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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Part One, first section

Characters

Part One, second section

Summary

The Autobiography opens with a salutation to Ben Franklin son, William Franklin who at the time was the royal governor of New Jersey. Franklin is writing in the summer of 1771 on vacation in a small town about 50 miles south of London. Franklin says that because his son may wish to know about his life, he is taking his one week vacation in the English countryside to record his past. Franklin says that he has enjoyed his life and would like to repeat it, although he would like to correct some small errors if the opportunity arose. But since Franklin cannot repeat life, he can instead recollect it. He thanks God for allowing him to live a good life.

Franklin recounts some of his family's ancestry. He has been the youngest son of a youngest son for five generations, although Franklin does have two younger sisters. He tells of his grandfather and uncles, and he includes some poetry from his well respected uncle Benjamin, the man after whom he was named. The Franklins have always been an active clan; they were involved very early on in the Reformation in Europe, for instance. Ben then discusses his parents. His father, Josiah Franklin, moved from England to America in 1682 with his wife and three children. He had four more children with that wife, and ten more children with Abiah, whom Josiah married after his first wife died. Ben himself, the 15th of 17 children, was born in Boston on January 17, 1706.

Most of Benjamin's brothers became apprentices in various trades, as was the custom in the 18th century. Ben, however, was put into grammar school with the intent that he would later go into the church. He quickly rose to the head of his class, and before long he was sent to a different grammar school to develop his writing and math skills. Although he failed at math, he was very good at writing. However, at age ten he was taken from school and put to work with his father, a candle and soap maker. Around this time, Ben, being interested in the sea but prohibited from becoming a sailor by his parents, once convinced his young friends to build a wharf from some stolen stones from a quarry. He was caught and punished so as to be taught that dishonesty is never useful.

Ben writes that he admired his father, who he deems was of "sound understanding and solid judgment" and generally respected in town. Josiah taught Ben the crucial skill of debate, which would forever more come in handy. As a tribute to his parents, Ben had them buried in a prominent Boston graveyard near Boston Common (Paul Revere, John Hancock and Sam Adams are some of the others buried there), and he erected a monument to them which stands as the central feature in the cemetery today.

However, Ben disliked his father's trade making candles, so Josiah set out to find him a new line of work. After passing up cutlery, Josiah noticed that Ben was particularly bookish, and so he put Ben to work for his brother James a printer. Ben, at the age of 12, signed a contract to work for James for the next eight years. This line of work allowed Ben to read even more. He notes that he enjoyed particularly Bunyan, Mather and Daniel Defoe. He borrowed many books from a local bookseller, and developed his own writing skills by imitating the style used by the professional authors. Around the same time, he notes that he befriended a "bookish lad" named John Collins, with whom he honed his debate skills via letters. Josiah, meanwhile, helped advise Ben in his writing form. He acquired a copy of the British newspaper The Spectator and imitated its style, soon leaning "method in the arrangement of thoughts."

Commentary

The opening part of the Autobiography addresses some themes that will come up later on in the book, namely, self-betterment and religion. Franklin's tone at the beginning of the book is humble and indicative of a belief in utilitarianism. He claims to write only so that his own life may be an example for his son of how one can live well and how one can get through hardships. Franklin's book, a story of self-betterment, is written so as to be a model for the betterment of others. This general motive for writing, as well as Franklin's mention of correcting some errors were he to relive his life, both indicate Franklin's constant interest in self-improvement. This is perhaps the largest theme in the Autobiography; it dominates Part Two and recurs often in Part One.

Also notice that Franklin thanks God for helping him to lead a good life. Franklin does not often show a religious side, and he will explain in greater depth later on that he is a Deist, or one who believes in a usually non-interventionist God without ascribing to any particular religious denomination. We are perhaps to believe that Franklin assumes either a false humility at the beginning of the book or that he grew in faith in his later years.

Later on in the section, we will see a manifestation of Ben's determination in his desire to better his writing and debate skills. Ben shows signs of a keen intellect from an early age as evidenced by the diligence with which he copies sections from the Spectator and other works with the intent of learning how to write himself. He also shows an interest in constantly checking himself to make sure that he is improving, and he does this by seeking the help of his kind father. This pattern of self-improvement comes up many times later on in the book, and we will see it more formalized in Part Two.

From a historical standpoint, it is important to note Franklin's beginnings. He was the last son of a huge family. The Franklins were by no means aristocrats; in fact, it is apparent that the family was of relatively humble means because all the sons went to work at very early ages. Nevertheless, Franklin was instilled as a youth with a strong work ethic. We are going to later see Franklin rise up from his humble origins to a man of great social standing and wealth. In this sense, Franklin is often seen as the prototypical American and the first real example of the classic American Dream in action. Notice how Franklin carefully draws out throughout the book how he rose up with help primarily from hard work and skills. This part of the Autobiography is particularly interesting to historians and sociologists interested in the economic stratification of pre- Revolutionary New England, but it is also interesting from a literary standpoint because Ben Franklin is essentially creating the legend of the American Dream.

We also see in this opening section Franklin's sense of humor. He mentions that he was the tenth son born to his father, and his father tried to set him on a life towards the clergy as a means of a "tithe." Franklin is humorously referring to the religious practice of giving one-tenth of one's earnings to the church each year. He jokingly suggests that Josiah ascribed to that same tradition in terms of children rather than money. This tongue-in-cheek humor comes up repeatedly throughout the Autobiography, and it is usually presented in a subtle fashion. For instance, Franklin jokingly discusses at the end of Part Two that he had become so humble that he ended up being proud of his humility. Before that, he jokingly asserts that he reached the conclusion early in life that he could perfect himself. Many comments such as this are not meant to be taken seriously. Franklin has a wry, lightly sarcastic humor applied throughout his work.

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