Ben's Life and Will

In 1789, when Benjamin Franklin was eighty-three years old, he added an unusual codicil to the will he had written two years before. The will itself was not an unusual one for a successful man. Franklin divided most of his estate among his relatives and descendants and made bequests to various public causes. Among the public gifts, he gave two thousand pounds from his salary as President of Pennsylvania to the state of Pennsylvania to make the Schuylkill River navigable. And he gave the town of Boston, where he was born and started his working life, 100 pounds. The interest on this gift was to be used to award silver medals to outstanding students each year. The first Franklin Medals were awarded in 1793, and they continue to be given to this day.

Franklin's codicil of 1789 would also create a long-lived bequest, and one intended to help young people. This bequest included a detailed plan that covered two hundred years. The codicil cancelled the bequest for the Schuylkill River project and offered the money to the city of Philadelphia and the town of Boston. Explaining his new plan, Franklin harked back to his own early life. For unlike George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or the other Founding Fathers, Franklin did not begin life in the colonial gentry. He was born in 1706 on Milk Street in Boston, the youngest son in a family of seventeen children. His father was a tallow chandler, and after Franklin spent two years in school, where he excelled in reading and writing and failed in arithmetic, his father put him to work--first in the shop, then as an apprentice with Franklin's brother James, a printer.

Franklin quickly learned the printing trade and began writing secretly for a newspaper his brother published. His precocity led to a falling out with James, and at the age of seventeen, he decided to leave Boston. He found work with a printer in Philadelphia, and after some ups and downs, opened his own printing shop when he was twenty-four. With the printing business as his base, he began to contribute to the life of the young city, helping to organize a host of useful services, including a lending library, a fire-fighting patrol, a street patrol, and an academy that would one day become the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin became involved in the politics of the colony, and then of all the colonies, as they began to work with each other to negotiate for better treatment from their rulers in Great Britain.

As Franklin rose in the estimation of Americans, serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776, a minister to France from 1776 to 1785, and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he never forgot how he got his start. In the 1789 codicil, he wrote:

"I have considered that among Artisans good Apprentices are most likely to make good Citizens, and having myself been bred to a manual Art Printing, in my native Town, and afterwards assisted to set up my business in Philadelphia by kind loan of Money from two Friends there, which was the foundation of my Fortune, and of all the utility in life that may be ascribed to me, I wish to be useful even after my Death, if possible, in forming and advancing other young men that may be serviceable to their country in both those Towns. To this End I devote Two thousand Pounds Sterling, which I give, one thousand thereof to the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, in Massachusetts, and the other thousand to the Inhabitants of the City of Philadelphia, in Trust to and for the Uses, Interests and Purposes hereinafter mentioned and declared."

Franklin then detailed how the bequests were to be used. For the first hundred years, the money, totaling 1,000 pounds for each city (about $4,500 in 1790s dollars), was to serve as a loan fund to help young married tradesmen start their own businesses. Franklin estimated that the principal in Boston's fund would grow during this period to 131,000 pounds, or about $582,000 in 1892 dollars. When the hundred years were up, the fund's managers would divide the money, using approximately three-fourths for public works in Boston and maintaining the rest as a loan fund for tradesmen.

At the end of two hundred years, Franklin estimated, the Boston fund would total over 4,061,000 pounds, or about $7 million in today's dollars. He felt that two hundred years was long enough for any man's instructions to control a sum of money, and he directed the fund's managers to give roughly three-fourths of the fund to Massachusetts and the remainder to Boston.