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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Penn Reading Project Edition

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Penn Reading Project Edition

3.5 291
by Benjamin Franklin, Peter Conn (Editor), Amy Gutmann (Preface by)

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Printer and publisher, author and educator, scientist and inventor, statesman and philanthropist, Benjamin Franklin was the very embodiment of the American type of self-made man. In 1771, at the age of 65, he sat down to write his autobiography, "having emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred to a state of affluence and some degree of


Printer and publisher, author and educator, scientist and inventor, statesman and philanthropist, Benjamin Franklin was the very embodiment of the American type of self-made man. In 1771, at the age of 65, he sat down to write his autobiography, "having emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world, and having gone so far through life with a considerable share of felicity." The result is a classic of American literature.

On the eve of the tercentenary of Franklin's birth, the university he founded has selected the Autobiography for the Penn Reading Project. Each year, for the past fifteen years, the University of Pennsylvania has chosen a single work that the entire incoming class, and a large segment of the faculty and staff, read and discuss together. For this occasion the University of Pennsylvania Press will publish a special edition of Franklin's Autobiography, including a new preface by University president Amy Gutmann and an introduction by distinguished scholar Peter Conn. The volume will also include four short essays by noted Penn professors as well as a chronology of Franklin's life and the text of Franklin's Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, a document resulting in the establishment of an institution of higher education that ultimately became the University of Pennsylvania.

No area of human endeavor escaped Franklin's keen attentions. His ideas and values, as Amy Gutmann notes in her remarks, have shaped the modern University of Pennsylvania profoundly, "more profoundly than have the founders of any other major university of college in the United States." Franklin believed that he had been born too soon. Readers will recognize that his spirit lives on at Penn today.

Essay contributors: Richard R. Beeman, Paul Guyer, Michael Weisberg, and Michael Zuckerman.

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Read an Excerpt

The Power of Values
Amy Gutmann

"Why should I care?" "What difference does it make?" Some such question may be at the back of your mind as you pick up this special edition of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, published especially for the Penn Reading Project by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Your participation in PRP carries no grade. No one will take roll. After you discuss Franklin's Autobiography on Sunday, September 4, 2005 with fellow first-year students and a Penn faculty member, you may never again pick up the Autobiography.

So why bother?

Because Franklin is very much alive at Penn.

His famous personality and notable charisma helped to define a uniquely engaged American style and character, exemplified by many people you will meet at Penn. Franklin was not just a scientist (one of the world's first). He was not only an educational theorist (breaking with the classical curriculum of his day). Franklin loved learning. But he also applied his theoretical knowledge to the practical tasks of invention and civic improvement, founding the school that became the University of Pennsylvania. In his times, he was a media mogul and business entrepreneur. He created a chain of print shops throughout the Colonies that would be the envy of any Penn Wharton graduate. In the ideas and the values that he put into practice, Franklin exemplified the life of an engaged and successful public intellectual.

Franklin's ideas and values have shaped the modern University of Pennsylvania more profoundly than have the founders of any other major college or university in the United States. The Penn Compact—"From Excellence to Eminence"—is inspired by values that Franklin held dear: increasing access to education, integrating knowledge, and engaging with communities locally and globally, informed by broad-based knowledge. Franklin's ideas are clearly alive here at Penn in ways that really are quite remarkable. Your challenge in the next few months - and throughout the next four years - is to figure out how these values, and all that Penn is and strives to be in fulfilling them, can help you shape your own life to come. There's no better starting place for that journey than Franklin's Autobiography.

Were Franklin to walk into my office in College Hall today, he would immediately understand most of the topics he would hear discussed: the nature of the undergraduate educational experience; the challenge of integrating knowledge from the liberal arts and the professions to understand today's most difficult problems; the need to translate faculty and student research into real applications that will improve human lives; the important civic role of the University as Philadelphia's largest private employer and a powerhouse of urban revitalization; the need to raise new funds to ensure that no qualified student is ever deprived of a Penn education merely because he or she cannot afford it; and the importance of engaging communities here at home and around the world. All of these and many more issues of our day would be immediately familiar to Franklin. They embody and express the values and ideas to which he was committed and which inspired his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749), included in this volume, and the founding of what became the University of Pennsylvania.

