finally rose, one member of the party pointed out he knew exactly where they were. Their location was along the banks of Cooper’s Creek, just a little above Philadelphia. As soon as they got back to rowing, upon exited the creek, the city became visible.

Arriving in Philadelphia

Landing at Market-Street Wharf

It was about eight or nine o’clock when they landed at the Market-street wharf on Sunday morning. With the most fantastic, adventurous, and fruitful of futures awaiting him, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia with nearly nothing but the shirt on his back.

His Condition

Franklin describes his condition upon arriving in Philadelphia:

I have been the more particular in this description of my journey, and shall be so of my first entry into that city, that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there.

I was in my working dress, my best clothes being to come round by sea. I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuff’d out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no soul nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with traveling, rowing, and want of rest, I was very hungry.

My whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar, and about a shilling in copper. The latter I gave the people of the boat for my passage, who at first refus’d it, on account of my rowing; but I insisted on their taking it. A man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro’ fear of being thought to have but little.

His First Moments

Franklin describes his first moments in Philadelphia:

Then I walked up the street, gazing about till near the market-house I met a boy with bread. I had made many a meal on bread, and, inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the baker’s he directed me to, in Second-street, and ask’d for bisket, intending such as we had in Boston; but they, it seems, were not made in Philadelphia.

Then I asked for a three-penny loaf, and was told they had none such. So not considering or knowing the difference of money, and the greater cheapness nor the names of his bread, I bad him give me three-penny worth of any sorts. He gave me, accordingly, three great puffy rolls.

I was surpriz’d at the quantity, but took it, and, having no room in my pockets, walk’d off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other. Thus I went up Market-street as far as Fourth-street, passing by the door of Mr Read, my future wife’s father.

Then I turned and went down Chestnut-street  and part of Walnut-street, eating my roll all the way, and, coming round, found myself again at Market-street wharf, near the boat I came in, to which I went for a draught of the river water; and, being filled with one of my rolls, gave the other two to a woman and her child that came down the river in the boat with us, and were awaiting to go farther.

His First Rest in the City

Franklin describes where he first fell asleep in Philadelphia:

Thus refreshed, I walked again up the street, which by this time had many clean-dressed people in it, who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great meetinghouse of Quakers near the market.

I sat down among them, and, after looking round awhile and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro’ labor and want of rest the preceding night. I fell fast asleep, and continued so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. this was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia.

A Sliver of Opportunity

Stumbling out of the Quaker meetinghouse half-asleep, 17 year-old Benjamin Franklin took once more to the streets of the city. He needed a place to stay for the night. He’d spend the next few days looking for William Bradford’s son; the child of the printer he had met while in New York.

More disappointments were ahead for Benjamin; though, with his mentality, there is no such thing. Obstacles might as well be considered opportunities for improvement. So he went; lonely, dirty, penniless, directionless, young, and with nothing to his name but a burning desire to become the best version of himself.

For the rest of his legendary life story, be sure to purchase his book using the link below:

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