The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Franklin’s Autobiography is divided into three parts, with a short addendum added a few months before Franklin’s death in 1790. Each has a distinct thematic purpose and thus serves, in part, to make the work an important philosophical and historical tract. Part 1 is, in essence, an extended letter to Franklin’s son William, written in England in 1771. It recounts Franklin’s ancestry, his early days in Boston and Philadelphia, and his first journey to London in 1724. In fact, Autobiography is by far the best source for information on Franklin’s early life. Part 1 ends with Franklin’s marriage to Deborah and the beginning of his subscription library in late 1730, when he was twenty-four years old. Franklin ends part 1 with this explanatory note:

“Thus far was written with the Intention express’d in the Beginning and therefore contains several little family Anecdotes of no Importance to others. . . . The Affairs of the Revolution occasion’d the Interruption.”

In spite of this rejoinder, there are important ideas developed in part 1. Franklin concludes that, after a youthful prank brought parental admonishment, that, “tho’ I pleaded the Usefulness of the Work, mine convinc’d me that nothing was useful which was not honest.” Part 1 also discusses Franklin’s Deistic inclinations and his predilection for the art of disputation, which is similar to modern-day debate. Franklin thus believed in the mind’s ability to use logic and reason over and above strong emotions. He comments:Therefore I took a Delight in it [disputing], practic’d it continually and grew very artful and expert in drawing People of even superior Knowledge into Concessions the Consequences of which they did not foresee . . . and so obtaining Victories that neither myself nor my Cause always deserved.


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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The first part of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (also known as the Autobiography) was begun in 1771. In the work, Benjamin Franklin first addresses his adult son, William. After a few pages about his ancestry and his own birth in Boston as the fourteenth of his father’s seventeen children (and the seventh by his second wife), Franklin tells of being taken from grammar school at the age of ten and put to work for his father, a maker of candles and soap. The young Franklin did not enjoy this work but found consolation in being a leader among the boys in his neighborhood and in being an omnivorous reader.

At the age of twelve, Franklin was apprenticed to his printer brother, James. When the latter started his own newspaper, The New England Courant, Franklin not only worked at printing and delivering the newspaper but also made anonymous contributions, usually of a satirical nature, to the publication.

Franklin had been physically abused by his older brother, who had benefited from Franklin more than he realized. In 1723, Benjamin decided, without consulting his family, to leave home and live on his own. He traveled to New York but found no jobs for a printer. He continued to Philadelphia, where he found work with a printer named Keimer. He lived with the Read family and soon fell in love with young Deborah Read. He also made the acquaintance of Governor William Keith, who suggested that he travel to London for printing supplies. While Franklin was away, Deborah had married another man who, within a few months of their marriage, deserted her.

Franklin returned from London as a clerk for a merchant named Thomas Denham but later worked again for Keimer, from whom he bought a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin also adopted the philosophy of Deism, and undertook one of the first of his cultural enterprises: He started the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first circulating library in America. In 1730, he married Deborah, whose marital status was unclear at this time. They had two daughters together and raised Franklin’s son, William.

After a break of seventeen years, Franklin wrote the second part of his Autobiography, turning to an examination of his religious and moral life. Raised as a Presbyterian, he came to believe some of its doctrines “unintelligible, others doubtful” and found greater satisfaction with the principles of Deism. These principles did not, however, provide him with a key to good conduct.

In an attempt to reach “moral perfection,” Franklin consulted his wide range of readings and employed his own judgment to establish a list of thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, charity, and humility. He made charts for each virtue and recorded his daily progress in his pursuit of them. He found the third virtue, order, difficult to obtain but also felt that his efforts made him a better person. The last of his virtues, humility, he added after a Quaker friend told him that he was generally considered proud. Humility, too, proved a difficult virtue, for even if he obtained it, he observed that he would “probably be proud of my humility.”

In the third part of his work, Franklin recounts many of the achievements of his middle years. He learned French, Italian, and Spanish. He filled a number of posts in Pennsylvania’s general assembly. He established a philosophical society and an academy. He became the postmaster of the American colonies. He devised the Franklin stove and conducted many “electrical experiments,” although he does not provide any details about his famous lightning-rod experiments. He studied the causes of fires and established a company to battle them. He devoted considerable time to military preparedness and offered a plan to unify the defenses of the colonies. Despite his dislike of organized religion, he admired the most famous traveling evangelist of his time, George Whitefield, and formed a “civil friendship” with him. He also was able to cooperate with Quakers in forwarding his defense measures.

In the fourth part, which he wrote in the last year of his life, Franklin tells of being sent by the...

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Brands, H. W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Random House, 2000. This full biography relates Franklin’s life to the birth of the United States.

Breitweiser, Mitchell Robert. Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin: The Price of Representative Personality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. This study of the relationship of Franklin’s thought with that of a highly influential New England clergyman of his time, Cotton Mather, clarifies Franklin’s place in a developing American culture.

Campbell, James. Recovering Benjamin Franklin: An Exploration of a Life of Science and Service. Peru, Ill.: Carus, 1999. A study of Franklin’s thinking on science, religion, morality, and politics as well as his ideas on public service.

Cohen, I. Bernard. Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. Cohen’s chapter on Franklin explains how Franklin, who had only a few years of formal education, was able to become a distinguished scientist.

Cullen, J. P. “Benjamin Franklin: ’The Glory of America.’” American History Illustrated 6, no. 1 (1971): 40-47. Cullen’s description of Franklin’s early...

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