The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Autobiography of Benjamin FranklinINTRODUCTION
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a blueprint for the prototypical American, chronicling Benjamin Franklin's life as a printer, diplomat, statesman, patriot, scientist, inventor, and writer. Published posthumously in various forms over several years, first in French and then in English, Franklin's autobiography is a literary achievement worthy of the epic U.S. founding father. Franklin originally intended the document of his life and works to be for the sole use and enjoyment of his son, William. The first part, written in 1771, addresses his eldest child, but parts 2-4, written in 1784, 1788, and 1790, reflect its subject's hope that the book would find a wider audience, for the benefit of mankind. Franklin writes,
Having emerg'd from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a State of Affluence and some Degree of Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro' Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducing Means I made use of, which with the Blessing of God so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.
As much a historical account of eighteenth-century America as a guide to being virtuous, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin follows in the tradition of "conduct books" made popular by statesmen, soldiers, and noblemen before Franklin. His straightforward, no-nonsense writing style reveals much about the man who readily admits "that were it offer'd to my Choice, I should have no Objection to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning." Much of Franklin's contentment in life lies in his striving to achieve moral perfection. His father planted the seed of that goal early in the author's life; he approached the project with scientific clarity later. Of his father, Franklin writes,
I remember well his being frequently visited by leading People, who consulted him for his Opinion in Affairs of the Town or of the Church he belong'd to and show'd a good deal of Respect for his Judgment and Advice. He was also much consulted by private Persons about their Affairs when any Difficulty occur'd, and frequently chosen an Arbitrator between contending Parties. At his Table he lik'd to have as often as he could, some sensible Friend or Neighbour, to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful Topic for Discourse, which might tend to improve the Minds of his Children. By this means he turn'd our Attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the Conduct of Life.
Benjamin Franklin, the eighth child and youngest son of his parents' ten children, was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston to Josiah and Abiah Franklin. Although his father hoped Franklin would become a member of the clergy, he was only able to pay for two years of schooling, ending his son's formal education at the age of ten. At the age of twelve, Franklin became a printer's apprentice to his brother, James. By 1730, Franklin had his own print shop, started his own newspaper, and was well on his way to becoming a honored member of Philadelphia society. He married Deborah Read, fathered three children, and soon began publishing his famous collection of quotations, Poor Richard's Almanack, from which the adage "A penny saved is a penny earned" is taken.
Once his financial standing was secure, Franklin began to indulge in his passion for scientific inquiry. He investigated the phenomena of electricity and invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, and the flexible urinary catheter, among other things. He held many public offices, was awarded honorary degrees by both Harvard and Yale universities, and was selected to serve on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, Franklin was sent to Paris, France, where he served as America's first ambassador. He lived outside of Paris, in a town called Passy, for nine years and became one of its most beloved residents. He returned to America in 1785 and became president of the abolitionist society in 1787. Franklin died at the age of 84 on April 17, 1790, in Philadelphia and was buried beside his wife, Deborah. An estimated 20,000 mourners attended his funeral on April 21, 1790. His autobiography was published nearly a century later, in 1886.
Franklin's account of life as an English American, as a subject of England's king in one of the British Empire's many colonies, is a fascinating glimpse into a nation at the time of its birth. More fascinating, still, is the fact that Franklin himself had much to do with the construction of the emerging nation. Like his father, Franklin's opinion on a variety of matters was highly sought after by intelligent, respectable colonists. Due to his reputation, the printer-turned-statesman was able to influence his colleagues to pursue industry, knowledge, economy, and sobriety as a way of becoming successful. These traits, along with his love of reading and flourish with language, are responsible for his success in the many and varied endeavors he undertook in his lifetime. The long list of Franklin's achievements includes inventing the first room-warming stove, the postal service, the public library, the lightning rod, and bifocals. He was also elected to represent the American colonies on trips to England and the Continental Congress, and he was selected to become a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.
According to Edmund S. Morgan in his foreword to the second Yale University Press edition of the book,
[The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin] became itself the most widely read autobiography ever written by an American. It has served many Americans as it may have served Franklin—to define what it meant, what it had meant, and what it ought to mean to be an American.
Part 1 of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin begins as a letter with the salutation, "Dear Son." The setting and date noted at the top, "Twyford, at the Bishop of St. Asaph's 1771," mark the location of Franklin's week-long vacation, a respite dedicated to setting down his memoirs for his son William, then royal governor of New Jersey. He writes that he enjoyed "obtaining any little Anecdotes of my Ancestors" and so believes William might like to "know the Circumstances of my life." Franklin writes that if he could, he would repeat his life, correcting the errors he had made along the way. Acknowledging the impossibility of such an experience, he writes, "the next Thing most like living one's Life over again, seems to be a Recollection of that Life; and to make that Recollection as durable as possible, the putting it down in Writing." He thanks God for the good life he has had and begins to recount a bit of his family's ancestry.
