"The Way to Wealth"
I have heard that nothing gives an author so great pleasure, as to find his works
respectfully quoted by other learned authors. This pleasure I have seldom
enjoyed; for tho' I have been, if I may say it without vanity, an eminent author
of almanacs annually now a full quarter of a century, my brother authors in the
same way, for what reason I know not, have ever been very sparing in their
applauses; and no other author has taken the least notice of me, so that did not
my writings produce me some solid pudding, the great deficiency of praise
would have quite discouraged me.
I concluded at length, that the people were the best judges of my merit; for they
buy my works; and besides, in my rambles, where I am not personally known, I
have frequently heard one or other of my adages repeated, with,as Poor Richard
says, at the end on't; this gave me some satisfaction, as it showed not only that
my instructions were regarded, but discovered likewise some respect for my
authority; and I own, that to encourage the practice of remembering and
repeating those wise sentences, I have sometimes quoted myself with great
Judge then how much I must have been gratified by an incident I am going to
relate to you. I stopped my horse lately where a great number of people were
collected at a vendue of merchant goods. The hour of sale not being come, they
were conversing on the badness of the times, and one of the company called to a
plain clean old man, with white locks, "Pray, Father Abraham, what think you of
the times? Won't these heavy taxes quite ruin the country? How shall we be
ever able to pay them? What would you advise us to?" Father Abraham stood
up, and replied, "If you'd have my advice, I'll give it you in short, for a word to
the wise is enough, and many words won't fill a bushel, as Poor Richard says."
They joined in desiring him to speak his mind, and gathering round him, he
proceeded as follows:
"Friends, says he, and neighbors, the taxes are indeed very heavy, and if those
laid on by the government were the only ones we had to pay, we might more
easily discharge them; but we have many others, and much more grievous to
some of us. We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by
our pride, and four times as much by our folly, and from these taxes the
commissioners cannot ease or deliver us by allowing an abatement. However let
us hearken to good advice, and something may be done for us; God helps them
that help themselves, as Poor Richard says, in his almanac of 1733.
"It would be thought a hard government that should tax its people one tenth
part of their time, to be employed in its service. But idleness taxes many of us
much more, if we reckon all that is spent in absolute sloth, or doing of nothing,
with that which is spent in idle employments or amusements, that amount to
nothing. Sloth,by bringing on diseases, absolutely shortens life. Sloth, like rust,
consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright, as Poor
Richard says. But dost thou love life, then do not squander time, for that's the
stuff life is made of, as Poor Richard says. How much more than is necessary do
we spend in sleep! forgetting that the sleeping fox catches no poultry, and that
there will be sleeping enough in the grave, as Poor Richard says.
f time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be, as Poor Richard
says, the greatest prodigality, since, as he elsewhere tells us, lost time is never
found again, and what we call time-enough, always proves little enough: let us
then be up and be doing, and doing to the purpose; so by diligence shall we do
more with less perplexity. Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy, as
Poor Richard says; and he that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce
overtake his business at night. While laziness travels so slowly, that poverty
soon overtakes him, as we read in Poor Richard, who adds, drive thy business,
let not that drive thee; and early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy,
wealthy and wise.
"So what signifies wishing and hoping for better times. We may make these
times better if we bestir ourselves. Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says,
and he that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains,
then help hands, for I have no lands, or if I have, they are smartly taxed. And, as
Poor Richard likewise observes, he that hath a trade hath an estate, and he that
hath a calling hath an office of profit and honor; but then the trade must be
worked at, and the calling well followed, or neither the estate, nor the office, will
enable us to pay our taxes.
If we are industrious we shall never starve; for, as Poor Richard says, at the
working man's house hunger looks in, but dares not enter. Nor will the bailiff
nor the constable enter, for industry pays debts, while despair encreaseth them,
says Poor Richard. What though you have found no treasure, nor has any rich
relation left you a legacy, diligence is the mother of good luck, as Poor Richard
says, and God gives all things to industry. Then plough deep, while sluggards
sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep, says Poor Dick. Work while it
is called today, for you know not how much you may be hindered tomorrow,
which makes Poor Richard say, one today is worth two tomorrows; and farther,
have you somewhat to do tomorrow, do it today. If you were a servant, would
you not be ashamed that a good master should catch you idle?
