The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

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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.

One should not conclude that Franklin had a thoroughly optimistic view of human nature; too many whom Franklin called his friends took advantage of his good nature and left him with their debts or in embarrassing situations. Franklin, however, frequently blamed himself for allowing such developments—and others, such as his failure to pursue his courtship of Deborah actively after first meeting her. He terms such faults errata, a term that appears frequently in part 1.

Part 2 is less autobiographical and more philosophical than part 1 but no less revealing of Franklin’s character. His Philadelphia friend Abel James encouraged Benjamin in 1782 to follow through on his idea of continuing the Autobiography, with the idea of depicting, in Franklin’s words, “My Manner of acting to engage People in this and future Undertakings.” The essence of part 2 can be found in Franklin’s discussion of his attempts to achieve “moral perfection,” “a bold and arduous project.”

He devises a list of thirteen virtues, such as temperance, industry, moderation, and humility, and includes a precise definition for each. He then orders them in a vertical list, according to the theory that “the previous Acquisition of some might facilitate the Acquisition of certain others.” A list of the days of the week composes the horizontal axis of the chart. Each of the virtues has its own separate chart, thus allowing Franklin to concentrate on a particular virtue for those seven days. Theoretically, at the end of thirteen weeks and after a religious maintenance of the charts, noting all transgressions at the appropriate points, moral perfection, an attribute attainable by “people in all religions,” can be achieved.

This “Book of Virtues” is joined by Franklin’s “Scheme of Order,” an organizational plan to meet each workday, to complete his precise scheme of living. Was Franklin himself able to realize the edicts of moral perfection?...

(This entire section contains 758 words.)

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He comments:In Truth I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my Memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But on the whole, tho’ 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.

Part 3 does not have the literary value of the first two parts, but it is an intriguing recollection of Franklin’s career as a public administrator. It particularly focuses on his efforts as Pennsylvania representative to British General William Braddock in a plan to lease civilian “waggons and baggage horses” to the British army in 1755. The plan nearly failed as a result of Braddock’s arrogant contempt for the colonists. This incident had a profound effect on Franklin’s future attitudes toward Great Britain.


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