Franklin writes, "The Notes one of my Uncles (who had the same kind of Curiosity in collecting Family Anecdotes) once put into my Hands furnish'd me with several Particulars relating to our ancestors." According to these notes, the Franklins lived in Ecton, Northamptonshire, England, for at least three hundred years. Franklin himself was the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations. His father, Josiah Franklin, left England for America in 1682 with his first wife and three children. After settling in their new home, they had four more children. After the first wife died, Josiah married Abiah Folger, Franklin's mother. Josiah had ten more children with Abiah, making Franklin the fifteenth of Josiah's seventeen children.
Josiah Franklin wanted his youngest son to become a member of the clergy. This meant he would have to go to school, unlike his other brothers who became apprentices in various trades. Franklin proved a failure at math, but showed great promise in reading and writing and quickly rose to the top of his class. Because of the family's financial situation, though, Franklin was made to leave school after only two years to become an assistant in his father's soap- and candle-making business. Franklin admired his father and writes of how the man, though lowly in station, was well respected by his neighbors and friends. Josiah taught his son much, including right virtues and the art of debate. The latter would come to serve Franklin especially well in his later life.
Franklin became an apprentice in his brother James's print shop at the age of twelve. Indentured by contract to work there for the next eight years, Franklin was able to pursue his love of reading and books due to his new station. He read the works of Cotton Mather and Daniel Defoe and, around this time, began imitating the writing style of professional writers in an effort to improve his own. He discovered a book "by one Tryon, recommending a Vegetable Diet," which Franklin pursued for a brief time. He became skeptical of religion, attempted to become less arrogant, and began writing anonymous articles that were published in his brother James's newspaper, the New England Courant. James printed the pieces, not knowing his younger brother had penned them. Franklin's brother was a severe master to his brother/apprentice Benjamin, who notes, "I fancy his harsh and tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means of impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro' my whole Life." His unexpected success in writing gave Franklin the confidence to quit the print shop and secretly move to Philadelphia.
In 1723, seventeen-year-old Franklin found work with a man named Keimer who ran a Philadelphia print shop. He received a letter from his brother-in-law, Robert Holmes, who asked Franklin to return home to Boston. Franklin's eloquently written reply was read by Pennsylvania Governor William Keith, who was impressed by Franklin's writing ability. Franklin recounts that Keith said, "I appear'd a young Man of promising Parts, and therefore should be encouraged: The Printers at Philadelphia were wretched ones, and if I would set up there, he made no doubt I should succeed." Keith visited Franklin at Keimer's print shop and offered to help the young man set up his own printing business. Franklin first decided to travel to England to make connections with professionals in book-selling and stationery businesses there. He asked Deborah Read to marry him, but she refused because of his upcoming travels. Franklin asked his friend James Ralph, a fellow writer and lover of debate, to accompany him to England.
In London, Franklin wrote a pamphlet titled A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. He also broke off his friendship with Ralph over a misunderstanding with Ralph's girlfriend. Though Franklin found some measure of success in London as a writer, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726, after eighteen months abroad. He took over Keimer's print shop and started his own newspaper. He began practicing Deism and formed a group called the Junto. Members of the group convened every Friday night to discuss topics related to morality and philosophy. He fell out with Keimer and opened his own printing shop in 1728. Franklin became the official printer for the Pennsylvania assembly and began making a substantial amount of money, which he used to expand his newspaper operation. After writing a pamphlet called The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency, Franklin was chosen by the legislature to print the money, which brings in even more income. Franklin married Deborah Read and began a subscription library, his "first project of a public nature."
Part 2 begins with letters urging Franklin to finish and publish his memoirs. The first, from Abel James, was written in 1782. The second, from Benjamin Vaughn, is dated January 1783. Vaughn, after having read the outline and sections of early text, encourages Franklin to finish the book because it would offer direction to people hoping to better their lives. He also points out that wide publication of the Autobiography would show the British how industrious and virtuous the Americans were. Further, it would prove that America held great economic promise. Franklin writes in 1784, "It is some time since I receiv'd the above Letters, but I have been too busy till now to think of complying with the Request they contain." Writing from Paris immediately after the American Revolution, Franklin is seventy-eight years old by the time he picks up where he left off.
The library he started in 1730 was a huge success. He writes that "Reading became fashionable," as a result of people's access to books. He hesitated to take full credit for the system, sensing some resentment about his growing good fortune. He and his wife started a family that Franklin supported by continuing to be frugal and industrious. Around this time he embraced a personal challenge:
I conceiv'd the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any Fault at any time…. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a Task of more Difficulty than I had imagined.
This project involved listing thirteen virtues, to be mastered in order, perfecting each one before moving on to the next. Franklin decided that temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility are the most important virtues. Once he began his project, he was not troubled by realizing just how many faults he had, noting, "A benevolent Man should allow a few Faults in himself, to keep his Friends in Countenance." He hopes those who read The Autobiography "may follow the Example and reap the Benefit" of his experiment.
