The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

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Few men could compare to Benjamin Franklin. Virtually self-taught, he excelled as an athlete, a man of letters, a printer, a scientist, a wit, an inventor, an editor, and a writer, and he was probably the most successful diplomat in American history. David Hume hailed him as the first great philosopher and great man of letters in the New World.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the most important and influential works in American history. It tells the story of ...

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Few men could compare to Benjamin Franklin. Virtually self-taught, he excelled as an athlete, a man of letters, a printer, a scientist, a wit, an inventor, an editor, and a writer, and he was probably the most successful diplomat in American history. David Hume hailed him as the first great philosopher and great man of letters in the New World.

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.

Initially written as a letter to his son William, the autobiography offers Franklin's reflections on philosophy and religion, politics, war, education, material success, and the status of women. Stylistically his best work, it has become a classic in world literature, one to inspire and delight readers everywhere.

One of the most powerful and controversial writers of his time, his own words on his greatest creation -- his own persona.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400138982
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/17/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Library - Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 6.80 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

By Benjamin Franklin


Copyright © 2003 Benjamin Franklin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743255062


In any discussion of American origins, Benjamin Franklin is a good man to begin with. Years before the United States existed, he started things that his countrymen continue to be proud of -- libraries, civic clubs, volunteer fire departments, effective street lighting, and efficient heating devices. He was solidly American, ingenious, practical, ambitious, and successful. His Autobiography testifies that his feet were firm on the ground, but that he did not stand still. No man of his time went so far, and few of any time have gone farther. But, because he not only started things, but also let it be known that he did, Franklin may sometimes be credited with more than he deserves. That is one reason why he stands confidently at the head of any native literary procession. Talking about himself, he produced his country's best masterpiece.

Like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Franklin created a public image so attractive that it obscures the man who made it. Whatever influences of time or place or circumstance combined to produce the successful, whimsical and plain-spoken homespun favorite remembered as Ben Franklin, the projection of this character was a literary exploit of magnitude. "He knew what he was about, this sharp little man," said D. H. Lawrence. "He set up the first dummy American." Certainly Horatio Alger could not have done so well in celebrating the stereotype rise from rags to riches if Franklin had not invented it. It could have bothered neither man that, like almost all of Franklin's devices, the invention was mechanical. This was something never forgotten from his New England boyhood, that everything could be set in a row and counted.

When Thomas Carlyle called him the father of all Yankees, he meant something of that sort, and when Leigh Hunt explained that "Americans are Englishmen with the poetry and romance taken out of them," he meant much the same. Carl Van Doren has spoken of Franklin's magnificent centrality and of the flexible equilibrium of his talents, because, too busy or too wise to become any one thing, Franklin managed all things, including himself, with casual efficiency: "Mind and will, talent and art, strength and ease, wit and grace met in him as if nature had been lavish and happy when he was shaped. Nothing seems to have been left out except a passionate desire, as in most men of genius, to be all ruler, all soldier, all saint, all poet, all scholar, all some one gift or merit or success."

Perhaps in colonial America more than in most places, versatility was a becoming achievement -- combined with self-control, recognition of limits beyond which, as Hemingway later was to explain, no man could successfully venture. Franklin painstakingly defined himself as a man who kept within bounds, discovering such satisfaction in handling what was set before him that he seldom was tempted to stretch for more. Reality was what he could see or feel, even at the end of a kite string, and he was too sensible to suspect that gods of the sky might smite him down in anger. That was what Melville must have meant when he said that Franklin's mind was grave, but never serious.

Rightfully proud of the range of his experience, Franklin was pleased when other people mistook breadth for depth, but he never fooled himself, or let himself down. When something was to be said, he prepared it carefully, so that it could be said well, for Franklin recognized his deficiencies, especially when it came to conversation. He did not extemporize easily. Like Mark Twain, he was best in monologue, skilled at fitting tales to special situations and, if uninterrupted, could spin out a pretty compliment or an effective satire. In temperament a tranquil man, he is not known to have been disturbed by unpleasant dreams, though he had wit enough to invent nighttime fantasies for recitation in flirtatious badinage with appreciative ladies. It did not seem strange to him that French women preferred to be kissed on the neck rather than on cheek or lips where makeup might be disordered.