Are you then your own master, be ashamed to catch yourself idle, as Poor Dick
says. When there is so much to be done for yourself, your family, your country,
and your gracious king, be up by peep of day; let not the sun look down and
say, inglorious here he lies. Handle your tools without mittens; remember that
the cat in gloves catches no mice, as Poor Richard says. 'Tis true there is much to
be done, and perhaps you are weak handed, but stick to it steadily, and you will
see great effects, for constant dropping wears away stones, and by diligence and
patience the mouse ate in two the cable; and little strokes fell great oaks, as Poor
Richard says in his almanac, the year I cannot just now remember.
"Methinks I hear some of you say, must a man afford himself no leisure? I will
tell thee, my friend, what Poor Richard says, employ thy time well if thou
meanest to gain leisure; and, since thou art not sure of a minute, throw not away
an hour. Leisure is time for doing something useful; this leisure the diligent man
will obtain, but the lazy man never; so that, as Poor Richard says, a life of leisure
and a life of laziness are two things.
Do you imagine that sloth will afford you more comfort than labor? No, for as
Poor Richard says, trouble springs from idleness, and grievous toil from needless
ease. Many without labor would live by their wits only, but they break for want
of stock. Whereas industry gives comfort, and plenty, and respect: fly pleasures,
and they'll follow you. The diligent spinner has a large shift, and now I have a
sheep and a cow, everybody bids me good morrow, all which is well said by
"But with our industry, we must likewise be steady, settled and careful, and
oversee our own affairs with our own eyes, and not trust too much to others;
for, as Poor Richard says,
I never saw an oft removed tree,
Nor yet an oft removed family,
That throve so well as those that settled be.
"And again, three removes is as bad as a fire, and again, keep the shop, and thy
shop will keep thee; and again, if you would have your business done, go; if not,
send. and again, He that by the plough would thrive, Himself must either hold
"And again, the eye of a master will do more work than both his hands; and
again, want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge; and again,
not to oversee workmen is to leave them your purse open. Trusting too much to
others' care is the ruin of many; for, as the almanac says, in the affairs of this
world men are saved not by faith, but by the want of it; but a man's own care is
profitable; for, saith Poor Dick, learning is to the studious, and riches to the
careful, as well as power to the bold, and Heaven to the virtuous. And farther, if
you would have a faithful servant, and one that you like, serve yourself. And
again, he adviseth to circumspection and care, even in the smallest matters,
because sometimes a little neglect may breed great mischief; adding, for want of
a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and for want of a
horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for want of
care about a horse-shoe nail.
"So much for industry, my friends, and attention to one's own business; but to
these we must add frugality, if we would make our industry more certainly
successful. A man may, if he knows not how to save as he gets, keep his nose all
his life to the grindstone, and die not worth a groat at last. A fat kitchen makes a
lean will, as Poor Richard says; and,
Many estates are spent in the getting,
Since women for tea forsook spinning and knitting,
And men for punch forsook hewing and splitting.
If you would be wealthy, says he, in another almanac, think of saving as well as
of getting: the Indies have not made Spain rich, because her outgoes are greater
than her incomes. Away then with your expensive follies, and you will not have
so much cause to complain of hard times, heavy taxes, and chargeable families;
for, as Poor Dick says,
Women and wine, game and deceit,
Make the wealth small, and the wants great.
And farther, what maintains one vice, would bring up two children. You may
think perhaps that a little tea, or a little punch now and then, diet a little more
costly, clothes a little finer, and a little entertainment now and then, can be no
great Matter; but remember what
Poor Richard says, many a little makes a mickle, and farther, beware of little
expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship, and again, who dainties love, shall
beggars prove, and moreover, fools make Feasts, and wise men eat them.
"Here you are all got together at this vendue of fineries and knicknacks. You call
them goods, but if you do not take care, they will prove evils to some of
you.You expect they will be sold cheap, and perhaps they may for less than they
cost; but if you have no occasion for them, they must be dear to you. Remember
what Poor Richard says, buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt
sell thy necessaries.
And again, at a great pennyworth pause a while: he means, that perhaps the
cheapness is apparent only, and not real; or the bargain, by straitning thee in thy
business, may do thee more harm than good. For in another place he says, many
have been ruined by buying good pennyworths.
Again, Poor Richard says, 'tis foolish to lay our money in a purchase of
repentance; and yet this folly is practised every day at vendues, for want of
minding the almanac. Wise men, as Poor Dick says, learn by others' harms, fools
scarcely by their own, but, felix quem faciunt aliena pericula cautum. Many a
one, for the sake of finery on the back, have gone with a hungry belly, and half
starved their families; silks and satins, scarlet and velvets, as Poor Richard says,
put out the kitchen fire.