Part 3 begins, "I am now about to write at home, August 1788[,] but cannot have the help expected from my Papers, many of them being lost in the War." He picks up from 1731, the year he started planning "a great and extensive Project." He quotes from a paper ("accidentally preserved") from 1731, in which he outlines a "Party for Virtue," organized "by forming the Virtuous and good Men of all Nations into a regular Body, to be govern'd by suitable good and wise Rules, which good and wise Men may probably be more unanimous in their Obedience to, than common People are to common Laws." The party would be called "the Society of the Free and Easy" and would be based on the essential principles of major religions. All party members would have to subscribe to Franklin's thirteen virtues and come to each meeting prepared with a plan for bettering the human race. Because of his devotion to several public and private occupations, he did not have the time or energy to establish the party.
A year later, Franklin began writing Poor Richard's Almanack, which featured information typical of annual almanacs, but which also contained the author's aphorisms—adages or memorable words of wisdom. He recalls that "I endeavor'd to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such Demand that I reap'd considerable profit from it," during its twenty-five-year run. Franklin considered the Almanack a means with which to instruct the common people; this same interest drove Franklin to dedicate parts of his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, to educational purposes as well.
As he aged, Franklin became more politically motivated and began to advocate the education of women. He learned several languages and played chess regularly. He made amends with his brother, James, in Boston. In 1736, his four-year-old son died of small pox, a fate he hoped to spare other parents from enduring:
I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by Inoculation; This I mention for the Sake of Parents, who omit that Operation on the Supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a Child died under it; my Example showing that the Regret may be the same either way, and that therefore the safer should be chosen.
In 1736, the original twelve members of the Junto decided that each should go and start his own group to increase their "Power of doing Good." Franklin became Clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania that same year, and the year after, Deputy Postmaster of Philadelphia; he allows that both official posts enhanced his private businesses. Through the Junto, he advocated a property tax to better fund the police and formed the Union Fire Company, the first American fire department. With these many successes under his belt, Franklin became famous.
Franklin invented a room-warming stove in 1742 and refused to patent it in hopes that it would more widely proliferate. He wrote Plain Truth (1744), a pamphlet calling for colonial unity. Franklin became Commissioner of the Peace and a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly and advised the construction of a Presbyterian meeting house. In 1749, he wrote a pamphlet titled Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, which launched interest in planning an educational academy. Franklin chose members of the Junto to become a board of trustees and the Academy (now the University of Pennsylvania) opened in 1753. He organized a street-sweeping system, set a street paving initiative into action, and designed street lights, all because he believes "Human Felicity is produc'd not so much by great Pieces of good Fortune that seldom happen, as by little Advantages that occur every Day." Franklin was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale. During this time, he also rose to the rank of Postmaster General of America.
In 1754, the Seven Years' War erupted in Europe and the French and Indian War erupted in America. This set Franklin to the task of drawing up plans to defend the colonies and for setting up a wartime government. He developed a plan to fund the armed forces, which began to cause great concern among the English government. They saw the colonies becoming self-sufficient and so they began sending British forces to the colonies. Franklin implored those with extra horses and wagons to relinquish them to the war effort, and he began preparing care packages for fighting soldiers. He spent a good deal of time in the field and became a financial commissioner in charge of distributing funds to organize a militia. He spent any extra time, effort, and money on keeping the troops supplied.
Franklin focuses the end of part 3 less on his military experiences and more on his scientific experiments, which he conducted at home in Philadelphia. He published a paper "on the Sameness of Lightning with Electricity," which caused much debate and notoriety:
M. Delor … undertook to repeat what he call'd the Philadelphia Experiments, and after they were performed before the King and Court, all the Curious of Paris flocked to see them. I will not swell this Narrative with an Account of that capital Experiment nor the infinite Pleasure I receiv'd in the Success of a similar one I made soon after with a Kite at Philadelphia.
He was awarded a medal of honor from the Royal Society and became a member. As a member of the Pennsylvania's legislative assembly, he often settled disputes between the "Proprietary"—those who the king had granted property and appointed to govern in the colony—and local interests. With such success and repute in that role, Franklin was elected as the assembly's agent to go to England and petition the king against the over-reaching power of his deputies in America. He arrived in London on July 27, 1757.
The shortest segment of The Autobiography, part 4 recounts Franklin's trip to London in 1757. Lord Granville, the president of the King's Privy Council, informed Franklin that "the King is the legislator of the colonies." Franklin realized the English view is at odds with the colonial view of their relationship:
I had always understood from our Charters, that our Laws were to be made by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the King for his Royal Assent, but that being once given the King could not repeal or alter them…. [Granville] assur'd me I was totally mistaken…. [H]is Lordship's Conversation … a little alarm'd me as to what might be the Sentiments of the Court concerning us.
He tried to argue for fairness in England's taxation in the colonies, but the trip was mainly unsuccessful. Upon his return to Philadelphia, the Assembly acknowledged his efforts to promote American interests abroad. Franklin dies before he is able to finish The Autobiography, which recounts events only up to the year 1763.
