Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Reputation: Model of the self-made man

For Openers:  Though Franklin makes clear his belief in God, his belief in rationalism, science, and self-fashioning (self-reliance) in his Autobiography seems to depart from the Puritan/Christian beliefs established during the Colonial period, as evident in his

  1. Synthesis of new ideas of rationalism and old beliefs of Puritanism
  2. Shift from emphasis on dogma and theism to humanitarianism, tolerance, and reason
  3. Devotion to the ideals of reason, this-worldliness, success, and philosophy of accommodation
  4. Devotion to self-fashioning/perfection of human
  5. Movement away from faith in providence toward a belief in the efficacy of self-reliance
  6. Quest for exemplary citizenship and moral perfection in which the condition of the soul plays little or no significant part
  7. Practical view of life that seems to be secular or deistic in nature
  8. Refusal to use the word sin, but instead using the word “erratum” to describe moral failings.

Autobiography: Brief Outline

4 Parts

Part 1: Written in 1771; the most personal

  1. Begins with statement of intention and guide to life for his 40yr old son. 

Note: this is a mask or personae or pose which he rather uses indirectly to offer advice to readers.

  1. Family tree
  2. Young life: childhood mistakes and accomplishments
  3. Colonial schooling and the self-educated individual: studious, hardworking, and independent minded youth
  4. Age10 : helped dad in shop
  5. Age 12 : apprenticed to older brother James (developed ambition to read and write)
  6. 1721: Established The New England Courant; anonymously wrote “Silence Dogood”
  7. 1722: Brother jailed and forbidden to “print or publish”; Franklin became printer and publisher
  8. Age 17: left home, went to Philadelphia, encountered some false starts, but nevertheless made his way up
  9. Age 20: formed the Junto
  10. Married Miss Deborah Read (Note: Love, marriage, Dowry, and businesslike approach to marriage)
  11. Embarks on first act of community betterment: founding of a public library

Part 2

  1. Begins with a discussion of library project
  2. Focuses on way to moral perfection; expounds 13 virtues of his self-improvement course:

Temperance          Silence            Order                  Resolution             Frugality

Industry                 Sincerity          Justice                  Moderation           Cleanliness

Tranquility                        Chastity      Humility

Part 3: Largest of 4 sections

  1. Concerns public activities and Philadelphia political concerns
  2. Charts his rise and success as a printer and local politician
  3. Involvement in Indian and French war
  4. Participation in Penn family versus Philadelphia assembly debate
  5. Involvement with scientific experiments, inventions, and international societies

Part 4

  1. Diplomatic mission to England
  2. Mission successful, Autobiography ends.

Major literary influences

Classics, Addison, Locke, Swift, Bunyan, and Defoe

Concluding Thoughts and Questions

What factors contributed to Franklin’s success in public life

  1. Involvement in projects: police force, volunteer fire company, an academy and college, hospital for the poor, paving streets etc.
  2. Involvement in public affairs
  3. Use of plain style, the language of common people
  4. Shared common people’s practical philosophy of life
  5. Advocated down to earth get-ahead-in-life virtues
  6. Discovery that it was useful to be educated and to have friends
  7. Membership in clubs: Junto, American scientific society, American philosophical society, etc.
  8. Application of common sense in the brave new world of opportunity
  9. Appeal as guide to morality and success
  10. Advocated way to wealth practices:

practice of industry

paying attention to business

exercising frugality

cultivating prudence

What factors contributed to Franklin’s success as a writer

  1. Skillful use of plain style
  2. Effective use of art of persuasion
  3. Clarity and precision
  4. Logical step-by-step development of points
  5. Use of humor, wit, and clever satire
  6. Humane in his treatment of others
  7. Use of worldly wisdom

Discuss factors that made Franklin the ideal American Statesman

  1. Public life
  2. Personality
  3. Career as man of letters
  4. Mastery of the human touch

Discuss the Autobiography as a morality tale with Franklin as the hero, overcoming obstacles in life.

Explain how Autobiography is an example of the rag-to-riches literature that offered an optimistic American ideal.

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