The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Some time ago Franci picked up a little, falling-apart paperback version of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. As well as having a pretty respectable first name, Franklin was a fascinating character in many respects. Was he a printer, a writer, a politician, or an inventor?

The autobiography is definitely worth a read. Franklin is direct, less than humble (and admits it) but not full of himself, and funny. You’d think something almost 250 years old would be a little tough going, but his writing’s very easy to read. I didn’t realise it till the very end, but he died before finishing it, and it stops almost in the middle of a sentence with an editorial note, “Unfinished”. Which translated, means, “Shortly after writing this paragraph, Benjamin Franklin died”.

Because it’s olde literature, and no longer under copyright, you can read the whole thing online at and various other places. Or you can buy it from Amazon for a mere US$2.50.

In the meantime, in lieu of an actual review, I’m simply going to post a bunch of interesting quotes and notes. (Lead-in phrases for each section are in bold, like that.)

On writing with a touch of pride, from his introduction:

And, lastly (I may as well confess it, since my denial of it will be believed by nobody), perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own vanity. Indeed, I scarce ever heard or saw in introductory words, “Without vanity I may say,” etc., but some vain thing immediately followed. Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life. (p6)

We know they had big families in those days, but we forget just how big. I remember J. S. Bach (more or less Franklin’s contemporary) had twenty children: seven with his first wife, who died, and 13 more with his next. But of Bach’s 20 children, only 10 survived into adulthood. Franklin was one of 17 children but, interestingly enough, they “all grew up to be men and women”. Was it the American air? Franklin also notes they “all married; I was the youngest son, and the youngest child but two” (p10).

I’m not sure whether Franklin was being tongue-in-cheek or not, but his father’s approach to tithing was interesting — it’s not just about mint and dill and cumin:

My elder brothers were all put apprentices to different trades. I was put to the grammar-school at eight years of age, my father intending to devote me, as the tithe of his sons, to the service of the Church. (p11)

His father was into dinner-time conversation in a very deliberate way. Though I hope (for her sake) his mother was as pragmatic about the food as he was.

At his table [my father] liked to have, as often as he could, some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavor, preferable or inferior to this or that other thing of the kind, so that I was bro’t up in such a perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me, and so unobservant of it, that to this day if I am asked I can scarce tell a few hours after dinner what I dined upon. This has been a convenience to me in travelling, where my companions have been sometimes very unhappy for want of a suitable gratification of their more delicate, because better instructed, tastes and appetites. (p14)

Pages 14 to 78 — for which I didn’t make any notes — contained some interesting anecdotes about his early experience working as printer with his brother (they didn’t get along very well early on), how he taught himself to write well (which got him far later on in his life), and his first ventures in public affairs.

He notes how when he started his own printing business he focussed on skillful workmanship as well as “spirited” writing:

Our first papers made a quite different appearance from any before in the province; a better type, and better printed; but some spirited remarks of my writing, on the dispute then going on between Governor Burnet and the Massachusetts Assembly, struck the principal people, occasioned the paper and the manager of it to be much talk’d of. (p78)

Government business proved to be quite a good source of income for him, and he relates how he started getting more work by others noticing his good workmanship. Here’s a good, mildly artful way to get business. A competitor, Bradford

had printed an address of the House to the governor, in a coarse, blundering manner, we reprinted it elegantly and correctly, and sent one to every member. They were sensible of the difference: it strengthened the hands of our friends in the House, and they voted us their printers for the year ensuing. (p79)

He prided himself a little on his industriousness, obviously also trying to convey the importance of frugality and hard work to readers:

In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauch’d me from my work, but that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal; and, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchas’d at the stores thro’ the streets on a wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem’d an industrious, thriving young man, and paying duly for what I bought, the merchants who imported stationery solicited my custom; others proposed supplying me with books, and I went on swimmingly. (p83)

His trait of bending the rules comes out again when he talks about how he used to raise money or awareness of certain projects. At first he presented himself as the initiator of projects he had, but

The objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions, made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting one’s self as the proposer of any useful project, that might be suppos’d to raise one’s reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project. I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis’d it on such occasions; and, from my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it. (p98)

He doesn’t talk about his wife at length in the book, but from the few times he does mention her, it’s likely they had a fairly good relationship. She also helped him in the printing business:

We have an English proverb that says, “He that would thrive, must ask his wife.” It was lucky for me that I had one as much dispos’d to industry and frugality as myself. She assisted me cheerfully in my business, folding and stitching pamphlets, tending shop, purchasing old linen rags for the papermakers, etc., etc. (p99)

Religiously, Franklin was more or less a deist. He believed in God the Creator, but not so much in Jesus the Saviour. In his own words:

I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and tho’ some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect… (p100)

(That last line is a good one to remember for sticky situations. “I very much respect all of you guys … though with different degrees of respect.”)

He had some comments about sermons, a lot of which I sympathize with. He does seem fairly moralistic (possibly due to his deism); but he’s right that there’s no need for preaching to be “dry, uninteresting, and unedifying”. Again, in his own words — replace Presbyterian with your own denomination as required. :-)

Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us’d to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail’d on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things.” And I imagin’d, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confin’d himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3. Attending duly the publick worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God’s ministers. These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more. (p101)

Strangely, Franklin says, “about this time I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” But for some strange reason “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.” Really? Never would have guessed.