Striving for Success
Benjamin Franklin epitomizes the ideal American hero in that he came from humble beginnings, worked hard, and made an almost mythically successful life for himself and his family. He was largely influenced by his father, a maker of soap and candles, whose lowly profession belied the influence he had on his community and his family. He recalls of his father:
I think you may like to know Something of his Person and Character. He had an excellent Constitution of Body, was of middle Stature, but well set and very strong. He was ingenious, could draw prettily, was skill'd a little in Music and had a clear pleasing Voice, so that when he play'd Psalm Tunes on his Violin and sung withal as he sometimes did in an Evening after the Business of the Day was over, it was extreamly agreable to hear. He had a mechanical Genius too, and on occasion was very handy in the Use of other Tradesmen's Tools. But his great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgment in prudential Matters, both in private and publick Affairs.
Most of what Franklin said about his father could be applied to himself, except that Franklin's interest in public affairs became a predominant and active part of his life. But this would not be the case had he not applied himself vigorously to the labor of becoming a self-made man. His active life in public affairs came about only after he had become a printer with his own shop, begun a successful newspaper business, published several well-received articles and pamphlets, invented a number of creations to better the lives of those who used them, started a public library and the postal service, created a fire department and sanitation system, and paved and lighted public streets, among other improvements to society. And while he was hard at work, doing what he could to better the lives of the colonists, he decided to strive for moral perfection:
I wish'd to live without committing any Fault at any time; I would conquer all that either Natural Inclination, Custom, or Company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a Task of more Difficulty than I had imagined.
The difficulty of the task did not turn Franklin from it, however. He lived his belief that "God helps them that help themselves," and as such an exemplar of industry and good fortune, became the prototypical American living the American dream.
Franklin provided many models of success that others could, can, and still do emulate. Someone who wants to live a moral life need only follow the plan he describes for mastering his "Virtues and their Precepts." One seeking success in business will also find a robust, dedicated, and practical role model in Franklin. However, his success as a member of society is probably the role that did the most to define the world in which he lived, and it continues to define the modern country to this day.
His life is full of examples of the good works he performed for the betterment of society. In his early twenties, Franklin undertook his "first Project of a Public Nature," North America's first subscription library. He recalls with pride of the libraries that grew from that first one:
[They] have improv'd the general Conversation of the Americans, made the common Tradesmen and Farmers as intelligent as most Gentlemen from other Countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the Stand so generally made throughout the Colonies in Defence of their Privileges.
As when he was the clerk of Pennsylvania's General Assembly and deputy postmaster, Franklin's public service often served his private interests. By the time he was thirty, his original Junto spawned several satellite groups:
The advantages proposed were, the improvement of so many more young citizens by the use of our institutions; our better acquaintance with the general sentiments of the inhabitants on any occasion, as the Junto member might propose what queries we should desire, and was to report to the Junto what pass'd in his separate club; the promotion of our particular interests in business by more extensive recommendation, and the increase of our influence in public affairs, and our power of doing good by spreading thro' the several clubs the sentiments of the Junto.
Through the Junto, Franklin goes on to regulate the city's constables and build a fire department. He later uses his influence to help establish a college, organize a militia, build a hospital, and pave, clean, and light the city's streets. When it came to useful inventions, such as the Franklin stove, he declined to patent or profit because, "as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."
In The Autobiography, Franklin concludes his section enumerating his public works with this statement:
With these sentiments I have hazarded the few preceding pages, hoping they may afford hints which some time or other may be useful to a city I love, having lived many years in it very happily, and perhaps to some of our towns in America.
His sentiment has been useful to many other towns, in America and around the world. Generous and industrious people from Andrew Carnegie (whose steel fortune endowed thousands of public libraries) to George Washington Carver (who developed but refused to patent thousands of innovative uses for crops grown widely in the U.S. South) to Bill Gates (whose software fortune backs a massive international effort to relieve poverty) have devoted what gifts they could to leave their world better than they found it. All seem to follow in Franklin's wisdom that "Human felicity is produc'd not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day." The notion that those who can should help those in need is not particular to Americans, but it is part of Franklin's legacy as the original American dreamer that great people have continued to undertake the challenge on a grand scale, with great results.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is still considered a literary treasure, two hundred years after its publication, for a number of reasons. First, it provides a close view of eighteenth-century colonial America through the eyes of a man who was not only present for many critical events of the time, but who made several of those events happen. The Autobiography is especially prized because a large segment of the population at the time could not read or write, and many of the documents that were written did not survive long enough to be studied by historians. Franklin's descriptions of eighteenth-century life give an intimate view of the intellectual, scientific, political, and religious changes that took place. Specifically, The Autobiography reflects eighteenth-century idealism. Franklin's intellectualism and his devotion to scientific inquiry and political advancement reflect the values of the Age of Reason. This eighteenth-century movement focused on the optimistic belief that mankind could be advanced through political and scientific means.
