The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the most famous autobiographies in English, certainly in America. Benjamin Franklin was not only a prominent figure in the US War of Independence, but also one of the most accomplished men of his day, well versed in several fields, and a self-made man to boot (call Central Casting – we have ourselves a Renaissance American).

In some respects, Franklin could be favorably compared to Samuel Johnson. Franklin was an auto-didact. His father, a chandler in Boston, needed his sons’ help in business, so that his sons did not receive the education in school and college for which they were all well-suited. Franklin received a lot of his education from reading material his brother James published (James had a printing press in Boston, and young Ben apprenticed there). Franklin would read the material coming to his brother’s print shop, which kept him apprised of current events. He learned the newspaper business as it was practiced at the time, and even created characters who would pen letters to the editor (taking on the persona of Silence Dogood, a God-fearing woman to comment on current events).

The biography, as we have it, was composed at four separate times (1771, 1784, 1788, and 1790) but only published posthumously by his grandson, William Temple Franklin, in 1818. There is evidence that Franklin himself planned on publishing it, so that the work we have is not simply a family document for family and friends. This autobiography has peculiar gaps, partly because of this scattered method of composition. In addition, Franklin originally conceived of this as written to his son, William, a son whom he greatly loved. The first part, written in 1771, was written for William, then Governor General of New Jersey.

When the relations between the colonies and England grew strained, Franklin found himself on the side of the colonists calling for independence, while William remained loyal to the Crown, and he and his father became estranged from one another. Because this was originally conceived of as something of an apologia to his son, who found himself on the opposite side of American Independence, Franklin remains curiously moot on the matter of the revolution, ending the first part of the book with a memo noting that much of the foregoing was for family (specifically William) and possibly not of much interest to the general public, and adding “The affairs of the Revolution occasion’d the interruption” from Part I to Part II, which he wrote in answer to requests from friends in Paris.

Part II cannot really be called autobiographical, as it deals with only two points – the establishment of a free library in Philadelphia, and Franklin’s method of moral improvement, complete with charts. It seems that Franklin felt there were 13 virtues he’d like to cultivate, and he kept a weekly chart in which he marked occurrences where he demonstrated those virtues, or failed to do so, focusing especially on one virtue each week. Franklin’s system for self-improvement was very methodical, as Franklin was in much that he did.

Parts III and IV continue the story up until the period prior to the Revolution, and contain some discussion of Franklin’s experiments with electricity. The work as we have it, then, does not discuss the Revolution or the matters leading up to it, the most important events in which Franklin took part. The focus rather is on Franklin’s rise in the world of business (Part I) and his efforts as a scholar, especially in the sciences (Parts II-IV). And the work shows Franklin to be a man of consequence, though it remains silent on the matter of most consequence in Franklin’s life.

There must have been something in the water in the 18th and 19th century, and especially in America, that it produced men such as Franklin, a person who could well be considered a Renaissance Man, and a self-taught one at that. Though he did not get much in the way of formal education, he was always reading, and often writing, developing ideas through conversation and debate. He immersed himself in the debates of his youth by reading the newspaper and pamphlets his brother published, and by reading letters of readers to the paper.

Working for his brother and then for other printers in Philadelphia, he learned the craft of printing and of managing a printing press operation, learning the craft and the business so well that he became the premier printer in Philadelphia.

Though this book does not deal so much with much of Franklin’s public life, it does make clear that he was one of the great minds of his generation, and considered himself so, no matter how humbly he presents his achievement. Stylistically, the work is written in a simple and approachable style, but always demonstrates that beautiful clarity that typifies much of 18th c. and 19th c. English (and American) prose.

The work is now considered a great classic of American autobiography, though Mark Twain referred to it as “Franklin’s pernicious book,” probably because of its emphasis on virtues of thrift and hard work, virtues Twain didn’t put much stock in. Even if you don’t wish to emulate Dr. Franklin – I read much of this while reclining with pugs in my recliner (and no one could call Franklin a lazy boy) – the work is a masterpiece of simple style and reading it is its own reward.

If you are looking for a more thorough treatment of Franklin’s life, you may want to read Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: an American Life. And if you’d like to read more of Franklin’s writing on a variety of topics, you may want to pick up The Portable Benjamin Franklin edited by Larzer Ziff.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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