What definition gave Benjamin Franklin of the American self?
Concurrent with the previous post, the fundamental definition that Franklin offered in his Autobiography is the sense of autonomy in carving out one's notion of self. The vision of America that Franklin posits is one where someone with his condition can create their own sense of personal destiny, where institutional barriers do not exist. Franklin did not enjoy the benefits of wealth or privilege nor did he benefit from status or prestige. Franklin did not possess much in formal education. However, he was able to possess a sense of practicality and pragmatism that demonstrated if one had a strong belief in self, success in America was not only possible but quite real. Franklin's success helped to define the new and emerging colonial culture where individuals could define their own destinies as well as their successes. Narratives such as Franklin's helped to establish the Colonists as the type of people who could launch a successful and needed separation from the British.
Franklin is the towering figure of 18th-Century America, but his status as icon is best measured by comparing him, the pragmatic journalist-diplomat-scientist, to his counterpart, Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian philosopher of the same period—Franklin the Yankee vs. Edwards the Puritan. Franklin's career is stunning, spread equally over the fields of science, diplomacy, and unparalleled public service. When he returned to Philadelphia from Paris in 1785, after conducting the political affairs and negotiations with both the English and the French during the crisis of the Revolutionary War as a mere yeoman, he was the most famous private citizen in the Western world.
Only a portion of his life experiences are recorded in his Autobiography, a work he began in his sixties, but this piece of writing is nonetheless an indubitable American classic—it leaves for posterity the record of a paradigmatic American existence, from modest origins to world celebrity. Franklin's account of his life is larded with wit and moral precepts, and this brand of secular wisdom has not always been to everyone's taste, as seen from his writings. Like him or not, we have him at the head of the American pantheon, a definition of human self-making of such potency that it quickly becomes what we now know as The American Dream.