These are not the necessaries of life; they can scarcely be called the conveniencies,
and yet only because they look pretty, how many want to have them. The
artificial wants of mankind thus become more numerous than the natural; and,
as Poor Dick says, for one poor person, there are an hundred indigent. By these,
and other extravagancies, the genteel are reduced to poverty, and forced to
borrow of those whom they formerly despised, but who through industry and
frugality have maintained their standing; in which case it appears plainly, that a
ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees, as Poor Richard
Perhaps they have had a small estate left them, which they knew not the getting
of; they think 'tis day, and will never be night; that a little to be spent out of so
much, is not worth minding; (a child and a fool, as Poor Richard says, imagine
twenty shillings and twenty years can never be spent) but, always taking out of
the meal-tub, and never putting in, soon comes to the bottom; then, as Poor Dick
says, when the well's dry, they know the worth of water. But this they might
have known before, if they had taken his advice; if you would know the value of
money, go and try to borrow some, for, he that goes a borrowing goes a
sorrowing, and indeed so does he that lends to such people, when he goes to get
it in again.
Poor Dick farther advises, and says,
Fond pride of dress, is sure a very curse;
E'er fancy you consult, consult your purse.
And again, pride is as loud a beggar as want, and a great deal more saucy. When
you have bought one fine thing you must buy ten more, that your appearance
maybe all of a piece; but Poor Dick says, 'tis easier to suppress the first desire
than to satisfy all that follow it. And 'tis as truly folly for the poor to ape the rich,
as for the frog to swell, in order to equal the ox.
Great estates may venture more,
But little boats should keep near shore.
'Tis however a folly soon punished; for pride that dines on vanity sups on
contempt, as Poor Richard says. And in another place, pride breakfasted with
plenty, dined with poverty, and supped with infamy. And after all, of what use is
this pride of appearance, for which so much is risked, so much is suffered? It
cannot promote health; or ease pain; it makes no increase of merit in the person,
it creates envy, it hastens misfortune.
What is a butterfly? At best
He's but a caterpillar dressed.
The gaudy fop's his picture just,
as Poor Richard says.
"But what madness must it be to run in debt for these superfluities! We are
offered, by the terms of this vendue, six months' credit; and that perhaps has
induced some of us to attend it, because we cannot spare the ready money, and
hope now to be fine without it. But, ah, think what you do when you run in debt;
you give to another power over your liberty. If you cannot pay at the time, you
will be ashamed to see your creditor; you will be in fear when you speak to him,
you will make poor pitiful sneaking excuses, and by degrees come to lose you
veracity, and sink into base downright lying; for, as Poor Richard says, the
second vice is lying, the first is running in debt. And again to the same purpose,
lying rides upon debt's back.
Whereas a freeborn Englishman ought not to be ashamed or afraid to see or
speak to any man living. But poverty often deprives a man of all spirit and
virtue: 'tis hard for an empty bag to stand upright, as Poor Richard truly says.
What would you think of that Prince, or that government, who should issue an
edict forbidding you to dress like a gentleman or a gentlewoman, on pain of
imprisonment or servitude?
Would you not say, that you are free, have a right to dress as you please, and
that such an edict would be a breach of your privileges, and such a government
tyrannical? And yet you are about to put yourself under that tyranny when you
run in debt for such dress! Your creditor has authority at his pleasure to deprive
you of your liberty, by confining you in gaol for life, or to sell you for a servant,
if you should not be able to pay him!
When you have got your bargain, you may, perhaps, think little of payment; but
creditors, Poor Richard tells us, have better memories than debtors, and in
another place says, creditors are a superstitious sect, great observers of set days
and times. The day comes round before you are aware, and the demand is made
before you are prepared to satisfy it. Or if you bear your debt in mind, the term
which at first seemed so long, will, as it lessens, appear extreamly short. Time
will seem to have added wings to his heels as well as shoulders. Those have a
short Lent, saith Poor Richard, who owe money to be paid at Easter.
