Monday, 20 April 2015

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

"Dear Son, I have ever had a Pleasure in obtaining any little Anecdotes of my Ancestors."

Known as one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin grew up in Boston, but after being apprenticed as a printer to his brother, they had a heated disagreement and Franklin ran away to Philadelphia.  Single-handedly, he built his own printing business and later became recognized for organizing the first lending library, starting a volunteer fire department and inventing the Franklin stove, along with numerous other sterling accomplishments.  His autobiography ends in 1757 with his involvement in the French-Indian Wars but, as most people know, Franklin went on to great feats, being involved in the Revolutionary War, and helping draft the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war.

Benjamin Franklin drawing electricity
from the sky (1816)
Benjamin West
source Wikipedia
I particularly enjoyed the first part of this autobiography, as Franklin describes his boyhood, his apprenticeship to an overbearing brother and his flight to Philadelphia where he eventually lands a job as a printer and later runs his own company.  His ability to examine a situation thoroughly and quickly and then be able to proceed with aptitude and insight into any challenges, was his trademark, and the reader can understand how he rapidly won the respect of the community and his fellow businessmen.  Being self-educated, Franklin had a love of good literature and along with that, good discussion, which led him to found the Junto club where he, along with other like-minded young men, hoped that by improving their minds through reading, they could better their community around them.

The main emphasis of Franklin's discourse was on "Wealth and Distinction" through accomplishment, employing "Industry and Frugality" to meet his goals. He noticed everything to the minutest detail and had an idea for the betterment of everything, including housekeeping, the communicating of instruction, virtue, personal growth, and even religion.  Virtue was a particular focus of Franklin's, as he was convinced that "vicious Actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful, the Nature of Man alone consider'd: That it was therefore every one's Interest to be virtuous, who wish'd to be happy even in this World."  He set up a system to eradicate his faults and instil virtue, by working on one shortcoming at a time and moving to the next, only when the former was perfected.  His list read as follows:

1.  Temperance
Eat no to Dullness
Drink not to Elevation

2.  Silence
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.
Avoid trifling Conversation.

3.  Order
Let all your Things have their Places.
Let each Part of your business have its Time.

4.  Resolution
Resolve to perform what you ought.
Perform without fail what you resolve.

5.  Frugality
Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: ie. Waste Nothing

6.  Industry
Lose no Time.  Be always employ'd in something useful.  Cut off all unnecessary Actions.

7.  Sincerity
Use no hurtful Deceit.
Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8.  Justice
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.

9.  Moderation
Avoid Extremes.  Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10.  Cleanliness
Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.

11.  Tranquility
Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.

12.  Chastity
Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation.

13. Humility
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Through using this method, Franklin expressed himself surprised at his numerous faults.  Though it did not have the success he had expected, at least through application he was able to temper his faults to a greater degree than if he had never attempted the experiment.

Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on printing press
Reproduction of Charles Mills painting
source Wikimedia Commons

Franklin's style is rather continuous and so often muddled that it required effort to follow his train of thought.  He states that he's writing the biography for his son, but it was almost as if he was writing for himself, in that he had all the experiences and all the information in his head, and therefore didn't need to give additional details, which would have been useless for him, but perhaps helpful to the uninformed reader.  He sounded like quite a character though, rather impressed with himself and his achievements in spite of the feeble dose of humility that he attempted to add as an ingredient to his narrative.

The Declaration of Independence (1818)
John Trumbull
source Wikipedia

In fact, from the recent biographies that I've read, I've been struck by the pride and almost cavalier self-esteem of some of the authors.  While there can be a humbleness to their communication, it appears to be a forced diffidence that still smells of a hubris that they can't quite shake.  Perhaps this type of arrogance is needed in all great men, but, as I travel chronologically through these biographies, I certainly sense less of a reliance on external sources (respectable mentors, family and God/religion) and more of a sole reliance on self and philosophical ideas.

The next biography is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, an appropriate read for the month of May!


  1. I suspect #13 trumps and trivializes #1 through #12. In other words, Franklin's tongue is very much in his cheek, but he does not fully appreciate his own irony (i.e., his capacity for living up to #13 was not very well done).

    1. I laughed at the Jesus and Socrates pairing, but I could see it. I felt that he acted as though he trumped both these figures. He seemed truly puzzled when everyone didn't agree with him.

  2. I WANT YOU TO READ WALDEN!!! I think it's more an essay, or a treatise, than a biography. Only my thoughts.

    I read somewhere that Franklin started out writing to his son, but was encouraged to keep going by others, who wanted to publish it. So the tone changed because he knew he was addressing people beyond his circle -- maybe even us! When I was reading this, I so craved that big piece of bread he was eating in Philadelphia. I wanted a bite! He described it so well I could taste it! :)

    1. Okay Corinne, I will read Walden! :-) I'm trying to clear my schedule for Gone With the Wind too!

      That's too bad. I really enjoyed the tone in the first part of the book, but you're right, it certainly did change and I thought, for the worse. Interesting, but not engaging.

      Ah, the bread! So far the best bread I've had was from a place in Nice, France. If it was close to that, it would have been heavenly!

  3. I definitely liked BF, even if he comes across a little overly self-assured. It probably is a common character trait of many great men.

    Good point about the decrease in reliance to external sources. Bauer talks about that in the section on biographies. Our first bios of the Middle Ages focused on God, while the men of the Enlightenment decide they are not sinners, but humans. The focus is on self.

    And Bauer says that there are only two kinds of biographies (on the list): spiritual or skeptical; a guide to God or self. Franklin is definitely skeptical!

    1. I'm not yet sure whether I would have liked him, but I do think that he's a fascinating person.

      I don't have a problem with the skeptic. If he doesn't believe in God, or is unsure, I can appreciate that. What I find disturbing is when someone tries to make themselves, or sees themselves as a god. This is the feeling I got from Franklin and frankly (ha, ha!) I found it unsettling. However, the biography was brief enough that I don't think that I can make any definitive judgement.

  4. I've seen this list a few times but I didn't know it was Franklin's. Very interesting - I saw Ruth's review, and as I said to her I do intend to try and get this autobiography soon.

    I'm reading Walden in May as well :)

    1. This book is certainly interesting, especially as part of U.S. history, but I definitely preferred Rousseau.

      Oh good, another Walden reader! I'm still not sure if I'm going to be charmed by his narrative, or think that he's a loonie. ;-)