Most important, Franklin would recognize the commitment to personal excellence—and to the ambition that drives the excellent to seek eminence—which is so characteristic of Penn today and of its faculty, students, staff, and alumni. All of these are values that guided Franklin throughout his life, and they are as relevant to your life and your choices as they were to his.

The Value Driven Life

Reason was Franklin's guide in life, making him an exemplar of the Enlightenment values and spirit that would characterize the young American Republic. But Reason was not Franklin's sole value. Utility, honesty, service, knowledge, and creativity—these were also among Franklin's core values. They shaped his life, and the Autobiography is the story of that shaping. "His Autobiography is in many ways," as Michael Zuckerman observes, "an account of the means by which he cultivated his own benevolence."

This formative role that values played in Franklin's life is evident across the spectrum of his activities, but most especially in his interpersonal relations. "Truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man," Paul Guyer argues, guided Franklin's dealings with others in business, civic life, government, diplomacy, and his personal life.

Some historians have argued that this picture of Franklin as virtuous and self-critical is merely an image that he labored consciously and assiduously to fabricate during his lifetime. There can be little doubt that self-promotion and personal reinvention were among Franklin's strongest skills. Yet are these faults, if employed for public purposes? Nothing was more central to the Enlightenment values of reason and individual self-determination than that all individuals freely choose for themselves that which they would become. Depending on the direction such self-determination takes, we will admire or criticize individual examples of personal invention and reinvention. As Franklin noted with his characteristically pointed wit: "A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle."

Throughout his life, Franklin carried on a rich, consequential, and increasingly frank dialogue with himself concerning his own successes and mistakes. His is a life that models the kind of self-questioning and self-creation that goes on in Penn's classrooms, College Houses, and coffeehouses, day in and day out. His is the kind of self-criticism and self-understanding that is at the core of socially responsible and creative living.

Choice, Challenge, and Commitment

One of the most remarkable and admirable features of Franklin, which distinguishes him from both moralizers and practitioners of his day and ours, was that he understood that choosing an admirable future is not enough. After the choice, the hard work begins. This, too, is an experience that awaits you here at Penn and in later life.

Franklin understood that the distance between good intentions and reality is the measure of one's life. It is not easy to commit yourself to this or that system of values. Yet how much harder is it to act effectively in accord with your values over the course of your lifetime? As early as age twenty, Franklin made periodic self-evaluation and self-criticism a regular feature of his life, so much so that Walter Isaacson calls him "the patron saint of self-improvement guides." Franklin measured his progress against his earlier choices, reconfirmed or modified his choices, and redoubled his efforts to act in accordance with his values.

As Franklin's university, Penn institutionally engages in a similar process. We set strategic goals. We dedicate our best efforts to reaching them. We periodically measure our progress and critically examine our results. We correct our course, and recommit ourselves to our most basic ideals. We do this as individuals, as scholars and scientists, as a University, and as a community. We try never to let our failures dissuade us from our values—nothing worth doing is done easily. Above all, we resist becoming complacent with success. Whether facing short-term failure or success, there is always much more to be done.

Franklin played the game of chess throughout his life, and he saw it as a useful model from which to learn foresight, circumspection, and caution, but above all persistence: "And, lastly, we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that of persevering."

True Merit

Franklin's lifelong effort at self-improvement aimed not only at successful self-presentation, but also at the ideal of true merit or virtue. This ideal is precisely the goal that Franklin enunciated for a Penn education. "True merit," Franklin wrote, consists in "an inclination join'd with an ability to serve mankind, one's country, friends, and family; which ability is (with the blessing of God) to be acquired or greatly increased by true learning; and should indeed be the great aim and end of all learning."

