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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Study Guide

Benjamin Franklin

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Part 2 | Summary



Franklin introduces Part 2 by citing two letters, written to him by Abel James and Benjamin Vaughan, respectively. The letter from Vaughan, by far the longer, pays elaborate tribute to Franklin's achievements and exhorts him to continue writing his autobiography. In a somewhat exaggerated encomium, Vaughan proclaims that Franklin's story of his life will "be worth all of Plutarch's Lives put together."

Writing in 1784 from Passy (near Paris) in France, Franklin returns to the subject of founding the Philadelphia subscription library, a project of the Junto. The library was open one day a week, imposing a fine of twice the value in the case of any unreturned books. Franklin himself put aside an hour or two each day to devote to his studies, which afforded him "the means of improvement" and served to make up for the loss of a learned education.

After a brief discussion of religion and the "utility" of public worship, Franklin turns to his principal topic in Part 2: his quest for "moral perfection." This effort involved the description and tabulation of 13 virtues, beginning with temperance, silence, and order, and continuing with resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. In an extended discussion, Franklin analyzes these virtues and then explains how he was able to keep track of his progress in the cultivation of each one on a daily basis.


Franklin's inclusion of the two letters in his own praise at the beginning of Part 2 might be viewed as egotism, but in an eighteenth-century context his display of plaudits would be favorably received. As long as others were the source of praise, advertisement of one's own virtues and achievements was acceptable.

Once again, Franklin stresses tact and restraint when he discusses the effort to solicit subscriptions for the new Philadelphia public library. The chief concern of any would-be philanthropist or community benefactor, Franklin notes, should be to avoid other people's envy and resentment. This can be accomplished by taking a back seat and by characterizing a project as "a scheme of a number of friends." As Franklin crisply says, "The present little sacrifice of your vanity will be amply repaid."

Before he delves into the discussion of his effort to achieve moral perfection, Franklin devotes some space to the way he spends his Sundays. He declares that Sunday is his "studying-day" and that he seldom attends any public worship—although he believes in both the propriety and the utility of people's church attendance. Characteristically, however, Franklin finds the limitations of his own sect, Presbyterianism, too confining—at least as they are defined in the sermons of a preacher whom he considered both unimaginative and uninspiring. So, he uses instead a liturgy that he himself compiled.

It is in the same spirit that he presents his plan for the achievement of moral perfection, which, he specifically points out, "might be serviceable to people in all religions." Franklin is at pains to explain the order of the 13 virtues, commenting that temperance holds the prime position because it "tends to promote the coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance [is] to be kept up."

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