The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the most important and influential works in American history. It tells the story of Franklin's life from his humble beginnings to his emergence as a leading figure in the American colonies. In the process, it creates a portrait of Franklin as the quintessential American. Because of the book, Franklin became a role model for future generations of Americans, who hoped to emulate his rags to riches story. The Autobiography has also become one of the central works not ...
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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the most important and influential works in American history. It tells the story of Franklin's life from his humble beginnings to his emergence as a leading figure in the American colonies. In the process, it creates a portrait of Franklin as the quintessential American. Because of the book, Franklin became a role model for future generations of Americans, who hoped to emulate his rags to riches story. The Autobiography has also become one of the central works not just for understanding Franklin but for understanding America.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a man of many roles-printer, author, philosopher, scientist, inventor, diplomat, and politician to name only a few. He lived a wide and varied life and found himself at the center of virtually every major event involving America during the second half of the eighteenth century. He was so successful as a businessman that he was able to retire at the age of 42. He proved equally adept at science, and his experiments in electricity made him the most famous American in the colonies. Politics and diplomacy occupied him for most of the latter half of his life.

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Introduction

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the most important and influential works in American history. It tells the story of Franklin's life from his humble beginnings to his emergence as a leading figure in the American colonies and, in the process, creates a portrait of Franklin as the quintessential American. Because of the book, he became a role model for future generations of Americans, who hoped to emulate his rags to riches story. The Autobiography has also become one of the central works not just for understanding Franklin but for understanding America.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a man of many roles-printer, author, philosopher, scientist, inventor, diplomat, and politician to name only a few. He lived a wide and varied life and found himself at the center of virtually every major event involving America during the second half of the eighteenth century. He was so successful as a businessman that he was able to retire at the age of 42. He proved equally adept at science, and his experiments in electricity made him the most famous American in the colonies. Politics and diplomacy occupied him for most of the latter half of his life, and he was a master of these as well. His Autobiography is essential reading for any attempt to come to terms with this complex and multi-faceted man.

Born in Boston as the eighth child of ten to a pious Puritan family, Franklin knew from an early age that success would come only from his own efforts. After some initial indecision about his career, he was apprenticed to his brother James, who was a printer. The choice was a fortunate one. The profession would give Franklin an influence far beyond that of almost any other trade. Franklin chafed under what he considered his brother's overbearing manner, and he eventually broke his indentures and ran away to Philadelphia in 1723 where he soon found a job with another printer. He opened his own printing shop a few years later. In 1729, he acquired a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He also did most of the public printing in the colony and served as the postmaster for Philadelphia. In 1732, he began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack, which played an important role in establishing Franklin's wealth.

During his years in Philadelphia, Franklin played an increasingly influential role in the civic life of the city and the colony. He was actively involved in numerous voluntary ventures to improve life in Philadelphia, a practical application of many of the ideas that would find expression later in his Autobiography. In 1731, with a group of friends, he established the first circulating library in America, which came to be emulated throughout the colonies. He founded a fire company (1736), the American Philosophical Society (1743), a college that later became the University of Pennsylvania (1749), an insurance company (1751), and a city hospital (1751). He also organized a number of other improvements in city life, such as streetlights and street cleaning. In his Autobiography, Franklin wrote, "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"-an apt summation of Franklin's pragmatic and common-sense approach to life.

After his retirement, Franklin busied himself with science and performed a variety of experiments with electricity. He eventually came up with a theory to explain electricity in its various forms, a breakthrough that led to his election to England's Royal Society (1756) and to the French Academy of Sciences (1772). His discoveries made him the most famous American in the thirteen colonies. As always, Franklin looked for practical applications of his theory and invented the lightning rod to protect buildings against lightning strikes. Lightning rods soon began to appear on buildings throughout the world.

Increasingly, though, Franklin's retirement was spent in public service. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751 and spent virtually the rest of his life in one governmental post or another. In 1757, he was sent to London as the representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly to argue on behalf of the colony that the power of the colony's proprietors should be curbed. He returned to America from 1762 to 1764 and then went back to London to try to convince officials to change Pennsylvania from a proprietary colony to a royal colony, although the growing conflict with England quickly changed Franklin's agenda. While he diligently worked to bring the two sides together, he argued forcefully for the rights and liberties of Americans and bluntly told British officials that the colonials would never accept an abridgement of those liberties. During this time, Franklin came to view himself as an American, rather than as a citizen of the British Empire. A number of other colonies eventually appointed him as their representative in London as well, and he became the leading spokesman for America in Great Britain during the crucial pre-revolutionary years. After a severe upbraiding before the English Privy Council for leaking private letters that helped inflame colonial sentiment against the Massachusetts royal governor, Franklin left England in 1775. He was elected to the second Continental Congress, and in 1776 he found himself re-crossing the Atlantic to try to persuade the French government to support the American Revolution. The literary and scientific community quickly embraced him as an embodiment of the natural virtues extolled by the philosophes, and he successfully negotiated an alliance between France and America that was essential to America's eventual victory. When the war ended, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain and returned to Philadelphia in 1785. He attended the Constitutional Convention, although he did not play a significant role in the debates, and he worked for the cause of abolition in the final years of his life.

