Benjamin Franklin is one of the most pivotal figures in American history. He’s considered one of America’s “founding fathers,” as he made numerous contributions to early American society. In the 21st century, he’s most famous for being on the American one-hundred dollar bill. Still, many folks in this century have used Franklin’s life as a practical personification of the “American Dream.” Most famously, he wrote the first major American autobiography with his “Autobiography.” However, this title seems to have been bestowed on it after his death, as Franklin referred to the work as his Memoirs.
Still, Franklin’s “Autobiography” seems to be among the first in the world to have been titled with the proper term, whether it was his intention or not. Certainly, the actual genre existed long before Franklin’s book, but it wasn’t known as such. The word “autobiography” was first officially used in English by British poet and “writer of miscellaneous prose” Robert Southey in 1809. But, more importantly, Franklin’s Autobiography isn’t just a first in the autobio genre as it exists today, but it is also one of the first books that we would categorize today as a “self-help manual.”
Perhaps it wasn’t Franklin’s intention to write a self-help book, per se, as he professes no real intention to this end. However, as he is very descriptive of the way he tried his best to live, he likely hoped the readers of his Autobiography would try to emulate him in at least some ways. In his book, he shows how staying busy, constantly challenging your intellect, and being frugal can help you to become very successful.
Franklin also preaches in his book that constantly expanding your knowledge, being well-informed, staying involved with public matters, and doing your best to help out the community are among the best ways to make your time well-spent and to feel yourself useful. Franklin did all of these things by example himself; his way of living brought him great fame, status, and most importantly prestige. His “self-help” book is not so much of an instruction manual, rather than it sets an example to be followed.
In the first pages of his Autobiography, Franklin writes that he is quite content with the life he has lived. However, he reveals how he would love to have the chance to go back and fix a few things, just as anyone would. Franklin writes,
“I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first. So I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accident and events of it for others more favorable.”
Of course, since such repetitions are quite impossible, Franklin believes what is most similar to living life over again is to make a recollection of your own life, putting it into writing so that it may be reflected upon by others. Franklin doesn’t pretend to hide his own vanity; he gives you the story straight as he feels it. Being who he was, some such arrogance can be permitted. Vanity, Franklin explains, can be a good thing to have. While some people may be taken aback by how great a man Franklin professes himself to be, it’s true that his example is a good one to follow considering how successful he became.
As do many biographies, Franklin starts with his family background and the setting into which he was born. Ben’s father, Isaiah, was a dyer by trade, but expanded into the business of candle making upon coming to New England. Apparently, Isaiah had quite a positive influence on him. His father, though not overly rich by any means, was a very well-respected working-class man in Boston, Massachusetts. Many local leaders came to him for his advice in both private and public matters. His father was even asked to be an arbitrator to settle some disputes.
Franklin speaks highly of nights around the dinner table when he was younger. His father would always try starting some edifying conversation. Ben would get so interested in the conversations that he would most often forget what he was eating. This forgetfulness of what he was eating he says would help him later on in life, because his tastes weren’t as well “instructed” as they were for most other people. Dinner became for him more of an educational time than a dining time. His childhood prepared him well for later in life, as his father was very concerned about his children’s intellectual growth.
Despite Isaiah Franklin’s concern for his children’s intellectual well-being, it may surprise you that Ben did not have much formal education. He had only one year at grammar school, and did well, and one year at a school for writing and math. Writing-wise, he learned a little to “scribble,” as he put it. (In fact, my own use of “fellow scribblers” derives from his saying this.) With mathematics, though, he struggled mightily.
Lacking in formal education, Ben became primarily self-educated through the many books he read. He had an incredible fondness for books from an early age. Whenever Ben had any spare change, he would only buy books. Somehow, reading came naturally to him. This love for reading would only intensify over the years. He seemed to learn best through books. In fact, though he struggled mightily with math in school, he later taught himself it through a book and mastered it. This thirst for knowledge would continue throughout his life.
