Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was written in pieces from 1771 to 1790. The work was first published in 1791 in Paris, France, after Franklin’s death as The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin . The autobiography was then published in London in 1793. In his writing, Franklin reflects upon his academic, professional, and philosophical pursuits. He examines how he advanced his economic and social standing during the formation of the United States, covering from his early life as a young boy in Boston to his role in American politics and scientific experiments. The work explores themes such as The Importance of Self-Improvement , The Development of American Identity , and The Role of Enlightenment Values .
This study guide refers to the paperback Norton Critical Edition published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. in 2012.
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Content Warning : Franklin’s autobiography reflects perspectives and norms of the 18th century, which include outdated views on race, gender, and class.
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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was written in four parts over different time periods, up to the end of his life. The autobiography begins with a letter to his son, William, in 1771 describing his intentions in writing his memoirs. He aims to not only relive his life, which will satisfy his vanity, but also provide guidance to his reader, whether that be his children or a public audience .
In Part 1, Franklin reflects on his family’s history and briefly describes their immigration to America. He recounts his early childhood from his birth in January 1706 to his brief time in grammar school at 8 years old. Franklin begins his career in printing after he apprentices himself to his older brother, James; however, the brothers part ways due to an argument. Franklin runs away from Boston to New York City before settling in Philadelphia and works at another printing shop for a man named Keimer. Franklin also mentions his love for reading that begins in childhood and continues throughout the rest of his life. During his early career as a printer, Franklin develops his writing skills by imitating works like newspapers and writing his own poetry and essays.
In Philadelphia, Franklin meets his future wife, Deborah Read, and cultivates many personal and professional relationships, such as with Governor Keith of Pennsylvania. While working for Keimer, Franklin soon decides to open his own printing shop, working with Governor Keith to establish his business. However, on his trip to London, he discovers Keith has made false promises. After spending over a year in London, Franklin returns to Philadelphia and establishes himself in the printing industry; he also marries Deborah and forms the Junto club with the purpose of further developing his writing and debating skills. He also works on civic projects, such as creating a subscription library.
Picking up his writing after the American Revolution in 1784 in France, the beginning of Part 2 opens with two letters from Franklin’s friends that encourage him to continue writing his autobiography. Franklin then reflects on his establishment of the library and how he utilizes its resources to maintain his education in philosophical and scientific pursuits. He outlines his dedication to improving his writing skills as well as developing his list of 13 virtues. He includes a relevant list of quotations from different historical figures and literary works that align with his virtues, as well as a 13-week plan to exercise them. As part of his 13-week plan, Franklin includes his daily schedule.
During the next part of his autobiography—which he begins in 1788 after returning to Philadelphia—Franklin focuses heavily on the French and Indian War. He claims to have lost some of his writing for his autobiography during the Revolutionary War. Franklin’s role in the French and Indian War involves setting up meetings with Indigenous peoples and obtaining resources for the soldiers.
In Part 3, he discusses his publication of an almanac, his services with religious groups, and the advancement of his Junto club, which continues to expand across the colonies. During this time, Franklin advances the scientific study of electricity through his famous kite experiment, as well as inventing the stove and designing a model of streetlamps. The beginning of Part 4 occurs at the end of the text but does not include a direct, narrative break like the other sections.
In Part 4, Franklin discusses his travels to London to advocate on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly. However, his concerns for the colonies are not heard, and members of the British government threaten to act against the governor of Pennsylvania. The autobiography ends with the knowledge that the proprietary governors did not execute their threats.
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- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Literature Notes
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- About The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Character List
- Summary and Analysis
- Part 1: Section 1
- Part 1: Section 2
- Part 1: Section 3
- Part 1: Section 4
- Part 1: Section 5
- Part 1: Section 6
- Part 1: Section 7
- Part 2: Section 8
- Part 2: Section 9
- Part 3: Section 10
- Part 3: Section 11
- Part 3: Section 12
- Part 3: Section 13
- Part 3: Section 14
- Part 3: Section 15
- Part 3: Section 16
- Part 3: Section 17
- Part 4: Section 18
- Critical Essays
- Franklin's Writing Style
- Franklin's Humor
- Franklin and the American Dream
- Franklin and the Spirit of Capitalism
- Critical Opinions of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Essay Questions
- Cite this Literature Note
Benjamin Franklin was the youngest son and 15th of 17 children of Josiah Franklin, a soap and candle maker who had immigrated to Boston from Northamptonshire, England. Because he disliked his father's trade but loved reading, he was apprenticed at the age of 12 to his brother James, a printer. He and James often disagreed, and finally Benjamin quit before his contract had expired. Looking for work, he went first to New York and then to Philadelphia, where he was hired by Samuel Keimer.
