The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
“Having emerg’d from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to
a State of Affluence and some Degree of Reputation in the World, and having
gone so far thro’ Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducing Means
I have made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my
Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own
situations, and therefore fit to be imitated,” (43).
“Most People dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves,
but I give it fair Quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often
productive of Good to the Possessor and to others that are within his Sphere of
Action: And therefore in many Cases it would not be quite absurd if a Man were
to thank God for his Vanity among the other Comforts of Life,” (44).
It is important to see that Franklin seems quite proud of his English heritage, and
desirous of knowing the full scope of his family’s history. This may be
symptomatic of the new nation itself, struggling to produce itself out of largely
English traditions of law and political thought.
His account of his early youth is important in that it shows that the virtues he
expounds later in the text are acquired, not innate to his character. The implication
is that anyone can emulate his process of self-creation and achieve a moral,
successful and happy life.
Franklin frequently attacks strict dogmatisms, particularly religious ones, as he does
in saying, “My Father’s little Library consisted chiefly of Books in polemic
Divinity, most of which I read, and have since often regretted, that at a time when
I had such a thirst for knowledge, more proper books had not fallen in my Way,”
From his youth, he seems fixated on appearances, as shown in his realization that
of his arguments was almost as important as the arguments themselves
(61). He is asking his audience to acknowledge the same. The political and
cultural implications of the concern with presentation and appearance are vast.
Again, his concern with presentation appears when he points to his, “Habit of
expressing my self in terms of modest Diffidence, never using when I advance
any thing that may possibly be disputed, the Words,
any others that give the Air of Positiveness to an Opinion; but rather say, I
conceive, or I apprehend a Thing to be so or so, It appears to be, or I should think
it so or so for such reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is if I am not mistaken…
If you wish information and improvement from knowledge of others and yet at
the same time express yourself as firmly fixed in your opinions, modest, sensible
Men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in your
error; and by such a manner you can seldom hope to recommend your self in
your Hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire,” (65).
What is gained and lost through such a form of argument and such limitations on