Tyler Dean

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

author
Benjamin Franklin

A diplomat, inventor, scientist, soldier, postmaster, scholar, writer, thinker, and self-made man, Benjamin Franklin rose from obscurity to prominence as one of the foremost Founding Fathers. His opening remarks on vanity, and giving people the option not to listen to him by putting his advice into writing, set the stage for an amusing, pithy, and wise autobiography.

Early life

We begin to appreciate Franklin's appetite for life by starting with his parents. His father bore seven children by his first wife and 10 more by his second wife. The youngest son (and third-youngest child), Franklin grew up in Boston in a happy, unassuming household. He recounts memories of dinners (at one point with 13 siblings at the table!) as casual affairs:

Little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavor, preferable or inferior to this or that other thing of the kind, so that I was bro't up in such a perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me, and so unobservant of it, that to this day if I am asked I can scarce tell a few hours after dinner what I dined upon. This has been a convenience to me in traveling, where my companions have been sometimes very unhappy for want of a suitable gratification of their more delicate, because better instructed, tastes and appetites.

His parents died in their late 80s (a long run in the 17th century!) and remind us that discernment and diligence are all that's needed to live a full life. I submit that Franklin's humble upbringing formed the basis for his charm, character, and success.

Life as a printer

Franklin spent what little money he had on books and took to writing at a young age. This inclination bound him to his older brother, a printer, whom he served as an apprentice. Franklin reflects that "prose writing has been of great use to me in the course of my life, and was a principal means of my advancement." He would read a book with excellent writing, then attempt to recreate its sentiments from memory until he mastered them.

He adopted the Socratic method, or humble inquirer persona, to great effect, dropping his "abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation" for "I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken," persuading men "even of superior knowledge." He noted that conversation is meant to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, and that "confuting one another [is] a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company."

Philadelphia

Finding no printing work in New York, Franklin traveled by sea to Philadelphia. At one point, he offers his only shilling for his passage (initially refused due to his rowing), observing:

A man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro' fear of being thought to have but little.

Also on his voyage, Franklin and the crew catch many cod. A resolved vegetarian ("eating animal food [is] a kind of unprovoked murder"), Franklin at first abstains, but on smelling the fish out of the frying pan, reasons "if you eat oneanother, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." Thus, we learn another Ben Franklin maxim:

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

He wrote poetry now and again, "so far as to improve one's language, but no farther." He and his literary friends exchanged and critiqued each other's work, which I believe were the beginnings of the JUNTO (more on this later).

London

Franklin's writing got the governor's attention. The governor offered Franklin some letters of credit to take to London, where he could buy the latest "press and types, paper, etc." Upon arriving in London, nobody would receive Franklin, with one stationer scoffing "at the notion of the governor's giving me a letter of credit, having, as he said, no credit to give." Here, Franklin learns a lesson about character; though, he defends the governor as otherwise sensible and a good lawmaker.

He finds work at a local printing house, where the other fifty workmen drank beer all day. Franklin earns the nickname the Water American, carrying twice the equipment up and down the stairs as his fellow strong workmen, who drank strong beer. He notes:

I endeavoured to convince him that the bodily strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made; that there was more flour in a pennyworth of bread; and therefore, if he would eat that with a pint of water, it would give him more strength than a quart of beer. He drank on, however, and had four or five shillings to pay out of his wages every Saturday night for that muddling liquor; an expense I was free from. And thus these poor devils keep themselves always under.

On Frugality

Franklin emphasizes frugality, cutting expenses and saving money during his time in London:

From my example, a great part of them left their muddling breakfast of beer, and bread, and, cheese, finding they could with me be supply'd from a neighbouring house with a large porringer of hot water-gruel, sprinkled with pepper, cumb'd with bread, and a bit of butter in it, for the price of a pint of beer.

When I talk'd of a lodging I had heard of, nearer my business, for two shillings a week, which, intent as I now was on saving money, made some difference, [my landlady] bid me not think of it, for she would abate me two shillings a week for the future.

She was cheerful and polite, and convers'd pleasantly. The room was clean, but had no other furniture than a matras, a table with a crucifix and book, a stool which she gave me to sit on, and a picture over the chimney of Saint Veronica displaying her handkerchief, with the miraculous figure of Christ's bleeding face on it, which she explained to me with great seriousness. She look'd pale, but was never sick; and I gave it as another instance on how small an income, life and health may be supported.

Beginning Business in Philadelphia

Franklin spent 18 months in London, returning to Philadelphia in 1726, where he formed his life plan "for regulating my future conduct in life."

On Deism

He grew up in a religious household, but in reading books against Deism, found "the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations." He "grew convinc'd that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life," shirking the dogma of organized religion while acknowledging "the kind hand of Providence."

He declined to attend church on Sunday, "their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens."

Franklin believed he had "a tolerable character, [...] valued it properly, and [was] determin'd to preserve it."