Governor Keith of Pennsylvania was impressed with Franklin and offered to set him up in business. Assuming that Keith had placed letters of credit for him on board his ship, Franklin sailed for England to purchase his printing equipment, only to find that no such letters had been written. He therefore was forced to spend several months working in a London printing house. But he returned home when a merchant named Denham offered him a good job as clerk and manager of Denham's Philadelphia store. A few months after they landed, however, Denham died, and Keimer rehired Franklin as his manager.
Eventually Franklin set up a printing shop with one of the men he had trained at Keimer's, Hugh Meredith. Later he bought Meredith's share and found himself in business alone. He "married" the girl whom he had courted before leaving for England, Deborah Read, and the two prospered. Franklin secured many valuable orders through his job as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly.
From his early years, Franklin constantly struggled to improve himself. This passion culminated in a plan to attain perfection in 13 weeks, by unlearning bad habits and acquiring the 13 virtues Franklin felt most important, one each week. He also outlined a perfect day, allotting each necessary activity its proper amount of time.
But Franklin's passion for improvement was not spent exclusively upon himself. Public projects to which he turned his attention included Philadelphia's first public library, fire company, public academy, philosophical society, militia, defense system, and hospital. Besides these projects, he helped improve the city's police system and its streets (which he advocated paving), and devised a more equitable tax system.
The Autobiography ends as Franklin wins his first skirmish while serving as Pennsylvania's agent in England. Thus his account brings the reader to the point at which Franklin's activity becomes international in scope and the proper concern of professional historians.
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- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Summary
Franklin starts writing his autobiography in 1771, addressing it to his “Dear Son” and beginning with his family history. He traces it back three hundred years to Ecton in Northamptonshire, England, and then brings it to his father Josiah’s arrival in New England to escape religious persecution. Josiah and his second wife, Abiah, settle in Boston with Franklin and his siblings. Franklin is quickly identified as intelligent but does not do well in school: he is told he must take up a trade. He strongly dislikes his father’s trade, tallow chandlery and soap boiling, and tries out a few others before being apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. He enjoys this trade and spends his leisure time perfecting his own writing.
James and Franklin do not get along; so, Franklin and his friend John Collins run away to Philadelphia. There Franklin gets work with a printer named Keimer , with whom he has a pleasant enough relationship.
The Governor of the province, Sir William Keith , is impressed by Franklin and offers to help convince Franklin’s father that he ought to get his own shop. However, Josiah thinks Franklin is too young and tells him he must spend time working hard at the trade before he will assist. Franklin agrees and hopes this will happen in the future. In the meantime, he has a falling out with Collins, who is often drunk. Franklin worries about paying back the money of his father’s friend Vernon, who had given it to Franklin for safekeeping: unbeknownst to Vernon, Franklin had loaned to Collins.
Franklin courts a young woman named Miss Read and enjoys conversing about poetry and philosophy with other young men in the town. One man, James Ralph , decides to accompany Franklin to London, where Franklin will continue to study the printing trade and meet influential men to whom Keith had promised to introduce him via letters. Keith proves faithless in this regard, but Franklin secures a job at Watts, a reputable printinghouse.
In London, where he resides for eighteen months, Franklin works hard and enjoys the amusements of the town, although he and Ralph also dissolve their friendship. He decides to return to Philadelphia to be a clerk at his friend Denham’s store. This partnership is advantageous but short-lived: Denham dies of illness and Franklin has to go back to Keimer’s shop.
Franklin finds that Keimer only wants him back to train the other young men working there, which Franklin is fine with for awhile. He befriends the others and excels at the trade, becoming more skilled than the other printers in town. One of the young men, Hugh Meredith , proposes they open their own shop with his father’s aid, and Franklin agrees.
The two men take a house and boarders and set up their shop. They start off small but make a good reputation for themselves. Franklin forms the Junto, a mutual improvement group of young men who discuss philosophy and practice the art of conversation.
The business grows; Franklin and Meredith acquire a newspaper. Franklin dissolves the partnership with Meredith and procures better investors. He opens a stationer’s shop, begins to pay off his debt, and marries Miss Read. He looks to his first public project, a subscription library. Here the manuscript breaks off; Franklin then returns to it where he left off, first including a few letters from prominent men exhorting him to finish it because he led a remarkable life and has wisdom to offer readers.
Franklin accounts for the founding of the library and returns to how successful his business was. In terms of leisure, he was abstemious: he only read and spent no time in taverns or gambling. Franklin then explicates the plan he conceived for moral perfection: a list of thirteen virtues he wants to master. He plans to take a week for each; they include temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. The task is not easy, but he is pleased with his efforts.
A few of Franklin's major works achieve success during this time, such as Poor Richard’s Almanack and his newspaper, both of which encourage their readers to practice industry, wisdom, and virtue. He studies languages and leaves official religious sects for Deism (though he admits to an admiration of the oratory skills of George Whitefield).