Because Franklin was devoted to the betterment of society, the reader learns much about the cultural and societal needs of the time. His development of a street-cleaning, street-paving, and street lighting system allows the reader to imagine what the streets of Pennsylvania in the 1720s and 1730s must have looked like. His development of the Junto shows how the intellectual elite spent their free time and how important the formation of the group would be to the United States as a whole many years later. For instance, without them, Benjamin Franklin may not have been able to get the University of Pennsylvania built or the idea of colonial unity to be widely supported. Franklin's religious beliefs change throughout the autobiography, which leads readers to ascertain that religious freedom was alive and well in the colonies. Franklin was respected for his religious views, partly because he was intellectually curious and open to a wide range of thought. His scientific experiments and inventions made plain those things eighteenth-century Americans did not have—such as heated rooms before the invention of the Franklin stove—and an understanding of electricity. Finally, the detailed record of his military experiences affords readers the opportunity to trace a proud English American's political dissention with his king, a leader he had previously respected and paid loyal service to. This is key in understanding the historical overview of the times. It is striking to consider a time when Americans, who, for the most part, willingly left the mother country to seek their fortune in a new land, still felt a connection and loyalty to England. Though Franklin does not delve deeply into the American Revolution, it is interesting to read detailed accounts of those events leading up to it.
Though books similar to The Autobiography had been written, the autobiographical format had yet to catch on outside the realm of religious tracts in the eighteenth century. This means that Franklin's memoir defined an entirely new literary genre that has gone on to influence every generation after him. It could be said, too, that his insistence on treating the book as a guide to assist others in bettering themselves, as he had done, influenced a whole other genre: the self-help book.
The Enlightenment was a seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuryintellectual movement that celebrated the power of human reason. Enlightenment philosophy posits that human beings can ascertain certain objective truths about the universe by approaching science, government, religion, ethics, logic, and aesthetics systematically. Enlightenment thinkers sought to eradicate tyranny—especially religious and governmental tyranny—and superstition with their methodological approach, believing that irrational thought kept the world from progressing forward. Prominent Enlightenment thinkers include Isaac Newton, Thomas Paine, David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. The Enlightenment and its principles inspired the American and French Revolutions, informed the tenets of classic liberalism and capitalism, and influenced many of the movements of the modern period.
The seeds of Enlightenment can be traced all the way back to the thirteenth century when Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian logic to defend certain tenets of Christianity. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a group of French and Italian thinkers known as "humanists" emerged. They declared that proper worship of God involved worship of His finest creation: humanity. To them, anyone who celebrated human intelligence—artists, painters, scholars, architects—celebrated God's glory. Michel de Montaigne, in the sixteenth century, looked to robust non-Christian cultures and realized that morality was relative. He reasoned that non-Christians were not necessarily morally inferior to Christians just because they held different beliefs. This was a monumental shift in thinking at the time, and Enlightenment thinkers were profoundly influenced by the idea that one could borrow philosophies and laws from other cultures to improve one's own.
The Enlightenment was influenced by these philosophical events, but it was years of warfare and repression in Europe—including religious wars, witch-hunts, widespread censorship, and slavery—that finally compelled Voltaire to write about how reason could change the world and Rousseau to espouse "deism." The Enlightenment took hold in France and England in different ways, but both countries were equally affected by it. In France, the movement sparked the Revolution; in England, it caused the power of religion and of the aristocracy to gradually diminish. Intellectual leaders across the Atlantic in America, however, saw the language of Enlightenment as their language, the language of freedom, self-determination, and natural law. The foundations of the Enlightenment are, essentially, the foundations of America. The colonists, responsible for shaping a whole new country, were in a perfect position to put the ideals of the movement into effect. The "Common Sense" and "Crisis" pamphlets and the Declaration of Independence are proof of how powerfully Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were influenced by both the English and French Enlightenment.
The thirteen original American colonies originated with the settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Georgia, the last colony settled, was established by 1732. Each was organized and governed on the authority of the king of England usually through appointed and hereditary governors with often divided loyalties. By Franklin's time, most were established and autonomous enough to resent neglect and meddling from abroad. With England and France warring on two continents by the 1750s—in Europe in the Seven Years War and in North America in the French and Indian War—the British government considered its American colonies a ripe source for fundraising through taxation. This is precisely the conflict that sent Franklin to England in 1757.
By 1763, the American colonies had advanced to the extent that ties with England seemed extraneous. The harder the Americans tried to demand independence, though, the tighter Parliament's grip. For instance, the British government imposed taxes on Americans to cover part of the cost of keeping a standing British army on American soil, supposedly to protect the colonists. In actuality, the colonists could protect themselves and saw that the presence of the "Redcoats" merely infringed on their rights and interests. They bitterly resented having to pay for that. This particular dispute officially began with the Stamp and Sugar Act and ended ten years later with the Boston Tea Party—an act of rebellion carried out by a group of Bostonians who dumped a shipment of British tea in to the harbor to protest Parliament's attempt at taxation. England countered with a series of measures known on these shores as Intolerable Acts and ordered that Massachusetts be ruled by British military leader Major General Sir Thomas Gage. Armed revolt soon followed.
