The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
If you have any interest in historical figures, I recommend this book. It grants a view of Benjamin Franklin that goes beyond the standard textbook portrait of an older statesman. Sure, he was certainly that, but at one point he was a young man just starting out too. It shows how he faced various challenges in life, learned from his mistakes, and how he developed into the statesman with whom most Americans are familiar.
Part I is written as a letter to his son and contains information on the Franklin ancestry as well as Benjamin’s uncles and siblings. There is a great deal that I had never heard. For example, Benjamin’s father intended him for the church – “the tithe of his sons” (page 10) but then went into his father’s business for several years – “that of a tallow-chandler and soap-boiler.” (11) As a youth, Benjamin Franklin had a strong desire to go to sea; that was of course discouraged by his parents. Eventually, his father realized that he disliked the family business enough that he might run off to sea if something else wasn’t found. He was apprenticed to his brother; this had a separate set of problems which the book goes into in more details. The relationship between the brothers does not improve until much later.
There is just so much more to this man than I was ever aware. I understand that schools can only go into so much detail, but it is amazing what little is covered about this particular man. He was apparently quite good with boats and swimming, was a leader among the kids around him growing up, and got into scrapes. He also details methods he used to develop his writing, which I found very interesting. I won’t give them away here because I think that is one of the most interesting parts of the book, along with the details about various lessons learned about true friends, business practices, and so on.
Part II contains two letters from acquaintances requesting that Benjamin finish writing his autobiography. Abel James says, “…what will the world say if kind, humane, and benevolent Ben. Franklin should leave his friends and the world deprived of so pleasing and profitable a work; a work which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but millions?” (page 46) Benjamin Vaughn wrote, ” …Sir, I solicit the history of your life from the following motives: Your history is so remarkable, that if you do not give it, somebody else will certainly give it; and perhaps so as nearly to do as much harm, as your own management of the thing might do good. It will moreover present a table of the internal circumstances of your country, which will very much tend to invite to it settlers of virtuous and manly minds. …I do not know of a more efficacious advertisement than your biography would give.” (page 46)
From this section, I learned that Benjamin Franklin had a part in establishing lending libraries. He had established, with a group of like minded men, a “club of mutual improvement” (page 39) called “the junto.” They met Friday evenings and each member was required, in turn, to produce one or more “queries on any point of morals, politics, or natural philosophy,” which would be discussed by the group. Each member would also produce his own essay and read it once every three months; these would be on any subject. Eventually, it was agreed by the members to pool their books in the rooms in which they were meeting. THis worked so well for the group for a length of time that Franklin proposed expanding the idea to a larger group, sharing the benefits. He wanted to start a public subscription library. He drew up a plan, including rules that would be necessary, and made an agreement that each subscriber “engaged to pay a certain sum down for the first purchase of books, and an annual contribution for increasing them”. (page 50) The books were ordered from London and the library opened one day a week for lending to subscribers. Donations eventually increased the size of the library and the idea took hold.
Something else I found in the second section of his autobiography was his “Virtues.” At about 24 or so, he decided to tackle a new project: moral perfection. He said, “As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another…” (52) The list of virtues that he came up with, as well as a short description, is included below:
- “Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
- Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- 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.
- Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” (52-53)
You can learn quite a bit still from this autobiography. Franklin describes various business situations that he finds himself in, including starting one up, expanding it, dealing with less scrupulous rivals and more. His autobiography might be considered a manual of life lessons; the people who encouraged him to write it were right about its importance and value.