One of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin is one of the most influential Americans to have ever lived. As one of the most notable biographers of Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson, stated, “[he is] the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become”. A polymath and one of the individuals at the forefront of the abolitionist movement in the US, after having owned and dealt in slaves but seen the error of his ways, Benjamin Franklin is certainly one of the most relevant Americans to consider on 4th July.
Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is broken down into two main halves, with the first part written as a letter to his son, William. The second half was written several years later, but was ultimately never finished due to his death in 1790. This second half is broken down into 3 short parts, but the final part will not be included in this summary as it offers little in the way of valuable information. Despite this, Franklin’s autobiography was still considered by himself as his memoir. And, importantly, has since been considered one of the most influential and famous autobiographies of all time. Franklin did not just want to produce a dry reference to names and dates. Franklin wanted to make the autobiography a story of self-improvement, error and correction. He also was willing to accept, unlike a lot of autobiographers, that this memoir was partly a way of indulging his vanity. Franklin believed vanity to be a good thing, for both the individual and the people around them.
The first part of Franklin’s autobiography is based around his reasoning behind writing an autobiography, as well as his early childhood and the beginning of his working career. This part of his autobiography was started in 1771, while he was 65 and on vacation in the town of Twyford, England. Starting as a letter to his son, William, Franklin explains that this autobiography is written with the hope that he (his son) will enjoy hearing more about his father’s life. He believes this might be the case as Franklin personally takes pleasure in hearing stories of his family members. Franklin also believes his story to be particularly obscure, making the unusual life trajectory from tradesman to statesman. In doing so, he believes his story is not just an interesting one, but potentially one his son could imitate. A very busy man, this time in Franklin’s life was marked by greater leisure and creative opportunity, offering further reason for him to start his memoir.
Franklin’s Family History
Franklin starts his autobiography by providing an outline of his family history, before moving towards his younger years brought up by the ancestors of those he speaks about. He traces his family history all the way back to the 1400s to a village in Northamptonshire, England, called Ecton. In fact, Franklin’s surname most probably comes from the name of a rank of citizen in England. He also found out that he was the youngest son of the youngest son, dating back five generations. This history is followed until the family line reaches his father, Josiah. Benjamin Franklin is the youngest son among Josiah Franklin’s 17 children.
Franklin’s father had moved to New England in order to escape religious persecution. Predominantly protestant, Franklin’s family were frequently in danger during this time due to the reign of Queen Mary. Franklin explained how his family would tape an English Bible under a joint stool, so that if they were being read to by their great-grandfather they could easily conceal the bible upon inspection by the religious police.
Franklin’s Shift Away From the Family Work
From the age of 10, Franklin was taken out of school to work for his father, Josiah. This is partly because despite Franklin’s intelligence he was not doing well in school. Franklin hated his father’s trade in tallow chandlery and soap boiling. His father then decided to encourage Franklin to observe other workmen handling their tools, to help Franklin identify a trade he would enjoy. This ultimately provided the building blocks for Franklin’s natural curiosity and ability to construct machines to conduct his own scientific experiments.
After consideration, Benjamin decided to work as an apprentice for his brother, James, who was a printer in Boston. Franklin thoroughly enjoyed this trade, partly because he was surrounded by books and writing. He used this time as inspiration to perfect his own writing style by studying the Spectator, a publication in the 1700s by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. This love of reading is something that he had developed from a young age. Some of his favourite books, the ones which had the greatest impact on him, were: Plutarch’s Lives, Daniel Defoe’s Essay on Projects, and Cotton Mather’s Essay to do Good. This apprenticeship only further developed Franklin’s love for reading, as he now had access to better books. He would sit up most of the night reading.
Franklin’s Passion for Writing and Debating Emerges
“Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself”
His profession and his passion for reading inspired him to write his own anonymous paper and stick it under the door of his brother’s printing house by night. His brother and his friends praise this paper and decide to publish it in the Courant. This motivates Franklin to write more essays, which are later titled the ‘Silence Dogood’ essays. Upon finding out Benjamin was the author of these essays, James was extremely angry. This led to Benjamin running away to Philadelphia at the age of sixteen.
Franklin also took a fancy to poetry during his time working for his brother, writing two poems and one sailor song. In his autobiography Benjamin Franklin admitted that these poems were very poor and that he luckily escaped being a poet as his father, Josiah, did not approve of poets. Josiah believed poets to generally be beggars.