Contented with surfaces because surfaces served him well, Franklin probably would have understood Melville's admiration for men who dived deeply, even to inevitable failure, but he would not have shared it. Better safe, he might have said, than sorry. He would have been pleased at Melville's description of him as "printer, postmaster, almanac maker, essayist, chemist, orator, tinker, statesman, humorist, philosopher, parlor man, political economist, professor of housewifery, ambassador, projector, maxim-monger, herb-doctor, wit: -- Jack of all trades, master of each and mastered by none -- the type and genius of his land." He might have nodded in sage pretense of understanding when Melville went on to say, "Franklin was everything but a poet"; but surely he would have known exactly what Carl Van Doren meant when a century later he described Franklin as the best writer in America.

Even when the Autobiography is placed to one side, Franklin's place among native men of letters seems secure. In the Dogood Papers, submitted while still in his teens to his brother's New England Courant, he produced his country's first series of periodical essays. His "Speech of Polly Baker" some twenty years later applies for place as America's first successful short story. As a satirist in such essays as "Rules for Reducing a Great Empire to a Small One" and "An Edict of the King of Prussia," he has been compared to Swift and Voltaire. The "bagatelles" which he produced as an elderly man's avocation during his residence in France are written in such gracious but plainspoken prose that they alone could ensure his reputation as a stylist. As a letter writer, he was superb -- witty, wise, informative, and ingratiating.

The maxims which Franklin imported from abroad and reshaped to native idiom for Poor Richard's Almanac have been familiarly repeated by many generations. Father Abraham's brief treatise on "The Way to Wealth" became even in Franklin's lifetime cherished as a minor classic, often reprinted, widely translated. His "Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress" gave local habitation to an ancient smoking-room axiom, retold with mock solemnity. Franklin spoke seriously about education, economics, politics, and science; but he liked also to recount whoppers about American sheep with tails so heavy that carts had to be provided to support them. He wrote drinking songs and funeral elegies, and made verses in praise of his "plain country Joan" ("Blest the day that I made her my own").

As a young man, Franklin composed A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, and through many of his later years planned an erudite treatise on "The Art of Virtue" which he never got around to putting on paper. Instead, he wrote the Autobiography, in which he presented the image of the personage remembered as Ben Franklin. To most people this personage is an amalgam of Poor Richard, Father Abraham, the young man who caught electricity with a kite, the sagacious old man in spectacles and fur cap who charmed all Europe, and the boy who was born, it is often said, in Philadelphia at the age of seventeen, trudging its dusty streets with giant loaves of bread under each arm, laughed at then, but probably for the last time -- these, and much more: satirist, humorist, storyteller, essayist, letter writer, jokester, precisionist, and punster. What Benjamin Franklin really was is concealed behind a fabric so adroitly woven that no biographer has penetrated it, and so attractively designed that hundreds have been tempted to try. But what remains is still only what he cared to show of himself, a masked figure playing a part so well that, like Whitman or Mark Twain, he must himself have had difficulty at times in distinguishing the poser from the pose.

His Autobiography thus becomes the first American book to belong permanently to literature. It created a man. The first part written as a moral guide to show his son the way to success, and ensuing parts as a substitute for the treatise on virtue, it offered efficient and firsthand testimony "that man is not even at present a vicious and detestable animal, and still more...that good management may greatly amend him." As much as Rousseau's Confessions, the Declaration of Independence, or Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads, it announced the emergence of a view of man as good and capable of becoming better. To think of Franklin as a Romantic, however, is to stretch the limits of that term, for he combined with his confidence in what Emerson later, more enthusiastically, called "the infinitude of the private man," a sense like that of Marcus Aurelius or Hemingway of limits beyond which man may not explore. Taking what was needed wherever he found it, he was an eighteenth-century man who sifted carefully to discover what was practical and useful and, therefore, best; he made a patchwork of ideas which served him well.

