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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

[3143] Robert Feke, Benjamin Franklin (c. 1746), courtesy of Harvard University

Benjamin Franklin’s extraordinary energy and varied talents made him successful as a writer, humorist, statesman, diplomat, businessman, and scientist. The tale of his rise from humble beginnings through hard work and virtue has become a familiar lesson in the American dream. So exemplary is Franklin’s story that his Autobiography is often considered, in literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch’s term, an auto-American-biography. That is, it functions as a narrative that constructs a kind of ideal American citizen, even conflating Franklin’s personal history with the founding of the nation.

Born the youngest son in a family of fifteen, Franklin rebelled at an early age against the narrow constraints of life in Puritan Boston. As a teenager, he rejected his family’s pious Puritanism in favor of Deism, a persuasion that privileges reason over faith and rejects traditional religious tenets in favor of a general belief in a benevolent creator. He also rebelled against his lengthy apprenticeship in his brother’s Boston print shop. After mastering the printing trade, Franklin violated his contract of indenture to his brother and ran away to Philadelphia, where he found another position as a printer’s assistant. On his own in a new city, Franklin learned to look out for his own best interests, though he also was taken advantage of on occasion. Notably, he found himself stranded in England after gullibly accepting a spurious offer of assistance. Always one to turn adversity to his advantage, Franklin soon found work in England and acquired new printing skills.

Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1726, convinced that virtue and hard work were the keys to success. Crucially, for Franklin, an appearance of virtue and industry was almost as important as actually possessing these qualities. He took pains to cultivate a reputation for hard work, carrying his own paper through the streets in a wheelbarrow and keeping his light burning late to ensure that others would notice his dedication to his business. Franklin prospered following this formula, and by 1732 he was operating his own print shop, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette, and composing the best-selling Poor Richard’s Almanac. As his wealth and stature increased, Franklin involved himself in a variety of benevolent social projects, including the formation of the first American lending library and the first American fire department. In the mid-1740s he began serious work on the scientific experiments that would win him international acclaim. Building on ideals of Enlightenment rationalism in his scientific inquiries, Franklin discovered the theory of electricity that still serves as the basis for our use of electric energy.

Franklin devoted the remaining years of his life primarily to politics, diplomacy, and writing. As a leading member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he was sent to England in 1757 to articulate the colony’s grievances against the Crown. Despite his best diplomatic efforts, he eventually resigned himself to the idea that American independence from British rule was necessary. In 1771, Franklin began composing his Autobiography, only to put the project on hold when the Revolution necessitated his return to America. He was selected as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Second Continental Congress and served on the committee that helped Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence. Franklin then spent much of the war as America’s minister to France, using his charm and charisma to ensure French support and eventually reach a peace accord with Great Britain. His last official public duty was his service at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Teaching Tips

  • Using Franklin’s model, have students devise and follow their own “bold and arduous Project for arriving at moral Perfection” (being sure to point out the tongue-in-cheek nature of Franklin’s pretensions to eradicating all of his faults). Ask your students to make a list of at least five qualities that they value–they need not choose Franklin’s thirteen virtues–and to use a notebook to keep track of their adherence to them over the course of one week. At the end of the week, ask them to report on their experiences. Did their record keeping change their behavior during the week? What was most difficult about keeping this kind of record? Do they agree with Franklin that they were “by the endeavor made a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it”?
  • Franklin composed his Autobiography during three different periods and died before it could be completed. The first part of the memoir (composed in 1771) is explicitly addressed to his son, William, while the second part (composed in 1784) was written ostensibly in response to the solicitous letters from Abel James and Benjamin Vaughan which Franklin includes at the beginning of Part Two. Critics have speculated that Franklin’s strained relationship with his son–William remained a Loyalist during the Revolution–led Franklin to reject him as the designated audience for his memoir. Ask students to think about the shift in Franklin’s intended audience between the first and second sections of the Autobiography. How does his relationship with his son inform the first part? (You might point out that the tradition of addressing a memoir or guidebook to one’s son was something of a rhetorical convention in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Puritan Thomas Sheperd also addressed his autobiography to his son a century earlier.) What kind of reader does Franklin seem to envision for the second part? Why does he include the letters from James and Vaughan? Franklin casually observes that the “Revolution occasioned the interruption” between his writing of the first and second part. How does the Revolution seem to have changed Franklin’s narrative tone and/or purpose?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: To what does Franklin attribute his success? What kind of advice does he offer to readers who want to model their life on his?
  2. Comprehension: What is an “erratum”? Why does Franklin adopt this term?
  3. Context: Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards were born within three years of each other, but, despite their similar ages, the two men had radically different perspectives and beliefs. Compare Franklin’s Autobiography with Edwards’s “Personal Narrative.” How are these writers’ views on morality, personal responsibility, human nature, and/or the limits of human knowledge similar? How are they different? How does Franklin both draw from and reject the Puritan tradition that was so important to Edwards?
  4. Context: Examine the paintings and sculptures of Franklin featured in the archive. What different images of Franklin do these representations provide? If Franklin were choosing among them for an image for the cover of his Autobiography, which of the representations of himself do you think he would choose? Why?
  5. Exploration: How did Franklin’s Autobiography influence subsequent American autobiographies? How were his values translated and reinterpreted by writers like Frederick Douglass or Zitkala Sa?

Selected Archive Items

[2151Jean Valade, Portrait of Benjamin Franklin (c. 1786),
courtesy of Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.
Franklin, a founding father, the discoverer of electricity, and the inventor of bifocals, rose from humble beginnings and marked himself in his Autobiography as an exemplar of the “American dream.”

[2910H. B. Hall, Benjamin Franklin (1868),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-25564].
Franklin’s presentation of himself as the ideal American individual was widely accepted. While he lived in France, he was celebrated as the embodiment of the naturalism and simplicity that supposedly characterized the New World–an image he carefully maintained by shunning French fashion and dressing plainly.

[3143Robert Feke, Benjamin Franklin (c. 1746),
courtesy of Harvard University.
Born in 1706 into a family of fifteen, Franklin early rebelled against life in Puritan Boston. Often considered the first American philosopher, Franklin was also a soldier, scientist, politician, and outspoken advocate of liberty and democracy.

[3608Benjamin Franklin, Title page for The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin LL.D. [The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin] (1793),
courtesy of Archiving Early America.
Franklin’s Autobiography is often understood as an “auto-American-biography,” meaning an autobiographical text in which the narrator self-consciously foregrounds his narrative construction of himself as an ideal American citizen.

[4858Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s Chart, (1790),
courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company.
With this chart, Franklin designates how he will use every hour of the day. Franklin is famous for his observation that being perceived as industrious is as important as actually being so.

[7214Charles Brothers, The Reception of Benjamin Franklin in France (c. 1882),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3804].
Ambassador Franklin became something of a cult figure in France, where people began to emulate his style of dress.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6