Then since, as he says, the borrower is a slave to the lender, and the debtor to
the creditor, disdain the chain, preserve your freedom; and maintain your
independency: be industrious and free; be frugal and free. At present, perhaps,
you may think yourself in thriving circumstances, and that you can bear a little
extravagance without injury; but,
For age and want, save while you may;
No morning sun lasts a whole day,
as Poor Richard says. Gain may be temporary and uncertain, but ever while you
live, expense is constant and certain; and 'tis easier to build two chimneys than to
keep one in fuel, as Poor Richard says. So rather go to bed supperless than rise in
Get what you can, and what you get hold;
'Tis the stone that will turn all your lead into gold,
as Poor Richard says. And when you have got the philosopher's stone, sure you
will no longer complain of bad times, or the difficulty of paying taxes.
"This doctrine, my friends, is reason and wisdom; but after all, do not depend too
much upon your own industry, and frugality, and prudence, though excellent
things, for they may all be blasted without the blessing of heaven; and therefore
ask that blessing humbly, and be not uncharitable to those that at present seem
to want it, but comfort and help them. Remember Job suffered, and was
"And now to conclude, experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no
other, and scarce in that, for it is true, we may give advice, but we cannot give
conduct, as Poor Richard says: however, remember this, they that won't be
counseled, can't be helped, as Poor Richard says: and farther, that if you will not
hear reason, she'll surely rap your knuckles."
Thus the old gentleman ended his harangue. The people heard it, and approved
the doctrine, and immediately practiced the contrary, just as if it had been a
common sermon; for the vendue opened, and they began to buy extravagantly,
notwithstanding all his cautions, and their own fear of taxes. I found the good
man had thoroughly studied my almanacs, and digested all I had dropped on
those topics during the course of five-and-twenty years.
The frequent mention he made of me must have tired any one else, but my
vanity was wonderfully delighted with it, though I was conscious that not a tenth
part of the wisdom was my own which he ascribed to me, but rather the
gleanings I had made of the sense of all ages and nations.
However, I resolved to be the better for the echo of it; and though I had at first
determined to buy stuff for a new coat, I went away resolved to wear my old
one a little longer. Reader, if thou wilt do the same, thy profit will be as great as
mine. I am, as ever, thine to serve thee,
July 7, 1757.
The following notes are provided with thanks to information found at
Particular thanks go to the students at the University of South Florida in Fort
Myers under the direction of Dr. Jim Wohlpart.
The Dichotomy of Perception and Behavior in Franklin's "The Way to
Wealth": A Review of Critical Commentary Lee Foreman
Benjamin Franklin was concerned with making the sometimes bitter
pill of truth about the human condition easier to swallow by
wrapping it in the fictive guise of maxims and homilies. His most
famous work, Poor Richard's Almanack, was composed of sayings
from various sources that his readers could both find familiar and
take to heart. The core of these maxims was the topic of ethical
behavior, and in "The Way to Wealth," Franklin refines and revises
the maxims from the Almanack, making them more subtle and
sophisticated. To present these truths in the pleasant form to which
his readers had become accustomed and to underscore their
underlying theme that the sayings are futile without action, Franklin
employs an elaborate framework of narrator within narrator. This
device allows him to present the maxims at multiple levels in order
to lead the reader to Franklin's own understanding of ethical
behavior. Most critical comment on the work focuses on the
multiple levels of narrative structure, very often pointing out the
subtle dichotomy between words and actions, while analyzing
thestrategies which Franklin employed to produce his intended
effect on the readers.
J.A. Leo LeMay's essay, "Benjamin Franklin," rather than discussing
the aphorisms in the text that point to the disjunction between
words and actions, examines the multiple narrators and the
structure of the preface to support his thesis that in this work
Franklin not only defends his almanac but also mocks its critics.
LeMay contends that Poor Richard is burlesqued as "the naive
philomath" who is referred to in italics as eminent Author, which
LeMay suggests is intended to convey the "oxymoronic quality" of
that appelation (216). He analyzes the portrayal of Richard as an
object of ridicule in quoting himself, as well as the parallelism
inherent in the "chrestomathy of Poor Richard's proverbs" quoted
by Father Abraham, whose own name has a "solid Biblical
resonance" (216) and whose speech is a parody of the Puritan
sermon (217). LeMay states that Franklin undercuts his critics by
presenting their attitudes toward the naive philomath in the
philomath's own style. He also shows that the aphorisms, which
usually tend to "diminish their context by their rhetorical
brilliance," here are controlled by the framework which places them
within a speech, which in turn is within still another framework
comprising the opening and closing dramatic context (217).
