The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Study Guide

Benjamin Franklin

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Context


Revolutionary Times

Many historians have commented that the seeds of the American Revolution (1765–83) were planted during the French and Indian War (1754–63). Benjamin Franklin was nearing age 50 when this conflict broke out in North America. The war, which pitted England against her arch-rival France for control of overseas colonies and territories, spanned three continents, with battles in Europe and India as well as in the New World. The British won a decisive victory, formalized by the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

The war's result spelled the end to French hopes for primacy, or even influence, in North America. At the same time, however, the conflict left the British hamstrung by colossal, unprecedented debt. Britain's solution was to tax the American colonies—a policy that led, in little more than a decade, to the American Revolution against British rule of the colonies. According to American historian Gordon S. Wood, there was a change in Britain's mindset as well: the English began to think of the colonists in America as "less ... fellow Englishmen across the Atlantic than ... another set of people to be ruled."

Franklin was slow to fathom the trend. Widely praised for his judgment and finesse, he fell awkwardly behind the curve on the steep increase of colonial resistance and alienation: he did not seem to understand the depth or intensity of colonial opposition to the British. A passionate admirer of Britain as late as the 1760s, he badly underestimated colonial reaction to the Stamp Act of 1765, and until the early 1770s, he seems to have cherished hopes for an Anglo-American reconciliation. It was not until 1774 or 1775 that he began to see revolution as inevitable and even desirable.

America's First Autobiography

Franklin wrote his autobiography in several widely separated stints, beginning in 1771 and continuing until close to his death in 1790. He had few models for such a project and none from American writers. In Western literature, two of the best-known precedents for Franklin's work were the Confessions (397–400 CE) of Christian theologian St. Augustine and the autobiography of the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also known as the Confessions (1782 and 1789). Franklin first titled his work Memoirs, which now describes a personal experience narrative. At the time he wrote, the word autobiography was not in common English usage.

Franklin's work, in fact, was deeply original, having little in common with the autobiographies of his predecessors:

  • It was the first autobiography to be widely popular.
  • It is still engaging to modern readers more than 200 years later.
  • It can be read as a guide to achieving success.
  • It revealed information about his trade, printing, along with his civic career.

In addition Franklin wrote with a keen understanding of his readers. Even a cursory reading of the Autobiography should leave no doubt that Franklin was a master at public relations. While autobiography is, by nature, self-centered, Franklin instinctively knew the temptations and dangers of envy and egocentrism. To succeed in persuading and influencing people, Franklin argues, let others think that a project or proposal results from their common effort, rather than from one's own initiative. He suggests putting aside vanity and letting others take the credit to best achieve the realization of one's goals.

Time and again in the Autobiography, Franklin stresses this theme. Paradoxically, the fact that he declines to take credit for numerous civic improvement projects actually burnishes his reputation with us, his readers. Clearly, Franklin enjoyed being credited for his very substantial achievements. But just as plainly, he was psychologically savvy enough to know that envy could destroy even a brilliant person's reputation.

Enlightenment-Age Media

In an age when newspapers were in their first generation, when pamphlets and advertisements were making their way as the new media, Franklin was on the cutting edge. Franklin's work as a printer, writer, and editor in the publishing industry projected him into a multifaceted career that epitomized the Enlightenment—an age of scientific inquiry and rational debate—and that placed him at the epicenter of a new nation's birth.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement that began in Europe, primarily in France and England, during the 1600s and swiftly spread to various other European countries and then overseas. Enlightenment values championed reason, experimentation, and scientific inquiry, rather than religious faith, trust in divine Providence, and the authoritarian decrees of monarchies.

The great philosophers of the Enlightenment—Frenchmen René Descartes, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot; Englishmen Thomas Hobbes and John Locke; and Scottishman David Hume—laid the foundations for a rationalist, experience-based approach to human existence and social relations. Such philosophical assumptions as the essential equality of human beings, the social contract between government and the individual, and popular sovereignty or rule by the people became key concepts for the American founders in the Revolution (1765–83): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Whatever their formal education, these figures were all children of the Enlightenment.

Benjamin Franklin was a man of the Enlightenment in almost every respect. He was dedicated to reason and individual ethics rather than to organized religion. He harbored a lifelong commitment to self-betterment and community improvement. In his most famous scientific endeavor, he trusted documented experimentation to determine the identities of lightning and electricity. In addition, in the course of his long life, he invested boundless energy into the new media that served the Enlightenment so effectively: the printed pamphlet, the letter, the newspaper essay, the almanac, and the public appeal. Before and during the American Revolution, it was media such as these that enabled the British colonies in America to develop shared principles, a common outlook, and concerted action.

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