True merit is, in the spirit of the Penn Compact, the continuing task of this University and all who work, study, and live within its confines. I welcome you with the utmost of pleasure and the highest of expectations to our Penn fellowship of learning, self-improvement, and worldly success. And I invite you to begin your personal journey here, in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Meet the Author

Peter Conn is Andrea Mitchell Term Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include The Divided Mind: Ideology and Imagination in America, 1898-1917, Literature in America, and Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, was included among the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award in biography, and received the Athenaeum Award. Amy Gutmann is President of the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent books are Identity in Democracy: Why Deliberative Democracy? with Dennis Thompson, and Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, with Anthony Appiah, which won the Ralph J. Bunche Award of the American Political Science Association, the North American Society for Social Philosophy Book Award, and the Gustavus Myers Human Rights Award.

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin ( 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 291 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wholeheartedly recommend this version above all others. In November 1786, Franklin sent copies of his autobiography to friends in England and France. Through the centuries since, many editions have been appeared based on translations and interpretations of those copies, but this is the only one that is drawn 'with scrupulous care from the original manuscript in Franklin's handwriting.' The editors of THE PAPERS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (seven volumes) prepared this edition of the autobiography, as well as the insightful introduction, notes, and index. This is the first edition to have a full index. I found the chapter notes citing events, identifying individuals, and explaining Franklin's references to be extremely helpful and of great interest. Also, the notes are conveniently located at the bottom of each page - a very nice feature. A thorough chronology of Ben's life, brief biographies of 187 people to whom he refers, letters, notes by Franklin and the editors, and the complete index all enrich this superb edition. If you want to read Benjamin Franklin's actual sentiments, this is the version who seek. If you want an edition fleshed out and enriched by professionals who have expertise, understanding, and knowledge of Franklin's life, this is the very version you seek. It is my hope that you will enjoy this edition of the AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN as much as I did. Even if you, as I had, have read other editions you will find reading this one a new, enlightening experience. Five stars and bravo!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 1996, along with several friends I formed a group patterned after Franklin's junto, after learning about it in a Training Magazine article that cited Franklin's original group as an example of the best principles of modern self-directed learning. Since then, I've developed a strong interest in Franklin, and very much agree that this is the best edition of his biography, perhaps the most helpful book ever written about how to start, live, and finish a successful career as an entrepreneur and citizen. The footnotes in this edition are excellent, containing very good information about Franklin's junto, and I hope it never goes out of print. It should be on the bookshelf of every small business owner and entrepreneur.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was sorry that there wasn't more when I finished. I could easily have kept on reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Many words difficult to understand, since unintelligible symbols were often included. Copy relatively poor. Hoping to find a better version.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The NOOK format of this book is impossible to read. The authors notes interupt Franklin's writings mid-sentance and can go on for pages. If it wasn't free I'd demand my money back.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is good but his some typos in it. One of the best book on him I have read so far out of three I have read on him.
mrsbrimtown More than 1 year ago
Great book, love Ben Franklin's writing style and humor. Much easier to read than I'd imagined.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Looks good so far
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ben at his prime talking about his youthful exuberance in a most delightfully proper manner for the times
Patricia Mims More than 1 year ago
A bit long and hard too read. As expected the english was somewhat archaic. Had to struggle through it but did enjoy his perspective on early American history.
Vicky DePalmer More than 1 year ago
I am fascinated by Franklin's character-- progressive person in colonial times-- He would be awesome in 21st century. He would probably find it amusing that his face is on the 100 dollar bill. This book entices me to want to read more history about this vulnerable time and discover more insight.
CP49 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book. I have read his autobiography many years ago as an assignment. Reading it again because I wanted to made the read more enjoyable. I might even look into some of the Poor Richard's Almanac writings.
roselittle More than 1 year ago
Has given me a wonderful insight into the man not taught in any schools as well as the flavor of his time period. My disappointment is with Ben Franklin not completing his 'diary' of event through a period of history that i believe would have been fascinating reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Truly an original, Ben Franklin, through sheer will power and an honest desire to do good, transformed a young Philadelphia into a model city. Fascinating accounts of how a simple man, with humble beginnings, made his mark on American history. Great for young and old.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Statesman wit and so much more.
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Not a quick read but pretty good.
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Here at later date