Mar 12 2010

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Today, I finished reading “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin“. My present classics crusade continues to open books that I never intended to read. This is a good thing. Franklin‘s unfinished “Memoirs” (as he referred to them) were published in several incomplete versions after his death in 1790. The reprinted edition I read, printed by John Bigelow in 1868, included a number of Franklin’s correspondences. These were included to help fill gaps but mostly distract from the narrative. Bigelow’s version also remedied changes made to the original manuscript by Franklin’s grandson William Temple Franklin in 1818. I have belatedly discovered that a more complete and accurate version was published in 1981 entitled “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: A Genetic Text”. I mention this for the benefit of others; I have no intention of re-reading the book at this time.

The book is divided into three main sections (plus addenda), each written by Franklin at a different time and place in his life. The detailed account ends abruptly in 1757, shortly following a visit to Stonehenge. This is unfortunate since Franklin’ s story had only begun to unfold when the narrative ends. It seems strange to include a list of things omitted (because of his death) while reviewing the book, except to give some idea of what his full autobiography could have included, e.g., opposition of the Stamp Act (1765); meetings with Thomas Paine (1774); delegation to the Second Continental Congress (1775); signer of the Declaration of Independence (1776), Treaty of Paris (1783), Treaty of Alliance (1778), and the Constitution (1787); Ambassador to France (1776-1785); President of Pennsylvania (1785); opinions on the State of Franklin (1784-1790); his essays calling for the abolition of slavery (1789), &c. While the details of these historical connections can be found in most American History books, Franklin’s autobiography is most worthwhile for his observations and insights.

I was most taken by two elements of the story. The first element that intrigued me, was Franklin’s enumeration of his life’s errata. I may have to explore this concept on my own at some point. Moving on… The second element was his list of Thirteen Virtues, which he famously strove to live by and credited with his life’s great successes. He took great care to define these in such a way that their meanings would not be misinterpreted. He even developed a method for monitoring how well he lived by this plan, developed when he was 20 years old. This endeavor was particularly interesting to me as I have long considered developing my own “commandments”, being dissatisfied (for obvious reasons) with the Mosaic laws. I realize there’s a wide difference between virtues and laws, but the idea germinating in my skull could go either way, or eventually incorporate both. I now have more to think about, which (to me) is the desired result of reading.

“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.”

4 out of 5