1381) Young Ben Franklin Learns a Lesson

By Nathaniel Hawthorne, American author (1804-1864); based on a paragraph from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

     When Benjamin Franklin was a boy he was very fond of fishing; and many of his leisure hours were spent on the margin of the mill pond catching flounders, perch, and eels that came up thither with the tide.

     The place where Ben and his playmates did most of their fishing was a marshy spot on the outskirts of Boston.  On the edge of the water there was a deep bed of clay, in which the boys were forced to stand while they caught their fish.

     “This is very uncomfortable,” said Ben Franklin one day to his comrades, while they were standing in the quagmire.

     “So it is,” said the other boys.  “What a pity we have no better place to stand on!”

     On the dry land, not far from the quagmire, there were at that time a great many large stones that had been brought there to be used in building the foundation of a new house.  Ben mounted upon the highest of these stones.

     “Boys,” said he, “I have thought of a plan.  You know what a plague it is to have to stand in the quagmire yonder.  See, I am bedaubed to the knees, and you are all in the same plight.

     “Now I propose that we build a wharf.  You see these stones?  The workmen mean to use them for building a house here.  My plan is to take these same stones, carry them to the edge of the water, and build a wharf with them.  What say you, lads?  Shall we build the wharf?”

     “Yes, yes,” cried the boys; “let’s set about it!”

     It was agreed that they should all be on the spot that evening, and begin their grand public enterprise by moonlight.

     Accordingly, at the appointed time, the boys met and eagerly began to remove the stones.  They worked like a colony of ants, sometimes two or three of them taking hold of one stone; and at last they had carried them all away, and built their little wharf.

     “Now, boys,” cried Ben, when the job was done, “let’s give three cheers, and go home to bed.  To-morrow we may catch fish at our ease.”

     “Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!” shouted his comrades, and all scampered off home and to bed, to dream of tomorrow’s sport.

     In the morning the masons came to begin their work.  But what was their surprise to find the stones all gone!  The master mason, looking carefully on the ground, saw the tracks of many little feet, some with shoes and some barefoot.  Following these to the water side, he soon found what had become of the missing building stones.

     “Ah! I see what the mischief is,” said he; “those little rascals who were here yesterday have stolen the stones to build a wharf with.  And I must say that they understand their business well.”

     He was so angry that he at once went to make a complaint before the magistrate; and his Honor wrote an order to “take the bodies of Benjamin Franklin, and other evil-disposed persons,” who had stolen a heap of stones.

     If the owner of the stolen property had not been more merciful than the master mason, it might have gone hard with our friend Benjamin and his comrades.  But, luckily for them, the gentleman had a respect for Ben’s father, and, moreover, was pleased with the spirit of the whole affair.  He therefore let the culprits off easily.

     But the poor boys had to go through another trial, and receive sentence, and suffer punishment, too, from their own fathers.  Many a rod was worn to the stump on that unlucky night.  As for Ben, he was less afraid of a whipping than of his father’s reproof.  And, indeed, his father was very much disturbed.

     “Benjamin, come hither,” began Mr. Franklin in his usual stern and weighty tone.  The boy approached and stood before his father’s chair.  “Benjamin,” said his father, “what could induce you to take property which did not belong to you?”

     “Why, father,” replied Ben, hanging his head at first, but then lifting his eyes to Mr. Franklin’s face, “if it had been merely for my own benefit, I never should have dreamed of it.  But I knew that the wharf would be a public convenience.  If the owner of the stones should build a house with them, nobody would enjoy any advantage but himself.  Now, I made use of them in a way that was for the advantage of many persons.”

     “My son,” said Mr. Franklin solemnly, “so far as it was in your power, you have done a greater harm to the public than to the owner of the stones.  I do verily believe, Benjamin, that almost all the public and private misery of mankind arises from a neglect of this great truth,—that evil can produce only evil, that good ends must be wrought out by good means.”

     To the end of his life, Ben Franklin never forgot this conversation with his father; and we have reason to suppose, that, in most of his public and private career, he sought to act upon the principles which that good and wise man then taught him.

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Ben Franklin:

Image result for ben franklin boy images

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Isaiah 5:20-21  —  Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.

Deuteronomy 5:19  —  Do not steal.  Do not lie.  Do not deceive one another.

Deuteronomy 5:16a  —  Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you.

