Benjamin Franklin: “Autobiography”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Written over a period of 19 years, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography tells the story of the Founding Father’s journey from obscurity to his rise as a colonial statesman. Though he played a crucial role in the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the book goes up only to 1757, so we don’t get to witness his presence at the birth of the United States of America.

Indeed, most of the book focuses on how Franklin became a self-made man, that achievement that was prized so highly in the eighteenth century and that still fascinates us today. How did the “youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back” become a successful businessman and one of the undisputed leaders of the American colonies?

Franklin answers this question with his now-familiar story of hard work. While not quite a rags-to-riches story, Franklin’s tale is nevertheless inspiring. He literally makes himself into the man he wants to be – and does so (he claims) with a chart of thirteen virtues he would like to master. Second to last among them is chastity, a trait we can surely say he never mastered – and last among them, almost as a tongue-in-cheek nod to his larger-than-life personality, is humility. Franklin’s Autobiography is perhaps the first self-help book ever written in America, but I have always wondered how seriously we are to take Franklin’s method of checking off moral qualities on a chart. Maybe he did do this, but then again maybe Franklin is just laughing at the whole eighteenth-century, Age-of-Enlightenment notion that someone can intentionally become the person he wants to be.

Without a doubt, my favorite passage in the book is the one that describes Franklin’s first arrival in Philadelphia as a young man come to seek his fortune. Raised in Boston – the city perhaps most associated with America’s initial settling but now become a staid place of establishment, Franklin runs away from his tyrannical father and brother and heads to Philadelphia, an up-and-coming city emerging as the center of the American colonies.

Franklin’s tale of arriving in Philadelphia is both humorous and poignant, humorous because Franklin pokes fun at the “awkward, ridiculous appearance” he made and poignant because we see this young man who would become the great Founding Father at the very start of his illustrious career.

Ben Franklin’s Autobiography isn’t curl-up-with-a-good-book reading, but if you like history, you just might enjoy this book. You can read the book online or buy an inexpensive hard copy. If you want to learn more about Franklin and the book, check out the C-SPAN American Writers special about Autobiography or Annenberg Learner’s episode on the book. (To get to the Annenberg Learner video, visit the American Passages page, scroll down to Episode 4, “Spirit of Nationalism,” and click on VoD, which stands for Video On Demand.)

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Books” board for Franklin treats.

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Listen:Listen as I read a four-minute excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The reading is from Chapter III, “Arrival in Philadelphia.”

Image Credit: Benjamin Franklin, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,