The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Study Guide

Benjamin Franklin

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Quotes

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1.

I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 1

In this quotation Franklin reveals himself as generally satisfied with his life so far. He was 65 when he wrote this passage, which occurs in the introductory letter to his son William at the beginning of the Autobiography. The deep and permanent rift between father and son over the Revolution had not yet occurred. As always, Franklin carefully manages his image, even in what on the surface appears to be an intimate letter. He is satisfied with his life, but he admits mistakes and faults, using an amusing figure of speech drawn from printing, his own profession.

2.

From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 1

Franklin's enormous appetite for books lasted his whole life. Largely self-educated, he amassed a great store of learning that was nearly encyclopedic. It is relevant to note that Franklin's lifetime (1706–1790) coincided almost exactly with those of two other polymaths of the Enlightenment: Samuel Johnson in England (1709–1784), who authored a landmark dictionary of the English language, and Denis Diderot in France (1713–1784), who was the principal editor of another famous milestone, the multivolume Encyclopédie. And, in a letter to John Adams in 1815, Franklin's younger contemporary Thomas Jefferson wrote, "I cannot live without books."

3.

As prose writing has been of great use to me ... I shall tell you how in such a situation I have acquired what little ability I have in that way.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 1

Literary critics, historians, and biographers have emphasized the broad spectrum of Franklin's writings, which ranged from political satire to fundraising advertisements, from philosophical letters to scientific research, from collections of proverbs to humorous essays. An example of the latter, drawn almost at random, is Franklin's essay "The Art of Procuring Pleasant Dreams," written when he was 80 years old (in 1786). As usual, in this quotation Franklin plays his own achievements down: note the phrase "what little ability."

4.

If you ... express yourself as firmly fixed in your present opinions ... you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 1

The rolling cadences of this piece of practical advice suggest by their very rhythm and sound the kind of smug inflexibility that Franklin deplores. In Franklin's view, "modest sensible men" (in whose numbers he seems to have counted himself) will go out of their way to avoid disputes. Note Franklin's own assertion that he "hat[es] disputes" in quotation 12. Just as important is Franklin's observation that pleasing others, rather than contradicting them, is a far more practical strategy if one wants to persuade them.

5.

I fancy his harsh and tyrannical treatment of me, might be a means of impressing me with that aversion to arbitrary power that has stuck to me through my whole life.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 1

Franklin is here talking about his older brother James, with whom he had a bitter falling out. Jealousy, pride, and talent all played a part in this pivotal quarrel, which propelled Franklin on his way from Boston to Philadelphia. Much later in life, the brothers had a reconciliation. Franklin's "aversion to arbitrary power" was to surface many times during his life—and not only in his eventual opposition to British rule of the colonies. He detested, for example, the arbitrary treatment of the Pennsylvania Assembly by the descendants of William Penn, the original proprietor of the colony.

6.

You may in your mind compare such unlikely beginning with the figure I have since made there.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 1

This quotation touches on one of the most archetypal elements of the Autobiography: Franklin's from rags to riches account of a poor, jobless teenager making good in Philadelphia, which was then the big city of the American colonies. It was, indeed, an "unlikely beginning."

7.

This was another of the great errata of my life, which I should wish to correct if I were to live it over again.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 1

Here, Franklin is speaking of his relationship with Deborah Read, the Philadelphia woman who became his wife in 1730. He regrets his failure to correspond more often with her. In the 45-year marriage between the two, they often lived apart, largely because of Franklin's diplomatic and negotiating responsibilities in Britain and in France.

8.

In the autumn of the preceding year, I had formed most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club, for mutual Improvement, which we called the Junto.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 1

The key phrase here is "for mutual improvement"—always a goal that Franklin kept in view. The word junto means joined or linked, another concept that Franklin held dear throughout his career. A political cartoon he created in 1754 gives the concept visual expression. It shows a snake divided into separate sections. The head is labeled "N.E." for New England; the other pieces are each labeled with the abbreviation for one of the colonies, with the caption "Join, or Die." The cartoon was published in Franklin's newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Some 22 years later, in 1776, Franklin is said to have broached the same idea when he remarked, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

9.

The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 2

The context for this pithy quotation is a discussion of the establishment, through the Junto, of a public lending library in Philadelphia. Franklin stresses the importance, for the success of any project, of creating the impression that the objective is a shared goal, rather than the product of any particular individual initiative.

10.

It was about this time that I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 2

This famous sentence concisely sums up Franklin's habitual preoccupation with self-improvement and the improvement of all those around him.

11.

There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride ... For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 2

The wry verbal irony of Franklin's observation here is typical of the clear-eyed detachment with which he was able to view himself and others.

12.

This is not the only instance of patents taken out for my Inventions by others ... which I never contested, as having no desire of profiting by patents myself, and hating disputes.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 3

Franklin, in fact, became an outstandingly wealthy man, largely through his connections, his hard work, and his ability to spot favorable opportunities in important fields. Here, however, he remains detached, asserting that inventions for the good of humankind should not be a source of undue profits or a battleground of conflict.

13.

Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 3

The quotation underlines Franklin's belief that hard work, persistence, and continuing dedication are far more important elements for success than outsized strokes of good luck.

14.

This gave me occasion to observe, that when men are employed they are best contented.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 3

The context for this observation is Franklin's discussion of his experiences during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Franklin's belief in the efficacy of industry, civic service, and the practical application of one's talents seems to have been unwavering throughout his life.

15.

This is the age of experiments.


Benjamin Franklin, Part 3

This brief quotation sums up some of the most important—and productive—facets of Franklin's personality: his curiosity and openness to innovation.

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