Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Summary

Benjamin Franklin

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

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Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Summary

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Benjamin Franklin began writing his Autobiography in 1771 and worked on it sporadically until shortly before his death in 1790. It was published in various languages and versions beginning in 1791, but the complete Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, including Franklin’s final revisions, did not appear until 1868. The work comprises four sections, reflecting the four different periods during which he wrote it, spanning his life as a youth to his time in the Pennsylvania Assembly in the late 1750s. Franklin never completed what he considered his memoir, but it is, nevertheless, crowded with events, inventions, and his tireless efforts to study morality, philosophy, politics, science, and literature.

Franklin begins his Autobiography with a letter to his son, William. He reflects on his genealogical research, noting that his father, Josiah Franklin, left England to settle in colonial Boston in the 1680s. Benjamin was the fifteenth of seventeen children in the Franklin family, and Josiah supported his large brood as a “chandler,” or candle and soap maker. Young Benjamin preferred reading to candlemaking, so at the age of twelve, he became an apprentice to his brother James, who was a printer.

In the early 1720s, James launched a newspaper, The New England Courant. Captivated by the witty pieces appearing in a British publication called The Spectator, Benjamin was determined to emulate them. Using the pseudonym “Silence Dogood,” Benjamin submitted his own spirited essay to his brother’s paper. Initially impressed with the submission, James became angry when he learned Benjamin authored it. The brothers quarreled, and Benjamin escaped James’s “arbitrary” exercise of power by leaving for Philadelphia.

At age seventeen, and with no money, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia. He secured employment at the printing house of Samuel Keimer and established himself in Philadelphia society. When the governor of Pennsylvania offered to underwrite Franklin’s purchase of British printing equipment to start his own business, Franklin jumped at the opportunity. After sailing to England, however, Franklin found that the governor failed to fulfill his pledge. He worked in a London printing shop for a time and then returned to Philadelphia and his position with Keimer.

In 1727, Franklin established the “Junto,” a club whose members had diverse occupations but shared a desire for “mutual improvement” by means of readings and lively discussions. Because books were expensive and not readily available, Junto members decided that access to a lending library would enrich their debates. Thus, Franklin and his cohorts developed plans to create the Library Company of Philadelphia.

In 1730, Franklin married Deborah Read, and they raised two children. By this time, Franklin had left Samuel Keimer’s printing house. Keimer’s new publication, the Pennsylvania Gazette, was floundering. Franklin bought the paper, transforming it into a very profitable enterprise.

The second section of the Autobiography begins with letters Franklin had received encouraging him to continue his memoir writing after a hiatus of almost ten years (He notes that the Revolutionary War had “occasion’d the Interruption.”) After providing more detail about the subscription library he founded, Franklin turns to his thoughts on virtue. Having undertaken a “Project of arriving at moral Perfection,” he catalogs the thirteen virtues he considers indispensable: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. He devotes himself to cultivating each individual virtue in succession, recording his daily progress on a calendar. Ultimately, Franklin concludes that perfection isn’t possible, but it’s valuable to try.

In 1788, when he was nearly eighty-three, Franklin returned to penning his Autobiography after neglecting it for several years. The resulting third part of the book presents a patchwork of Franklin’s reflections and accomplishments, starting with his 1731 proposal for a “Society of the Free and Easy.” Although Franklin never actually organized this “Party for Virtue,” he imagined it as a society of “Men” dedicated to improving themselves by subscribing to “the Essentials of every known Religion.”

Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732. Tremendously popular, Franklin issued it annually for the next twenty-five years, dispensing his own words of wisdom in each edition. As Franklin notes, he “reap’d considerable profit from it,” in addition to his substantial income from the Gazette. His prosperity only increased when, in 1736, he became Clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania and the Postmaster General of Philadelphia, positions which offered opportunities to expand his printing business.

Franklin then recounts his energetic industry in the service of civic improvements. This included drafting a property tax plan, creating the first fire department in the American colonies, promoting a hospital, devising a street-sweeping system, advocating for paved streets, and spearheading the campaign for an educational academy that opened in 1751 (and would become the University of Pennsylvania). In between these efforts and others, Franklin also invented a room-heating stove: the Franklin stove.

Franklin’s experiments with lightning and electricity during the 1750s gained him international fame. His writings on the subject were published in England and France. The Royal Society in London awarded him a medal for his research.

In his capacity as a member of the Assembly of Pennsylvania, Franklin often defended the interests of local colonists against those of the “proprietors” appointed by the British Crown to govern Pennsylvania. On the strength of his success in this arena, Franklin was selected to promote the colony’s interests as the assembly’s agent in London. He sailed overseas on this mission in 1757.

Franklin wrote the fourth part of his autobiography in the last months of his life. He picks up where he ended Part 3 – in London, during his attempts to secure redress for colonialists’ grievances, including complaints about taxation. This 1757 diplomatic trip proved largely unsuccessful, and the Autobiography ends at this point.

Franklin died in 1790, leaving his memoir unfinished. The Revolutionary War is essentially absent from the Autobiography, as is his distinguished career in international diplomacy and his contributions at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Three hundred years after Franklin’s birth, his Autobiography remains popular as a classic of the genre and as one of the original self-help books.