This battle for freedom from England was also referred to as the American War of Independence. In his Autobiography, Franklin recounts very little of the war that began in 1775 and ended in 1783, despite the fact that he is considered one of its greatest statesmen, was chosen as a delegate of the Continental Congress, and was appointed to the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence—which he signed after the Revolution was won. His influence prior to, during, and after the war cannot be overemphasized.
In 1774, the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and drew up non-importation and non-exportation petitions and addressed them to the king and Parliament. This was an attempt to coerce these entities to repeal the many measures known as the Intolerable Acts. The Congress also encouraged every one of the colonies' cities, towns, and counties to form committees that would serve as local authorities, or foundational revolutionary organizations, that would work closely with overseeing assemblies to take control of the militias. By shaping these forces, the colonists prepared themselves to take control of their country before the British had a chance to organize against them.
At least two early readers of Franklin's "Notes of My Life" urged its author to complete and publish the work. Abel James, after having read an early manuscript, wrote a letter to Benjamin Franklin in 1782, positing,
What will the World say if kind, humane and benevolent Ben Franklin should leave his Friends and the World deprived of so pleasing and profitable a Work, a Work which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but to millions…. I know of no Character living nor many of them put together, who has so much in his Power as Thyself to promote a greater Spirit of Industry and early Attention to Business, Frugality and Temperance with the American Youth.
Another friend, Benjamin Vaughn, wrote in 1783,
All that has happened to you is also connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people; and in this respect I do not think that the writings of Caesar and Tacitus can be more interesting to a true judge of human nature and society. But these, Sir, are small reasons in my opinion, compared with the chance which your life will give for the forming of future great men; and in conjunction with your Art of Virtue … of improving the features of private character, and consequently of aiding all happiness both public and domestic.
The two letters, published in the final version of The Autobiography at Franklin's request, do much to dissuade Franklin from believing his "several little family Anecdotes of no Importance to others" should go unpublished. Critics would later deem the work an admirable representation of eighteenth-century literature as well as an important and revolutionary memoir chronicling an entirely new historical era. Even Franklin's wooden prose would, one hundred years later, be praised by the likes of Woodrow Wilson. He writes in an early introduction,
[The Autobiography] is letters in business garb, literature with its apron on, addressing itself to the task, which in this country is every man's, of setting free the processes of growth, giving them facility and speed and efficacy.
The Autobiography has received its share of negative criticism, too. D. H. Lawrence, for one, faulted Franklin's materialism in Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature:
Why then did Benjamin set up this dummy of a perfect citizen as a pattern to America? Of course, he did it in perfect good faith, as far as he knew. He thought it simply was the true ideal. But what we think we do is not very important. We never really know what we are doing. Either we are materialistic instruments, like Benjamin, or we move in the gesture of creation, from our deepest self, usually unconscious. We are only the actors, we are never wholly the authors of our own deeds or works. It is the author, the unknown inside us or outside us.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was released in an unabridged audio CD entitled The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: A Fully Rounded Portrait of the Many-Sided Franklin, Notably the Moralist, Humanitarian, Scientist, and Unconventional Human Being on December 10, 2005. It is available through The Audio Partners.
Less specifically, modern critics have taken issue with Franklin's rampant arrogance—an annoying trait especially in one who claims to be wholly committed to humility. Others, including German sociologist Max Weber, disagree with Franklin's blatant capitalism.
Despite the criticism, Franklin's provincial, soil-based prose engagingly chronicles a critical moment in American history while revealing the thoughts of a man who played a major part in its evolution. It is important to note that The Autobiography is the first literary account of the American dream. Little wonder the book is often referred to as a uniquely American book, one that has helped define a nation and a people during its emergence.
Jennifer Jordan Baker
In the following excerpt, Baker argues that the self-promotion of which many critics accuse Franklin is more of a paradigm for American prosperity.
After reading the first installment of Benjamin Franklin's memoirs, Benjamin Vaughan concluded that his friend's life story would offer a fitting paradigm of American upward social mobility. "All that has happened to you," he wrote to Franklin in 1783, is "connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people." Vaughan's insistence that Franklin's was a prototypical story of success and self-making suggested that the memoir was representative of the American experience. While the limitations of this prototype are clear to the modern reader—Vaughan spoke specifically of a "rising people" of Euro-American males with access to economic opportunities not available to others—critics have recognized nonetheless a presumption of representativeness in this text. In the words of Mitchell Breitwieser, Franklin "aspires to representative personal universality," creating a rhetorical personality by cultivating "characteristics he felt were in accord with what the age demanded." Franklin's Autobiography, according to William Spengemann, attempts to "represent the conclusions of his experience as being universally true and hence applicable to every life, rather than peculiar to his own case."