He relates his programme for teaching himself how to be more virtuous. He wrote down 13 virtues, practised each one for a week or until he was “master of that”, and then started over again. His list of virtues was as follows:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates. (p103)

Mostly worthwhile. But extremely pragmatic — no time for art, creativity, beauty, or enjoyment. “Always be employ’d in something useful.” Was it useful to anoint Jesus with thousands of dollars worth of perfume? And I didn’t know what venery meant, but point 12 in modern English means “hardly ever make love to your wife except for health reasons or to procreate”. How does the Song of Solomon fit into that?

Apparently his “list of virtues contain’d at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation … so I added Humility to my list” (p113).

Despite his general dislike of sermons, he became friends with George Whitefield. He obviously enjoyed Whitefield’s oratory, though not necessarily his Christianity. He talked positively about how Whitefield’s sermons were turning Americans into psalm singers:

It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street. (p129)

Whitefield apparently sometimes used “to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death.” (p132)

He writes about a building that was constructed for “the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia”. Interesting to me was his slightly tongue-in-cheek take on American-Islamic relations, centuries before Sept 11: “the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (p130)

He had a fair bit to do with Quakers, who were by and large pacifists, but often turned a blind eye when it came to others fighting to protect the colonies. Franklin recounts an incident where a governor is given money to the tune of 3000 pounds “for the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain“, adding that

Some of the council, desirous of giving the House still further embarrassment, advis’d the governor not to accept provision, as not being the thing he had demanded; but be reply’d, “I shall take the money, for I understand very well their meaning; other grain is gunpowder,” which he accordingly bought, and [the Quakers] never objected to it. (p142)

And a similar wit-laced incident when they were having trouble raising money for some kind of artillery, Franklin said, “If we fail, let us move the purchase of a fire-engine with the money; the Quakers can have no objection to that; and then, if you nominate me and I you as a committee for that purpose, we will buy a great gun, which is certainly a fire-engine.” (p142)

Then there were the Dunkers, or German Baptist Brethren. One of the sect’s founders, Michael Welfare, told Franklin that their group was being defamed, and Franklin said it might help to write down and publish their beliefs. Welfare said they’d thought about that, but decided not to, because God had from time to time

been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from. (p143)

Very interesting. It’s easy for us Protestants to preach “always reforming” but not practise it — our creeds are written down, and have been for hundreds of years, never to be touched. I’m not at all advocating creedlessness (that is, chaos), but I do think the old Dunkers have a point here: things that have been written down a long time often seem “sacred”, when that should only be true of Holy Writ.

He discusses his invention of a certain type of more efficient fireplace, which I noted primarily because of the length of the title of the pamphlet he published about it. To
“promote the demand” for this efficient wood burner, he “wrote and published a pamphlet, entitled”:

An Account of the new-invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces; wherein their Construction and Manner of Operation is particularly explained; their Advantages above every other Method of warming Rooms demonstrated; and all Objections that have been raised against the Use of them answered and obviated. (p144)

Phew! And today we’d just call it “The Better Burner Book” or “A Fireplace that Saves the Planet”.

Also very interesting is his take on patents, which is of special interest to me in my field — most programmers consider software patents a really bad idea. But Franklin is of course talking about hardware, and he states a patent principle that I definitely dig:

Gov’r. Thomas was so pleas’d with the construction of this stove, as described in it, that he offered to give me a patent for the sole vending of them for a term of years; but I declin’d it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on such occasions, viz., That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously. (p144)

Around 1750 Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania, now considered one of the top research universities in the United States. He served as one of its trustees for at least forty years, and had “the very great pleasure of seeing a number of the youth who have receiv’d their education in it, distinguish’d by their improv’d abilities, serviceable in public stations and ornaments to their country.” (p148)

On rum and religion — one time he was helping at a military camp, and they were allowed “a gill of rum a day … half in the morning, and the other half in the evening”. Franklin had ultra-pragmatic advice for the “zealous Presbyterian chaplain”, who couldn’t seem to get people to come to prayer times:

“It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were to deal it out and only just after prayers, you would have them all about you.” He liked the tho’t, undertook the office, and, with the help of a few hands to measure out the liquor, executed it to satisfaction, and never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended; so that I thought this method preferable to the punishment inflicted by some military laws for non-attendance on divine service. (p185)

In the rest of the book he talks a little bit more about his inventions (a better type of street lamp, for example), but a lot more about his political and quasi-military involvement. So for me it got less interesting toward the end.

One last quote to leave you with:

Human felicity is produc’d not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day. (p159)

All in all, it was a very interesting read, providing insight into both the mind of quite a character as well as into some aspects of life in early America.

For more info about Benjamin Franklin’s life, the Wikipedia article on him looks quite good.

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4 Responses to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

  1. Bruce Hoyt says:

    “been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.”

    Interesting since the German Brethren was one of the churches which formed the background to the Grace Brethren in which Lois and I grew up. The Grace Brethren are still anti-creedal but, like all such, they have a small unwritten creed which is defended vigorously and which has often led to denominational spilts when some vary from it.

    However the reasons we were given for being against creeds was not that stated by the German Brethren above but that “the Bible alone is our creed” (which the leaders were quite sure they had “sussed”) and the refusal to elevate human writings to such a status.

  2. Rick says:

    Interesting that you just read this. I got Mark Twain’s autobiography for Christmas and I haven’t started yet, but in the introduction it talked about how Twain said he was only familiar with 2 autobiographies – one being Franklin’s. And apparently Franklin was the butt of many Twain jokes. It wasn’t clear to me if he truly didn’t like him for some reason or if it was just because.

    Twain also specified that his autobiography was not to be published for 100 years after his death so he could be completely honest. He felt Franklin’s was not, that he was too self promoting. But interestingly enough he said in an interview something to the effect of “it turns out a man cannot be completely honest about himself”

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