On December 19 Ben Franklin’s Gazette announced the publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack , the start of a series that, along with his electrical experiments, first made him famous in Europe as well as in America. It was a standard form; there were many other almanacs in the marketplace, and Franklin borrowed liberally from all of them and from everything else he read—particularly La Rochefoucauld, Voltaire, and Swift. It may have been Lemuel Gulliver that inspired the creation of his faux-naïf spokesman, the poor but honest Richard Saunders.
One purpose of an almanac, of course, was to map the planets and predict the weather; this many thought to be possible by the learned use of astrology. Did Franklin believe this? Saunders speaks of his methods: “Ignorant men wonder how we astrologers foretell the weather so exactly, unless we deal with the old black devil. … The stargazer peeps at the heaven thro’ a long glass. … He spies perhaps Virgo (or the Virgin); she turns her head round as it were to see if anybody observed her; then crouching down gently, with her hands on her knees, she looks wistfully for a while right forward. He judges rightly what she’s about: And having calculated the distance and allowed time for its falling, finds that next spring we shall have a fine April shower. What can be more natural and easy than this?”
The Almanack sold more than ten thousand copies each year. It contained, besides the weather reports and astrological expertise, poems, jokes, proverbs, aphorisms, and bits of history. The authorship soon became known, but Franklin kept up the persona of Poor (but growing richer) Richard and his somewhat shrewish wife, Bridget. The device allowed him to make the occasional sardonic and sexual observation that Franklin may have felt would not agree with his own carefully cultivated image of sobriety and industry. Of course a good deal of sober virtue flowed from Richard’s pen as well.
Franklin, borrowing everywhere, shaped and improved what he borrowed. The famous “God helps them that help themselves,” for example, he had found as “Help thyself and God will help thee.” Here are some more of Richard’s sayings:
Success has ruined many a man.
Lovers, travellers, and poets will give money to be heard.
There are no ugly loves or handsome prisons.
Many complain of their memory, few of their judgement.
Opportunity is the great Bawd.
Old boys have their playthings as well as young ones: the difference is only in the price.
To bear other people’s afflictions, everyone has Courage enough, and to spare.
He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.
Onions can make even heirs and widows weep.
‘Tis easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follows it.
Now I’ve a sheep and a cow, everybody bids me good morrow.
Most fools think they are only ignorant.
He is not well-bred that cannot bear ill-breeding in others.
Nine men in ten are suicides. (One hundred years later Emerson wrote in his Journal : “… life wants worthy objects: the game is not worth the candle: it is not that not I—it is that nobody employs it well. The land stinks with suicide. ”)