Recent criticism especially has located this concept of representativeness in the economic and political culture of early America. Michael Warner has maintained that Franklin effaces the particularities of his own personality in order to achieve a "republican impartiality"—refuting his own personal authority and embodying, through writing, the legitimacy of a public statesman. Grantland Rice argues that Franklin, by producing and circulating written representations of himself, suppresses the idiosyncrasies of his personality in favor of a disembodied self constituted in print; this "objectified self" (realized in letters, public proposals, treatises, newspaper articles, and, of course, the autobiography itself) takes its cues, he emphasizes, from a burgeoning capitalist economy in which the exchange of goods and money replaces interpersonal relationships.
A different concept of representativeness, I would argue, is at work in this text. In the third section of the Autobiography, Franklin recalls that, upon his retirement from the printing business, he repeatedly lent his own name to governmental financial schemes and projects for public improvement. His memoir, by implication, is one of those projects that bears this valuable endorsement. As both a tale of his own rise to wealth and social prominence as well as a more speculative archetype of the success other Americans might achieve, the Autobiography ultimately operates as a financial instrument—a national letter of credit endorsed by Franklin himself—that attests to the economic promise of America. As with the later public projects that depend upon the visibility, rather than the effacement, of Franklin's name, the efficacy of this national voucher derives from his personal authority. In this sense, the Autobiography is representative not as a generic tale of an ordinary American experience but rather as a story of exemplary success that uses Franklin's experience to advocate, like a celebrity endorsement, the possibilities of American life.
This representativeness, in fact, takes as its model a philosophy of public credit through which prominent individuals might help ensure the strength of governmental credibility. According to a notion that circulated during the colonial era and later during Alexander Hamilton's tenure as treasury secretary, governmental credit instruments, though technically vouchers for civic fiscal reliability, might be supported by individuals willing to sign instruments and thus lend their names for public credit (I speak of this theory of patronage because, in practice, such support was not necessarily successful in countering economic downturns). In the Autobiography, an elder Franklin uses his name to support paper financial instruments, and this model applies to his endorsement of all public projects. Having established himself as financial representative, moreover, Franklin encourages the reader to read his Autobiography with a speculative spirit. Through early tales of his own rise by means of credit, Franklin emphasizes how vital it is for creditors to support fledgling entrepreneurs; and so these stories illustrate, by implication, the importance of the reader's willingness to credit Franklin's representation of the American experience.
While Franklin does, in the earlier phases of his career, create and exploit an abstract, generalized persona for his own advancement, once he achieves civic prominence, the success of his endorsements ultimately depends upon the particularities of his experience. This is not to say that the later, more visible incarnation is any less a rhetorical persona but rather that it is different in that it trades on Franklin's name. It must, like a bill of credit, assume a measure of personal authority in order to work effectively. Franklin's individual credibility, in other words, enhances the credibility of America.
Franklin drew a figural relation between his own biography and that of the nation; according to Christopher Looby, he rehearses in the story of his own life "both the past and the (predicated) future of America." Franklin wrote the four parts of the Autobiography over the two decades from 1771 to 1790, and the maturation and independence chronicled in the text parallels America's own coming of age. To this thinking I would add that there is, in particular, an analogy drawn between Franklin's own rise on credit as a budding entrepreneur in the first half of the text and the enterprising use of public credit for funding community development in the second half. With this shift, Franklin's role changes: in the first two installments of the memoir, he relies on the willingness of patrons to grant him credit; in the third and fourth parts, Franklin, having benefited from those who invested in him when he was young, lends his patronage to fledgling public projects.
Franklin signals the fact that the Autobiography itself is such a project in the opening of part 2, where he inserts personal letters from Abel James and Vaughan, written in 1782 and 1784, respectively. These letters reinforce Franklin's narrative transition from familial letter (an epistle to his son, William) to a document "intended for the public." In particular, the letters emphasize that his memoir itself is a public project that could benefit the new nation. Vaughan's letter, for example, predicts that Franklin's story will not only promote desirable qualities in young businessmen (industry, frugality, and the patience to await one's advancement) but also "tend to invite to [America] settlers of virtuous and manly minds." Vaughan adds, "And considering the eagerness with which such information is sought by them, and the extent of your reputation, I do not know of a more efficacious advertisement than your Biography would give." While Vaughan claims that the Autobiography is representative in the sense of being typical of—or "connected to"—the "rising people" of America, his very term "advertisement" suggests another process at work: the publicizing of an extraordinary story designed to arouse desire and patronage. Vaughan's letter identifies the memoir's potential to boost economic confidence and to promote America in the eyes of prospective immigrants; moreover, the letter serves as a fitting prelude to the more publicly oriented sections of the Autobiography, in which Franklin—as a protagonist within the narrative and as author of the autobiographical advertisement—works to promote civic ventures.