The JUNTO

Franklin established the JUNTO, forming his "ingenious acquaintances into a club of mutual improvement." Every Friday, he and his friends met and discussed "queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy," and every three months, each member produced and read an essay on any topic. These exercises expanded their knowledge on several topics, honed their speaking ability "more to the purpose," and led to "better habits of conversation." He maintained the club for many years, spawning several smaller clubs and bettering each member.

On Industry

Franklin "took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary." He "drest plainly [and] was seen at no places of idle diversion." He physically brought home paper he bought in a wheelbarrow. An acquaintance observed:

For the industry of that Franklin, is superior to anything I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed.

This industry was useful to Franklin, who secured credit and became sought after by other merchants. He recounts a proverb of Solomon his father once told him:

Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, he shall stand before kings, he shall not stand before mean men.

Marriage to Ms. Read

Franklin and Ms. Read (no pun intended) were acquainted before his trip to London, but relations cooled when he didn't write her during his time there ("one of the great errata of my life"). He corrected this erratum, and they married.

She proved a good and faithful helpmate, assisted me much by attending the shop; we throve together, and have ever mutually endeavour'd to make each other happy.

The library and seeds of revolution

The JUNTO and Franklin started a subscription library, beginning with 50 subscribers and growing continually. Franklin credits the libraries as having "improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges."

Franklin himself benefits from the library, which "afforded [him] means of improvement by constant study, for which [he] set apart an hour or two each day."

Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection

Franklin attempts to "live without committing any fault at any time," a feat that proves "more difficult than [he] had imagined." He would guard against one fault, only to be surprised by another—"habit" and "inclination" being stronger than reason. His method of breaking contrary habits and forming good ones was the original Atomic Habits. He proposed 13 virtues, focusing on one per week and recording each fault in a journal. His goal was to gradually have fewer and fewer faults until his journal was clean.

Click to expand 13 virtues, in order of importance
  1. Temperance — Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence — Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order — Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution — Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality — Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry — Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity — Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice — Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation — Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness — Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility — Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity — Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace and reputation.
  13. Humility — Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Scheme of employment

To satisfy Order, Franklin devised a daily schedule to stay on task.

Click to expand daily schedule Two questions:
  1. Morning: What good shall I do this day?
  2. Evening: What good have I done to-day?
Deceivingly simple; harder in practice!

The speckled ax

Franklin had trouble with Order. Living in the real world and receiving people at their hours disrupted his schedule, and he misplaced "things, papers, etc."

He tells the story of a man buying an ax from a smith. The smith turned and turned the wheel, grinding the ax to make it brighter and brighter. Eventually, the man said he would take the ax as-is, to which the smith replied "it is only speckled." The man said "Yes, but I think I like a speckled ax best."

Trying to achieve "extream nicety" was to Franklin "a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous." Best to content oneself with imperfection but continually strive for improvement, being happier "by the endeavour."

Poor Richard's Almanac and Other Activities

Starting in 1732 and continuing for 25 years, Franklin published an almanac under the pseudonym Richard Saunders. Entitled Poor Richard's Almanac, Franklin used this almanac to "convey instruction among the common people," on topics such as "industry and frugality, procuring wealth, and securing virtue." He believed wealth was the way to virtue, as one of his proverbs goes, "it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright."

Languages

Franklin studied and learned French, Italian, and Spanish (which would serve him well in his later years as diplomat abroad). Franklin neglected Latin growing up, but after revisiting the Latin Testament, he found he understood much more, "as those preceding languages had greatly smooth'd the way."

He concludes that "if you begin with the lowest you will with more ease ascend to the top." In other words, start with French, Italian, etc. and arrive at Latin—if one should quit along the way, one would "have acquired another tongue or two that, being in modern use, might be serviceable [...] in common life."

Clerk of the General Assembly

In 1736, Franklin was chosen as clerk of the General Assembly, which gave him more access to the members, which in turn "secur'd the business of printing the votes, laws, paper money, and other occasional jobbs [sic] for the public, that, on the whole, were very profitable."

The following year, a talented new member opposed Franklin's appointment. Franklin heard of a rare book in this person's library, so he asked for it as a favor. The member not only lent Franklin the book but afterwards dropped his opposition, and they spoke and became great friends until his death. One of Franklin's most enduring maxims is to ask for a favor:

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.

Interest in Public Affairs

Franklin proposed a proportional property tax to replace the flat tax for the constabulary, which included "the hiring of proper men to serve constantly in that business" (it later became law). He also formed the Union Fire Company with "fire-engines, ladders, firehooks, and other useful implements."

Meanwhile, his business was doing well, and he expanded his printing-houses, observing "that after getting the first hundred pound, it is more easy to get the second." He lets his best workmen run the printing-houses in different colonies, with a path to ownership after six years. He avoids disputes by explicitly settling "everything to be done by or expected from each partner" in the contract, noting that "little jealousies and disgusts may arise."

Defense of the Province

With the backdrop of the Anglo-Spanish war, Franklin regretted "there being no provision for defense" and published a pamphlet entitled Plain Truth, in which he argues for a disciplined force to secure the province. Ten thousand volunteers formed themselves into companies and regiments and chose their own officers. When the Philadelphia regiment chose Franklin as their colonel, he declined and instead took his "turn of duty as a common soldier."