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Almighty God, rule our lives by your power that we may be truthful in thought and word and deed.  May no fear or hope ever make us false in act or speech; cast out from us whatever makes or loves a lie, and bring us all into the perfect freedom of your truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Brooke Westcott, Bishop or Durham  (1825-1901)

458) A Lesson from Mama

Kay Coles James grew up in the segregated South of the 1950’s.  She and her five brothers lived in a government housing project in one of the poorest black neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia, raised by their single mother.  This story is from her 1992 book Never Forget (pages 45-47).

     We often heard lectures on the value of hard work, the importance of education, and such.  Of course none of these sermons, though they certainly had their place, was as effective as the living example of my mother.  We watched her board a bus in the cold morning hours and return after sunset, tired but ready to cook and clean for her own family (after her job of cooking and cleaning for others all day).  Her daily routine taught us the dignity of honest work and the incomparable satisfaction of earning a living.

     When we were tempted to turn to unChristian activities to sweeten the dullness of a no-frills life, Mama always reminded us that we were better than that.  How many times did we hear that the Coles family did not beg, cheat, or steal?  If we were dying to have something that was the rage among the other kids, no amount of whining to Mama would get it.  If we wanted it, she would tell us, “Go out and get a job to pay for it.”

    These principles of living applied even when our sparse diet of chicken and biscuits was cut back to biscuits and ‘fat back.’  A standard dinner was Hungarian goulash– Mama’s name for hamburger meat with canned spaghetti and any leftovers in the refrigerator.  We ate kidneys and rice when we were lucky.  It used to kill us on Sunday afternoons to walk home for dinner across the neighborhood and smell fried chicken wafting through the air.  That smell almost got my brother killed… by Mama.

     Some of Ted’s friends figured out that the kitchen at the elementary school could be broken into fairly easily since it had only a single lock.  Now Ted was a tagalong and, true to form, he went along with them when they broke into the school’s walk-in refrigerator and stole some of the plucked chickens hanging there for school lunches.

     You can imagine our joy (and surprise) to see Ted come in the back door with his hands full of chickens.  We started jumping up and down and doing something like a square dance right there in the kitchen.  None of us had asked where he got them, knowing somewhere in the back of our minds that it’d be best not to.  But there was no sense in trying to fool Mama once she got home.  She had that sixth sense that mothers have that tells them exactly what their children have been up to no matter what story they come up with.  She knew that Ted hadn’t bought the chickens, but she wanted to hear his story.

     He just flat out told her he had taken them from the school, banking on the fact that she would see it as he did:  not really stealing, since the school seemed such an impersonal storehouse.  Stealing from the school was not like slipping into the back of Ike’s Grill and making off with some of his spiced shrimp– now that was stealing!  Taking things from the school was somehow different in our minds, but not in Mama’s.

     She took those chickens by the feet and started pummeling Ted, who was ducking left and right, trying to avoid getting poked with a wing or a bill.  She backed him into a corner and, with one hand still holding the birds and the other pointed right in his face, she spoke in a voice so low and forceful that you’d have thought that God was speaking:  “Boy!  I will starve before I let one of my children bring stolen food into this house.”

     That was all she said before she turned and opened the back door.  We all watched bug-eyed as she flung those chickens into the back yard.

     My brothers and I remembered that incident whenever anyone from another part of town called us “project niggers.”  Because of Mama’s high standards, we knew who we were.  We might have grown up in a public housing project, but Mama raised us at home.  A lot of struggling single-parents and courageous grandparents know what I mean when I say that the circumstances a child grows up in are far less important than the character of the person who raises them.  

      We tease each other a lot about the chicken story, but the part about Mama’s throwing them out the back door is always told with a certain bit of pride because the other mothers accepted the stolen chickens and cooked them that night for dinner.  Our mama didn’t.  One simple incident taught us so much about honesty and integrity.  The other boys learned that if their mother would accept stolen chickens, then she would probably take drug money as well.  The early lessons that those boys missed cost many their freedom and some their lives.

     Mama’s teaching about honesty and hard work helped define us as individuals.  We knew who we were.

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Kay Coles James has had many leadership roles in government and nonprofit organizations: She was Virginia’s secretary of Health and Human Resources and President George W. Bush’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and is now president of the Gloucester Institute, a leadership training center for young African-Americans.

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Matthew 4:1-4  —  Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ 

Exodus 20:15  —  Thou shalt not steal.

Proverbs 22:6  —  Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

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A PRAYER FOR PARENTS (by John Cosin):

 Almighty God and heavenly Father, we thank you for the children which you have given us; give us also grace to train them in your faith, fear, and love; that as they advance in years they may grow in grace, and may hereafter be found in the number of your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.