Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Title: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Author: Benjamin Franklin
Published:  1791
Challenges: The Well-Educated Mind (biographies), and The Classics Club

When I committed myself to read the books from The Well-Educated Mind reading list, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was one of the more intimidating books I could think of - that, and Mein Kampf, by Hitler.  For some reason I had an image of a Bible-sized book of Benjamin Franklin's life; but what I had mistaken it for was the Library of America collection of Benjamin Franklin's writings, which amounted to 1,632 pages. In truth, his Autobiography is only about 170 pages, and now I wish it was longer.  

Benjamin Franklin in France

Benjamin Franklin was one of America's great thinkers.  And what do all great thinkers have in common? A love and appreciation for reading and studying great books, of course!  He was a self-educated man who wore many hats.  All of the inventions and ideas by Benjamin Franklin I had learned about were right here in his autobiography: the Franklin stove, the lending library, the mail service, the fire department, free schools for poor children, his electricity experiments that almost killed him, and more.  Some contributions new to my knowledge included his responsibility of a military regiment during the French and Indian War, of which he did not consider himself to be qualified; however, the colonies relied heavily on him for perspective and leadership, as he was a man of upstanding character.

For example, as I read, I made a list of all the adjectives I could think of illustrating Mr. Franklin's qualities, and this was my short list:


You get the idea.

One area I found of interest was his view on spiritual matters.  He was brought up in a Christian home and went to church, but when he became an adult, he developed his own personal opinions about religion.  
He believed in one God, who created everything.
That He governs the world by His providence.
That He ought to be worshiped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving.
That the soul is immortal.
The most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.
And that God will reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.

He was skeptical about church and preferred pastors who preached morality, virtues, and good deeds; he was not concerned with theology much, if at all.  At one time he developed a method for achieving "moral perfection."  He "wished to live without committing any fault at any time." He made a list of common virtues he planned to follow, and he even made a chart to record his progress.  "Order" gave him the most trouble, but once a Quaker friend shared with him that "his pride showed itself frequently in conversation," therefore, Franklin added humility to his list of virtues to work on.

While there is never anything wrong with finding ways to improve character, I fear Franklin was obsessed by it, as most great thinkers usually are consumed by something to perfect or conquer.  

He had the honor of meeting the great preacher, George Whitefield, who came all the way from Ireland to preach throughout the colonies in America, in 1739.  He told Franklin that he prayed for his conversion "but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard."

The Declaration of Independence - Thrumbull

What is regretfully missing from this autobiography is Franklin's personal, first-hand, inside-look at what went on during the summer of 1776, in the Continental Congress, and the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  Benjamin Franklin was chosen as one of the five men to write the distinguished letter to King George - and the world - declaring the colonies' independence from Britain (even though Thomas Jefferson wrote most of it), and he was also one of only five men who signed both The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States.

A Scene at the Signing of the U.S. Constitution - Howard Chandler Christy

What exciting and daunting times he lived through, and maybe if I dig into Franklin's other works, I will find what I said was missing; but concerning this particular autobiography, the specifics end before the Revolutionary War.  He said a lot of his personal papers were lost during the War; and therefore, his re-writings had to come from memory.  Later, I learned that he died before he was able to complete his autobiography, so now it all makes sense.

I wonder how Franklin would feel if he knew that his Autobiography was still read and esteemed today, as he had hoped it would be read for years to come.  I think he would be humbled.  I think. That is...assuming he had perfected his virtue, humility.


Jillian said...

I just read a book called The Book of Ages about Benjamin Franklin's sister. The author argues that she was as keen a thinker as her elder brother, but because she was a woman, she barely learned to write and didn't have the same opportunity to expand upon her thinking as Benjamin Franklin did. The author suggests there's some irony in Benjamin Franklin's resonance being in part based upon his life as a self-made man. Since that wouldn't have been as easy for a woman. Jane Franklin was the last person standing in their enormous family. Her husband and children were all lost long before her -- most to tuberculosis, which affected the brain on her husband and one of her children. She gave birth to twelve children and lost them all.

Well, I thought it was pretty interesting/. The author preserves Jane's original spelling in her letters. :-)

Lois TinĂºviel said...

I read it years ago and I found it incredibly intriguing.

Ruth said...

How absolutely difficult that last part must be. Unbelievable. Pregnancy and childbirth is no easy burden - (yeah, I would see it as a burden). To have to go through it 12 times and to lose all of them!!!

But as to what you say about Franklin's sister - I believe it. Gratefully, according to Franklin's Autobiography, he was on the cusp of believing women should be educated. He discussed it with his friends and associates because it was on his conscience. However, I want to say that when he created his secret Junto club, women were not permitted. But change often takes small steps. And look where we are today.

The difficulty in Franklin's time was that a mother would be the one who taught her children; and if she did not know herself how to read or write, then she would have been unable to pass it on to her daughters. But once free schools became commonplace, women were able to teach, and they could teach their children as well. And that opened the door to self-education.