As well as engaging with poetry for a short period of time, Benjamin Franklin also thoroughly enjoyed debating. He has one particular friend, John Collins, who was especially intelligent and eloquent in his arguments. Benjamin described how despite his enjoyment of debating John at the time, his son William should avoid following the ‘nasty habits’ Benjamin had at that age. One debate that Benjamin recalls being particularly divisive, between him and Collins, was one on the appropriateness of educating women. Collins believed it to be improper; ahead of his time, Franklin took the opposing view. Again, Benjamin’s father read the lettered debates and pointed out that Benjamin lacked the elegance of expression that Collins had. Benjamin agreed with his father and this motivated him to become a better writer. Benjamin would skip church services so he could rewrite in Samuel Johnson, a writer in The Spectator’s style. He would use these rewriting exercises to identify small areas where he could improve on Johnson’s work. Benjamin also fell in love with the Socratic Method, which allowed him to move away from being argumentative and move towards becoming, in his own words, a ‘humble Enquirer and Doubter’.
Another way in which Benjamin Franklin was willing to challenge the social norm of his time was his vegetarianism. At the age of 16, Franklin read a book by Tryon, which recommended a vegetarian lifestyle based on a mantra of pacifism and non-violence to all species. This convinced Benjamin to become a vegetarian. His brother James found this inconvenient, but Benjamin tactically managed to acquire half of the money James spent on his food each week so Benjamin could buy and prepare his food himself, while the other half was spent on buying books. In fact, Franklin started a religious sect with Keimer, his boss. Franklin was willing to accept some points he disagreed with, such as not shaving and keeping the 7th day of the week as a sabbath so long as Keimer agreed that vegetarianism was part of the religion. Keimer agreed, but gave up after 3 months when he decided to order a whole roast pig.
The Years Preceding the Revolution
Staying in printing, Benjamin had received a job working for Keimer. He then is lied to by a governor, Sir William Keith, who offers to help set Benjamin up as a sole printer, but ends up leaving Benjamin in London with no money or means to return to America. He manages to find work in another printing shop, Watts’, which allows him to make some important connections and earn enough money to return to America with his friend, Mr. Denham, who will provide him with work upon returning to America. After Denhamn passes away and a second stint with Keimer doesn’t work, Franklin decides to start his own business. Him and his business partner, Hugh Meredith, are relatively successful and are given contracts to print paper money. The business continues to grow during this time and Franklin then marries his childhood sweetheart, Deborah Read.
As well as running a business, during this time Franklin founded a highly influential ‘gentleman’s club’ called the Junto. Far different from a modern gentleman’s club, Franklin’s society is based on debates of a philosophical and scientific nature, and they work together to produce a subscription library of books on philosophical and scientific subjects.
This section of the book stops at this point, with Franklin stopping his writing because of the onset of the American Revolution. To quote Franklin’s autobiography, ‘The Affairs of the Revolution occasion’d the Interruption’.
The second half of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is written on the back of praise and encouragement from others. Firstly, a man named Abel James had written to Franklin while Franklin was living in Passy, France. This letter would have been a dangerous one to write, due to the potential of it falling into British hands. However, such was the passion with which Abel James spoke about the first half of Franklin’s autobiography, it was a risk James was willing to take. He described how this work must be continued and distributed to the masses. This is a point also raised by Benjamin Vaughan, who believed that Benjamin should finish his work on the history of his life for three reasons:
- His life is a remarkable one
- It is a valuable piece of work for the foundation of the newly created United States
- It will allow men of the future to learn from Franklin’s great example, in particular by following a “noble rule and example of self-education”.
This half of the book focuses heavily on Franklin’s beliefs and virtues during this time, as well as intertwining this with events in his life.
Franklin’s List of Virtues
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations get corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
In this half of the autobiography, Franklin speaks about the list of virtues that he focuses on daily. Although he believes in God, he does not go to church and instead decides to pray by himself. He does not believe he is learning moral virtue through the preachers on a Sunday, and instead develops a list of virtues based on limiting harm to others. He believed that the best way to serve God was to do good to man. He stated that actions are not immoral because they are forbidden by religions, but they are forbidden by those religions because the actions themselves are hurtful. He hoped to eventually publish these virtues under the title the Art of Virtue, but this never happens.
Franklin sought out moral perfection and improvement through developing definitions of his thirteen virtues:
Instead of focusing on each of these at one time, Franklin would focus on one virtue per week for 13 weeks. The order of these virtues were also deliberate. He believed that success in one virtue in this order would help in the likelihood of success in the next virtue. He would make charts around these virtues, tracking all of his failures within each realm of virtue with a dot. He wanted to eventually have a chart clear of any marks.
