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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Study Guide

Benjamin Franklin

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Summary



Part 1

Franklin opens his autobiography with a letter to his son William. After some discussion of his research into the Franklin family history in England, the author focuses on his own immediate family roots and his childhood in Boston. After only a few years of grammar school, at the age of 12 he was apprenticed to his older brother James to learn the printing trade. However, after a few years the brothers quarreled and Ben left Boston to settle in Philadelphia.

Franklin found employment as a printer in his adopted city, but he soon journeyed to London, lured by empty promises of support from Pennsylvania's governor, Sir William Keith. After 18 months in England, Franklin returned home, where he resumed work in the printing trade. However, sharp conflicts with his employer, Samuel Keimer, led him to strike out on his own as an independent printer. He married Deborah Read in 1730, formed a club of his acquaintances called the Junto, and commenced a series of civic improvement projects, including a subscription library. Franklin remarks that he was always careful to avoid taking the credit or the limelight in these efforts.

Part 2

Writing after the American Revolution in 1784, Franklin opens this part of his autobiography by citing the text of a letter he received from a friend and admirer, the British politician Benjamin Vaughan. Franklin then reverts to his efforts to establish a public library in Philadelphia. The core of Part 2 is Franklin's description of his effort to "arriv[e] at moral perfection." He identifies 13 virtues and describes the meticulous system of cultivating each one that he devised. The system involves maintaining a daily chart of his progress.

Part 3

Franklin resumes writing his life story in 1788, even though many of his papers and records have been lost in the Revolution. He recounts his first publication of Poor Richard's Almanack in 1732, his reactions to the sermons of the Presbyterian preacher Samuel Hemphill, and the studies of languages he began in 1733. On a visit to Newport, Rhode Island, he reconciled with his older brother James, who was seriously ill. In 1736 Franklin lost his four-year-old son to smallpox. He increasingly undertook civic activities in the later 1730s.

Part 4

Franklin describes how, in 1757, he embarked on a diplomatic mission in London as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. His first two meetings, however, were not promising. Lord Granville, the President of the King's Council, told him that King George III's decisions about the colonies are binding. The proprietors, or hereditary trustees of the colony, indulged in delaying tactics and complex legal maneuvers.

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