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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Study Guide

Benjamin Franklin

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Key Figure Analysis


Benjamin Franklin

Historians and critics agree that the earliest portions of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography give the clearest and most vivid picture of his talents, personality, and temperament. Even in his youth, Franklin emerged as a mercurial, paradoxical character who mingled inspiration, curiosity, dedication, pride, and ambition in a unique, often charming but somewhat mystifying combination. The young Franklin clearly harbored an intense drive for success. Just as clearly, however, he did not want to be perceived as too pushy. Many of his life-long preferences and habits were conspicuous in his early years: his willingness to work hard, for example, as well as his playfulness, curiosity, and genuine openness to friendships and cooperation with others.

William Franklin

William Franklin owed his appointment as Royal Governor of New Jersey to his father Benjamin's congenial relations with Lord Bute, one of the most powerful advisers to King George III. Nepotism of this sort was extremely common in Franklin's time, and was considered merely as looking after one's own. Nevertheless, Franklin took great offense at William's refusal to support the colonies in 1775, especially since Franklin had experienced a hugely painful humiliation by British officials. Several years later, in mid-1775, William and his father quarreled bitterly, and William remained a Loyalist. This quarrel divided father and son for the rest of Benjamin Franklin's life. William Franklin was ousted as governor and was imprisoned for several years; he then lived out his life in exile in Britain.

James Franklin

The brief but striking portrayal of James Franklin in his younger brother's autobiography is notable for its presentation of strongly felt, conflicting emotions. On one level, James had no scruples in exploiting Benjamin; on another, Benjamin's vanity and injured pride made him easily angered and defensive. The quarrel between James and Benjamin motivated the latter's running away from Boston to Philadelphia, where he struck out on his own and achieved great success. Even with half a century's perspective, the quarrel between the two seems fresh and raw. James, of course, was the loser, and Benjamin's summary mentioning his "aversion to arbitrary power" is tantamount to a condemnation. However, the reconciliation between the brothers years later (1735) in Newport, Rhode Island, showed Benjamin in a more flattering light. And the rift did not permanently mar the relationship: upon James's death, Benjamin educated his brother's son and took him into the printing business.

Samuel Keimer

Keimer and Franklin eventually quarreled, and Franklin struck out on his own to work as a printer. Franklin reports that Samuel Keimer's business and credit declined steadily. He was compelled to sell his printing house to pay his debts, and he later died in reduced circumstances on the island of Barbados.

Dr. John Fothergill

Fothergill, who was a Quaker, played an important role in Franklin's career by supporting Franklin's studies of electricity. He possessed considerable prestige as a member of the Royal Society, and he was thus one of Franklin's most influential supporters. Franklin calls Fothergill "one of the best men I have known" and "a great promoter of useful projects."

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