Although Franklin's long and illustrious career ensured that he would hold a central place in early American history, his Autobiography played a crucial role in cementing his reputation as the prototypical American. The work has a complicated history of composition and publication, which is part of the reason that readers often find the work and Franklin himself elusive. It was written in four parts. Franklin wrote the first part in July and August of 1771, ostensibly addressing it as advice to his son, William, although that was likely only a literary device because William was already the governor of New Jersey. He also drew up a list of topics that he wanted to address in the work.

Franklin wrote the second part in France in 1784 and included two letters from admirers of the first part who urged him to continue the work. Franklin's inclusion of those letters gave a kind of justification to his work and revealed what a revolutionary undertaking it was. What made it revolutionary was what made Franklin himself revolutionary-his Autobiography was not the work of a king or an aristocrat or a general but the work of a man who had begun life as a poor tradesman. For a man such as that to write an autobiography was to do more than simply recount a life-it was to reveal a revolution in society. Birth and one's initial place in society's hierarchy were no longer the sole criteria for defining one's importance-at least in American society. Although early America was not completely free of social stratification, it was a remarkably fluid society and offered ample scope for Franklin and others to rise to prominence through merit alone.

In 1788, after retiring from the presidency of Pennsylvania, Franklin wrote the third part, which was also the longest. Sometime before his death in April 1790, Franklin added the fourth section, which was only seven and a half pages. Franklin also revised the different sections at various points.

The work's publication followed a circuitous path. Although various versions appeared in print, usually translated from French, the first authorized English version did not appear until 1818, and even this version did not include the fourth part. The complete work was not printed in English from the original manuscript until 1868. Despite all of this, the work quickly became a perennial best-seller in the nineteenth century as countless young boys turned to it as a guidebook for success with Franklin as the perfect model of industry and virtue.

The extended period of the Autobiography's composition left its imprint on the work. When Franklin originally wrote the first part, he still thought of himself as an Englishman and was proud to be one. By the time he began the second section, however, the American Revolution had changed his self-perception entirely, and in his writing he consciously recast himself as an American. The first part adheres largely to a chronological order and often reads like a picaresque novel with its young, somewhat naïve narrator learning to make his way in the world. The second part focuses mainly on Franklin's plan for moral perfection and is generally the section that has led to the most criticism. Many have seen it as proof of Franklin's impoverished spirituality and his materialism. But Franklin was far from the simple narrator that he seemed to be. A sly irony runs through the section alerting readers to Franklin's own knowledge of the somewhat ridiculous nature of his quest. In the third and fourth sections, we see Franklin in the role of a leading citizen of Philadelphia as well as frequent examples of the problems with English rule in the late colonial period. Throughout the work, Franklin remains a somewhat elusive figure-the very artlessness of the writing disguises not just a master prose stylist but a man who constantly and consciously shaped his image for public consumption.

Franklin's Autobiography gave definitive expression to many elements of what would come to be seen as the American character. He was a proselytizer for the power of individualism, showing in countless examples from his own life how one man could change society. He was also an eternal optimist. Perhaps most importantly, he came to embody the American dream, the idea that anyone, no matter how humble his or her background, could rise to the highest level in society.

For most of the nineteenth century, Franklin's book served as a primer for how to succeed. Even in the twentieth century, the Autobiography remained a central work, but a more critical appraisal of Franklin began to occur. Max Weber famously saw Franklin as the perfect embodiment of the spirit of capitalism, claiming that Franklin articulated "a philosophy of avarice. . .which is assumed as an end in itself…. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of life." Other commentators often took a similarly harsh view. They argued that he was an artful hypocrite, disguising his true character behind a façade of facile pieties about frugality and hard work, even as he lived a life of a wealthy eighteenth-century gentleman, or they saw him as a symbol of how Americans had an impoverished view of life dominated by shallow materialism. D. H. Lawrence complained:



Now if Mr. Andrew Carnegie, or any other millionaire, had wished to invent a God to suit his ends, he could not have done better. Benjamin did it for him in the eighteenth century. God is the supreme servant of men who want to get on, to produce…. But man has a soul, though you can't locate it either in his purse or his pocket-book or his heart or his stomach or his head. The wholeness of a man is in his soul. Not merely that nice comfortable bit which Benjamin marks out.



