Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. By Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Frank Woodworth Pine.( Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Pub. Co. , 1916.) 343 pp. Reviewed by
Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s greatest statesmen and was born in Boston in the year 1706 as the 15th of 17 children, and the youngest of his father’s sons. Franklin was born to Josiah Franklin, a candle, and soap maker who had immigrated to the United States from Northamptonshire in England (2). The young Benjamin disliked his father’s profession highly and did not want to follow his example. Hence, Franklin went to school with his father desiring him to become a minister when he completed studying. However, Benjamin had a great interest in both reading and writing, and this caused a change in plans. Instead of becoming a minister, Benjamin began an apprenticeship to an elder brother, James, who worked as a printer (3). However, Benjamin and his brother often disagreed, and this caused him to quit the apprenticeship.
Benjamin subsequently moved to New York to look for work from where he moved to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, he worked for Samuel Keimer and befriended the political elite. Benjamin briefly moved to England but returned to the United States where he settled (67). Benjamin wrote the book to preserve the memory of his life since he could not live it again. Another reason Benjamin penned this autobiography was to inspire other people by narrating his experiences. In essence, his rags to riches story purposes to motivate its readers and show them that they too can make it despite humble beginnings.
The narration of the rags to riches story serves as the primary thesis of Franklin’s autobiography. Franklin serves up a description of how he turned around his life from a poor child into an eminent diplomat, philosopher, and innovator. In truth, the book is a demonstration of the fulfillment of what is popularly referred to as the ‘American Dream.’ In the book, Franklin offers a perfect demonstration of the possibilities for success available in the New World.
Benjamin narrates how he was born in very humble circumstances to a poor candle maker (2). Through the description of his rather poor childhood, the reader obtains a vivid description of Franklin’s roots. His life was nothing special, and, in fact, it seemed destined for obscurity. However, Franklin successfully managed to turn his life around all by himself and shape his destiny.
Through narrating events from his life, Franklin demonstrates that hard work does indeed pay. For example, when Franklin first leaves school, he becomes an apprentice to his brother but this does not work out well for him. However, Franklin demonstrates the power of self-belief by setting out on his own for Philadelphia. Through his hard work and commitment, Franklin impresses the political bigwigs including the Governor (68). Consequently, his efforts are rewarded when those connections open up paths for him.
Franklin provides living proof that one can rise above their beginnings in life through working hard. He posits that one need not be born distinguished to become great. Thus, Franklin is the embodiment of the American Dream. The dream that if one works hard, they can achieve all they desire. This argument is one that is excellently defended and very convincing since Franklin’s life demonstrates firsthand experience of the dream coming true.
Another thesis in Franklin’s work is the importance of a principled life. Franklin abides by certain principles in his life and to him, these principles are virtues, and they are the driving force of his life. Franklin is obsessed with these virtues and in his opinion; they hold greater importance than religion in terms of leading an honorable life and doing good (153). Franklin posits that religion can prevent someone from being truly honest in matters of virtue. On the other hand, he argues that principles aid an individual to do good things just for the sake of it.
In the book, Franklin argues that the hardest virtue for one to obtain is that of humility. The reason for this is that if one succeeds in being humble, that is still something worth being proud of. Other virtues that Franklin believes are important are those of frugality and thrift, which he posits are the foundation of future comfort (163). He recalls the long hours that he put in when first establishing his business and how instead of wasting money on excesses, he preferred to save it up. In fact, Franklin’s idea of fun is to go reading as opposed to spending money on activities such as drinking.
Another virtue that Franklin demonstrates is that of self-improvement and working for the benefit of society. Through reading a lot, Franklin shows a constant desire to improve his mind and this knowledge allows him to master several disciplines at once (187). Working for society is also important to Franklin, a fact evident from the many innovations he creates and refuses to patent. Franklin also works for the community particularly evident in his efforts to bring a library to the town and introduce a fire department.
Another theme or thesis apparent in the autobiography is the role of education in development. Franklin firmly believes in the idea of education as a necessity as opposed to choice. For him, education is something to be desired and not dreaded. Franklin himself can never have enough knowledge, and he is constantly attempting to gain more. For instance, when he learns a new language, Franklin only grows even more motivated to learn another one. He dabbles in several fields contributing to literature, philosophy, and even public policy.
Franklin’s autobiography posits that education and reading to be specific is what will make America great. Hence, he believes that a proactive attitude to education is just as important as a mighty military in acquiring global dominance. His fervent support for matters of education is evident in his advocacy for a public library as well as open access to university education (227). His passion for education is evident from how he would sit up all night to read as well as his expenditure on books. To him, education is a virtue and a means of self-improvement.
Franklin’s ideas on the power of education are proven right by his great success in several disciplines. Through the application of the knowledge obtained by reading, Franklin can come up with inventions and write books. The knowledge he had also enabled him to start a business and run it very successfully. Hence, this proves the effectiveness of the argument that proper education is critical to economic success.
Franklin’s book has many interesting aspects that make it of crucial importance. For one, the issue of the American Dream and its reality is very appealing. This point gains great appeal because it lends credence to the claim that America is the land of opportunity. It is particularly interesting to note that this is not a modern-day notion but is one that has existed for long. The motivational element was particularly attractive since it addresses issues that are very pertinent to this reviewer such as self-doubt and rising above your present circumstances. As a result, it provides hope that if Franklin could do it, then so can everyone else.
Another interesting aspect of the book was its historical significance. The book is a pioneer work in the world of autobiographies. It establishes an autobiography as a piece of work that not only narrates a person’s life, but also educates a reader on how to lead a better life. The second part of the book, which describes the virtues a person should have, as well as how to achieve them was an excellent read in terms of motivation (157). Historically, the book provided great insight into the America of the 18th Century with invaluable information on how people lived in that period.
However, the book also had faults or significant flaws. One of these flaws was that it is muddled and jumbled as it nears its conclusion. It appears as if the author could not recall what he had written in some earlier parts of the book, which may be attributed to the fact that he did not write it continuously. Instead, several portions of the book written over a long time were pasted together.
Another unappealing aspect of the book lies in the sometimes arrogant and condescending tone that Franklin adopts. This tone contrasts sharply with the humility that he supposedly advocates. Franklin praises humility as a virtue yet one may argue that the choice of writing an autobiography is in itself the ultimate form of self-glorification. Hence, he appears to be somewhat hypocritical.
However, the greatest fault of the book lies in the historical aspect. Whereas the book gives an excellent history of life back then, it totally fails to mention a historical event of vast significance: the American Revolution. This entire part of history is omitted from the book, which did not make for good reading. This omission is in spite of the critical role Franklin played in that period. In fact, the book hardly mentions any events occurring after 1760, a 15-year gap before the commencement of the war.
In conclusion, it is evident that the book would serve as an excellent read for students of history. The rich description of life during that time would be an excellent reference point. Again, the book targets a young audience, possibly undergraduate level who are just setting out into the world. It is a great read and an excellent source of motivation for them to believe that they, just like Franklin, can make it.