The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
There are any number of reasons to read Ben Franklin’s autobiography.
For the fetching language and wit. As when he deviated from his vegetarianism to eat some fish that “smelt admirably well,” saying, “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you…So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
For his keen insights into human nature and his own flawed behavior. Such as his youthful lust for the paramour of a friend who was out of town: “I grew fond of her company, and, being at that time under no religious restraint, and presuming upon my importance to her, I attempted familiarities (another erratum) which she repulsed with a proper resentment, and acquainted him with my behaviour.”
For the panoramic view of this Renaissance man’s interests and accomplishments: his work as printer and pamphleteer; his founding a state militia, a hospital, and a school; his work as military leader, scientist, inventor, and politician.
But for me the most compelling lure of Franklin’s tale is its depiction of English-speaking America in its infancy, when still a British colony. When the country was raw and manners polished, when our institutions and culture still lay unformed and malleable, and opportunity lurked around every corner.
Franklin seized those opportunities, seemingly by default in some cases and, in others, by dint of discipline and determination. In the process you see how he helped shape our culture and institutions at a time when they were still mere clay.
On the surface, this ascetic, cerebral, and industrious businessman seems an unlikely rebel. Abstemious, sober, principled, cautious, civil, and civic-minded, he spent his early days in long hours at the press and his nights discussing philosophy and politics with serious-minded members of a discussion group he formed. “About this time,” he writes, “I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”
But we also glimpse his independence of mind—both as a religious skeptic and as a colonial who chaffed under British rule—and his contentiousness. A man who seemed to cherish conflict and won his way with preparation and persistence, whether in the marketplace, the legislature, or in the field against the French. We see in Franklin, the uniquely American characteristics that would help a lean, under-populated, and vulnerable colony grow into the world’s great religious refuge, military power, and economic Mecca.
Along the way the reader of this truncated autobiography—which concludes in 1765, long before Franklin gained his greatest fame—is, by turns, intrigued, charmed, and seduced by Franklin’s wiliness, warmth, and wit.
For example: As a young man he set out from Boston to seek his fortune in Philadelphia. Even though fatigued and hungry after a difficult journey, he presses his last shilling on folks who ferried him up river in a row boat, musing: “A man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro’ fear of being thought to have but little.”
Time and again, both on Franklin’s part and that of colleagues and strangers, you witness generosity, kindness, and blind optimism. These, too, seem American virtues, and make you wish for more trusting times.
You also see his glee in making mischief. As when he convinces his early employer, Keimer, to join him in his vegetarian regimen: “He was usually a great glutton, and I promised myself some diversion in half starving him.”
And his ever-present if subtle humor and iconoclasm: “[Osborne] and I made a serious agreement, that the one who happened first to die should, if possible, made a friendly visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that separate state. But he never fulfill’d his promise.”
But his serious and responsible side dominates Franklin, a man always trying to squeeze the most out of himself and others: “I grew convinc’d that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I form’d written resolutions, which still remain in my journal book, to practice them ever while I lived.”
He helped form a militia for self-defense, led men onto the field of battle, and warned an arrogant General Braddock against marching into Iroquois country to face the French—advice that, if heeded, would have saved hundreds of lives. Also, twenty years before the coming of the Revolutionary War, Franklin saw its roots in the British mistrust of American militias, London preferring the presence of British troops supported by resented tax levies.
Franklin was a frank man, plain spoken and self-critical, as we see in his portrayal of early London indiscretions: “…[T]hat hard-to-be-governed passion of youth hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which attended with some expense and great inconvenience, besides a continual risque to my health by a distemper which of all things I dreaded, though by great good luck I escaped it.”
So in the end we see Franklin not as a printer, politician, or statesman, but as a man—fallible and forthright, and still alive and breathing in his own words.