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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Study Guide

Benjamin Franklin

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Benjamin Franklin's name is almost synonymous with the founding of America—and he contributed to and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Franklin's prowess as a statesman has been admired by American leaders for generations, and his undeniable influence on the founding principles of the United States has led many to refer to him, jokingly, as "the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States."

Beyond his political influence, Franklin had a profound impact on American culture in science, education, and the arts. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, written between 1771 and 1790, provides an account of his early life, private beliefs, and political thought. The Autobiography gives readers an insight into this enigmatic American figure, detailing not only his professional life and respected career in politics but also his moral code, personal regrets, and unorthodox views on religion.

1. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was the first full-length audiobook ever recorded.

The audiobook trend started with The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin—which became the first full-length book ever recorded on tape. The recording was taped in 1969 and read aloud by Michael Rye, a famous voice actor known for his role on the soap opera The Guiding Light.

2. Mark Twain and D.H. Lawrence wrote scathing critiques of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin received some harsh reviews many years after Franklin's death. American humorist Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), once described Franklin's impact on younger generations, stating:

He had a fashion of living wholly on bread and water, and studying astronomy at mealtime—a thing which has brought affliction to millions of boys since, whose fathers had read Franklin's pernicious biography.

Perhaps the most insulting comments on Franklin's autobiography came from English author D.H. Lawrence, famous for Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), who wrote:

The soul of man is a dark, vast forest with wild life in it. Think of Benjamin fencing it off! ... He made himself a list of virtues, which he trotted inside like a grey nag in a paddock ... Middle sized, sturdy, snuff-colored Doctor Franklin ... I do not like him ... I just utter a loud curse against Benjamin in the American corral ... He tries to take away my wholeness and my dark forest, my freedom.

3. Franklin never referred to his work as an autobiography.

Franklin always shied away from the term autobiography in reference to his work as it was not a commonly used term in English as the time. He much preferred the term memoir. When Franklin first started writing the autobiography, he intended to provide it to his son William as a guidebook. It's unclear whether or not he anticipated its eventual publication and distribution, but he always saw the project as more personal than professional.

4. Franklin founded one of America's Ivy League universities.

Although the University of Pennsylvania owes its name to William Penn—the Quaker founder of the state of Pennsylvania—the institution owes its existence to Benjamin Franklin. In 1749 Franklin circulated his essay, "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth," around Philadelphia, advocating for a higher education option for the city's working-class youth. In 1751 he founded the university's predecessor, the Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania. Franklin served as the school's president for four years, and over the next century the school became the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania.

5. There was once—briefly—a state named after Benjamin Franklin.

In 1784 a group of four counties of what was then North Carolina (and is now present-day Tennessee) declared themselves the independent state of Franklin. The counties originally organized under the name Frankland, altering the name to Franklin to curry favor with Congress, which needed to approve their secession from North Carolina. The Congress (which included Franklin himself) rejected the proposal, but for the next four years Franklin acted as an independent country, with a separate constitution, in defiance. Finally, North Carolina created a parallel government in the region, preying on Franklin's failing economy and need for protection from Cherokee and Chickamauga raids.

6. There are many locations named after Franklin—including one on the Moon.

In addition to towns, counties, and—albeit briefly—a state bearing Franklin's name, a crater on the Moon also pays homage to the Founding Father. Astronomers named the 90-mile wide Franklin crater in honor of Franklin's contributions to science and astronomy. Classified as an impact crater, the Franklin crater was caused by a meteor colliding with the Moon millions of years ago.

7. Franklin left a lot of money to Boston and Philadelphia in his will—and 200-year-long instructions for its use.

Franklin's will left some very unique instructions for the distribution of his wealth. Franklin left money to the cities of Philadelphia and Boston, with detailed instructions for use of the funds' interest. His goal for the money was to help young people achieve higher education, and in order for interest to accumulate he required that most of the funds not be drawn on for 100 years. Another part of the original sum couldn't be touched for 200 years, allowing the Philadelphia money to grow from his original $2,000 gift to an astounding $6.5 million. In Boston the money was used to found the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, which sought to fulfill Franklin's goal of providing a trade-centered education for the city's youth.

8. Franklin's grandson mistakenly traded his grandfather's complete manuscript for an incomplete version.

When Franklin left the publication of his autobiography in the hands of his grandson, William Temple Franklin, he probably didn't anticipate that William would make an egregious error by trading the manuscript for an incomplete, heavily edited version. William traded his complete manuscript for the version circulating in France, published by M. le Veillard, which he believed to be an original copy. To his chagrin, he discovered that the so-called original manuscript he'd received had more than 1,200 alterations from Franklin's actual text. French editors had gone to great lengths to mitigate Franklin's "virile and picturesque prose," full of rural American sayings such as "stared like a pig poisoned." Most historians agree that the mistake was the result of William simply not bothering to read the edition before agreeing to make the trade.

9. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was first published in French.

When The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin first appeared in book form, it wasn't even in Franklin's native language. Despite his fame as one of America's Founding Fathers, Franklin's autobiography first appeared in French. Franklin's work was published in 1791 in Paris—although this version was hardly complete. This edition only contained one of Franklin's four parts of the autobiography, and even that was heavily edited, with various additions and subtractions from his original text. The French publication was noteworthy, however, because it's often regarded as the first book by an American author that was "taken seriously" by European readers.

10. Franklin designed a musical instrument used by Mozart and Beethoven.

Franklin was a "Jack of all trades," whose interests ventured far beyond politics and included science, mathematics, and even music. In 1761 while representing the Pennsylvania Legislature at British Parliament, Franklin was awed by a musician playing songs using nothing more than a wet finger and a series of wine glasses to produce a haunting, melodic tune. Franklin designed an instrument to produce the same sound, but in a more convenient way, known as the glass armonica. The instrument later drew the attention of famous Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, both of whom wrote pieces specifically for Franklin's odd invention.

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