Benjamin Franklin’s Words of Wisdom

Benjamin Franklin and a page from his highly successful Poor Richard’s Almanack
Benjamin Franklin and a page from his highly successful Poor Richard’s Almanack

by Ray Setterfield

December 28, 1732 — The first “Poor Richard's Almanack” was published by Benjamin Franklin on this day in history. Franklin is best known as an accomplished inventor and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, but first he rose to fame as a publisher and printer.

He was just 26 when he produced his almanac, then it ran for 25 years from 1732 to 1758, selling as many as 10,000 copies annually – a huge number at the time.

An “almanack” – the letter ‘k’ has been dropped in modern spelling – was one of the most popular types of printed material in America during the 18th Century. In those days the main purpose of such a miscellany was to provide year-ahead weather forecasts that would help farmers decide when to plant and harvest their crops.

Franklin had no scientific basis for his forecasts, but his guess was as good as anybody else’s and many swore by his predictions.

What made the almanac so popular, though, was the inclusion of witty phrases and sayings, proverbs, poems, puzzles, games, medical advice, recipes and trivia.

Some of it was found by Franklin in the works of satiric poets such as Alexander Pope, John Dryden and Jonathan Swift. When Franklin discovered received wisdom that he thought would appeal to his readers he simply lifted and rewrote it.

Today, they would be called sound bites. Famous maxims reproduced in the almanac include:

* Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

* If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some.

* There are three faithful friends – an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.

* A brother may not be a friend, but a friend will always be a brother.

* No gain without pain.

* Keep the eyes wide open before marriage and half-shut afterwards.

* Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults.

* Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none.

* Speak little, do much.

* A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Franklin’s target audience was that growing group of people who were literate and interested in the benefits of education but could not afford to buy many books.

Presenting himself as one of them – a humble and “excessive poor” man working hard to save as much as possible – Franklin used the name “Richard Saunders” as the almanac’s compiler. “Richard” was put forward as a prime example of the “middling people” that formed his readership.

Writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville were not taken in and said that a “worldly, well-traveled, deeply educated, powerful, and rich man” like Franklin was being hypocritical “writing under the guise of a wise but provincial bumpkin.”

Nothing, though, could reduce the mass appeal of Franklin’s work and as well as bringing him wide popularity it brought him great wealth.

Over the years, five ships of the US Navy have taken the name Bonhomme Richard or Bon Homme Richard – the French title of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Published: November 7, 2021
Updated: November 11, 2021

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