While he does not directly say so, he clearly suggests suggests his readers to follow his example of self-education. It is important that people inform themselves about everything that they possibly can, so that folks can make better informed decisions. Especially in today’s so-called “information” age, this is a particularly good act to follow.
It would end up being a blessing when his father decided to take Ben out of school, perhaps because of his failing in math. At first, Isaiah brought Ben home to work in his own trade. But, Ben found no real interest in the candle making trade, however. Eventually, his father turned him over to Ben’s older brother as a print shop apprentice. This would work out well for Ben, especially with his love of books. In fact, printing would become Ben’s career.
Not only was Ben a voracious reader, but Franklin developed into a pretty good writer at a young age. This is unsurprising, as constant reading invariably improves writing skill. At the beginning, since Ben expected his older brother to reject anything he would write for the newspaper, he disguised his writing under an assumed name. For some time, his brother and partners didn’t realize who it was slipping these pieces of paper with such interesting writing under the door. They just liked them enough to print them.
Ben did write a particularly controversial piece in these early years. It brought his brother’s entire print shop business into question. Although Ben was called up as a witness, as he was an apprentice in the shop, no one suspected him of writing the piece. No one was found responsible. It proved that Franklin was not afraid to voice his opinions at all and was able to voice them quite effectively. Later, Franklin would open up about this, well after the fact, and would write many articles for that newspaper under his own name. Ben’s well-informed mind and above-average writing skills no doubt made his work quite edifying and enjoyable to read.
Eventually, Franklin would open up his own print shop, producing many of his most famous works with his own press. One of his greatest printing contributions was the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac, which Franklin published from 1732 to 1757. It was not like most almanacs of his time. A passage from my freshman history college textbook Out of Many, A History of the American People sums it up well by saying,
“What was so innovative about Franklin’s almanac, and what made it so important, was the manner in which the author used this traditional literary form to promote the new Enlightenment emphasis on useful and practical knowledge.”
Franklin was happy to share his thoughtfulness with everyone. Through his works, Franklin became the prototypical American intellectual, a title he holds even today. Franklin was the founder of Junto, “a club of mutual improvement,” which was, in other words, an intellectual self-help club. People were required to come into each Junto meeting with some theme to discuss that evening. Members were also required to write an essay every three weeks on any topic they chose. Junto served as an excellent discussion forum, and quickly grew in membership over just a few years under Franklin’s guidance.
Later on in 1743, Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society, which is still active today, and has included poignant members such as Thomas Jefferson. Through these forums, Franklin made many of his numerous intellectual contributions to American society. He came up with the idea of a public library, which flourished, of course. He also acted as the United States’ first postmaster, the same U.S. Postal Service America existing today.
Later in life, he would conceive of the institution of firefighters, to prevent the spread of fires that could be stopped. It didn’t take long for fire departments to become a worldwide public service. He also, of course, invented the Franklin stove. Also, while not necessarily an intellectual contribution, Franklin was among the first to lay out a detailed daily agenda, with time sectioned out for work, dining, sleep, and time set aside later in the evening for the examination of the day. This concept of methodic examination, in various permutations, is still used today. Franklin found moderation extremely important, as excess of one thing or another can be detrimental to other aspects of life.
Franklin is full of good advice and was great at constructive criticism. He used phrases such as “it appears this is wrong,” rather than saying “you’re wrong.” He didn’t wish people to always try and prove others wrong. After all, when you find yourself in the wrong, you often end up feeling mortified. Franklin avoided this by being somewhat less assertive, leaving his mind just a little more open than most. After all, feeling mortified after being proved wrong is not particularly conducive to learning. Having your mind just a little more open will make learning much easier to absorb and enjoy.
Ben was also adamant about steering clear of personal abuse and libel. Franklin found personal attacks to be beneath him, and rightfully so. Fewer people will be as willing to hear the arguments of those who resort to personal attacks against people and their reputations. Sadly, we still have much of this still in our own society today, and it’s only grown worse through social media. If more people continued to follow Franklin’s example, we’d live in a much more thoughtful and tolerant society.
