The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Study Guide

Benjamin Franklin

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Part 3 | Summary

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Summary

Once again Franklin resumes writing the Autobiography after a significant interval. It is now August 1788, around the time of the ratification of the Constitution, with Franklin approaching his 83rd birthday in the coming January. He begins by quoting a brief paper he wrote in 1731, entitled "Observations on My Reading History, in Library." There we find that Franklin, at the age of twenty-five, harbored a somewhat pessimistic view of men's actions, at least in public affairs. Few people in public service, he declares, are motivated by the public good; instead, they act from self-interest.

Franklin turns next to his ideas regarding an ideal sect that would contain the essentials of every known religion. Franklin's universal creed specifies the existence of God, a creator whose Providence governs the world; the doing of good to fellow human beings as the most acceptable service of God; the immortality of the soul; and the eventual reward of virtue and punishment of vice.

Franklin's next topic is the first publication, in 1732, of his annual compendium entitled Poor Richard's Almanack. This calendar, which contained weather forecasts, poems, sayings, and other entertaining pieces, was exceptionally popular, selling continuously for over 25 years. Together with Franklin's newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, it provided the author with considerable income. Franklin notes that he scrupulously excluded all libel and personal abuse from his newspaper.

Franklin then describes how in 1733 he significantly expanded his printing business by sending an assistant to set up a press in Charleston, South Carolina. In the following year, he befriended a young Presbyterian minister named Samuel Hemphill, who was visiting Philadelphia from Ireland. Some churchgoers objected when they discovered that Hemphill delivered plagiarized sermons, but Franklin supported the clergyman, remarking that he would rather hear good sermons written by others than bad ones "of his own manufacture."

In this period Franklin describes, he also began his study of foreign languages, focusing on French, Italian, and Spanish, whereupon he found his comprehension of Latin increased. He also journeyed to Newport, Rhode Island, where he had a reconciliation with his brother James, who was then very ill and died shortly afterwards. Franklin helped James's young son get a footing in the printing business. He reports as well that he lost his own young son to smallpox at this time, having neglected to have had the boy inoculated.

Meanwhile, Franklin continued in his civic and public activities, participating in the City Watch and forming a fire department. In 1739 he reacted enthusiastically to the visit of the Rev. George Whitefield, an influential English clergyman with whom Franklin formed a lifelong friendship. Franklin calculated that the huge attendance at Whitefield's outdoor sermons exceeded 30,000 people.

Franklin then reports that in the early 1740s he retired from full-time participation in business activities, but he still maintained his involvement in public affairs. He was especially concerned that Philadelphia lacked infrastructure in defense and education. To bolster the first, he authored a pamphlet called "Plain Truth" and then succeeded in persuading Governor Clinton of New York to lend 18 cannons to Philadelphia. In the field of education, he published another pamphlet promoting the establishment of an academy, with the result that an initial subscription of five thousand pounds was raised. As usual, he did not advertise himself as the initiator of such a plan, but attributed it instead to "some public-spirited gentlemen." Regarding the trustees of the future University of Pennsylvania, Franklin was careful to ensure that no particular religious sect would predominate.

Franklin busied himself with a broad range of projects in the early 1750s. One of the most important was his scientific exploration of the nature and characteristics of electricity. In this area Franklin's friendships with Peter Collinson and Dr. John Fothergill, both Quakers who resided in London, were especially important. Another project was Franklin's collaboration with Dr. Thomas Bond in plans for the establishment of a hospital in Philadelphia. A third interest was a project for paving the city's streets. In 1753 Franklin was appointed co-Postmaster General of America.

Franklin then moves into discussing the opening years of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), which saw him engaged on a variety of fronts. He encouraged the Albany Plan of Union—a system of inter-colonial cooperation doomed by British lack of enthusiasm. Franklin was also active in negotiations with the Indians at Carlisle and in raising arms and supplies for the British military effort. He even went so far as to advance a sizable amount of his own funds for the war effort.

Franklin's account of his electricity experiments is especially intriguing. This field of endeavor made him a worldwide celebrity. Yet, acknowledgment of his achievement was not unobstructed. In particular, a French clergyman named Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet opposed Franklin's theories, in large part because they contradicted his own, and he published a volume of letters denying the validity of Franklin's conclusions. Franklin made up his mind not to reply in print, and ultimately he prevailed. Franklin was honored by a medal from the Royal Society in London and by degrees from several prestigious universities.

In the concluding section of Part 3, Franklin recounts his appointment as agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly to represent the colony's interests in London. For practical purposes, this meant that Franklin would try all expedients to release Pennsylvania from the grip of the "proprietors"—the descendants of the original founder, William Penn. Many Pennsylvania colonists, including Franklin, believed that the proprietors were unjustly abusing their tax-exempt status and ignoring the legitimate interests of the colony. Franklin accepted this mission in 1757, but his departure for England was greatly delayed by the British official Lord Loudon, who prevaricated on the issue of Franklin's reimbursement for his financial advances earlier in the French and Indian War.

At the close of Part 3, Franklin describes his arrival in England at the end of an eventful sea voyage, commenting with typical, concrete pragmatism on "the utility of lighthouses," since shortly before Franklin's ship landed in port, a lighthouse had saved his vessel from shipwreck.

Analysis

Poor Richard's Almanack, first published by Franklin in 1732, employed a pseudonym, Richard Saunders, for its authorship. This was one of the many aliases that Franklin used throughout his career, By American standards of the era, the almanac was a best-seller, with annual print runs of 10,000 copies.

George Whitefield, an itinerant preacher, travelled from place to place, up and down the eastern seaboard. He was one of the most eloquent, popular voices of the religious movement known as the First Great Awakening. This movement downplayed ceremony and ritual in religious observance, emphasizing instead every individual's need to be "reborn" and to achieve salvation in Christ. Other influential figures in the Great Awakening included Samuel Davies and Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741) became an American classic. (Both Davies and Edwards served as presidents of Princeton University.)

Franklin's retirement from active business was accompanied by several symbolic acts. He moved to a larger house, for example—one that was not connected to the premises of his business. (In the 18th century, tradesmen usually lived where they worked.) He left the printing house and the shop in the hands of a new partner, David Hall. He acquired several slaves. And, he had his portrait painted. Though he doesn't discuss these things in the Autobiography, they are markers of his rising status and financial success.

The Albany Plan of Union (1754), though never implemented, is historically important because it was the first significant proposal to place the colonies under a centralized government. The plan, drawn up by Franklin, was occasioned by the uncertainties of the French and Indian War, rather than by any desire to gain independence from Great Britain. One of the most significant features of the plan was that it separated the executive and legislative branches of government.

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