Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin with the expression he might have worn when he wrote of croakers (image: Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

I can only imagine the expression Benjamin Franklin wore when he wrote the delightful passage below in his autobiography. My guess is that he either sported a lopsided grin or pursed lips and twinkling eyes. At any rate, as with the best parts of the autobiography, Franklin’s discourse on “croakers” is a hoot that nonetheless contains some very sage advice.

“There are croakers in every country, always boding its ruin. Such a one then lived in Philadelphia-a person of note, an elderly man, with a wise look and a very grave manner of speaking; his name was Samuel Mickle. This gentleman, a stranger to me, stopt one day at my door, and asked me if I was the young man who had lately opened a new printing-house. Being answered in the affirmative, he said he was sorry for me, because it was an expensive undertaking, and the expense would be lost; for Philadelphia was a sinking place, the people already half bankrupts, or near being so; all appearances to the contrary, such as new buildings and the rise of rents, being to his certain knowledge fallacious, for they were, in fact, among the things that would soon ruin us. And he gave me such a detail of misfortunes now existing, or that were soon to exist, that he left me half melancholy. Had I known him before I engaged in this business, probably I never should have done it. This man continued to live in this decaying place, and to declaim in the same strain, refusing for many years to buy a house there, because all was going to destruction; and at last I had the pleasure of seeing him give five times as much for one as he might have bought it for when he first began his croaking.”

My translation: doomsday is overrated. We can always see it coming if we look for it. For a budding entrepreneur, as Franklin was at this stage of his life, croakers aren’t the best people with whom to hang around.  Their “certain knowledge” of our “sinking” state of affairs and impeding ruin foster the wrong mindset.

I don’t think Franklin is advising that we discount risks. He’s no fool. Rather, I think he’s saying that focusing exclusively on risks may be the biggest risk of all. The moral of the story can be seen when the croaker forks over five times what we would have for a house if he hadn’t believed that Philadelphia of the 1700s “was a sinking place.”

I think we can forgive Franklin for the schadenfreude he displays here.  The cheery sagacity with which he tells this tale makes it a classic.

2 thoughts on “Franklin’s Wisdom: Don’t Be a Croaker

  1. Franklin was amazing. He was asked to go to the king of France and ask for money for a revolt against another king. England and France at the time had treaties with each other and Franklin had to be careful about even mentioning his needs. Stacy Schiff has a wonderful treatment of Franklin in Paris in those years — A Great Improvisation.

  2. I agree with you about Franklin, John. One drawback of the autobiography is that it just contains fragments, albeit sometimes brilliant fragments. So we don’t get anything about Paris. I’ll keep the book you recommend in mind the next time I want a dose of Franklin. By the way, did you ever read the Walter Isaacson biography of Franklin? Wonder if that’s worth the time.

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