In what ways did Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography promote individualism/individual freedom? How can I analyze the kinds of freedom that he promotes and the reason he does this?

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Benjamin Franklin carefully establishes a persona that contains the moral virtues he wishes to embody, but he also takes care to mention some of his flaws so that he can tell the reader how he overcame them. Self-interest and dedication to principles are two key values that Franklin promotes. His...

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Benjamin Franklin carefully establishes a persona that contains the moral virtues he wishes to embody, but he also takes care to mention some of his flaws so that he can tell the reader how he overcame them. Self-interest and dedication to principles are two key values that Franklin promotes. His religious beliefs were Deist, but he had been raised a Calvinist, and the importance of the individual’s direct relationship with God remained strong in him, even as he belonged to the Society of Friends.

In book II of the Autobiography, Franklin extols the connections between individual responsibility and possibility. Laying out the plan he had developed, including the specific virtues he promotes, he admits that “humility” was the most difficult one for him. While achieving perfection may sound vain, he admits that his desires were not necessarily fulfilled and that the effort itself was most important:

I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time . . .

I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it.

Franklin was also concerned about the encroachment of social regulations, such as taxes, on individual liberty. He identifies such regulations as a repressive mechanism of colonial control. He is often quoted as saying that people who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. In this, he defended the functions of American elected official bodies over those of the crown or special interests, specifically referring to Pennsylvania’s colonial assembly.

While he expresses concern for the human being’s place within society and obligation to conduct oneself in accordance with social norms, he does not promote the common good at the expense of individual liberty. Paradoxically, he established and became a major contributor to many social institutions, such as Pennsylvania’s first library and a philosophical society.

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Franklin believes that individual moral virtue leads to economic success. Rather than looking to a wider community or to government legislation that would help promote fairness and opportunity, he looks inward and promotes the goal of building individual moral character. As he writes in his Autobiography, this has been the basis of his own rewarding life:

I grew convinced that truth, sincerity, and integrity, in dealings between man and man, were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I formed written resolutions, which still remain in my journal-book, to practice them ever while I lived.

Franklin's Autobiography includes a list of moral virtues he was determined to practice, which included order, resolution, hard work, frugality, moderation in all things, cleanliness, chastity, temperance, and justice. These values, especially hard word (what Franklin calls industry) and frugality, have become identified with the larger American character. These are individual virtues.

Franklin's Autobiography has been criticized for over-emphasizing self-interest over community interest and for an overall lack of awareness of how he was aided not only by personal virtue but also by being white, male, and living in a colony (Pennsylvania) founded on Quaker principles of fairness.

Franklin promotes individual freedom because it worked for him.

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The term individualism was coined in the 1820s, but Benjamin Franklin promoted the idea of individualism long before that. In his autobiography, he links the idea of individual freedom to the concept of the American Dream. He claims that any person can build a life of success and prosperity by exercising individual freedom. At the time, Franklin’s ideas were surprising to many, as people throughout the world had learned to believe that wealth and prosperity were achievable to only a select few, members of the upper classes who had the controlling power in society. Franklin preached that any individual had power and could achieve success based on his merits. He claimed that possibilities were endless for those who were frugal, honest, and industrious and who exercised the freedoms granted to them as citizens of a free country.

Franklin uses examples from his life as proof of an individual’s potential. He left home at the age of seventeen, and with little education and money, he built a life of prosperity and retired at the age of forty-two. This type of life, he maintained, is possible in a democratic society, where freedom and opportunity can help anyone achieve his goals. Franklin’s message had power because Americans believed him; they saw his life as proof that any individual could achieve success. In short, Franklin’s promotion of individual freedom was a promotion of the democratic ideal. He encouraged American citizens to pursue the American Dream, a dream he proved was possible through self-reliance, individual thought, and personal integrity.

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