Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,
part one (1771)
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.
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.
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 more
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.
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 for