Benjamin Franklin is best known as an historical figure, for his role in the American Revolution and experiments with electricity. In the history books he looms large as co-drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, but the Autobiography has been lauded as 'The first great book written in America' (Richard E Amacher: 1962) It helped to create the modern literary form of the autobiography, and has been a bestseller for two centuries, despite the fact that it was never finished or properly edited.
Franklin's attitude to written work is summed up in one of his own aphorisms:
'If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.'
The Autobiography is not a chronicle of Franklin's brilliance; the idea was to show how a person's life and character could become a noble one through constant self-assessment. As a scientist, Franklin wrote it almost as if it is was a report on the failures and successes of experiments in living. At no point does he claim any special mastery over how to live life, but he was committed to finding a formula that could assure a person of some success.
Franklin never tries to show superiority; he speaks directly to the reader and laces it all with subtle humour, giving it the intimate feel of a fireside chat. The first part of the book details experiences with family, friends, bosses and work mates, in addition to travels and attempts to start new businesses, all of which will strike chords with today's reader.
Creating the best possible self
Franklin believed that virtue was worth it for its own sake, whether or not it was to the glory of God. His background was Puritan, and culturally, he remained one, self-examining and self-improving. In his famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber names Franklin as a key exponent of this ethic. Franklin was a printer by trade, and believed that character was the result of correcting the 'errata' (errors) that prevent us from attaining perfection. Life is not something we must suffer through, but is ripe for endless tinkering.
Franklin is seminal in the self-help literature because he disregarded any religious conception that we were naturally bad or good people, rather blank slates designed for success. Franklin scholar Ormond Seavey (OUP: 1993) has noted that 'It was always natural for Franklin to be trying on a fresh identity, as if he were putting on new clothes'. He was truly modern in seeing that the individual was not a fixed proposition at all, but self-creating. His significant influence on later self-help writers includes Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey and Anthony Robbins.
Franklin's law of constant self-improvement
Franklin wrote the Autobiography as an old man, considered a great man. He had arrived in Philadelphia from Boston with a couple of shillings and three bread rolls, two of which, characteristically, he gave to a woman in need. Instinctively knowing that mastery of words would be his ticket out of mediocrity, he would persuade a friend working at a booksellers to 'lend' him books overnight, devouring them between finishing his day's work and starting another. Franklin would have agreed with the phrase 'leaders are readers'; read at least a dozen non-fiction books a year and your life will be immeasurably enriched and improved.
But as a young man, Franklin never dreamed of becoming an independence leader or ambassador to France. The reader of his life should not dwell on his actual accomplishments - they are less important than the efforts described to achieve self-mastery. Franklin's message is timeless: greatness is not for the few, but the duty of all of us. We protest that we are not that special, that we don't have the talent or the drive, but Franklin knew that an ethic of constant self-improvement is the yeast that makes an individual rise.
Franklin's prescriptions (see below) have not been without criticism. Thoreau believed that they made for a dreary race against time to amount wealth, never stopping to enjoy nature or the moment. Franklin has also been dubbed 'the first apostle of frugality and the patron saint of savings accounts'. This comment was probably more directed to Franklin's collections of aphorisms on money and thrift, The Way to Wealth.
The man's life, however, does not fit the image of penny-pinching Puritanism, for it is obvious he lived with great panache. Franklin appreciated that the self-help ethic is not about earnest striving, simply the prospect of a fuller and more exciting life.
Benjamin's Table of Virtues (from The Art of Virtue)
"If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."
Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, the son of a chandler and the youngest of seventeen children. His formal education lasted up until the age of ten. From age 12 to 17 he was an apprentice printer to his brother - who produced one of America's first newspapers - before settling in Philadelphia.
After a stint in England, he set up his own printing shop, which enabled him to publish some of his writings. By his late twenties he was publishing the highly successful Poor Richard's Almanacks, mixing practical information with aphorisms, many of which are still in use. By age 42, he was wealthy enough to retire but pursued civic projects and experiments with electricity, inventing the lightning rod.
Franklin's party leadership in the Pennsylvania Assembly led to involvement in negotiations between Britain and colonial America, and he served on a committee which drafted the Declaration of Independence. Made American ambassador to France at age 69, during a decade in that post he negotiated France's assistance for the US and a peace accord with Britain. He was selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
When he died in 1790, Franklin was the most famous American in the world. The Autobiography was then published, but covered his life only up to 1758. It had been written in fits between 1771 and 1790.
Franklin has been called America's first entrepreneur. Apart from his other successes, he charted the Gulf Stream, designed a domestic heater, created a public library, originated a city fire department and served on a French committee looking into hypnotism.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2021
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