The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, part one (1771)

1. Why has Franklinís Autobiography become a classic high school text?

  • It presents the life of a famous founding father as a moral exemplar for youth (ala Plutarchís Lives).
  • It has become the first American ďHow to Succeed in BusinessĒ self-help book.

2. How is Franklinís Autobiography a product of the eighteenth century Enlightenment?

  • Franklin's conceives a Science of Virtue which reflects Newtonís mathematical laws of motion: Franklin has created a formula for success in a capitalist economy.
  • In his conception of success, Franklin uses a utilitarian measure of artistic excellence. This book has practical use or it is worthless. Do not expect emotional power or psychological complexity (the Romantic movementís measure of artistic success).
  • Franklin's faith is in common sense solutions to both individual and social problems.
  • The book itself is an exercise in Lockeís epistemology: we create our characters through experience, through trial and error. The mind is like a tabula rasa, an empty page on which the individual writes and revises character. Our natures are not determined at birth by original sin or by any ethnic/cultural/racial characteristics. The individual controls the development of the self through learning from his or her mistakes.

3. How was Franklinís Autobiography a revolutionary tract?

  • His objective was the creation of a new citizen for a new society, one in which the rising middle class would assume power.
  • In this society, freed from the corruption and rigid class structure of the Old World, success will go to those citizens who work the hardest, who learn how to communicate most effectively, and who dedicate themselves not only to individual success but to a better society for everyone.
  • Franklinís reading audience was the rising bourgeoisie: property owners whose industry, sobriety, frugality, and education enable them to avoid debt and unemployment. These citizens are, therefore, best able to exercise independent judgment and are given the right to cast votes unbiased by political faction.

4. What is Franklinís rhetorical strategy in his Autobiography?

  • Franklin assumes the character of a garrulous, gabby old man who indulges in an inclination to tell rambling anecdotes about his early years.
  • By choosing such an un-pretentious voice to narrate his tale, Franklin hopes that the reader will be more open to the advice he has to offer.
  • Part One is addressed to Franklin's son William, at that time (1771) the Royal Governor of New Jersey. While in England at the estate of the Bishop of St Asaph in Twyford, Franklin, now 65 year old, begins by saying that it may be agreeable to his son to know some of the incidents of his father's life; so with a week's uninterrupted leisure, he is beginning to write them down. (Wikipedia)