For virtue was not a thing apart, pursued for its own sake: it was a gateway to success. "Almost every Man has a strong Desire of being valu'd and esteem'd by the rest of his Species, but I am concern'd and griev'd," said Franklin, "to see how few fall into the Right and only infallible Method of becoming so." Thereupon, he set up his own chart of virtues, and methodically drilled himself in them, one after another. This week he would be temperate: "Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation." The next week he would avoid trifling conversation, the next he would be orderly, then resolute, then frugal, industrious, sincere, and so on down the list, through justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, to chastity: "Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation." At first, he wrote down an even dozen, but when a Quaker friend told him that he was generally thought proud, he added another, humility, and had more trouble with it than all the rest. "I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue," he confessed, "but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it."

For, after all, appearance does count. People who dislike Franklin refer to this attitude as cynical. To William Carlos Williams, he is "our wise prophet of chicanery," a man of voluptuous energy, but sly and covert. To some of his contemporaries, Franklin seemed a vulgar man who despoiled life of richness and literature of charm: his effect on language was to coarsen it with colloquialism offensive to good taste or refined feelings. Others have found him not in the best sense a dedicated man, because his principal commitment was to himself, whatever he wrote was for a purpose, and words were instruments used to manipulate other men in ways advantageous to the writer.

There is little glitter to Franklin. "All ideal is lacking in this healthy, upright, able, frugal, laborious nature of Franklin," said Sainte-Beuve. There is in him no "fine flower of enthusiasm, tenderness, sacrifice....He brings everything down to arithmetic and strict reality, assigning no part to human imagination." When D. H. Lawrence dismissed Franklin as a "snuff-colored little man" who set up an "unlovely, snuff-colored ideal," he went on to say that "this pattern-American, this dry, moral, utilitarian little democrat has done more to ruin old Europe than any Russian nihilist." Lawrence must have meant much what Melville meant when he said that Franklin was everything but a poet, or what someone else meant when he said that Franklin was interested in all things about man except his spirit. The Europe which Franklin ruined was the Europe whose perceptions of levels of excellence had hardened to ritual within which men and manners and morals and matters of taste were rigidly enclosed. It was also the Europe of loveliness, enthusiasm, tenderness, and grace grounded in tradition which years later, first Cooper, then Henry James attempted to reveal to their countrymen.

As a self-made writer, Franklin exhibited almost all the tendencies and attitudes discoverable in succeeding American writers of his kind, and he also shared opinions with others who were in most respects different. When Thoreau in Walden spoke of the cost of anything being the amount of life which must be exchanged for it, he extended what Franklin had said about self-denial in avoiding any action inconsistent with health or fortune "because 'twould cost more than 'twas worth." Emerson, in asking native writers to turn attention to common things, the meal in the firkin, the milk in the pan, and the song in the street, emphasized in precept what Franklin had established in practice. As much as Whittier or Whitman or Harriet Beecher Stowe, Franklin aimed at an audience of simple people, and his language, more than theirs, reached the workingman, the man of business who did his reading on the run and left literature to ladies.

Composed at various times and in varying moods, the Autobiography is not a well-made book. Franklin was sixty-five when he began it in 1771 on a fortnight holiday in Twyford, England; at this time he brought the story of his life through some eighty pages down to 1730. More than ten years passed until, in France in 1784, he puttered over new pages which set forth his early, methodical plans for "arriving at moral perfection." After he returned to America, he took up the task again in 1788, picking up the narrative in 1731 and carrying it industriously forward to 1757. Sometime before his death in the spring of 1790, Franklin added a brief fourth part which ended with events of 1759. In style, the first part is best, written as a letter to his son, in leisurely, reminiscent affection for the boy whose adventures it told. By the time he began the second part, Franklin had been convinced by friends that the memoirs should be made public, addressed to young men everywhere. As a result, pictorial narrative is replaced by moral suasion as the industrious but bumbling boy becomes for many pages something of a prig, so intent on self-improvement that he caricatures himself. The third part, still burdened with morality, presses doggedly on, and the brief fourth part breaks off abruptly, as if the narrative might have gone on and on, except for the accident that he then stopped writing.