In part 3, these activities as civic spokesman begin to differ markedly from his earlier public service. In the first two sections, Franklin recalls that in his earlier years he tended to submit project proposals anonymously or under the auspices of a group so as not to arouse suspicions of his own interests: "The Objections, and Reluctances I met with in Soliciting the Subscriptions, made me soon feel the Impropriety of presenting oneself as the Proposer of any useful Project," he writes, explaining his decision to put himself "as much as [he] could out of sight." This strategic self-effacement exemplifies how Franklin, as the critical tradition maintains, uses depersonalized print media to construct a universal, archetypal life. Another well-known illustration of this self-effacement, which comes about a third of the way into part 3, is Franklin's anonymous proposals for an academy. He writes, "I stated their Publication not as an Act of mine, but of some public-spirited Gentleman, avoiding as much as I could, according to my usual Rule, the presenting myself to the Public as the Author of any Scheme for their Benefit."
Critics, however, have focused on the narration of events before Franklin's retirement from his printing business, and this conclusion is simply not applicable to the latter parts of the Autobiography. Shortly following his anonymous proposal for an academy, Franklin's "usual rule" changes. Five paragraphs later, Franklin recalls that once he "disengag'd" himself from "private Business," a sudden change occurred: "the Public now considering me as a Man of Leisure," he writes, "laid hold of me for their Purposes; every Part of our Civil Government, and almost at the same time, imposing some Duty upon me."
In the narration of events after his retirement from printing in 1748, Franklin's service entails the public endorsement of projects, and his visible connection to such projects supposedly ensures their success; indeed, after his retirement there is no mention of the self-effacement strategies that he describes earlier. As Dr. Thomas Bond discovers when he tries to establish a hospital in Philadelphia, Franklin's name has become precious currency:
At length he came to me, with the Compliment that he found there was no such thing as carrying a public-spirited Project through with out my being concern'd in it; "for, says he, I am often ask'd by those to whom I propose Subscribing, Have you consulted Franklin upon this Business? and what does he think of it? And when I tell them that I have not, (supposing it rather out of your Line,) they do not subscribe, but say they will consider of it."
Recognizing that this project will benefit from his signature, Franklin subscribes, enlists other subscriptions, petitions funds from the Pennsylvania Assembly, and even pens and publishes a signed article in its support. On account of this endorsement, according to Franklin, the plan is executed and the hospital soon erected.
While Franklin's retirement from private business may not, in fact, have marked such a clear-cut transition or satisfied those adversaries who accused him of harboring ulterior motives, the text nevertheless sets up the distinction, so crucial to classical republican ideology, between his life as a man of private interests and his life as a civic statesman. His retirement, which seemingly removes him from the business world, affords him the status of "disinterested" and enhances his reputation as civic-minded (his recollection that the public "laid hold" of him for "their purposes" after his retirement effaces his individual agency and emphasizes his status as civil servant). The social prominence he attains later in life transforms his name from a liability to an asset that can be exploited for public ends.
Franklin's text implicitly acknowledges that a candid equation of credit with appearance and perception inevitably unravels the reader's sense of certainty (these uncertainties of printed representation go hand-in-hand with the riskiness of a credit economy). I would argue, however, that it is precisely this economic ethos that works to resolve, rhetorically at least, the problems it raises. If Franklin's relish for credit schemes, inevitably raises doubts about the veracity of the Autobiography, it simultaneously encourages a faith in the speculative life that has been promised. In this narrative, doubts are self-fulfilling prophecies that lead to bank runs and financial collapse, and faith in his endorsement, as Franklin's own account demonstrates, keeps expectations in circulation and defers those redemptions that cannot materialize at that moment. As illustrated by Franklin's stories of war-time despair and the croaking Samuel Mickle, financial panic can sabotage potential profits. According to this financial paradigm, printed currency values and the kind of American success recalled in Franklin's memoirs are fictions for the present but may, with the reader's faith, be realized in the future.
The financial mechanisms at work in this text even make irrelevant, again at the rhetorical level, the common criticism that the Autobiography is thinly veiled self-promotion. Drawing from his own experience as financier, Franklin depicts a public credibility that is bolstered by his own credibility: the more reputable his own name and success story, the more viable is the American life for which he is a spokesman. By invoking a credit system that intertwines personal and civic interests, he makes self-promotion and national promotion mutually beneficial, enacting, in essence, a Franklinian pragmatism by which one could do good and do well at the same time.
Source: Jennifer Jordan Baker, "Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and the Credibility of Personality," in Early American Literature, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall 2000, pp. 274-93.
Franklin, Benjamin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Wilco Publishing House, 2005.
――――――, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 2d. ed., Yale University Press, 2003.
Lawrence, D. H., Studies in Classic American Literature, T. Seltzer, 1923; reprint, Penguin Classics; Reissue edition, 1990.
Morgan, Edmund S., "Foreword," in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 2d. ed., Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 1-7.
Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: and Other Writings, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 2002.
Wilson, Woodrow, "Introduction," in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Century Classics, 1901, p. x; quoted in "Foreword," in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 2d. ed., Yale University Press, 2003, p. 18,
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