Invention

Around this time in 1742, Franklin invented an open stove for better warming of rooms and saving fuel. He published a pamphlet on his invention, and the stoves were readily adopted. The governor offered Franklin a patent for the sole vending of them, but he declined on principle, stating:

That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.

Franklin had no desire to profit from patents and thus avoided disputes.

Public Services and Duties

In 1749–1753, Franklin:

He receives these honors with characteristic humility:

I would not, however, insinuate that my ambition was not flatter'd by all these promotions; it certainly was; for, considering my low beginning, they were great things to me; and they were still more pleasing, as being so many spontaneous testimonies of the public good opinion, and by me entirely unsolicited.

Albany Plan of Union

Franklin drafted a plan for "the union of all the colonies under one government." A president-general appointed by the crown would administer the government, and a "grand council was to be chosen by the representatives of the people of the several colonies." The plan did not come to pass (England thought it too democratic), despite the win-win appeal:

The colonies, so united, would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would then have been no need of troops from England; of course, the subsequent pretence for taxing America, and the bloody contest it occasioned, would have been avoided.

Quarrels with the Proprietary Governors

On disputing, Franklin writes:

These disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory sometimes, but never get good will, which would be of more use to them.

The governor refused to sign an act for the defense of the province unless his estate was exempted from the tax. Franklin instead sold bonds at 5% interest (which the Assembly had the right of drawing). They "were eagerly all bought up"—the fund for paying them was the interest of the money circulating in the province. Thus he worked around the governor to fund the defense.

Braddock's Expedition

"Suspicions and jealousies" aroused by the Albany Plan led England to dispatch General Braddock and two regiments of English troops to the colonies. At the direction of the Assembly and under the guise of postmaster, Franklin offered his services to Braddock, dining with him daily and facilitating his operations. The general needed horses and wagons, and Franklin persuaded him to offer the colonists money for them rather than take them by force. Franklin oversaw the operation and promised his personal bond that the army would pay the colonists on delivery.

Meanwhile, Franklin learned of Braddock's plans to march to Niagra. Franklin warned him of Indian ambushes, which the general dismissed. On the last nine miles of the march, a French and Indian ambush felled two-thirds of the 1100 men, including Braddock.

With General Braddock dead, Franklin had to appeal to General Shirley, who was "at a distance," for payment for the horses and wagons. Since he had given his personal bond, some people began to sue Franklin. General Shirley eventually appointed commissioners to pay the claims, averting financial ruin for Franklin.

This disastrous expedition "gave us Americans the first suspicion that our exalted ideas of the prowess of the British regulars had not been well founded."

Franklin's Defense of the Frontier

With the North-western frontier being "infested by the enemy," the governor prevailed on Franklin to take charge of raising troops and building forts. Thus, Franklin became an unwitting colonel, with a "parcel of blank commissions for officers" and his son as aid-de-camp.

He had no trouble raising men and soon had 560 under his command. He begins building forts and observes:

When men are employ'd, they are best content'd; for on the days they worked they were good-natur'd and cheerful, and, with the consciousness of having done a good day's work, they spent the evening jollily; but on our idle days they were mutinous and quarrelsome, finding fault with their pork, the bread, etc., and in continual ill-humour, which put me in mind of a sea-captain, whose rule it was to keep his men constantly at work; and, when his mate once told him that they had done everything, and there was nothing further to employ them about, "Oh," says he, "make them scour the anchor."

Franklin's chaplain complained that his services were not well attended. Franklin advised the chaplain to deal out the rum only after prayer, and "never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended."

Scientific Experiments

Franklin and "an ingenious neighbour," Mr. Kinnersley, devised a couple lectures using glass tubes and electricity, and Franklin further wrote on the sameness of lightning and electricity, which was "laughed at by the connoisseurs." His writing was translated to French and offended the expert on electricity at the time, Abbé Nollet, who could not believe the work came from America. He published against Franklin, but rather than defending himself, Franklin let his experiments speak for themselves. Sure enough, the experiments were reproduced and translated into Italian, German, and Latin, and Franklin "spent what time I could spare from public business in making new experiments, [rather] than in disputing about those already made."

Agent of Pennsylvania in London

The Assembly appointed Franklin as their agent to go to England to present and support a petition against the proprietary regarding the estate tax. Near the end of the transatlantic voyage, Franklin avoids shipwreck by the grace of a lighthouse and resolves "to encourage the building more of them in America if I should live to return there."

Franklin is not well-received in London, his papers considered too informal:

The want of formality or rudeness was, probably, my not having address'd the paper to them with their assum'd titles of True and Absolute Proprietaries of the Province of Pennsylvania, which I omitted as not thinking it necessary in a paper."

During his visit, the Assembly convinced the governor to pass the act taxing the proprietary estate in common with the estates of the people, "which was the grand point in the dispute." The proprietaries petitioned the king to stop the act, which was heard in Council. Two lawyers for each side argued their cases, with one lawyer asking for Franklin to testify that the proprietaries would not be ruined by the tax. He did, and the law passed.

Appendix

The End