But many would say that those criticisms confuse the literary persona with the man, and Franklin's own life belies any easy reduction of him to a materialist. He spent most of his life in public service, not trying to increase his fortune. As for his hypocrisy, defenders claim that he was gifted at fashioning a self to suit his audience and that he used this ability not to deceive anyone but to further what he saw as the public good.

Regardless of one's view, Benjamin Franklin provided the definitive early template for success in a rapidly expanding country and an early formulation for what came to be called the American dream. America as a land of opportunity, as a place where anyone can rise to wealth and prominence through hard work rather than birth, found full expression in Franklin's writings. And the Autobiography remains a touchstone of American history and literature, a work of continuing fascination to anyone interested in understanding America.

Andrew S. Trees holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Virginia. He has taught at Rutgers University, Rhodes College, and the University of Virginia, and he is the author of The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character (Princeton University Press).
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 196 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 196 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2007

    Insights from America's original innovator

    Benjamin Franklin, one of history¿s most remarkable human beings, was born in Boston in 1706. Largely self-taught, he became a respected scientist whose experiments on electricity received international acclaim. He invented the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, bifocals, the glass harmonica, an odometer and more. He was a self-made man who became wealthy as one of America's first commercial printers. He was a respected civic activist, a leading author, a politician and a political theorist. Many of the wise maxims expressed in his immortal Poor Richard's Almanack remain relevant and routinely quoted. Franklin is considered one of America's most accomplished diplomats. He served as minister to France during the Revolutionary War. In that post, he engineered a vital political alliance with the French, winning crucial military and financial aid. We think that anyone who loves history will find this spellbinding autobiography a rare delight. Franklin was on intimate terms with many of the most famous individuals in prerevolutionary America. Indeed, he seemed to have personal dealings with virtually everyone of merit in the New World. His autobiography, written in the best of the archaic language of the time, is a literary classic. Don't deprive yourself of this singular opportunity to learn what the American colonies were like during the prerevolutionary era, as reported by the extraordinary genius who first conceptualized the idea of the United States as an independent nation.

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 8, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Surprsingly surprised

    Albeit Benjamin Franklin is a staple in American history, I'd never read more about him than what those few, short paragraphs school texts provide. It's a hard read for the laymen; the writing style is something of a "chew-through," if you catch my meaning (though I personally enjoyed the difficulty). I recommened this book to anybody questioning the value of hard work, ingenuity, vigor, stamina, and resilience. Benjamin Franklin is THE representation of our heritage, the figure to whom a great many turn when inquiring into our country's origin. Who better to illustrate it, then, than the man himself?

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 6, 2010

    A straightforward account of a life by the man himself.

    Benjamin Franklin is one of the more inspiring individuals in the history of the US. Reading through this autobiography, it becomes apparent that he was a true "self-made" man. He gives account of his achievements as well as his shortcomings and provides insight regarding how he grew (or failed to grow) from each.

    This is not a volume of hardcore history. At most, it will provide some context to Franklin's actions leading up to and during the American Revolution by revealing where he came from.

    Personally, I found this book a motivator for personal growth and responsibility. Franklin led his life taking full responsibility for his actions - successes and failures alike. In my opinion, his example and way of living is a lesson the we as a people would do well to relearn.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2010

    Benjamin Franklin. An Amazing scientist.

    this is a very good book has a lot of information on him from a child to an adult. He was Extremely deticated to almost everything he did, which you dont see much anymore. He worked very hard and this book showed this. It's hard to believe he retired at 45... wow. This book tought me a lot about him, before reading it i really only knew he made electricity. I didnt know that he did all kinds of other things and also did not know of the process that he took to find it. If you ask me we have Dr. Spencer to thank as much as we do Benjamin Franklin.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    One of the greatest of the Founding Fathers

    This is an amazing account of Benjamin Franklin in his own words. He was an absolutely amazing man. He accomplished so much in his life and he gave us so much that he is one of the greatest of our Founding Fathers. He was so far ahead of his time and incredibly intelligent for his time. This should be required reading in our schools.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 9, 2012

    The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin effectively allows the re

    The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin effectively allows the reader to follow the journey of Franklin and offers us a better perspective on just how impressive this man was. The autobiography itself is broken into the three distinct sections and as expected break up the different parts of Franklin’s life. The first section establishes the major theme of the book- self betterment. It additionally gives background information on the family ancestry of Franklin and his own family during his youth. It also tracks the earlier life of Franklin, in particular his work with printers and full of criticism for his boss at the time. It begins the development of Franklin as a great writer and one who produces his work. Perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of the book was part three as he discusses and goes into detail his life as a scientist and the inventions he created in his life.

