The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Study Guide

Benjamin Franklin

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Part 1 | Summary

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Summary

Writing in 1771 when he was on holiday at a friend's country house in England, Franklin opens the Autobiography with a letter to his son William. He was 65 years old when he began this account. He expresses general satisfaction with his life so far, and he comments that, although it is impossible to relive one's life, the next best thing may be to recollect it in writing.

Franklin reports on his research about the family ancestry in England, dating back to the year 1555. He states that his father, Josiah Franklin, emigrated from England to the American colonies about 1682. Josiah Franklin fathered 17 children, of whom Benjamin, born in 1706, was the youngest son and the third-youngest child.

Benjamin's father was a candle and soap maker, a "chandler," and his older brothers all became employed in various trades. Such a large family necessarily limited young Ben's choices for education. After assisting his father in the chandler trade, which did not appeal to Ben, the youngster was finally apprenticed at the age of 12 to his older brother James in the printing business. Josiah Franklin judged this appropriate because of Ben's love, even when young, of reading and writing.

Franklin spent every spare penny he had on books. As a youth he happened on a spare copy of The Spectator, the periodically published pamphlet of essays by the British writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. He adopted The Spectator as a model for his own prose style.

According to Franklin, in either 1720 or 1721 his brother James decided to establish a newspaper, the New England Courant, one of the very first papers in the colonies. As James's apprentice Ben played an important role in this enterprise. Franklin, a creative and playful teenager, determined to make a pseudonymous contribution to the paper, penning an essay and disguising his handwriting. James and his friends commended the essay, which was signed with the name "Silence Dogood." But Ben's subsequent admission of authorship provoked envy and disputes between him and James. The older brother believed himself to be the master of the younger, and the younger brother chafed under his senior's arbitrary power.

Discord between the brothers eventually led to Ben's decision to escape from James's domination and leave home. His journey from Boston to Philadelphia, via New York, was a dangerous and suspenseful adventure for a virtually penniless youth of 17.

Franklin then vividly describes his "first entry" into Philadelphia. Fatigued, weak, ill, and hungry, he could scarcely have cut much of a figure, even with three large rolls of bread under his arms. But, he notes that Deborah Read, his future wife, caught a brief sight of him when he first arrived in the city.

After some tentative explorations of various printers, Franklin acquired employment with Samuel Keimer, even though he regarded Keimer as somewhat unqualified. He amassed a circle of acquaintances in Philadelphia and came to the notice of the provincial governor, Sir William Keith. Over the following few months, Keith led Franklin to understand that the young man could depend on his support for backing in the printing industry, and the governor encouraged Franklin to undertake a journey to London. Depending on Keith's promises, Ben made the journey, but he was disappointed to discover in London that Keith had proffered empty assurances.

Franklin remained in London for about a year and a half. He gained employment in the printing trade, made a number of good friends (including Mr. Denham and James Ralph), and practiced swimming, at which he was proficient.

Back in Philadelphia Franklin returned to work for Samuel Keimer. He founded a club named the Junto, intended for "mutual improvement" and discussion of current issues in politics, morals, and science. He contemplated founding a newspaper. Using his connections, he acquired printing jobs and split with Keimer, going out on his own. Together with his friends, he planned on establishing a lending library in Philadelphia.

Analysis

At the start of the Autobiography, Franklin phrases the dedicatory letter to his son William carefully. Behind the mask of proud fatherhood and due modesty, there is the firm will of a self-made man eager for both appreciation and acknowledgment of mentorship. Franklin comes close to complacency but rescues himself from such an accusation with his thanks to God for a fruitful life and with his apparently humble admission of occasional faults.

Franklin's quest for details about his ancestors will surprise no one in the modern age of genealogical research. His results amount to a solid, middle-class British ancestry, with most of his male forebears situated in the trading professions, dating back to 1555. For five generations, Franklin was descended from the youngest son of youngest sons. In an era of primogeniture, with only the eldest son in a family able to receive a substantial inheritance, this meant that Franklin's ancestors were increasingly compelled to earn a living.

In the discussion of his immediate family, Franklin plainly reserves special honor for his father, Josiah Franklin: he had, he says, "a good deal of respect for his judgment and advice." Franklin furnishes a special testimony to the memory of his parents by including the text of the memorial he later created for their burial place.

Franklin's admiration for Joseph Addison's Spectator is noteworthy. The paper began publication in 1711, when Franklin was five years old, with a stated aim "to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality." The readership, Addison estimated, reached 60,000, or 10% of London's population at the time. Addison made a special pitch for woman readers, and his efforts seem to have been successful.

The Spectator combined a number of important attractions for a youthful aspirant to a career in writing and printing. The essays had the twofold goal of "instructing by pleasing." They appeared just at the time when popular readership was growing to include much of a newly emergent middle class. The spirit of The Spectator showed Franklin that writing for newspapers could be fun, widely popular, and financially profitable. Perhaps most important for the young writer, the prose style of Joseph Addison and his collaborator Richard Steele offered a model of energy and clarity that has seldom been equaled. Addison and Steele also regaled their audiences with assumed character types that drew upon well-known fixtures and customs of British society. Such lightly humorous satires would doubtless have appealed to Franklin as well. Franklin gives a detailed description of his methods of imitation of The Spectator. For his particular purposes, he could not have adopted a more instructive model.

The quarrel between Ben Franklin and his older brother James constitutes one of the central episodes of Part 1 in the Autobiography. Franklin's account, though naturally biased in his own favor, allows for more than one perspective: in particular, he admits that he was somewhat at fault. At the same time, he criticizes James for employing "arbitrary power" and harshly remarks that his brother took care to "prevent my getting employment in any other printing-house of the town."

In the brief anecdotes that occupy a substantial portion of Part 1, Franklin gives us persuasive, vivid vignettes of a young man's experiences in his early career: the forging of friendships (James Ralph as an "inseparable companion"), the naiveté of a protégé misled by a patron (Franklin and Governor Keith), novel experimentation (vegetarianism and a new sect with Keimer), exhilaration in athletic activity (swimming in the Thames), public embarrassment (the quarrel with Keimer), and self-confession (doubts that led Franklin to become "a thorough Deist").

Thematically, the most important event in the remainder of Part 1 is Franklin's founding of the Junto. This association, like Samuel Johnson's Literary Club in London some years later, had both social and serious aims, being focused on "mutual improvement" and "points of morals, politics, or natural philosophy." It is noteworthy that the members were encouraged to produce and read aloud an original essay once every three months on a topic of their choice. There have been numerous modern-day Juntos founded in imitation of Franklin's club.

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