37 pages 1 hour read

Benjamin Franklin

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1791

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was written in pieces from 1771 to 1790. The work was first published in 1791 in Paris, France, after Franklin’s death as The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin. The autobiography was then published in London in 1793. In his writing, Franklin reflects upon his academic, professional, and philosophical pursuits. He examines how he advanced his economic and social standing during the formation of the United States, covering from his early life as a young boy in Boston to his role in American politics and scientific experiments. The work explores themes such as The Importance of Self-Improvement, The Development of American Identity, and The Role of Enlightenment Values.

This study guide refers to the paperback Norton Critical Edition published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. in 2012.

Content Warning: Franklin’s autobiography reflects perspectives and norms of the 18th century, which include outdated views on race, gender, and class.

Summary

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was written in four parts over different time periods, up to the end of his life. The autobiography begins with a letter to his son, William, in 1771 describing his intentions in writing his memoirs. He aims to not only relive his life, which will satisfy his vanity, but also provide guidance to his reader, whether that be his children or a public audience.

In Part 1, Franklin reflects on his family’s history and briefly describes their immigration to America. He recounts his early childhood from his birth in January 1706 to his brief time in grammar school at 8 years old. Franklin begins his career in printing after he apprentices himself to his older brother, James; however, the brothers part ways due to an argument. Franklin runs away from Boston to New York City before settling in Philadelphia and works at another printing shop for a man named Keimer. Franklin also mentions his love for reading that begins in childhood and continues throughout the rest of his life. During his early career as a printer, Franklin develops his writing skills by imitating works like newspapers and writing his own poetry and essays.

In Philadelphia, Franklin meets his future wife, Deborah Read, and cultivates many personal and professional relationships, such as with Governor Keith of Pennsylvania. While working for Keimer, Franklin soon decides to open his own printing shop, working with Governor Keith to establish his business. However, on his trip to London, he discovers Keith has made false promises. After spending over a year in London, Franklin returns to Philadelphia and establishes himself in the printing industry; he also marries Deborah and forms the Junto club with the purpose of further developing his writing and debating skills. He also works on civic projects, such as creating a subscription library.

Picking up his writing after the American Revolution in 1784 in France, the beginning of Part 2 opens with two letters from Franklin’s friends that encourage him to continue writing his autobiography. Franklin then reflects on his establishment of the library and how he utilizes its resources to maintain his education in philosophical and scientific pursuits. He outlines his dedication to improving his writing skills as well as developing his list of 13 virtues. He includes a relevant list of quotations from different historical figures and literary works that align with his virtues, as well as a 13-week plan to exercise them. As part of his 13-week plan, Franklin includes his daily schedule.

During the next part of his autobiography—which he begins in 1788 after returning to Philadelphia—Franklin focuses heavily on the French and Indian War. He claims to have lost some of his writing for his autobiography during the Revolutionary War. Franklin’s role in the French and Indian War involves setting up meetings with Indigenous peoples and obtaining resources for the soldiers.

In Part 3, he discusses his publication of an almanac, his services with religious groups, and the advancement of his Junto club, which continues to expand across the colonies. During this time, Franklin advances the scientific study of electricity through his famous kite experiment, as well as inventing the stove and designing a model of streetlamps. The beginning of Part 4 occurs at the end of the text but does not include a direct, narrative break like the other sections.

In Part 4, Franklin discusses his travels to London to advocate on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly. However, his concerns for the colonies are not heard, and members of the British government threaten to act against the governor of Pennsylvania. The autobiography ends with the knowledge that the proprietary governors did not execute their threats.

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