At the time of writing this half, by which time he is 79 years old, Franklin believes that all of his happiness comes down to pursuing this plan of virtues. Specifically, he believes that he owes his:
- Health to his Temperance
- Early success to his Industry
- The confidence of his country to Sincerity and Justice
- His evenness of temper and cheerfulness to all the virtues
Franklin also provided an outline of his daily schedule, based on one of his notebooks. The order of the day is as such:
- Rise at 5 a.m. Wash, address the “Powerful Goodness” and ask “What good shall I do this day?”
- Work from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
- Take two hours for lunch and looking over one’s accounts
- Work from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
- Put things in their proper places. Listen to music or ‘take diversion’. Examine the day and ask the question “What good have I done today?”
Part 3 of the autobiography is based five years later than the end of part 2. At this point in time, Franklin is living in Philadelphia. He has his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and has written a book called Poor Richard’s Almanac. Both of these are hugely successful. In his journalism he refused to include libel or gossip, or even private altercations. Other printers were not like this and tried to take advantage of these approaches for profit. His ideas surrounding religion continue to develop, with him encountering two preachers who help him further develop his thoughts surrounding virtues: Samuel Hemphill and George Whitefield.
Franklin Continues to Be an Innovator
One of Franklin’s greatest strengths was his ability to innovate. Two of his inventions are pictured below, both of which are still used to this day. He invented the lightning rod, which protects buildings from being impacted by lightning. Then, as a way of solving his own vision problems, Franklin invented the bifocal lens.
During this time, Franklin continued to have impacts that would influence what the future American society would look like. Franklin founded the first American fire department. Franklin is also made the General Assembly Clerk and Postmaster. He also comes to the understanding that Pennsylvania, specifically, needs a better military and a better institution for higher education. He writes Plain Truth on these topics and these ideas heavily influence the way in which Pennsylvania’s militia conduct themselves. In fact, he is offered an opportunity to be a colonel, but he turns this down.
His society, Junto, continued to develop and grow throughout his life. He, along with the Junto, would eventually become founders of the University of Pennsylvania. Plus, he worked on creating the first American public hospital, producing better paving for Philadelphia’s streets, improving the police force, and creating a better system for dusting London’s streets.
On top of all this, Franklin laid out his religious creed. He believed that there was a God and, as he had stated for most of his life, the best way to serve this God is to do good to man. This was the creed of the party. He was hoping to open a party that would initially just be open to young single men who could declare their assent to the creed and exercise themselves with the thirteen week virtue-cycle spoken of earlier. This would have to be done before being allowed to join.
Franklin studied languages throughout the latter part of his life, learning French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin. He recommended that all Americans should be educated in practical modern languages, and then classic ones, as the learning of the former helps with the latter.
Franklin’s influence on the military
As well as his book Plain Truth, Franklin also wrote up a plan for uniting all the American colonies. This did not go down too well and they stayed organized by individual colonies. However, when war broke out between England and France (the French and Indian War), Franklin was successful in multiple proposals to raise funds for colonial defense. He played a huge part in organizing the war effort. Franklin also provided vital advice for General Edwards Braddock for a battle at Monongehela to take over Fort Duquesne; Braddock did not listen to this advice and doing so ultimately led to Braddock being killed in battle.
Following on from this, though, Franklin helps to build forts in Pennsylvania for defense against the Native Americans. He is then honored as a colonel, but he turns down a position as general.
Franklin’s Scientific Success
“That, 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.”
Franklin also excelled scientifically. He becomes a member of the Royal Society based on his experiments and theories regarding the similarity between lightning and electricity. Initially these were laughed at by the Royal Society, but they later have to apologize for this due to the innovation of Franklin’s work. Franklin’s work was translated into multiple languages and the theories were universally adopted by the scientists of Europe. This led to the Royal Society righting their wrongs by giving him the gold medal of Sir Godfrey Copley in 1753.
Additionally, Franklin invented the Franklin stove, a metal-lined fireplace that is still used today.
Based on his scientific contributions, in 1753 Franklin was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale. He then became Postmaster General of America.
He was also willing to accept novel ideas during the time, as long as they had the weight of evidence. For example, in his autobiography, he advised everyone with children to have them vaccinated. This is based on one of his sons dying of smallpox at the age of four. This would have been a controversial opinion at the time.
Franklin’s Final Contribution
The final section spoken about in Franklin’s autobiography is about him winning his first skirmish while serving as Pennsylvania’s agent in England. Therefore, the autobiography ends in a similar way to its entire contents. Franklin’s impact is international and industry-wide.
In 1757, the Autobiography breaks off. It is ultimately left unfinished, but its contents and the actions spoken of still have a significant impact today. Written in three different times and in three different places, Franklin was writing this work until his death. 1771 in England. 1783 in France. 1788 in America.