Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, which he referred to as his Memoirs and wrote in several parts over the course of twenty years, is initially intended as a family history for his son William:
Now imagining that it may be equally agreeable to you to know the Circumstances of my Life, many of which you are yet unacquainted with. (p.43)
Because Franklin spent so much of his life as a husband and father away from his family, first in London, then in Paris, he is understandably motivated to share his personal history with his son. Ironically, by the time Franklin was working of the latter parts of the autobiography, he and his son were long estranged by their politics—with Franklin being the American revolutionary and William Franklin being the Royal Governor of New Jersey and Loyalist. Although the two men achieved a truce with each other, there was never a true reconciliation.
In the letter to William, however, Franklin hints at a much broader purpose for the Autobiography than simply to recount family history or even Franklin's own history. Franklin, who is justifiably proud of his rise from "Poverty and Obscurity" to "some Degree of Reputation in the World" (p. 43), believes his story can also be instructive on a wider scale:
the conducing Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, and therefore fit to be imitated. (p. 43)
An important point here is that, in the eighteenth century, education—in subjects like rhetoric, history, and mathematics, as well as in subjects like ethics and moral philosophy—employs imitation as one of its chief methods of instruction. Students learn to write, for example, by imitating skilled writers; they learn philosophy by memorizing lengthy passages of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Franklin's belief that certain aspects of his life might be imitated is consistent not only with eighteenth-century education theory but also with his own way of educating himself, discussed at great length later in the Autobiography.
When Franklin is recounting the ways in which he seeks to better himself (in about 1728), he tells of a rather startling plan of improvement:
It was about this time that I conceiv'd the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any Fault at any time; I would conquer all that either Natural Inclination, Custom, or Company might lead me into. (p. 148)
I use the word startling simply because the average reader may be surprised, if not stunned, to hear someone plan to arrive at "moral Perfection" (especially with a straight face), but Franklin, who has already proven that he can transform himself by imitating good habits, sees no impediments to becoming perfect through another set of imitations of behavior.
We know, based on several of Franklin's letters, that among his projects is his plan to write a book on moral and...
ethical improvement, which he seems to have abandoned as impractical given his commitments, but he obviously works at least a truncated version of that plan into theAutobiography. Franklin's list of virtues—which includes temperance, silence, order, frugality and industry—is both comprehensive and practical, a guide to all generations for a life that, like Franklin's, will take them from "obscurity" to a "Degree of Reputation" in the world.
Whether we agree that Franklin's plan to achieve "moral Perfection" is practical or even desirable, we can see that Franklin has more than his personal history in mind as he writes his memoirs. Based on the detailed discussion of how Franklin implements this plan in his daily life—he masters one virtue before tackling another—we can reasonably conclude that Franklin, always a practical person, wants to leave his template for a successful life to the greatest number of people possible. For all practical purposes, Franklin's Autobiography doubles as a guide to success in the eighteenth century, and Franklin's purpose in writing it goes far beyond a simple family history.