    The biography is truly demonstrative of Franklin’s humor and philosophical beliefs that matured throughout his life. His writings take on an aspect of appreciating the better sides of humanity. While the language he uses may be a bit confusing, or at least seem a bit daunting, Franklin is still able to communicate his effective messages throughout the work. What was particularly refreshing was the absence of detail on the revolution, it allowed us to establish a better connection with his personality and ultimately feel closer to him.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2012

    I would give this book to a graduate in high school or college as a helpful guide in life

    This book has much to say in dealing with different people. It is benjamin franklin telling his story and he tells what he has learned in his lifetime what he would recommend for a young man to do just starting out in life, to business, adventures on the sea and providing for a family. It is simply amazing and inspiring. I give this a high recommendation. You must read this book to help you get an idea for a sucessful life, or just finding a great read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2014

    Have not read yet

    I did not read this book yet

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2011

    Definitive source for a brief look into B. Franklin's life.

    Looking for some insight into such an astounding founding father of the United States, I decided to pick this up as my first ever Autobiography.

    The reading was fine and everything was neatly done in this edition. It sounds authentic and from my little knowledge, it doesn't appear as though very much, if anything at al,l has been omitted except for the end part of the book. It stops very abruptly and so I decided to research this. And, in fact, Franklin did have more to write about, why this edition omits a good 2-3 more pages (by my assumption) worth of information is unknown to me.

    Other than that, the book was good and I recommend it for those who have a few questions regarding such an interesting man. Although he does not discuss the latter part of his life, including arguably the most important era, the Revolutionary War.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2011

    Left out a few pages at the end

    I was browsing through the book and it struck me that the ending wasn't quite right. It ended with saying that they arrived in London. I compared it to my hardback copy and noticed that in my hardback that Franklin wrote another 6 pages about what happened after that. I'm hoping I can get my money back.

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 30, 2010

    The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

    Reading this autobiography made be wonder about the lives of my ancestors who where living in some of the same areas of the country as Benjamin Franklin. I couldn't stop reading until I finished the entire book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    Wonderful autobiography

    I enjoyed reading Ben Franklin's first hand account of his life. I knew he was innovative. Found out he was a very forward thinker for his time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 21, 2008

    insightful!

    The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was very hard to comprehend.<BR/>The time period in which it was written is how the style of writing is.<BR/>Franklin goes on talking about his life but he states that he is rewriting his life to better himself. He takes out the mistakes he has done in his life, and only mentions a few mistakes alerting you to pay attention to what he mention. If you are interested in history and Franklin¿s personality then read this book. I personally didn¿t really enjoy it but it was informative.

    1 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 30, 2014

    the life of one of the most influential men in american history

    the life of one of the most influential men in american history that demonstrates his humble beginnings to the most successful printer in Philadelphia. One follows in the footsteps in the life of Benjamin Franklin and, with his eloquence, can picture his life unfold as one reads on. An essential in any persons personal collection that may change how one can live their life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2013

    Worst book ever















































    ,





    ,








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  • Posted December 3, 2010

    difficult to read

    I like the story, but it is difficult to read with the way it is printed. I'm going to be purchasing a different version that is more readable

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2010

    Average

    This was an okay book. Did not touch on any of the Revolutionary War timeperiod.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Great Business Thinking from One of History's Richest Men

    Ben Franklin is one of history's richest men, which led me to wanting to learn more about him. He started with only a little knowledge from a printing apprenticeship and no money, and turned it into great wealth by living some simple principles. An enlightening read!

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  • Posted June 20, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Classic that should be read

    In high school, I did a book report on Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography after reading only a fourth of it. Yes, the 1700s writing style seems difficult at first. I recently read the entire book and was glad I did. You get used to the stilted style. Franklin was an amazing and important character, and people - especially Americans - should go beyond the caricature of him as an old guy with long hair who flew a kite.

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  • Posted May 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A translation of older language

    This may be difficult to read. It did not absorb me. I found it difficult to understand evrything. Good luck if you choose to tackle this one.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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