Just the other night I was speaking to my mother, and she reminded me again how her parents pulled her out of school twice so she could take care of sick family members. And when she wanted to go to college, she could not b/c her parents would only pay for her brother's tuition. That was how it was in the 50s.

But times have changed and now women are surpassing males in college attendance and graduation. It is like the opposite has occurred in men. I am seeing a disinterested and apathetic attitude toward success and responsibility in males, and it should be concerning to us. My sister is a college professor, and she see's this on her campus, too.

But that is another topic. For now, I thank God for the opportunity of self-education.

Jillian said...

Yes, I read Ben Franklin's views on women's education. I cheered a bit when I read it. He also kept up a steady correspondence with his sister throughout their lives, and tried to send her money after her husband died (she tried not to accept, as she felt it wasn't his burden), and books (she craved these and often asked for them.) She was a devout Christian and would argue (gently) with Benjamin about his views. She highly, highly respected him and was too shy to try to engage him in debate until late in their lives. He gently teased her for her shyness & engaged her when she approached him. :)

Cleo said...

Wow, you're racing ahead of schedule! I didn't read the review yet ...... bookmarking for after I complete mine ...... but I read the always interesting comments whenever Corinne is involved. :-) I would love to investigate his sister and her life, so I'm marking that book for later reading. Boys were often kept out of school to help with harvest and to work on the farm ........ whenever I watched Little House of the Prairie, I often thought that the women would end up more educated than the men. :-) In any case, I LOVE the pictures and will certainly get back to the review! :-)

Ruth said...

I was thinking that during Laura Ingalls' time, things were changing for women, but during Franklin's time, day school was not common and college (is that what they called it?) was for young men to continue their eduction. By then, women were getting married and taking care of children and the home.

I don't know what the situation was like for males post Civil War, which was Laura's time. Boys who came from farms had the responsibility to help w/ farm work, and I remember the big boys missed out on a lot of schooling. I wonder how many of them went to college afterward, or if they just continued farm work. And I wonder what education was like for young people at the same time in the cities (like the east coast) if they didn't live on a farm. But I think we know that another discrepancy was between rich and poor. How many young poor people were able to receive a secondary education? It would be a good topic to explore.

Unknown said...

A better label for Franklin's "autobiography" is "creative nonfiction." Be wary of being seduced by Franklin's exaggerations, omissions, and prevarications. Still, it is fun to read. But -- here is the warning -- it ain't history.

Ruth said...

OK, RT, share what you know. Please.

Unknown said...

Well, you have only a partial life "autobiography," you have something that is ostensibly advice to a son written by a father, and you have something written by someone who wrote with his tongue in cheek; I invite you to read a good assessment by checking out the Franklin section in Thomas Foster's 25 Books That Shaped America.

Ruth said...

Well, unless I read the entire chapter on Franklin (some of it was available to read on, I really cannot form an opinion. True, when we write our life story, it is from our own perspective, and we are in control of how it is presented and what is presented. And we consider our audience - in this case: his son. Fair enough.

But I thought you have documentation in his own hand that told a different story. Maybe Foster includes that in his book. But that's what I thought you had. I'm always a little skeptical about a third party from a different era correcting history. He has to have other documentation close to the source. So I'll have to look into it, and maybe my library has a copy.


Unknown said...

I sense that you are concerned about my generalizations and hyperbole. Well, please chalk up my fuzzy thinking to Rx and weariness. Let me back away from my earlier assertions by saying this instead: I did not read Franklin's Autobiography with a belief that I was reading history; and I do not read autobiographies with a belief that I am reading objective statements of facts. I guess I am just too much of a cynic. Now, lest I further irritate you with my hyperbolic generalizations, I return to my medicated torpor.

o said...

I'll have to read this - sounds very interesting. Franklin is a name I've known almost always but I know next to nothing about him. I'll look out for this! :)

Ruth said...

o - Here's one thing I did not know: Franklin spent a lot of time in England and met w/ Parliament/ King George II (and later King George III).

Sharon Wilfong said...

HI Ruth! Great review. Really enjoyed reading it. I read this book a couple of years ago. Franklin's views of God really struck me as they apparently did you. Especially his little chart where he ticked of his "virtues." For a brilliant man I was surprised at his faith in something that is really nothing other than an exercise in futility.
I am currently reading Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac." Pretty interesting and more than a little irreverent.

I also found the above comments on woman's education interesting. I have finished a book called "The Disappearance of Childhood" that I'll be posting a review on in a couple of weeks. It traces the history of education and how literacy developed the concept and demographic of childhood.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Oh and I like your new blog cover photo. :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, Sharon.

Isn't that true for a lot of great thinkers? They are so stuck on perfecting themselves, and they have difficulty in seeing the bigger picture.

Also, I think my copy of the biography has a copy of "Poor Richard's Almanac," too. I may skim through it one day.

This book you mention sounds like it is something I would like a lot. I will put it on my wishlist/TBR list. Thanks!

Ruth said...

Thank you!

P.S. I can get a copy of the above book you suggested for 1 penny on That's always a good thing.