Benjamin Franklin, Business Ethics and Bearing Grudges

An excerpt from Benjamin Franklin by John Torrey Morse, Jr.

In Philadelphia Franklin soon found opportunity to earn a living at his trade. There were then only two printers in that town, ignorant men both, with scant capacity in the technique of their calling. His greater acquirements and ability, and superior knowledge of the craft, soon attracted attention. One day Sir William Keith, governor of the province, appeared at the printing-office, inquired for Franklin, and carried him off “to taste some excellent Madeira” with himself and Colonel French, while employer Keimer, bewildered at the compliment to his journeyman, “star’d like a pig poison’d.” Over the genial glasses the governor proposed that Franklin should set up for himself, and promised his own influence to secure for him the public printing. Later he=7= wrote a letter, intended to induce Franklin’s father to advance the necessary funds. Equipped with this document, Franklin set out, in April, 1724, to seek his father’s coöperation, and surprised his family by appearing unannounced among them, not at all in the classic garb of the prodigal son, but “having a genteel new suit from head to foot, a watch, and my pockets lin’d with near five pounds sterling in silver.” But neither his prosperous appearance nor the flattering epistle of the great man could induce his hard-headed parent to favor a scheme “of setting a boy up in business, who wanted yet three years of being at man’s estate.” The independent old tallow-chandler only concluded that the distinguished baronet “must be of small discretion.” So Franklin returned with “some small gifts as tokens” of parental love, much good advice as to “steady industry and prudent parsimony,” but no cash in hand. The gallant governor, however, said: “Since he will not set you up, I will do it myself,” and a plan was soon concocted whereby Franklin was to go to England and purchase a press and types with funds to be advanced by Sir William. Everything was arranged, only from day to day there was delay in the actual delivery to Franklin of the letters of introduction and credit. The governor was a very busy man. The day of sailing came, but the documents had not come, only a message from the governor that Franklin might feel easy at embarking, for that the papers should be sent=8= on board at Newcastle, down the stream. Accordingly, at the last moment, a messenger came hurriedly on board and put the packet into the captain’s hands. Afterward, when during the leisure hours of the voyage the letters were sorted, none was found for Franklin. His patron had simply broken an inconvenient promise. It was indeed a “pitiful trick” to “impose so grossly on a poor innocent boy.” Yet Franklin, in his broad tolerance of all that is bad as well as good in human nature, spoke with good-tempered indifference, and with more of charity than of justice, concerning the deceiver. “It was a habit he had acquired. He wish’d to please everybody; and, having little to give, he gave expectations. He was otherwise an ingenious, sensible man, a pretty good writer, and a good governor for the people…. Several of our best laws were of his planning, and passed during his administration.”

Governor Keith lied repeatedly to Franklin, mislead him into the dangerous and unnecessary journey to England, and decieved a great many others as well. Yet, Franklin’s account of him is kind, balanced, and gives the man full credit for the good things he did. Would any of us have been so kind?

But don’t take this as a compliment on Franklin’s generous personality. It is far more serious matter.

Franklin can take a step back from a situation and view it unemotionally. For an ethical man, this is critical. There is a tendency to assign all evil to an opponent, to never think of him positively, to never consider the situation from that person’s point of view. That tendency throws off judgment and turns the mind away from justice and morality.

A generous view of humanity is often the more accurate one. Viewing one’s enemies as devoid of value puts one surely in the wrong. Viewing with accuracy and balance ennobles the mind and gives substance to decision making.

James Pilant

One thought on “Benjamin Franklin, Business Ethics and Bearing Grudges

  1. Adan colleger

    Sounds like Kieth had something Franklin needed. Why else would one trust a man who’s history is full of betrayal and lies. franklin’s like would surely be easier without Kieth – and being a smart man, Franklin would know this. So, there must have been a reason for keeping him around. Contacts, influence, local favor etc.


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