The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

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What, according to Franklin, is the purpose of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin?

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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...

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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.

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin tells most of the life story of Benjamin Franklin. He started writing his autobiography in 1771, but was unable to finish it before his death in 1790. Although it tells a lot about his earlier life, the autobiography does not delve into his life during the American Revolution or his time as a diplomat in Paris, both of which were important parts of his life and our history.

He did describe his early life with the purpose of telling his son what his life was like. Franklin tried to learn more about his own relatives, but due to poor record keeping was unable to do so. As a result, he wrote this autobiography so that his son would know who he was as a person.

Along with telling his son about his life, Franklin’s autobiography also had a broader purpose, which was to help future generations. His life began in poverty, but he was able to overcome that and become a wealthy, influential leader in the eighteenth century. He hoped that his autobiography could help guide people in poverty or those going through rough times. The autobiography also brings to light one person’s ability to make societal changes.

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Benjamin Franklin says that the purpose of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklinis to tell his son about his life, but also to give guidance to his future generations.

Franklin starts out his autobiography by explaining that he once made inquiries about his relatives in England. He wanted to know more about them, and, clearly, there wasn't an easily obtainable record of their lives available to him. He recounts this memory to his son as an explanation of why he's writing his autobiography.

He also goes on to say that he started life in poverty and was completely unknown. Of course, throughout his lifetime, Franklin gained both money and influence. He says that when people who come later are living their life and facing problems, they may find wisdom or guidance in his words or be able to imitate his choices.

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Franklin, writing to his son William, says in part I of The Autobiography that, as he has some leisure time, he wants to tell his son the story of his early life. Franklin was about 65 at the time he began the memoir. He had lived, to put it mildly, a jam-packed and significant life. Knowing he might be nearing the end of his time on earth, he wanted to pass down his history, ideas, and memorable experiences, first to his son, and later to the public at large.

The first part of the work, written in 1771 as a letter to William, was not initially meant for publication. The second part, which covers the years from 1730 onward, was written with an eye to publication. It is more formal than the first part. In 1784, when he resumed the work, he changed the focus of the memoir, wanting it to be primarily of help to young people.

Even the more formal parts are written in an engaging and conversational style. It is clear that, with his emphasis on being a self-made man, rather than a person to the manor born, Franklin was self-consciously engaged in helping to create the mythos of a new, democratic republic. Like other writers of the period, such as Washington Irving, he was depicting the robust, active, energetic, and resourceful American male as superior to the European aristocrat living on inherited wealth. We would be hard put to find a figure who more exemplifies the American spirit of thrift, hard work, and commonsense than Ben Franklin.

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From the beginning of Part One of Franklin's Autobiography, he makes his purpose quite explicit.  Opening with a letter addressed "Dear Son," Franklin pontificates:

were it offer'd to my Choice, I should have no Objection to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning, only asking the Advantage Authors have in a second Edition to correct some Faults of the first.  So would I if I might, besides correcting the Faults, change some sinister Accidents and Events of it for others more favorable....

From this brief quotation, the reader can see that Franklin wishes that his own experiences serve as a model for future generations, here represented by the metaphor of the "second Edition" of a book.  Ideally, readers would be able to correct "the Faults" that Franklin himself has made (and refers to as Errata throughout the book).  Thus, his goal is to create a kind of blueprint whereby readers can make their lives "more favorable" than his own in a kind of endless Enlightenment project of self-improvement.

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