Franklin's public persona also begins to grow, with his first public position being the Clerk of the General Assembly in Pennsylvania. He begins to get involved with the affairs of the city: reorganizing the city watch; starting a fire department, hospital, library, and Academy; cleaning and paving the roads; and getting the Quaker Assembly to establish a militia. He works on many scientific experiments, earning accolades and honors. There are other posts he accepts, such as Justice of the Peace and a burgess in the Assembly. His main frustration is with Pennsylvania’s Proprietors, who refuse to pass defense spending bills if their estates are taxed.
In 1754 the British go to war against France and the Indians, with the colonists begrudgingly aiding their British leaders. Franklin proposes the Albany Plan, which promotes intercolonial unity, but the tenets are too progressive for most. He is instrumental in getting supplies for the military, he has a command on the frontier, and he earns the respect of the British, though he has doubts about the soldiers’ and leaders’ abilities. He works with the Governor and is eventually sent, along with his son, to London as a representative of the Assembly. There he hears from Lord Granville mocking words about the colonists’ lack of understanding of who is truly in charge (the King) and learns that the new governor, Capt. Denny, helped secure passage of a tax bill in the face of the Proprietors’ opposition. They turn him out of office even though a report reveals there was nothing unfair or illegitimate about the collection of the tax.
This is where Franklin’s work ends; it is unfinished.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
What plan does Ben Franklin implement so that he and his friends could have more books to read?
From the text:
About this time, our club meeting, not at a tavern, but in a little room of Mr. Grace's, set apart for that purpose, a proposition was made by me, that, since our books were often referr'd to in our disquisitions upon the queries,...
Franklin's brother encouraged his poetry writing.
I now took a fancy to poetry, and made some little pieces; my brother, thinking it might turn to account, encouraged me, and put me on composing occasional ballads.
what was benjamin franklin relationship with his brother James during childhood and adult hood?
James Franklin is Franklin's older brother, with whom he apprentices at the printinghouse. James and Franklin do not get along and Franklin runs away to Philadelphia.
Study Guide for The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin study guide contains a biography of Benjamin Franklin, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
- About The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Character List
Essays for The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin.
- In Search of the American Dream: Early Conceptions
- Benjamin Franklin: The Man Behind Himself
- Franklin's Conflicted Nonconformity: The Effects of Social Prejudice
- Enlightened Perspectives on Religion and Righteousness: Franklin's Autobiography and Paine's The Age of Reason
- Meritocracy in America: Franklin as a Reflection of His Culture
Lesson Plan for The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- About the Author
- Study Objectives
- Common Core Standards
- Introduction to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Relationship to Other Books
- Bringing in Technology
- Notes to the Teacher
- Related Links
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Bibliography
Wikipedia Entries for The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- Authorship and publication history
- Reactions to the work
- Literary criticisms
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
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Industry, for Benjamin Franklin , is the judicious application of one’s full mental and physical resources to any productive endeavor. It is, as he terms it, “a means of obtaining Wealth and Distinction” as well as a way to gratify one’s vanity. Franklin’s industry is evident in his daily schedule, which entails waking up at 5:00 A.M., performing eight hours of daily labor, and allotting leisure time to business (settling accounts), reading, and housework. Franklin…
Vanity and Humility
In his Autobiography , Franklin challenges the traditional idea that vanity is a vice. As he says, “Most People dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves, but I give it fair Quarter wherever I meet with it…” Vanity is something “productive of Good to the Possesor & to others that are within his Sphere of Action” for Franklin, so, accordingly, he lists it as something he hopes to gratify by writing…
Error and Correction
In his attempts to reach moral and personal perfection, Benjamin Franklin of course makes many errors. Franklin prefers to use the printer’s term for mistakes in his proofs ( Errata or an Erratum) for several of the major mistakes he considers himself to have made in his life. One of the justifications for this choice in terms may be that, like printing proofs, he saw the major mistakes of his life as events that could…
Self-Improvement and Self-Education
One of the main purposes Benjamin Franklin suggests for the writing of his Autobiography is to set out the system and means by which he elevated himself from his “lowly station” as the youngest son in a family of seventeen and a printer’s apprentice to his ultimate status as one of the main founding fathers of a nation. First, he hopes to tell the story of his own life so that others might learn by…
Public Projects, Communality, and Civic Duty
Benjamin Franklin is remembered in the United States as one the country’s founding fathers for good reason. Among his many civic achievements described in the Autobiography are the founding of Philadelphia's (and the country’s) first public lending library, the first company of firemen, a graduated property tax, Philadelphia’s first paved roads, the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania’s first public hospital, public lighting, and one of the first plans for a union of the 13 colonies in…