Franklin felt that “truth, sincerity, and integrity” are the key words to keep in mind in dealings with people. Those ideals are still with us today, of course, and it’s shameful that more people don’t hold them dear. His thirteen Virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility are all good ones to live by.
Throughout the course of his life story, Franklin shows how he became the clear-minded, methodical, industrious and frugal person as he is famously known. Frugality was extremely important to him, which allowed him to pay off his debts by his forties, something unheard of in his profession with the costs of equipment. The printing business, at the time, wasn’t considered to be a lucrative business. Many print houses which came before him would fail; over the years his competition diminished to the point that he was eventually the premier printer, if not the only competent one, in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Today, we would consider Ben Franklin a “hardcore” entrepreneur. Not only was he industrious and frugal, but he also avoided “all appearances to the contrary.” He never took part in what he considered as “idle diversions.” Books were about the only things that took him away from his work. Franklin essentially lived as you saw him, a man married to his work; he would later get married, but still he was living to work. He put on no facades; Franklin worked hard and reflected that image daily.
Franklin lived by the Protestant work ethic. He worked his tail off, remained very frugal, and found that slowly things became progressively easier. Even after his printing business paid off all of its debts and he was able to retire comfortably, he continued working hard by devoting himself to public works. Franklin is the embodiment of working as hard as you can when you’re younger to be able to reap the fruits and benefits later on in life. Thanks to an early retirement, Franklin was able to do all the useful things that work earlier on in life prevented him from doing.
The most important thing to remember about Ben Franklin is that no matter how successful a person is, he or she must not let their vanity carry them away. As a younger man, Franklin was a man striving toward perfection. However, as perfectly as he tried to live, when he examined his days, he found more faults than he would have liked. Realistically, he then understood that perfection is not something that can be humanly attained, but can always be worked towards to make you a better person.
Franklin also came to realize “that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.” Reasonably, it’s no use to obsess over trying to be perfect. No matter how perfect you try to be, you will always have flaws; those flaws are just a part of being human.
If I learned anything from Ben Franklin’s example, it’s that I should always strive to be independent, and most importantly, take charge of my own writing work. This is why I’ve never sought a publishing house for my work; I’ve refused to let the machinations of Corporations affect what I write and how I go about my business. I will always self-publish, even if it means leaving potential money on the table; I never wrote for the money, anyway, and I still managed to get by.
After all, today we have the technology to serve as our own personal printing presses. If you have a smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer, you can publish your work. While I don’t begrudge those who pursue a major (or even minor) publishing deal from a third party, it seems entirely unnecessary to me.
In my life experience, I’ve seen many talented writers spend the majority of their lives being rejected by press after press, when they should be instead putting all their energy into their work. That’s what I have done and this website is proof that even when the going got rough, I always came back to my writing because I made it my life’s goal to publish all that I am able.
At this stage in my life, in my mid-thirties as I’m editing this essay, I’m at the point where I can follow Ben Franklin’s example and do the things having to work for a living prevented me from doing before. Now I’m free to write whatever I desire, to write essays regularly on any topics I wish. All that I’m currently lacking is a society of like-minded scribblers and intellectuals to conspire with in perpetuating virtuous intellectualism.
Ben Franklin was no doubt an extraordinary human being, but he was still just a man. Franklin’s life story is a living example that shows us that through hard work, intellectual challenge, frugality, and, most importantly, humility, we can all be extraordinary human beings. Yes, we can all follow Ben Franklin’s example if we want to, and without fully realizing it, I am on that path right now.
Marian J. Morton and Russell Duncan, First Person Past: American Autobiographies, 2nd ed. (Brandywine Press, 2004), p.39-62.
John Mack Faragher, Mari Jo Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan H. Armitage, Out of Many, A History of the American People, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2004), p.87.