As in Walden, Moby-Dick, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story is unfinished; the hero is off to fresh adventures which an imaginative reader can infer. Without art, except in saying plain things plainly, Franklin thus adventitiously fathered a native literary form and a way of looking at the world which pays less attention to what a person is than to what he becomes or may become. The new world of America was a land of opportunities, and Franklin demonstrated in his life story how they might be met through diligence and wise management. If what he said of youthful escapades and young triumphs cannot in every instance be proved true, neither can they be thought false to the legend which his life and his memory of it created. Making drama out of drudgery and a liturgy of service, Franklin authenticated the democratic presumption that the least of men might rise, and, rising, lift his fellows. "I have always thought," he said, "that one man of tolerable abilities will work great changes and accomplish great affairs among mankind." And the lengthening shadow of Ben Franklin is spread over one after another of the institutions he fathered -- the fire companies, the city watch, schemes as varied as a plan for keeping streets clean, for practical education, for a literature of purpose, for justice to the Negro and Indian, for developing a postal system, and helping young men save money for learning to shave themselves.

Ultimately, however, it was that one man, a single and separate person who must make his way -- and Franklin sat for and painted his portrait. As America's first literary masterwork, the Autobiography may seem to make a shoddy, poor-relation appearance beside more ambitious and better planned books which follow it. But it holds its own. Badly organized, with hardly a metaphor in all its matter-of-fact pages, but enriched with the power of words as they are really spoken, it presents one character, distinctively, even disruptively American, whom many have attempted to sketch again, but none has done so well. Looking back over his life, much as Mark Twain was later to look back over his, Franklin created an image of an American boy, a more seriously engaged, city-bred Tom Sawyer, who meant well and who did well by looking out for himself. He learned, perhaps more than Huck Finn, to know the venality of man; but after a few tentative experiments, he was too alert and ambitious to let that bother him, even when discovered in himself. Ben Franklin had his eyes open. He knew that men and institutions were often corrupt, but he was confident that they might be improved. Knowing his limitations -- that he was not a poet, but only a very practical fellow, clever and sufficiently quick -- he was nonetheless sure that by proper manipulation of the talents he had, he could move triumphantly ahead, and he did.

Lewis Leary

Columbia University

Copyright 1962 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.


Excerpted from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin Copyright © 2003 by Benjamin Franklin.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 203 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 203 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 5 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


    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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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2014


    Where is everyone?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2014


    &#x5678 He watched. &#x5678

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2014


    The blue-silver shecat pads in, eyes blazing. "This the 'Silver Claws'?" she mews, shaking her head. "Must be."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2014



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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2014

    Tenacity OOC

    Brb breakfast

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2014

    Awesome read

    One of the few books I've reread. I love this book.

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  • Posted October 23, 2014

    This book about this unusual man allowed me to tweet out many qu

    This book about this unusual man allowed me to tweet out many quotes as I read about his outstanding life.  Ben Franklin was born in Boston as the youngest of eleven children and born in his father’s second set of children.  He was a voracious reader who put books before meals on occasion.  He became a printer with his brother James, but they fell out after his brother found out about some of his private publications and distributions.  Ben went on to New York and then to Philadelphia, where he would end up doing most of his life’s work. He set up a free library, a fire station with trucks; a learning academy for the poor; built a hospital; paved the streets; created street lights and remained a printer.  He was also known for writing the witty sayings of Poor Richard and Silence Dogood.  After retirement, he engaged in many electrical experiments and of course was involved in the writing of the US Constitution.  Ben Franklin worked tirelessly and often traveled to England to stay abreast of laws and ways to help to propel the colonies forward.  One of his last feats was his assistance in the abolition of slavery. This book helped me to reawaken many of my childhood teachings about work, morals and overall good behavior.  

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