Cameron C. Nickels in his essay "Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanacs:
'The Humblest of his Labors,'" focusing on the structure which
supports the aphorisms that run throughout the text, emphasizes
their failed didacticism. Nickels acknowledges that "[s]tructurally,
the preface must be considered as one of Franklin's finest literary
achievements," and he further maintains that the frame provides the
means by which Franklin "first parodies his [Poor Richard's] didactic
stance and then exposes the failure of his utilitarian wisdom"(86).
Nickels contends that Father Abraham's speech "typifies the didactic
stance" that Poor Richard has assumed throughout (87). In contrast
to most critics, he finds the piling up of maxims and the repetition
of the phrase "as Poor Richard says" both tedious and "excessive to
the point of absurdity" (87). He concludes that the point of
Franklin's work is to expose the supposedly useful philosophy of
Poor Richard as "unfulfilled," "impractical," and "ironic" (88),
implying that the proverbs cannot usefully be acted upon, in distinct
opposition to other critics' contentions thatimpelling the reader to
action is, in fact, Franklin's purpose.
Thomas J. Steele in his essay "Orality and Literacy in Matter and
Form: Ben Franklin's 'Way to Wealth'" also focuses on the sayings
themselves but suggests that the aphorisms offered in the narrative
framework embody the distinction between words and actions.
Steele examines the origins, choice, and uses of the proverbs to
demonstrate Franklin's intent to present a "systematic ethical code"
(277), which Steele sees as "roughly the equivalent, for the
industrial capitalism about to emerge in America, of the Code of
Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments, Solon's Laws, and Aristotle's
Nicomachaean Ethics in their eras" (276-7). Steele thus points out
that this set of ethics concerned with industriousness and frugality
replaces the community's oral "moral control" with a "written
prototype . . . able to be interiorized as each individual's superego"
(277). Steele posits the importance of individual action in relation
to the community and finds that "where the oral and communal has
failed, the literate and individual still has hope of succeeding" (282).
Steele concludes that Franklin "has made the breakthrough from the
ineffective old morality to a new world of system and ethics . . ."
(282), that is, from an ethical system based on religious values to
one formulated in the context of America's emerging economic
system, where individual responsibility was to be the cornerstone.
He believes that in so doing, Franklin rejected the oral values of the
past in order to create a new structure based on individual ethical
In "Benjamin Franklin, the Inveterate (and Crafty) Public Instructor:
Instruction on Two Levels in 'The Way to Wealth,'" Patrick Sullivan
takes the related view that the words/action dichotomy is presented
as a tension between the proverbs and their application. He argues
that, in fact, Franklin "proceeds in two contradictory directions,"
first "to offer instruction to the public in the simplest, most
accessible and memorable form--the proverbial saying" (248) and
secondly "to encourage the public to examine--rather than accept
passively--the familiar quotation" (249). He notes that "the two
major narrative units of the preface (the dramatic context and the
compendium of proverbs)" (251) provide the basis for
understanding the gap between "repeating" and "practicing" the
proverbs (252). Sullivan points out that the crowd which turns away
thus undermines the words of Father Abraham, while Richard's
decision to follow their precepts draws the reader to the "distinction
between choosing not to follow precepts and not being able to"
(254). Sullivan maintains that the Newtonian opposition of proverbs
is at the heart of Franklin's philosophy that it is the reader who must
"grapple with competing hypotheses" (254). It is this engagement of
the reader through challenging his critical faculties that Sullivan
sees as the basis of Franklin's dialectic structure, "in effect, training
and encouraging his readers to think independently--rather than to
follow slavishly and uncritically the precepts of others" (255). By
presenting the reader with conflicting arguments, Sullivan
maintains, Franklin forces the reader to draw conclusions
independently, thus providing the reader with both the example and
the experience of critical thinking.
Edward J. Gallagher in his "The Rhetorical Strategy of Franklin's 'Way
to Wealth'" maintains that rhetorically the frame of the essay is the
most important element in presenting Franklin's emphasis on the
word/action dichotomy. He points out that the maxims are not
aimed immediately at the reader but instead their effect is filtered
through Poor Richard and the reader himself as "interested
spectators," which distances the reader from the core of the action
(475). Gallagher posits that "[i]n this manner, Franklin effectively
'moves' the reader without immediately confronting him directly"
(476). Further, through the contrast of the audience who does not
follow Father Abraham's advice and Poor Richard who embodies it,