It is to a consideration of some of the chief of these notable men who have guided the fortunes of the American people from the Revolutionary period to the close of the Civil War, that I invite the attention of the reader in the next two volumes. Those who have not materially modified the condition of public affairs I omit to discuss at large, eminent as have been their talents and services. Consequently I pass by the administrations of all the presidents since Jefferson, except those of Jackson and Lincoln, the former having made a new departure in national policy, and the latter having brought to a conclusion a great war. I consider that Franklin, Hamilton, Clay, Webster, and Calhoun did more than any of the presidents, except those I have mentioned, to affect the destinies of the country, and therefore I could not omit them.
There will necessarily be some repetitions of fact in discussing the relations of different men to the same group of events, but this has been so far as possible avoided. And since my aim is the portrayal of character and influence, rather than the narration of historical annals, I have omitted vast numbers of interesting details, selecting only those of salient and vital importance.
At the commencement of the Revolutionary War, the most prominent and influential man in the colonies was perhaps Benjamin Franklin, then sixty-nine years of age. Certainly it cannot be doubted that he was one of the most illustrious founders of the American Republic. Among the great statesmen of the period, his fame is second only to that of Washington.
I will not dwell on his early life, since that part of his history is better known than that of any other of our great men, from the charming autobiography which he began to write but never cared to finish. He was born in Boston, January 17, 1706, the youngest but two of seventeen children. His father was a narrow-minded English Puritan, but respectable and conscientious,—a tallow-chandler by trade; and his ancestors for several generations had been blacksmiths in the little village of Ecton in Northamptonshire, England. He was a precocious boy, not over-promising from a moral and religious point of view, but inordinately fond of reading such books as were accessible, especially those of a sceptical character. He had no sympathy with the theological doctrines then in vogue in his native town. At eight years of age he was sent to a grammar school, and at ten he was taken from it to assist his father in soap-boiling; but, showing a repugnance to this sort of business, he was apprenticed to his brother James at the age of twelve, to learn the art, or trade, of a printer. At fifteen we find him writing anonymously, for his brother’s newspaper which had just been started, an article which gave offence to the provincial government, and led to a quarrel with his brother, who, it seems, was harsh and tyrannical.