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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Part Three, first section

Part Two

Part Three, second section

Summary

Franklin is writing Part Three from his home in America. He is writing in August 1788, about four years after ceasing work on Part Two and 17 years after completing Part One.

Franklin in 1731, begins a project "great and extensive" to create a new political party with international appeal. He writes a note outlining his political beliefs as they relate to parties, which he believes carry on and effect "wars, revolutions, etc." He thinks that someone ought to found a international Party for Virtue, open only to the wise. Franklin begins forming this party by preparing a condensed set of the essential principles of every major religion (it includes such basics as the existence of God, the power of God and the immortality of the soul). All the people in the Party for Virtue would have to subscribe to the thirteen virtues from Part Two as well as these religious principles, and they would each have to form a plan for helping mankind. However, due to constraints of time and the necessity to focus on other issues, his ideas for such a party were abandoned.

In 1732, Franklin begins Poor Richard's Almanac, a publication that lasts 25 years. Franklin founds it out of the intent to begin something "both entertaining and useful." He also wants something to instruct "the common people," which he does via his many aphorisms. One issue, for instance, quips, "It's hard for an empty sack to stand upright." He uses parts of his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, to the same educational purpose. The paper, with its circulation of 1,500, comprises over half of Franklin's income. He makes sure at all time to keep the paper free from libel and abuse, and he never allows private arguments to make their way into his presses.

As he moves further into adulthood, Franklin takes up more political issues, advocating publicly the education of women, particularly in accounting. He flourishes intellectually, learning French, Italian, Spanish and Latin, and he advocates that Latin be taught in schools as the last language rather than the first after English. He plays chess regularly. He also gives support to his local Presbyterian church, although he withdraws that support when he realizes that the preacher plagiarizes his sermons.

His life is far from perfect, however. He is particularly hurt, for instance, when his son dies at the age of four, although he does not give the event any more than brief mention. Despite hardships, he does return to Boston for a visit to see his family, and he makes amends with his brother, James helping him with printing types.

Back in Philadelphia, Franklin oversees the branching out of the Junto, his debating club, which expands to include different chapters in other parts of the nation. Meanwhile, he keeps up his printing work, becoming the Clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in 1736. The following year, he becomes the Deputy Postmaster of Philadelphia, a job which allows him to see that his paper, the Gazette, is delivered by mail. In 1753, Franklin rises to the top of the mail delivery world, becoming Postmaster General of the United States.

Franklin begins to turn his attention more and more to "public affairs" and the betterment of society. He comes up with a plan for better funding the police by setting up a type of property tax. He also publishes a pamphlet on fire causation, and with some help he forms the Union Fire Company, the first modernized fire department in America.

While he begins to grow in fame during the 1730s, Franklin pays close attention to the events of the Great Awakening, a national religious revival marked by an emphasis on emotions and firebrand, charismatic preachers such as Jonathan Edwards. In 1739, Franklin meets Rev. Whitefield, an English preacher who helps spark the Great Awakening in the colonies. Franklin observes people go from being "thoughtless or indifferent about religion" to being religious fanatics. Franklin is pleased to see the increase in charitable giving, and he himself is persuaded by Whitefield's powerful oratory to donate a huge sum towards the building of an orphanage in Georgia even though Franklin believes the orphanage should be built in Philadelphia. However, Franklin does criticize Whitefield's writing style.

Commentary

The Party for Virtue is a large testament to Franklin's idealism. Again, we see in Franklin a reflection of 18th-century zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. He was incredibly ambitious and optimistic as a young man. His idealism as a youth and his good-natured cynicism as an older man are both present in the Autobiography, and as a result the work is partially a reflection on the process of growing older. Franklin implicitly shows a large transformation in himself that occurs between the 1730s and the 1780s. Franklin does not intend necessarily to demean the optimism of youth, but he certainly does show the loss of optimism and birth of skepticism that comes about with age.

Franklin's discussion of Poor Richard's Almanac is oftentimes regarded as overly arrogant because of Franklin's reference to his desire to educate the "common people." This comment is striking particularly because Franklin himself was, for the first part of his life, one of the "common people"? He was not born into any natural aristocracy, and all the good repute he gained he did so through luck and his own hard work. Nevertheless, he seems distanced as a young man from the roots from which he emerged. While he does not seem to condemn common folk, he certainly looks down on them from an educated perch he himself has not known for a very long period of time.

Arrogance aside, it is Book Three that is most responsible for the mythologization of Franklin. It is in this book that he discusses most of his common inventions that we have always associated with him--the discovery of electricity in lightning, the invention of the fire brigade, the work as Postmaster General, the funding of a hospital, the organization of a street-sweeping force, and many others. The Autobiography is still read today in part because it enshrines Franklin as an American legend who is responsible for many improvements in American life that we today take for granted. Part Three discusses the majority of these.

As mentioned in the previous section, Franklin's style is concise, and it usually only discusses important events without writing tangentially. However, Franklin may sometimes be terse to a fault. For instance, he seems to gloss over the death of his son without giving it any real attention. He does not discuss his emotions or circumstances any more than to tell other parents that they ought to deliver inoculations to their children. While the death of his son was no doubt a very major event in his family life, Franklin is very clearly more concerned about his growth in the public sphere rather than the circumstances of his own private life. It is important when reading any literature to keep in mind why anyone writes something. In the case if Franklin, he is writing to solidify his image and the memory of him as a great public figure rather than as a great father. His initial goal of writing a personal, private memoir to his son, as he initially seems to have set out to do, has been laid aside.

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